Show me your badges

Here’s a true story.

Last fall, I started using my Foursquare account more. I was very jealous of my friends’ badges, including a Cupcake Connoisseur badge from TLC. I wanted it (it was cute!). I found a couple of London bakeries on the TLC page and visited one the next time I went into London. That bakery was The Hummingbird, and I’ve been back multiple times since and I kind of want them to make my wedding cake if anyone’s crazy enough to ever actually marry me.

I never got the cupcake badge (it retired and I had eventually had to settle for Bravo’s Just Desserts badge), but the moral is simple: I sought out an entirely new business and became a repeat customer based on a circular graphic.

Foursquare badges are a lot of fun and I’d argue that they’re more satisfying to collect than mayorships (although I wouldn’t turn down 20% off at Starbucks). I have 39, and each one is a happy reminder — an ode to my coffee addiction, another trip to the cinema, a late night at the library, a day in London, airports on different sides of the world. They can mark an event — were you at the Colbert and Stewart rallies? Or access — so you got into five different SXSW parties? Or sheer dogged determination — 20 different pizza shops, really? And, I’d wager, no one has the same exact set as anyone else, apart from newcomers.

In the wake of Google+, Google announced a couple of days ago that you could start earning badges based on stories you’d read on Google News. I mentioned on Twitter that I loved badges and thought the idea was neat, and a New York Times interactive editor tweeted back to ask why.

I thought about it and replied back that it’s in our nature to hoard and collect. Foursquare badges (and soon-to-be Google News badges, I hope) are like digital postcards or keychains. They’re reminders of where we’ve been and what matters to us. You can tell a lot about someone from their badges: where they live, where they eat and shop, what brands they follow. As a committed anglophile eager for others to see the London that I see, I once wrote about how London could use Foursquare, and I stick by that still.

It can be easy to get consumed by social media, but Foursquare is brilliant in its mobility. It’s a social media app that necessitates breaking away from your computer cord and going out. Likewise, Google News badges reward you for expanding your knowledge and learning and reading about different things.

Are badges somewhat silly? Of course. Only a few Foursquare badges are ever linked to any tangible monetary reward. At the end of the day they’re just cute graphics on a profile. Will I keep having a blast earning them, and smile whenever I unlock a new one? Oh absolutely.

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How I would expand Foursquare

About a month ago, I wrote about how London could (and should) use Foursquare. I maintain that any or all of those suggestions would still be great. Today, Pew released a study saying that only about 4 percent of online users use location-based applications like Foursquare and Gowalla.

Tomorrow, I’m taking a mental-health adventure into London. At least two places I’m planning to visit — Hummingbird Bakery and Tsunami — I would not have known about had it not been for Foursquare. And that, I think sums up what Foursquare’s mission should be: helping people discover new places in their cities and giving them incentives to b adventurous.

So why do so few people use Foursquare and services like it? I’m a relative newcomer to Foursquare, but as someone who really enjoys using it and finds it addictive, here are a few suggestions on how to expand membership:

1. Move beyond New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Austin. Foursquare began in New York and obviously that’s where much of its infrastructure is, but if new users who aren’t from a major city see that few venues they frequent are listed or that all of the venues needed for a certain badge are located far away, they won’t want to join. It makes sense for brands like the Wall Street Journal or events like the Rally to Restore Sanity to have city-specific venues, but why should the Trainspotting badge be limited to San Francisco, or the Far Far Away badge be limited to above 59th St.? I ride trains all the time and I’m pretty far far away from home right now. Other badges that used to be city- or event-specific have since been opened to the general public; do that more.

2. Be more aggressive about weeding out duplicate venues. Cheating mayors’ days may be numbered, but that Starbucks on the corner is still listed as five different places, with five different mayors each getting 20 percent off their peppermint mochas (mmm … peppermint mochas). I also fail to see how each platform at King’s Cross needs its own venue listing.

3. Step up brand recruitment. There’s evidence that this is in the works, which is good. It’s not just about recruiting more companies or offering more deals. A lot of the issue is simple publicity — you can’t make use of deals that you don’t know about. I’d like to see a database or listing of businesses with specific Foursquare deals. Plenty of third-party sites offer this sort of thing, but there really should be an official listing. A decal in the window will only go so far. I’d also suggest inking more deals with tourism bureaus and universities.

4. Throw a bone to tip-writers. One of the cornerstone features of Foursquare — your ability to leave tips and advice for the people who come after you — goes unrewarded. Offer badges for 10+, 25+, 50+, 100+ and so on tips that you list. To prevent half-assed serial tipsters, necessitate that someone must have checked into that venue at least once before they’re allowed to leave a tip. Or go the Digg route and have users vote tips up or down depending on quality. If your tip gets a certain number of thumbs up, you get a one-time free drink or half-priced entry or a certain percentage off at that venue. This would give people incentive to leave numerous, quality tips and help solidify that part of the infrastructure. And because the tip would be voted up or down by fellow users, Domino’s couldn’t turn away your tipster reward if your tip said their pizza was, to quote Jon Stewart, a “#&*% disk.”

5. Expand the number of badges more often. I have 17 right now. Excluding badges that I won’t be able to get because of a one-time event or because I’m not in that city (see point #1) and any “surprise” holiday badges like the Halloween badge from last week, I have the potential to earn maybe 8-10 more in the next few months. Keep them coming and keep them fresh. Badges are a powerful psychological reward (trust me, I know), but keep them novel.

There you have it. I suspect that the vast majority of Foursquare’s problem — if indeed it has one — is lack of inclusiveness. It’s a fine line between being open to enough people and being too open. A lot of the perks are attractive precisely because so few people have them. But that’s a balance Foursquare must strike if it hopes to get beyond that 4 percent.