It’s time for Foursquare (and Web 2.0) to grow up?

A month or so ago I was approached by the U.S. Navy, invited to join their Distinguished Guest program and spend the night on the U.S.S. Stennis aircraft carrier. Surprised, I said “yes” and planned a trip to San Diego, California, the embarkation point for the Stennis visit. My parents live about an hour’s drive from the base, so I added a few days so I could see them, and had a nice week planned out.
A bad storm threw a monkey wrench into our plans, however, and the Navy informed me that they had to postpone the Stennis visit. Did I cancel my entire trip and wait for the Navy to reschedule? I decided not to, and instead contacted some of my social media pals and changed the San Diego leg of my trip to include a meetup, some meetings and some consulting work. Perfect!
My friends at Bailey * Gardiner helped me get a room at the trés chic Sé San Diego hotel to save me from the hell of a cheap motel in the burbs.
I dutifully checked in with the popular geolocation game Foursquare when I arrived, and you can imagine my surprise when I got this:

foursquare douchebag badge

To put it mildly, I was offended.
I would like to think that I have a good sense of humor (though my kids might disagree!), but I was not happy to be insulted because I had an opportunity to stay at a trendy place. Worse, from the perspective of someone who works with marketing and PR teams, I realized that this was a potential liability for the hotel as it tries to appeal to a younger audience: is being labeled a “douchebag” for staying at the hotel a good thing? I think not.
As a result, I posted a complaint on the Foursquare support boards, saying this:

I’m surprised to have unlocked the “douchebag” badge by checking in to a trendy hotel and must admit that I find the badge name rather offensive. What’s the point of it and why use such a crude name?

Editorial comment: If you’re trying to build a service that’s going to be appealing to more than just the uber-geeky among us, don’t y’all think that, just maybe, you should screen some of the words involved with the service?

Predictably, I got responses like this one: “The fact that you are so upset about the deuche[sic] bag award kind of shows you deserve it…” but they missed the point, as I highlighted in a follow-on message:

Y’know, a “hipster” badge would be fine. Using rude words and denigrating people because someone else arbitrarily decides that a venue is snooty, overly-chic or whatever might well say more about the person that associates the venue with the badge than the person who checks in.

The problem here is a fundamental one: Web 2.0 companies need to grow up if they want to play in the bigger marketplace of business and corporate America. Does Foursquare? As far as I can tell, businesses are their only revenue stream, sponsorships and special promotions offered to Foursquare users, so that’s an unequivocal yes in my book.
This is really no different from any previous era when companies had to decide whether they were going to stay within their target demographic or dilute the edginess of their brand and thereby appeal to a wider audience. Think 60s hippie demo, for example: did you stay a small company and highlight how you were “sticking it to the man” or did you become a bit less anti-establishment and get those advertising and sponsorship dollars from Fortune 500 companies that would let you grow? I’m thinking Ben & Jerry’s here…
Subsequent to me bringing up the issue of the insulting “Douchebag Badge” on the Foursquare support forum, the issue was raised on TechCrunch with the subsequent comments being predictably vitrolic, since their audience is primarily the 20-somethings who think that a “douchebag” is a funny label and not insulting.
As one TechCrunch reader said, “Grow up, chill out, or get out!” and another, a better example of how there’s a demographic that finds the word amusing and not crude or insulting: “the problem is not calling a badge ‘douchebag’ it’s that as [Foursquare’s] userbase grows, more actual douches will start using foursquare, rendering it too mainstream for early adopters to appreciate anymore.”
Chrysanthe Tenentes of Foursquare did pipe in on the support forum and share that “the team is taking the sensitive nature of the db badge very seriously. The way that tagging works is also under review. Hearing user feedback is integral to improving foursquare features. Thanks everyone for piping in!”
What I find interesting in that remark? She didn’t want to use the phrase “douchebag”, so she abbreviated it “db”. Indeed.
Ultimately, Foursquare faces the same dilemma that just about every self-consciously über-hip young Web 2.0 company is going to face: stick to your edgy personality and accept that you’re going to be offensive to some of your potential audience and thereby limit your growth potential, or compromise, dilute some of the hipster vibe and be more appealing as a mainstream product or service?
In the case of Foursquare, geolocation check-in games are already a very competitive market segment (with Gowalla and Yelp doing well and, rumor has it, Facebook entering the space very soon) and if they hope to grow beyond their small market segment — as is clearly the case given that they just signed TV network Bravo as a sponsor — it’s time for them to either make the douchebag badge optional or just scrub it entirely.
And as for the rest of these hip Web 2.0 companies, take a deep breath, it’s time to grow up.

13 comments on “It’s time for Foursquare (and Web 2.0) to grow up?

  1. If Foursquare is planning on attracting businesses and offering paid services, I highly doubt it will help if the business realizes that Foursquare has labeled them a douchebag location.
    Insulting people isn’t the way to grow your business or fan base, whether it’s supposed to be light-hearted or not.

  2. I think it comes down to a basic thing for Web 2.0 companies: they don’t get business. Look at how the various companies have mishandled opportunities for revenue streams, and it becomes clear that there aren’t enough grown-ups with the kids.

  3. I think that by being edgy and using the douchebag badge, they are able to generate some press and buzz and not inhibit growth, but rather fuel it. Potentially alienate 1 member in order to gain 6. People will be intrigued, pick up the shiny toy to play with it. once the critical tipping point comes in terms of users and business, then they’ll likely go more mainstream and the badge will go away. All the cool kids will say it’s not cool anymore (like every social network to date, including probably even FB), but by then Foursquare will have mainstream status, lots of users checking in all over the country creating a “Pull” strategy and hopefully revenue from the tiered business pricing structure. I’ve got to think businesses will all love this once they understand it on a local level. Right now it’s about building the foursquare user base. Users first, businesses second. Businesses see the mass of potential customers and sign on to use the service.

  4. Matt nailed it – foursquare are still at a stage in the game where they can get away with this behavior.
    Congratulations grandpa – your crotchety indignation just added fuel to their signal beacon.
    And Jeremy – really? ‘web 2.0’ companies don’t get business? That’s pretty sweeping and wrongheaded of you – especially given some of the inappropriate vitriol you have posted on your blog. Your blog which is an extension of your business…

  5. Dave – I am 100 percent with you on this. And the “fact that you are so upset about the deuche[sic] bag award kind of shows you deserve it…” response you received from foursquare would have sent me up the wall. But I have to admit…the graphic and the Denver PR Blog headline are still making me giggle a little bit. I’m so sorry.

  6. Thanks “Mike”
    Yep, a pretty sweeping comment because when you think of opportunities to engage with marketing or public relations in a way that is not intrusive but engaged, the companies don’t seem to be able to launch or help. I’ve had enough talks with various companies on doing campaigns, and the response is “we can’t do that.” Um, okay, thanks for playing.
    And, actually, my blog isn’t an extension of my business by my POV on PR and various other issues in social media and stuff. Thanks for playing.
    But, at least I can stand behind my comments with publicly linking to my blog and using my name.

  7. Keep fighting the good fight. I am glad that you spoke up on this issue. I am all for edgy but there is a difference between edgy and insulting. Across the board, we need to remember our Ps and Qs in all business interactions and obviously that extends to the products that businesses deliver.
    Count me in, I have your back. Perhaps the Foursquare team needs to get out off the playground and do some growing up.

  8. Dam I am trying to get this badge. It’s just a game. I am sure they don’t really think your a douchebag, although I am starting to wonder why you even care so much. Relax. It’s funny, IMHO.

  9. I didn’t know what that badge was for but I’m sure that if foursquare is serious about growing it will be modified.

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