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:
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:
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:
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.