This week, after a year of check-ins, badges and mayorships, I’m walking away from Foursquare. I’m not abandoning the network out of anger, and I won’t even be removing the app or closing my account. I’m just going to stop the endless checking in. I held out on foursquare for longer than I probably should have, as a communications professional, but my colleague Aaron Strout convinced me to give it a whirl.

Aaron is the guy who (literally) wrote the book on location-based marketing, and you can see the initial discussion we had after I took the plunge here.

My year of use has not been without lessons. Here are the five most important:

Via Flickr user dpstyles
  1. “Gamification” is hugely powerful, and foursquare is hugely good at it. While there have been a lot of people trying to capture foursquare’s gaming mojo, it’s hard to replicate the levels of rewards that they built it. Because Facebook wasn’t just about playing a social game against your friends. There was a society-level game you played against strangers (mayorships) and — for the quieter among us — the individual quest for badges, which didn’t require any social element at all.
  2. As a city guide, foursquare is awfully impressive. Because it’s built for mobile, and because the base of engaged users is substantial, the app is a great way to find cool eats and sights in a new place. Of course, you don’t need to be an active foursquare user to treat the app like a guidebook. In this case, it’s the active users that are doing the hard work for the rest of us.
  3. Privacy remains an issue. Griping about privacy is generally a losing proposition for a blogger. What seems to be a massive violation today is likely to be standard practice tomorrow (does anyone remember the months-long carping about how Gmail ads were ¬†going to destroy society? I didn’t think so). But foursquare still gives more information than I’d like, even to people I trust. It’s not because the service in any way evil. It’s just that telling lots of people precisely when you get coffee is baked into the whole idea of the check-in.
  4. Businesses are crippling adoption. If your run a local consumer business, doing a foursquare promotion should be a no-brainer. There are a thousand ways to design specials to dial in a specific commitment/reward level. Yet the number of businesses who are taking advantage of that is minimal. In my year on foursquare, I used exactly one special: on my first day on the service, I received luggage tags for checking into a small, regional airport. That’s not a huge return on the data I’ve invested in the service. I would argue that foursquare’s user base would be larger and more engaged even with a modest increase in the number of promotions. Instead, Foursquare specials remain a wasteland, with notable exceptions. (It doesn’t have to be this way. Have I mentioned Aaron and Location-Based Marketing for Dummies?)
  5. The promise remains unfulfilled. I gave foursquare a ton of my data, and it gives very little back: some recommended places to explore, some badges, and that’s about it. But there is a tremendous amount that could be done. Imagine if Foursquare could take all of my checkins from a week of vacation and plot them on a map, along with the associated status updates and photos. What if I could publish that map to a blog? What if I could order that map as a poster-size souvenir? In short, I’d like to get something more out of my checkins than gamification.

All this doesn’t mean I won’t completely walk away. foursquare is a nice database of the cool places I’ve been (so I can look up that place in North Carolina with the can’t-miss hushpuppies). I’ll use it, quietly and privately, as a note-taking system. And as I mentioned in #2, seeing the comments and check-ins of others is hugely useful and requires no sharing of my own data. But I won’t be mindlessly checking in at the grocery store any more. I’ll still use my grocery rewards card, though. Because — unlike foursquare — I know what I’m getting back each time that bar code gets read.