My Thoughts

FourSquare vs. Gowalla at SXSWi 2010: We Have a Winner!

3.18.2010 | My Thoughts

I’ve been using the iPhone version of both FourSquare and Gowalla for months now and have thoroughly enjoyed both apps. As similar as they are, FourSquare does a better job as my social compass while Gowalla serves as my digital passport.

After obsessively playing with both FourSquare and Gowalla’s updated apps this past week at the SXSWi conference, it is pretty clear FourSquare wins at being the best geo-based, social app of the two and here’s why:

The Social Aspect

Gowalla is great at helping me find venues and using beautiful stamps to help me keep track of places I have been. Unfortunately even in its latest revision, it lacks a usable search for (possibly) missing venues and it doesn’t make it easy to find your friends. As of this writing, the friends list is buried beneath new friend requests and the list is not sorted or limited by distance – this means if you have a long list of friends who were not at SXSW but in other parts of the world, it would be hard to isolate the focus to just those that are near you.

On the flip side, FourSquare did an AMAZING job of helping me discover hot (trending) spots and where my local friends were this past week. Coming from Atlanta where it’s hard to get a swarm badge or even a “player please” badge if you are a guy, I found myself loving the FourSquare experience at SXSWi. For the first time I was actually using FourSquare like it was meant to be used, seeing where my friends are, when a party actually picks up and more importantly, when and where the party moves in real-time if the group is bar (or hotel) hopping. With FourSquare, it’s now unnecessary to make calls in loud clubs or text multiple friends to try and coordinate a disjointed group.

Geo-Location and Businesses

With regards to promoting local businesses and encouraging patronage, both FourSquare and Gowalla are testing great ideas for promoting specials, coupons, hidden items and trips. While finding hidden items and redeeming them on Gowalla can be great for one-off promotions or if you are a virtual pack rat, seeing nearby specials even if you’re not checked in at the promotional venue on FourSquare just feels more inviting.

For example, prior to the conference, Gowalla announced their party list was overflowing and to be guaranteed entry, one must find the Tiki Room Wristband virtual item. I was not one of the lucky Gowalla users who found it thus I did not even try to go to their party.

The Fun Factor!

One of the first thing I noticed was that while Gowalla and FourSquare both have SXSW specific badges, FourSquare’s badges had a bigger set of night-life related achievements. Even the pages themselves differ in highlighting personal achievements vs. the mob’s achievements. I guess I should start off by thanking @dens and @mari18 for not creating an “if your friend jump off the bridge” badge cause as a FourSquare groupie, I probably would have done stupid things during questionable hours on the Congress Rd. bridge just to try and earn the badge. Sounds dumb right?

At SXSWi I found myself pushing the limit and getting out of my comfort zone on several occasions just to earn new badges on FourSquare. Do I like BBQ and tacos? Yes. Would I normally eat it 3 plus times in one week? Probably not if FourSquare hadn’t made it a game. On the fun side, in the pursuit of unlocking the achievements, I did discover amazing breakfast and Korean BBQ tacos and the awesomeness of the Karaoke RV in town – and I’m not even a karaoke fan!

While Gowalla certainly does not have a shortage of trips and activities in the Austin area, the lack of social convergence within the app just didn’t do it for me. The trips within Gowalla are mostly self-rewarding and unfortunately resemble a bucket-list of things to see while in Austin vs. a set of activities to be performed. As beautiful as Gowalla is, their pins just don’t communicate the fun as well as the colorful badges of FourSquare. If I was visiting Austin for other reasons, it may have been cool to check out the moonlight towers or the stairs of doom but during SXSW, those achievements just take me away from the partying crowd.

Why FourSquare Wins

As much as I like both services, I found myself leaning towards the more useful service as the conference and parties progressed. By the latter half of the interactive conference, I found myself relying exclusively on FourSquare to plan my social calendar and using Gowalla only if I stepped in a new venue that I wanted to check off on my digital passport. While I’m sure both apps will iterate with more changes in the weeks to come, I definitely made a better use of my time in Austin with the help of the FourSquare app.

Although it is still unclear which service will ultimately come out on top in the overall category, FourSquare clearly was the sociable winner this past week. Not only did it help bring together my group of friends with ease at SXSWi, it did for many groups I’ve talked to as well. For those that prefer Gowalla’s virtual items and stamps, I’d be interested to know if personal trophies/checklists outweigh the social friend-finder aspect for you. Just because the check-ins equal in number doesn’t necessarily mean they are both good at bringing crowds together. Then again, we don’t all play these games for the same reasons but that’s why competition and uniqueness is good.


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  • http://www.motersho.com/ Motersho

    Nice write up. I have only recently signed up and started using Foursquare and after reading this I think I will ignore Gowalla just stick to Foursquare.

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com/ Robert Quigley

    Nice post. I personally like Gowalla, mainly for the in-line commenting on spots and photos (both part of the latest upgrade). Being able to instantly find nearby friends/parties etc. is great when you're at SXSW, but not as important for every-day use. I use Gowalla to socialize/discover new places. It's great for that, and I think that has a bigger long-term benefit.

  • http://comefortheride.com Wei Yang

    Long term benefits are TBD for me. I do like Gowalla for the personal adventure/marking off places I've been but even if I had the same number of friends on Gowalla as I do on FourSquare, I don't think it can compete on the social discovery side.

    FourSquare has the depth that keeps it interesting in mob situations (swarms, trending) and personal situations (mayor ships). While Gowalla is cool, their focus seems to be on the venues – which is fine if you're going somewhere cool but not so much for the local cleaners or fast food joint.

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com/ Robert Quigley

    I'm in Austin – I'm always going somewhere cool ;)

  • http://oldmedianewtricks.com/ Robert Quigley

    You make good points, but I still think the commenting and photos wins out (for now). Also, I like that you actually have to be somewhere to check in to Gowalla.

  • http://comefortheride.com Wei Yang

    I don’t disagree that commenting and photos are cool – but both those features you mentioned focus more on the venue than the social aspect. Honestly it wouldn’t surprise me if FourSquare adds both those features down the road if they feel it will help enhance the game.nnMy point wasn’t that Gowalla sucks – I do think it’s great as a personal passport. My point was that FourSquare is better at the social aspect (e.g. finding friends, meeting up, etc.)nnWhen I’m on Gowalla I always feel like I’m playing the game by myself, but on FourSquare, it just feels more social to me – which was enhanced by the fact that 95% of my FourSquare friends were at SXSWi all within 5-10 blocks from each other. I dunno… something just feels missing from Gowalla for me. Maybe that something is (social) fun.

  • http://comefortheride.com Wei Yang

    The other thing about Gowalla is they don’t broadcast personal wins (badges, pins, etc.) as well as FourSquare – which IMO diminishes that aspect of the social game.nnOn FourSquare it’s almost a competition – which makes one want to go out more and lead more of an interesting social life. No one really wants to be mayors of the local fast food joints and their own apt. Well, no one I know anyway. =)

  • http://comefortheride.com Wei Yang

    I don't disagree that commenting and photos are cool – but both those features you mentioned focus more on the venue than the social aspect. Honestly it wouldn't surprise me if FourSquare adds both those features down the road if they feel it will help enhance the game.

    My point wasn't that Gowalla sucks – I do think it's great as a personal passport. My point was that FourSquare is better at the social aspect (e.g. finding friends, meeting up, etc.)

    When I'm on Gowalla I always feel like I'm playing the game by myself, but on FourSquare, it just feels more social to me – which was enhanced by the fact that 95% of my FourSquare friends were at SXSWi all within 5-10 blocks from each other. I dunno… something just feels missing from Gowalla for me. Maybe that something is (social) fun.

  • http://comefortheride.com Wei Yang

    The other thing about Gowalla is they don't broadcast personal wins (badges, pins, etc.) as well as FourSquare – which IMO diminishes that aspect of the social game.

    On FourSquare it's almost a competition – which makes one want to go out more and lead more of an interesting social life. No one really wants to be mayors of the local fast food joints and their own apt. Well, no one I know anyway. =)

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  • Mary Harper

    Soooooooo… How do you feel about Gowalla NOW?

  • Wei Yang

    LOL – are they still relevant? I don’t think Gowalla is even trying to compete in this space any more.  I actually saw Josh Williams (Gowalla CEO) speak at a conference where he said his goal was to make pretty, cartoony icons and Gowalla is simply a vehicle to distribute these icons and make them relevant.

    Frankly, I think they should pivot to be an virtual/real world geocaching game instead. It’d probably get more traction.