Why I quit Foursquare

Over the weekend, I deleted the Foursquare app from my phone. I joined the service in 2011 and used it pretty consistently up until Saturday when I quit the app. It was actually my last check-in, to the Corvallis Farmers Market, that prompted me to give up.

My geographer’s curiosity prompted me to try the service. I wanted to experience this way of relating to place (and, in fact, became aware of Foursquare by seeing check-ins from other geographers in my Twitter feed). I was also interested in the potential of the app for discovering new places, particularly when visiting new cities.

Over time, what kept me using Foursquare was habit, sharing with Anne-Marie when one of us would be traveling, and the game aspects of the app.

When I first started with the service, I didn’t really give the gaming function much thought, but as a base of users in Corvallis and the mid-Willamette Valley began to develop, I found myself getting caught up in competitions for mayorships of my most frequently visited places. That was, as it turned out, kind of fun. The Corvallis Farmers Market was one of the locations where I competed for mayor, and the lack of mayoral updates for that place is what made me decide to let go of this habit.

Of course, starting a few months ago when Foursquare announced “Swarm”, competition for mayorships ended. The folks at Foursquare have reconfigured mayorships and badges for the new app. I haven’t adopted Swarm for a number of reasons, but the main one is that the new app, and the way that mayorships work, looks effective for larger urban areas where you will have a critical mass of both general participants and friends using the app in your immediate vicinity. Mayorships are allocated within circles of friends instead of from the entire user base. On Foursquare, most of the other people I traded mayorships with weren’t “friends”; we were all just local participants on the service. Swarm does not appear as it if offers much fun or incentive for people like me who live in a smaller city and where other users are going to be dispersed and probably not “friends”, in whatever sense.

I don’t fully understand the thinking behind splitting the service into a Yelp-like app, still called Foursquare, and the more social, Swarm, or why the functionality of the latter is so geared for users in larger metropolitan areas, but maybe I am a case in point for these changes.

Even before the gaming parts of Foursquare were shut down, I had reduced my use. I had stopped regularly cross-posting my check-ins on Twitter, and based on my Twitter timeline, I clearly was not alone in that. I was gradually making less of a point about checking in and right before I quit, had reduced my use of the service to a few places where I regularly had comments or photos to share. In some cases, I stopped doing even that (turns out that shooting pictures of dinosaurs trying to drink your beer at Laughing Planet will, in fact, stop being fun past a certain point).

I don’t know how many other people are also quitting Foursquare and taking a pass on Swarm, and I am sure that the new app will attract its own user base independent of original Foursquare adopters, but I think that it’s notable that the service is being reconfigured in a way that loses value for most of us who live outside of a small number of major metropolitan areas, and is likely now mostly appealing for (some) young adults (honestly, I don’t think even when I was a twenty-something living in Portland that I would have been too thrilled by the locational tracking aspects of Swarm).

At the end, this episode is a small reminder that our digital networks are neither spaceless nor placeless.

Music subscription and the failed fan (well, me, at any rate)

From about age twelve to twenty-two music was an important part of my life and how I identified myself. My teen and young adult years were marked by a host of cultural obsessions – roleplaying and strategy games, soccer, comics, science fiction, political fiction – but music was always the most public and probably the most constant pursuit for that decade. In middle school and high school, in particular, what I listened to and what I didn’t, and attendant signifiers in dress and hair, grounded friendships and associations, sparked heated debates, and defined how I spent much of whatever spending money I had. For the record, punk, new wave and ska were the primary genres that I trafficked in, with some early dips into what is now called alt country, and, in college, neo-folk. Examples of important artists for me, c. 1982-1994, include: The Clash, The Jam, The Style Council, Echo & the Bunnymen, Lone Justice, Simple Minds, ABC, The English Beat, The Special AKA, World Party, 54-40, the Indigo Girls, Talking Heads, U2, and Crowded House.

Once I moved from college to graduate school, though, music began to recede in importance, and while I have made attempts to change that, mostly I haven’t recovered my interest in music, even as I have rediscovered other passions like genre fiction and comics.

Why music has remained on the fringes of what I do as I’ve settled into ‘proper’ adulthood is something I’ve thought about, sometimes intensely, at different times, often ending with a dissatisfying visit to iTunes.

Anne-Marie and A recently started using Spotify and that initiated another round of introspection, and while I think that there are a lot of reasons why music receded and has remained in the background for me, I think that there are three which are of particular importance.

  • The standard I set as a teen was, and is, particularly hard to maintain going into graduate school and settling into post-student adulthood. When I first started acquiring music to listen to at home, I would buy records and then record those albums to tape so as to limit the amount of wear and tear on the vinyl. I would spend whole days making mix tapes, both for myself and for others. I was, and still am to a degree, an ‘album person’. My primary mode of listening was to put on a record and play it from start to finish. Not surprisingly, this led to me to be something of a completist, at least when it came to favorite bands and artists. When I’ve thought about getting back to music in a serious way, this is the level of engagement I have in my head as for what that would mean, and I think that has caused me to stop short. I am, of course, not the same person with the same interests that I was when I was fifteen, but this is still my frame of reference.
  • That relates to another problem, which is time, notably listening time. As a young adult, I turned into a public radio junkie. I’ve been listening to shows like Talk of the Nation and This American Life since their inception. For many years, that kind of programming has been my background of choice for reading and work. More recently, podcasting has fed the completist impulse that used to be fulfilled by albums. In addition, going to movies and watching TV have also taken up more of my time than they did when I was younger, and, for whatever reason, sharing those activities has been more of a foundation for Anne-Marie and I than has music.
  • I think that the decline of American radio and of MTV as a serious place for music programming has also played a role in putting distance between me and music. In retrospect, my teen years, mid-80s to early 90s, seem like the last era both of vibrant locally-owned and managed radio and MTV’s association with music. Both were reliable media for discovering new music and for making music part of my day in a way that was simple and convenient.

This last point is why Anne-Marie’s and A’s use of Spotify started me thinking again about why I don’t listen to music in even an approximation of the way I used to.

The unspoken issue above is money. I think one reason why movies and TV are more of the glue that holds Anne-Marie and I together than is music is that it was (and is) more efficient economically for us to pool our resources and share a cable or satellite subscription, and to go to movies together, than it is for us to buy music together. Obviously, I’m not meaning to reduce these choices to economics, there are other personal taste and cultural issues at work, too, but one thing that music subscription services do is to assign a stable, and for our family, reasonable, cost to the buying of music.

Nicholas Schiller has an excellent summary and discussion of the most recent round of debate over paying for music in the digital world, and I don’t want to rehearse that matter here, but I also can’t avoid it. So, here is my piece. I want to pay for music, but I’ve drifted away from buying and listening to a point where I can’t imagine going back to paying for it in the way I did as a teen and a young adult, which is to say, buying all of the albums by all of my favorite bands and whatever miscellaneous artists and albums caught my attention. So, for many years that primarily meant disconnecting from music or at least being very very casual about my listening. While I recognize that there are critical questions to be posed about the compensation artists get from my use of a service like Spotify (or MOG, the service I’ve chosen to use), my monthly payment will add up to more than I have been paying for music the past fifteen years or so, when, honestly, I could go the better part of twelve months without buying any music (I have never pirated music. To the extent that I have tried to reintegrate music into my daily life, I have done so through podcasts, like those from CBC Radio 3 and KEXP, occasional use of Pandora, and the even more occasional purchase from iTunes, or of a CD).

One reason why I haven’t wanted to buy albums (or songs, though I don’t see myself ever being someone who buys primarily by the song) is the lack of robust ways to discover new music. Looking at what you can do with Spotify alerted me to the possibilities of subscription services that combine access to big catalogs with tools for recommending new or related works and artists. It isn’t the same as old school radio or original flavor MTV, but it fills many of the same functions. As a result, I suspect that, in the long run, MOG will lead me to buy more music than I would have otherwise because I’ll know more and hear more, and with things I really like, I’ll want more secure ownership than a streaming service can provide.

My being clued into services like MOG also comes in a moment where my tendency to want (need?) to listen to every episode of every podcast I subscribe to seems to have been broken, albeit primarily by reasons unrelated to wanting more time for music.

The first thing I did when I installed the MOG player on my laptop is to make a playlist of “New Stuff”, that is, songs from albums and artists that I had been saving in places like GetGlue and Pinboard. The second thing I did was to start listening to that list. I also began favoriting artists, many of whom I already have in my iTunes library, but usually not their complete catalogs. There are a few people I’ve become aware of during my musical dark age, e.g., Neko Case, Lucinda Williams, The Weakerthans, but my collecting and listening of their work has been less than completist. MOG lets me fill gaps (for the most part; I’ve noticed in some cases, particularly with bands and performers who became prominent before the 90s, that there can be a more limited selection of discs. This is understandable, I think. How many musicians have really made full albums that bear repeated listening decade after decade? Still, I am disappointed that I could not find this in MOG).

The point is, my use of MOG suggests a lot of pent-up demand on my part for new (to me) music, whether songs and albums from people I already know and love or from performers from whom I’ve only heard bits and pieces or read reviews. Without a service like MOG, I’d still be saving up that demand.

I describe myself here as a “failed fan”. I’m sure I could have done better over the past decade and a half, but I also think that drifting away from music happened for reasons that can’t be reduced to money or to having the right tools or resources. I think, in particular, that the identity aspect of music became less significant as I began my professional education. To the extent that I am coming back to music now is both a result of changing economics and new options for listening and discovery and a built-up desire for music as music, more than music as a signifier of self (although I don’t think you can ever fully detach cultural activities like listening to music from identity. We are what we do, or to follow a new favorite, “You are what you love and not what loves you back”).

New “Worlds in Panels” and other column updates

I have a new comics column up at PopMatters today. I look at the local comics shop and why I think these are vital places:

With more publishers offering same day as print for digital, the availability aspect of the Wednesday-at-a-comics-shop experience can be simulated electronically, certainly with more verisimilitude than with traditional mail order. But what tablets, phones and computers don’t replicate as well is the (palpable) collective and social aspect of the traditional brick-and-mortar visit. I don’t want to overstate the depth of the connections I’ve made with the clerks or other customers at my local store, but I have had a couple of interesting conversations with the owner, alerted others to certain titles, learned about new books myself, and I also like to see what others are buying.

Read the column

This piece continues what has been a recurring theme for me in the new year: digital comics. My January column is focused on reading, while in February I considered sharing.

Recommended daily reading – 12 May (hey, I still do this edition)

It’s Spring term and I find myself without time and energy to do many rewarding activities, like keeping up-to-date with my news feeds and maintaining this blog, but I have finally collected a few items to share.

Last week, Inside Higher Ed featured a story on the efforts of librarians to archive internet documents so that scholars in the future have the same kind of access to those texts as they do to print materials. The article is a good illustration as to why librarianship needs to be a professional and academic field, no matter what some in college administration might think.

Also last week, at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has an incisive blog post challenging assertions of “black privilege” and anti-affirmative action politics. The most salient point is that most who see themselves as victims of discrimination as a result of affirmative action also fail to see their own privilege and how being white has historically been a benefit in America.

And here’s another moment of mundane beauty in Spacing Toronto’s “Street Scene” series.

Finally, some cool and fun looking cosplay  (via Comics.Hockey.Boobs) (Update: here’s more).