An excruciatingly rambling essay on why I love Gowalla

(NOTE: these are all purely my interpretations and could very well be 100% contrary to each company’s intentions. But I’m an English major; we were taught to interpret to the death, and love is always subjective.)

(SECOND NOTE: this turned out to be really fucking long. This isn't an apology. It's just a factual warning.)

I’ve never been a big fan of social identification-awareness apps. Partially because, yes, I have intermittent bursts of seclusion and I don’t exactly feel like broadcasting these (made obvious by the days of absolutely zero check-ins anywhere– if I never check-in, even when I am out-and-about, then who could ever know the difference?), but also because it feels more like an unwelcome chore (if I’m somewhere and I want someone else to come join me, I’ll just send a text). And finally, because the friends I have in Vegas– for whatever reasons of their own– don’t use any of these services, either. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t people in my city who use Loopt, Brightkite, Latitude, etc.– but I don’t know them, so why would I care where they are?

When we were in New York last month, Noah and I had lunch with two of the Foursquare founders. In preparation, Noah downloaded the app to his iPhone to get a feel of what Foursquare was all about, and ever since, he’s been using it. One of his observations from the first few days was that the social aspect aside, he liked using Foursquare simply as a way to keep track of where he’d been. 

I registered an account after that lunch meeting and used it a little on my Blackberry, but their mobile web app was bland and a little frustrating to use (ultimately, what I did was wait for Noah to check in, wherever we were, click on the location from his profile, then use that to check in myself), so after we left New York, I stopped using it. I did install it to my Hero once I’d made the switch, but a lot of the places I go aren’t registered yet in their system and creating new locations wasn’t worthwhile to me (I’m big on accuracy and precision and I never know the address of these places) [1]. Also, none of my Vegas friends use Foursquare. Also, I have a fairly good memory.

Enter Gowalla.

I actually found it through my Facebook news feed; a friend up in the Bay Area posted that he’d checked into a spot using Gowalla, and there was a colorful little icon accompanying the notification. I’ll be honest– if it hadn’t been for that icon, I would never have clicked through to the website (and if it hadn’t been for the presence in my news feed, I’d still be in obscurity regarding Gowalla’s existence), and as it turns out, Gowalla's iconic artwork is representative of everything that makes Gowalla so marvelous.

Foursquare is a social service with game-like features. Gowalla is a social game with service-like features.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a difference between Gowalla and Foursquare (more or less the leader of social location-awareness apps). In both, you check in to places, create new ones if necessary, and publicize where you are to your friends (or the world, depending on your privacy settings) via Facebook or Twitter. 

In Foursquare, you get points for your activity– currently devoid of redeemable value, but for now they’re good for competition and psychologically it encourages its users to keep playing, and it’s certainly possible that Foursquare will roll out something in the future where those points *will* be redeemable. You can become a Mayor (of which businesses are starting to take advantage), you can leave tips and suggestions when you check in, and you can make to-do lists of places that others have visited that seem pretty cool to you, too. It’s like a condensed Yelp within your social circles.

Being superficial and easily won over with eye candy, I initially fell for Gowalla (despite not being able to play it at the time) because I liked their Passport feature. Instead of getting points when you check in somewhere, Gowalla gives you a stamp: either a generic icon reflective of that place’s category, or a custom icon if that place is considered noteworthy (as per Gowalla’s discretion, though they accept nominations for custom icons by their users). Thus, my main motivation to play Gowalla was to fill up a passport with adorable stamps.

So when Gowalla for Mobile Web was released this past Friday for Android users, I couldn’t have been more excited– except this beta doesn’t allow you to create spots (also impossible from the website) or drop/pick up Items (which I didn’t care about at the time). How could I fill up my Passport when the places around town that I visited the most weren’t created yet? So I was a little dismayed, but ultimately, grateful to just be able to participate in the game. I started to make a list of nearby Gowalla spots where I could check in and get my stamps.

Two stamps and a day later, I was a little defeated. Still passionate, of course, because I’ve known they’ve been working on a native Android app (I think all the Android-using Gowalla fans are clutching to this for hope), so it’s only a matter of time before the Android experience evolves into awesomeness. But interestingly enough, the fact that I desperately wanted to create locations but couldn’t made me start to reflect on why I wanted to create locations in the first place, and whether that was in line with why Gowalla wanted people to create locations.

Gowalla is about much more than just you

In Foursquare, locations exist because that’s where people are, once again reinforcing my statement above that it’s more a social awareness service. Want to be Mayor of your mailbox? It’s kind of lame, but there’s nothing stopping you from putting your mailbox on Foursquare, checking in there every day, and earning points and a Mayorship. All your friends will know that you are dedicated to participating in postal communications (unlike myself; I empty my mailbox approximately three times a month).

And there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same in Gowalla, but– there’s really just no point. You’ll get recognized as being the creator of the location, you’ll get a stamp for visiting it daily, but it’s hardly a point of interest to the general masses. But refraining from creating spots of everywhere you go? It's kind of hard to accept until you think about the Gowalla Passport in terms of a real-life passport (politics aside). What if you could take your little book and get stamps anywhere you went? Eventually, your passport would be so flooded with stamps from grocery stores and gas stations and subway stops and Taco Bells that 1) the concept of a stamp would lose its value and appeal, and 2) all the stamps of the really cool and special places (like the Monterey Bay Aquarium or that one cafe where Jason Mraz used to play all the time before he got big) would get lost in the mix.

Put another way– Gowalla isn’t about you. Again, hard to accept when all the other location-based games *are* all about you– where are you? Where have you been? Where are your friends? But it’s not that Gowalla doesn’t care about you or your life; it’s just, instead of valuing you (first) as an indi
vidual, Gowalla values you (first) as a member of a community, be it your local, everyday community or the community worldwide. Instead of just wanting to know where you are, Gowalla wants to know where you are where others would be interested in visiting, too, and why.

So instead of logging every single place you’ve been, the Passport should be a record of every single *interesting* place you’ve been. And maybe every single place you visit *is* interesting enough that others should definitely swing by– great! But in Gowalla, locations are more than just spots to check-in and get stamped. And this is because the Passport is really a secondary feature of Gowalla.

How Gowalla is a game before it’s a service: Trips

Trips are a specific set of Gowalla spots that fall under some common theme, like the Berkeley Coffeeshop Marathon or the Austin Bar Hop. When you complete a trip, you get a pin– an award of achievement, in a way. Trips provide users with a ready-made itinerary of places Gowalla (and/or the Gowalla community) thinks you should check out, which is awesome for those days when you want to go out and do something but you have no idea what. Even if you end up hating all the spots on your trip, at the end, you at least get rewarded! Yes, the reward is only an image. No, the image has no monetary value. Neither does the Monopoly card for Park Place. It's a game.

How Gowalla is a game, period: Items

I just now hopped onto the forum to look something up and stumbled upon this thread, where below in the comments, Dr. Barnabus Peddingferd sums up in one concise statement what I’ve been blathering about above and am about to continue blathering on below:

“Gowalla is not a social networking tool to tell your buddies where you're currently grabbing a pint so much as a traveling game more akin to Geocaching.”

At the heart of Gowalla are Items, virtual goods that can be dropped, picked up, or vaulted for keeping. Upon registering, you’re randomly assigned a random number of Items (I got five), and you’re also able to see Gowalla’s entire inventory of Items so you know what you’re missing from the collection (the Gowalla Wiki also has the comprehensive list here).

One aspect of the Gowalla game, then, is to have the complete collection of Items. This is tricky in that in order to pick up an Item, you have to leave one behind in its place; the only way to obtain an Item “for free” is by actively checking in at different Gowalla spots– it doesn’t happen every time at every place, but once in a while, a check-in will be rewarded with a bonus Item. (The wiki list offers tips on which categories of locations will reward a particular Item.) This turns Gowalla into something of an Easter egg hunt (or a treasure hunt, for you non-Gentiles like my boyfriend), where you can look through the spots around you to see if something you’re looking for has been dropped lately. Obviously, some objects are less distributed than others, making the collector’s-set quest difficult (in a positive way that simply encourages more gameplay and community interaction) to achieve.

But the other aspect of the game, the one which is “more akin to Geocaching” and the thing that makes me adore Gowalla the most, is sending an Item off on a journey and tracking its travels. Though there are only 85 Items (with new ones being introduced once in a while), every Item issued to someone (either via the first five for signing up or the random check-in bonuses) is unique. So while there is only one Yellow Kayak in the collection, there might be 1000 of them in the wild, each identifiable by a tracking number and a Gowalla website page.

On an Icon’s page, you can see its history– to whom it originally belonged, who has owned it since, and where it’s traded hands. Like this Airbag Industries Pin that was issued to someone in San Jose, made its way down the coast to San Diego, came over to Las Vegas and is now who knows where. Or these Bats which started in Washington and have traveled since to Chicago and New York. Or this Cowboy Hat, originally from Texas and now in a coffeeshop in Philadelphia via Las Vegas. Remember the garden gnome’s travels in “Amelie”? It’s kind of like that.

There’s no real, functional point to collecting Items or seeing if an Item can make its way around the globe; it’s just fun. And that’s why I say Gowalla is a social game before it’s a social service.

However.

“Who will win: Foursquare or Gowalla?”

As soon as I found out about Gowalla, I started pestering Noah to play, since he has an iPhone. He's consistently refused, however, insisting that he has a loyalty to Foursquare and he’s not going to cheat on them with Gowalla (even though Gowalla is from Austin and he loves Austin and Austin is where we fell in love).

I’ve tried to explain that he can play both without disloyalties because they serve different purposes, but despite everything I’ve written above– how the only spots in Gowalla should be points of interest for everyone and Gowalla isn’t meant to be a log of an individual’s daily whereabouts or a current-location broadcasting tool– well, that’s just my interpretation of what Gowalla is for. The reality of the situation is a bit different.

Remember how initially, I only cared about racking up stamps in my Passport, which meant my focus was purely on how many check-ins I could do, which meant I wanted to create spots for every place I frequented? I’m terribly embarrassed to confess that my first two stamps are from Petsmart and Trader Joe’s, that I actually wrote in a thread that I didn’t care about the Items aspect of Gowalla.

“I'm one of the first people (and by far the most active) in my area (Rochester, NY). I've been creating spots left and right. […] I've created spots for 2 liquor stores, a post office, 3 banks, a gym, my work, 2 grocery stores, 2 restaurants and a library, and have checked in a total of 19 times between those places.” -Cassandra (original thread)

“Was just out shopping/creating… When did apparel get split into men's and woman's? What about places that do both? And maybe kids too (ie Old Navy and the like)…” -Megan Bechtel-Pike (original thread)

I’m not alone in that early mentality, which should if anything be evidenced by the fact that Petsmart and Trader Joe’s existed as spots in the first place. (To be fair, I’m also hardly alone in thinking Gowalla spots should be limited to noteworthy locations; see below.) A lot of people, possibly most, sign up for Gowalla thinking (as I did) that it’s just a more visually appealing version of Foursquare, leading to creation of spots that may be heavily frequented bu
t not necessarily interesting.

Most of the discussions online regarding Gowalla only reinforce the comparison to Foursquare, particularly the debates and pontification on which of the two is better, which of the two will “win”. But to those of us who find Gowalla’s appeal in its games, the comparison is apples to oranges. Or high heels to flip-flops. Yes, Gowalla and Foursquare fall under similar categories (social, location-based), but ultimately they are different products that serve different purposes.

However.

I have no idea what Gowalla actually thinks

As I can’t stop stressing enough, this entire entry is based on my interpretation of Gowalla. For all I know, the Gowalla team does want to be direct competition with Foursquare and simply tried to distinguish its product by implementing the game features. Maybe Gowalla wants to be a Foursquare killer; maybe Gowalla wants its community to use Gowalla to let friends know where they are and where every single nearby sushi restaurant happens to be.

I really hope not, though. I get that those are really popular services right now, but neither of those are why I (now, after a lot of thinking) love Gowalla. If I wanted to know where the best [restaurant, auto repair shop, salon, etc.] is, I’d use Yelp or Google Maps (aside: those two really need to consolidate already). If I wanted to broadcast my location or log my activity, I’d use Foursquare or Latitude. But if I want to find out where all the nearby spots with cool histories to tell are and to do some virtual geocaching? Hey, Gowalla! What’s up?

Unfortunately, if Gowalla limited their check-in spots to only POI, activity would understandably decrease. How many people check in at their state’s Capitol every day, as opposed to the number of daily check-ins at Starbucks nationwide? And how would people play Gowalla if they lived in small towns with only four or five “noteworthy” locations? It would suck, and it wouldn’t seem fair.

“[Gowalla spots] should be about […] the true flavor of a city and something worth discovering.” -joepinelli

“If anything, take the advice of Gowallite, Curtis Williams (@lenier): "Pro Tip #743 – If you’re going to tag a McDonald’s, at least include an interesting fact – The Spot." Make that spot more than just another chain business.” -Dr. Barnabus Peddingferd

(original thread)

“It's interesting to see how new players go about when they first load Gowalla. They're most invested in creating spots anywhere and everywhere. Hopefully over time they learn to appreciate the art of creating quality spots. 

"But yeah, I'm not really a fan of creating spots at bus stops, mailboxes, etc unless they have something of interest, and if so, that spot creator should add such detail in the description. Nothing worse than going to check in to the spot, and look blankly around you like "what gives???".” -Irene (original thread)

On the one hand, there’s been no official word from Gowalla regarding their position on the existence of spots that are created for the sake of creation, and there certainly aren’t any regulations in place that prevent users from turning anything and everything into a spot.

On the other hand, one of the four components of Gowalla’s tagline is “Go Discover”, and at the end of a company blog post, Josh Williams writes, “My selfish goal for Gowalla is to see people go places they otherwise would never have ventured to go. Whether its a unique toy store down the street or one of the best beer and pizza joints in NorCal, I want you to get out there and Gowalla.”

Maybe the Gowalla team will figure out how to compromise. Brian Bailey (Official Rep) notes that they “use Featured Spots to highlight some of the truly unique and interesting spots in a city” (this category would be redundant if spots were restricted to *only* unique and interesting ones), but also that they “definitely want to focus on what makes a city special, though, so we hear you and we'll continue to explore how to do that.”

My selfish, snot-nosed wish? That Gowalla doesn’t want to directly compete with Foursquare, etc. by marketing itself as another social networking/location broadcasting game, and that it holds both the Items games and the discovery/sharing of the locations that make each city “special” as its top priorities. It's totally not fair that there are people who live in places where there aren't many unique locations that give that area its signature flavor, but you know what else isn't fair? The fact that Las Vegas isn't home to either an Ike's or a Bay Cities or a Tacodeli. Or outdoor miniature golf courses. But I have no claims of entitlement; those business owners don't owe me anything, and they're not going to compromise their plans and best interests just because I, or even a group of people who share my desires, can't take part in their products or services unless I travel away from home. 

(This, by the way, also applies to Gowalla's platform compatibility. I'm anxiously looking forward to the Android app (or even full gameplay integration on the Mobile Web app), but I'm not demanding it, and I'm not angry because it "still" isn't out yet. Request To People Who Are Angry About Such Things: please lay off. Gowalla knows you non-iPhoners want to play, too, and I highly doubt they are deliberately keeping your participation at bay. Just be patient while they continue to work on this completely free product that isn't going to cost you even a cent to use.)

I do, of course, find it very laughable that I’m so crazy about something I can’t even fully use yet– though I joked a while ago about installing it on Noah’s iPhone and playing it that way (and after finally getting my sampler sneak preview of Gowalla via the Mobile Web app, I don’t think that’s a joke anymore)– to the point where I can go on so extensively about it and have even gotten involved in the community forum. I’m participating in forum threads! Do you have any idea how huge that is, that I’ve become so invested in a product and its user base that I’m openly offering up my voice, my thoughts, my opinions? HUGE. Times a lot. Plus seven.

So, anyway, cheers, Gowalla. I’m rooting for your success.

[1] CORRECTION: I didn't know you could edit addresses of places you create on the Foursquare website. This makes me a lot more amenable to creating addresses on the fly, which would be necessary for just about everywhere I go.

I made it all the way to KQ VIII, which sucked and crashed a lot so I never finished it

1. I know that water is the best thing for me, that on these hot summer days, I need to be drinking water, lots of water, oh hooray with the watery goodness of refreshment and life. I know. But let me assure you, friend, that admonishments as to best rehydration practices are not what I really want to hear at the checkout stand while you're ringing me up. Just let me pay for my damn diet root beer and go, no flirtatious disapproval necessary. It's flavorful and cold and I only drink soda maybe 10 times a year and if I wanted juice I would just eat a piece of fruit just leave me the hell alone.

2. 8 bits in a byte, unless it's a bit of dark chocolate, in which case it's more like 2 bites to a bit.

3. Part II now has a companion, a part-2 to Part II. So a Part II-A?

Her name is Mr. Honeyfoot, Gentleman-Magician and Friend of English Magic, Esquire. Or, Mr. Honeyfoot, GMFEM, Esq. for short. She doesn't have an ID tag yet but when I get it, it'll probably just read "The Fuzz".

Part II hated me for about two days after I brought the kitten home and hated the kitten for a week until I left town for the weekend, and then I came back and witnessed Part II letting the baby walk up to her and nuzzle her under the chin. Half the time, Part II likes the kitten, and the other half of the time she growls and swats and stalks away, which worried me for a little while until I realized it was perfectly justifiable. Imagine if every single time you walked by me, I spread-eagle jumped onto your head and bit you on the ear and dug my feet into your kidneys. The first couple of times, sure, you'd laugh and play along and think, oh that Lora, that crazy lovable scamp of a girl. But it would get old, fast, and by the fourth or fifth time you'd probably body-slam me to the ground and tell me in no uncertain terms to fuck off.

Also, I used to make fun of Part II for her "certified pedigree" and her CFA papers and the fact that she cost $800 (including the car rental to get to Auburn, an overnight stay in Atlanta and Part II's airfare back to Vegas), but now I'm starting to think you *can* buy class in a cat. All I know is, Part II never messed with my plants or tried to nose her way into plates of human food or had bouts of gas that necessitated I leave the room. This kitten, on the other hand– well. It's a process. But, like Part II, she's quick to purr and love and lick, so overall it's a pretty happy household.

4. DOSBOX for Mac = a good portion of my childhood back at my fingertips without the nuisance of dealing with a PC. I don't think I ever realized the full extent of how many computer games I grew up playing– King's Quest series, Quest for Glory series, Conquests of Camelot (my first introduction to falafel), EcoQuest 1-2, Dr. Brain (Castle, Island), all the LucasArts games, LSL series (not sure how that happened or what my dad was thinking, but, not complaining), Gold Rush, HHH, Lemmings, The Incredible Machine. Countless more. All the Learning Company/Broderbund titles. Still more. Combined with the bazillions of books I grew up reading, how I still managed to have an active life outdoors is beyond me.