A New Yorker’s Take On Swarm

When <a href="https://techcrunch.com/2014/05/01/foursquare-splits-into-two-apps-but-will-either-be-strong-enough-to-survive/">foursquare split its app into two and launched Swarm, I decided to take some time to get to know it before sharing some thoughts. As a New Yorker who has never been sold on social location apps, I’m pleasantly surprised by its ability to make me act, remember to use it, and to create the possibility for great experiences. That goes far beyond what any app like it has managed to do — for me at least.

But I have complaints, many of which are compounded by the fact that foursquare is our New York City champion. It’s the darling of Silicon Alley. You’re here in NYC, foursquare. So why is the app so confused by our great metropolis?

Let’s start with all the great things about the app.

Matthew Panzarino sees Swarm as a strong signifier of change in the mobile app landscape, where once attention-hungry products disappear into background, ambient services. And while Swarm’s background work is part of what makes it great, I hardly agree with Matthew when he says that it’s in a category of apps that either don’t want or deserve your active engagement.

Swarm, with its push notifications galore (more on that later) and almost constant promise of something to do, has me opening the app all day. Not always with satisfaction, but I’m using the app nonetheless.

No longer do I hit that ugly old blue check mark whenever I’m offered a deal for a foursquare check-in, but I’m randomly opening the app throughout the day.

I’m not sure how things work outside of the city — I’ve been here for eight years now, which is the adult third of my life — but here plans are made on the fly, in many cases, and they’re based around a certain level of convenience. I live within a couple of square miles of almost all of my friends, and the rest are just barely further than that. The difference between friends who are five miles away and friends who are one mile away is a big one. To see the former, I probably need to get on a train, and maybe even venture from Brooklyn into Manhattan. It’s a whole thing. The latter I can probably walk to see, or even better, it’s close enough for them to come to a place near me.


Because Swarm doesn’t rely heavily on the check-in to give me this information, I’m actually more likely to use the app regularly. No longer do I hit that ugly old blue check mark whenever I’m offered a deal for a foursquare check-in, but I’m randomly opening the app throughout the day, to see who’s nearby.

As long as your neighborhood locator is turned on, I can see how close you are whether you check in or not. Perhaps it sounds stalkerish, but I think we’re beyond that, and besides, everyone’s a stalker on the Internet.

And why does Swarm feel different from every other location social app before it, like Highlight?

Because foursquare. Foursquare knows better than to send me a push notification that a total stranger, who is also interested in “How I Met Your Mother” on Facebook, is just a few blocks away. What the hell am I supposed to do with that?

Continuing with gamification only turns most of their users into losers.

Foursquare has been around long enough to know (at least to a much greater degree than other startups) what we want to know and who we want to know about. We’ve handed over all of our friends, and all of our favorite restaurants, and in some cases, the path we take to work and back home.

Which is why gamification has been stripped right out of the app. This has many people upset, and if you’ve been fiercely competitive on foursquare for a long time, I understand your frustration. But think of it this way (and I’m sure this has been said before): Foursquare only relied on gamification to incentivize check-ins at a time before location data was as precise as it is today. Now they have that data, and continuing with gamification only turns most of their users into losers.

With Swarm, we all have the chance to be actual winners who go out and spend time with their friends. Who can turn seeing a check-in into actually hanging out.

I say this with conviction because I’ve been using Swarm for a few weeks and have had fun experiences with multiple people on different occasions so far, just from opening up the app. The balance of friends, serendipity and convenience is perfect for the way I spend time with friends. And I consider myself a pretty average twenty-something New Yorker.

But as such, I see multiple opportunities for improvement, mostly where push notifications are concerned.

“Push notifications have been tough,” Swarm product director Nick Burton told me. “We have people who have two different use cases for push notifications: when any regular friend is nearby, and then notifications about someone they really care about being anywhere. Balancing that, as well as the complexity of the settings within the UI, has been difficult.”

I have a friend who lives less than a mile away named Sean. Sean and I both use Swarm pretty actively. More than once, the app has notified me that Sean is in Uptown Manhattan, which is at least a 30-minute trip for me. I don’t want to know that Sean is uptown. That does nothing for me.

Swarm has a “Plans” functionality that lets you post what you want to do, like “Drinks” or a “trip to Central Park” for later in the day. If, late Saturday morning, Swarm sent me a push notification telling me that Sean was planning to go uptown to Central Park that afternoon, I may very well have texted him and seen what was up. We could go together. But at 4 p.m., when I’m doing my own thing in Brooklyn, I don’t care that Sean is far away on a push notification level.

Screenshot 2014-05-27 13.46.01I’m much more interested in when he’s coming back to Williamsburg. I’m also interested when a friend who lives uptown is in Brooklyn, or near my office downtown, or even hanging out in an area that’s on my usual train line. I’m interested when a friend who lives in the Lower East Side is on my side of the bridge. These occurrences warrant a push.

My sister lives in Georgia, but I don’t mind seeing push notifications for everything she does. It’s nice to follow her along through the day, because I love her. I don’t feel the same about pretty much anyone else who is outside of my direct lower Manhattan/Brooklyn area.

Alongside the ability to turn off nearby notifications and check-in notifications, Swarm has tried to master this balancing act by giving users control over push notifications on a per-user basis. You can see all check-ins, check-ins in your city, or none at all.

Two problems here: if you have a lot of friends, it simply takes too much time and energy to turn off most of them.

“If you have a growing group of friends, the notifications can get pretty noisy, which is why we let you turn them off entirely if you want to,” said Burton.

The other problem is that foursquare considers “within my city” to be within 26 miles. The furthest that I ever go is the 15-mile trip to Newark Airport — in another state. New York is simply too condensed for 26 miles to be a good in-between designation for which push notifications I want and don’t want.

Social planning has been damn near impossible. I’ve heard pitches from dozens of companies about how they plan to get people hanging out together, using gamification and messaging and event ticketing and, of course, ambient location services. The problem is that none of them had the balance of structure and serendipity. Swarm risks losing that balance as well.

These apps need to have some rules — like who I’m seeing information about and how I can interact with them — as well as a running list of past data (such as check-ins). Beyond that, there need not be any rules. You can’t force people to make plans; you have to simply give them the opportunity.

I remember an app called TheWhoot that asked you to always post your plans for the night, into buckets like Hanging At Home, Going Out, Raging, and Working. Your friends were then supposed to propose places and times, and chat out the details within the app. And then everyone was supposed to show up.

That app is long dead.

Swarm understands that we can’t be pushed into action, but rather given the tools to act ourselves. And the push notifications from Swarm are an effective method of reminding us to engage with it. But, as we all know, push notifications are hard.

Each push notification is weighed by the user: Would I have wanted to know this if I didn’t get a push about it? Each time the app gets it wrong, the effectiveness of the notification wanes.

Foursquare, more so than any company trying to do this, has a solid foundation from which to make these push-notification decisions. Years of experience with social apps and enough data about its users to know everything from their taste in pizza to their daily route to work should translate into an amazing push-notification experience.

But Swarm hasn’t quite figured that out.

Burton tells me that, internally, the team has been fiddling with two different features that may solve these problems. “Very nearby” tells you when anyone on your friends list is within 400 meters, as that’s literally just a few steps to connect to otherwise oblivious people. In my opinion, this is totally worth it. Ship that sucker.

The second feature is even better: “Unusually Nearby,” which is pretty much exactly what I’ve been asking for. It sends you a push notification whenever someone who isn’t usually hanging in your neck of the woods turns up nearby. According to Burton, these features are still in internal testing and haven’t exactly been tweaked to the point where they significantly increase engagement. In other words, these features have not been stamped to actually appear in the app at all, but here’s to hoping.

The Swarm alert flashes across the screen as a beacon of opportunity, and that’s a powerful feeling to get from a notification.

In speaking with Burton, it’s clear that a lot of time and attention goes into the user experience of Swarm, from the little emoticons on a check-in all the way to push notifications. If Swarm can get its push notifications right, maybe the app won’t need to rely on them as much. But he also admitted that the app does rely on them, to an extent, to get people engaged with the app. The beautiful thing about Swarm is that it doesn’t need many push notifications.

Photo May 27, 1 42 27 PM

The ever-updating chart of people nearby and the will to check in every time I visit a new place are more than enough to keep me visiting the app. On Swarm, the outright declaration of what’s going on mixed with the more vague murmurings of my general proximity is a beautiful thing. There’s no need to depend on push notifications or the check-in any longer.

I will admit that when I first downloaded the app, the notifications were what reeled me in. They’re different from any other kind of notification I got. Rather than seeing action going down in the virtual world, as I do with an Instagram like, a Swarm notification means that people are on the move. Things are happening. And I could get in on it.

The Swarm notification flashes across the screen as a beacon of opportunity to spend time with someone you care about, or someone you haven’t seen for a long time, or someone you see every day. It’s a powerful feeling to get from a push notification.

But when the honeymoon phase is over, and the majority of my notifications are the same old check-ins from the same old people, those pushes stop being friendly reminders that “Swarm means opportunity” and start becoming really annoying. And then I get numb. And start missing actual notifications I care about.

I want to check in to Swarm. I want to open Swarm every once in a while, unprompted, to see who’s doing what. And each time I get a push notification that tells me Sean is within a few blocks instead of a mile away, I’m more and more likely to open the app on my own.

My hope is that foursquare thinks of this big leap into the future as a small step, one that can be improved upon greatly. It could go either way. As the app reaches critical mass, the usefulness will diminish. When everyone is around you then no one is around you. However, with a bit of curation and some sensible updates, I can see Swarm taking me places that foursquare never could.