Let me start by saying that I deeply respect the team at Gowalla and actually envy their fun work environment and exceptional level of talent. This post is to address the service they’re building, not the folks behind it.
Up until today, I had been a member of Gowalla for something like a year. I was immediately drawn to the service because of its ability to locate me, find the business I was present at and commit a check in. The iPhone and web interfaces are simple and beautifully constructed.
I quickly invited most of my friends who proceeded to sign up, making the experience even more entertaining. I checked in everywhere I went, from gas stations to my polling place. I took pictures, reported issues, and even gave feedback on the Gowalla GetSatisfaction page. I would consider myself to have been an active member of Gowalla.
Unfortunately, that was the peak of my experience and it was a slow downhill from there. There are several key places where I feel Gowalla is lacking and keeping themselves from being sustainable for the long run.
I’m not sure I ever really understood what the driving force was behind me wanting to check-in everywhere I went. Most of the time the actual check-in was the end of the road. Phone away and on with other things. I liked being on the Leaderboard at the few places I checked into regularly, but that wasn’t permanent or overly hard to attain.
Locations, check-ins, and items need some incentive behind them (whether physical or virtual) to really be interesting after the newness wears off. There are plenty of ways to implement incentives, but I don’t think anyone (Gowalla, Foursquare, etc.) has really gotten it right.
One of the first things I noticed when joining Gowalla was that basically none of my friends were on it yet which seemed reasonable since it’s a newer start-up and isn’t widely adopted. I invited quite a few people and even gave several friends a face-to-face walkthrough on why they should check it out (sidenote: shouldn’t there be a pin for accepted referrals).
Having a few people I knew well on the site made it much more interesting, but it never became more than, “Oh, he’s at Taco Bell again?!” or “I guess he just made it to work”. There is no sense of community and tends to feel more like a “people tracker” than networking medium.
In an effort to build community and interact more with the service, I added most of the people I follow on Twitter as friends on Gowalla. It quickly became obvious, however, that doing that is less than desirable.
I found I’m not all that interested in people’s check-ins when they live 2,000+ miles away. I’m also not interested in places I’ve never heard of or have no plans to visit. Most of the time I just turned off their Push Notifications, but then I had to ask myself what was the point of following them in the first place?
Almost any time I met with someone for lunch or coffee, I made sure to get my check-in settled before jumping into conversation. It didn’t take long to realize how this was a totally ridiculous practice. Why was I de-prioritizing my friends and family so that I could let the world know where I was?
The same question could easily be asked of Twitter, Facebook, and SMS, but the reason I am OK using those is because I feel like there is a community of people (see “Community” above) on the other end with which I’m sharing my life and continuing to grow our relationships. That’s not so much the case for me with Gowalla.
Checking in to find that you’ve received a new item is definitely fun. I also really liked exchanging items at a location and tracking the history of where they’ve been. So, now what?
I can see collecting items and putting them in my archive as a goal. Most of the time, however, I just dropped them somewhere for someone else to pick up. I never felt satisfied with item collection alone being the end goal of my Gowalla experience. I liked finding new locations and becoming the creator, but what’s the incentive? Eventually, I earned a pin or two for creating Spots, but is that it? I never once looked to see what pins other people had earned. Pretty consistently I found myself needing more direction on what to do next. What’s the next achievement? What am I getting out of this? What do you want from me, Gowalla? If the service can be whittled down to sharing where I’m located, I’ll elect to simplify and just add my location to a Tweet.
This post is in no way meant to flame Gowalla or the great people that work there. I just need more from the service to justify continuing to invest my time in it. I think there are loads of opportunities (of which I’m sure they are working on some of them), but for now I value simplicity and privacy just a bit more.