Playing with radio: Behind the scenes of The Takeaway's "Where Are You?" game

Friday, April 10, 2009 - 06:22 AM

Friday morning's Takeaway started with an apparently simple question: Where are you and what are you doing? The next question might’ve been obvious: Why? Before we even explained it, we were finding out about the morning routines of the people on the other side of the speaker. People “checked in” with us from the kitchen, the New Jersey Turnpike, the bathtub, and we got hundreds more responses by the time the morning was out. There was no apparent reason to call us other than for the sake of calling us, but the real reason was to try an ambitious experiment in social networking.

Nowadays even grandparents have some idea what Twitter and Facebook are, but only rabid iPhone users know about something called Foursquare. Foursquare is an application for the iPhone (and any cellphone, really) that lets people know where you are simply by checking in (except they employ the bells and whistles of a GPS-enabled 3G mobile device). The value? Well that’s what we wanted to explore.

Do you feel closer to people just by finding out what they’re doing? Does your interest in the mundane actions of a peer somehow forge a better understanding of them? Is there a social benefit to connecting with people just for the sake of connecting? These were the questions on my mind when I proposed this rather outlandish idea for our show. And the answers might also explain why Twitter, Facebook and now Foursquare are taking off in spite of the dismissive comments of some vocal early observers. Here’s what I took away for the experiment: People like to play.

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One of the addictive elements of Foursquare is something that affects everyone: the leader board. It shows the "scores" of the players based on the points they’ve earned for checking in, with bonus points for going the extra mile. I signed up last week at the urging of a friend and iPhone owner who raved about how fun it was. Suddenly I was staying abreast of his nocturnal escapades (well, at least the bars he was going to on any given night). Apart from being jealous about a friend having a much more active social life than me, I felt like I was staying in touch without making an effort. And, the places Foursquare told him I was, which ranged in adventurousness from my neighborhood park to my local Laundromat, required very little effort on my part. In fact, I didn’t even have my friends in mind when I checked in. (I had also persuaded other iPhone owners to download the app and friend me.) I was just in it for a higher place on the leader board and the coveted title of "Mayor," which you earn when you check into a place the most number of times.

But even though I wasn’t directly communicating with friends, my friends were finding out about me. As guest Scott Lamb made clear on Friday's Takeaway, this a whole new network of friends based on passive communication. And the incentive to take part, playing for points, is entirely selfish.

No major news was broken with this experimental journalism. But in many significant ways we broke down the barriers between the radio hosts and the radio audience. Even the people who didn’t call in were hearing about the people who did, fellow listeners whose experience they shared each time we played or read a response.

I believe we forged our own social network of fellow radio listeners who stayed in touch by playing our version of the Foursquare game, but something else happened that surprised us. Many of the people who called lost jobs to the dire economy and in the course of checking in with us, we — and all of our listeners — found out more about that experience. As we find out more ways to "play" with our listeners, we hope to further ours and everyone else's understanding of the situations facing Americans. Maybe then we’ll make some real news. But in the meantime, what’s wrong with having some fun along the way?


How we did it

Last week Scott Lamb and I played with a new iPhone application called Foursquare. We started finding out about each other's social life (or lack thereof) and getting to know each other in a different way. Then I added people I vaguely knew as friends and got to know them in a different way, too. Suddenly, I had a bigger incentive to go places just to “check-in” and earn points and badges along the way.

The buzz about Foursquare was growing among users of other social networking tools, so I pitched the idea as a segment to the rest of the Takeaway team. We looked at a few discussion points, including passive communication as a means of interaction and what the larger benefits to society this might have, given that Twitter and other tools like it have already made such a difference (e.g. in democratizing media and pioneering new businesses).

I booked Scott on Friday’s show and discussed these issues with him. On Thursday evening we came up with a question for listeners. The goal was to emulate the Foursquare game on live radio — a tall order. We decided we’d just ask the question, without getting bogged down in the details of Foursquare and this is what we came up with:

"At the takeaway this morning we're trying to get to know you better by having you tell us where exactly you are and what you're doing. All you have to do is call or email and check in. No matter how mundane or insane! If you're in the kitchen: Call us. If you're on the subway: Call us. Fleeing the country? Call us! You get a point each time you check in. And you'll get bonus points for frequency and outlandishness. The leader board will be at thetakeaway.org."

The responses flooded in. Here are two examples:

  "I was driving to school, but now I'm not sure where I'm calling from..."

  "I'm on the New Jersey Turnpike, hoping the cops don't pull me over..."

Thanks in part to our staff and contributors calling in with real-time updates, we were able to lay out the question clearly. Within the first 10 minutes, almost 50 phone responses had come in. By the end of the show, there were hundreds.

Read contributor Scott Lamb's post about the absurd satisfaction of playing Foursquare.



Related:
Where you at? Foursquare maps it out
The absurd satisfaction of playing foursquare
What are you doing right now?
The thrill of checking in with our listeners

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