Foursquare's record check-ins aren't because of Facebook

Facebook’s latest feature, Places, mimics the core function of another hot startup, Foursquare: announcing to your friends where you are. The long-expected competition stirred a lot of buzz in Facebook’s Silicon Valley turf and Foursquare’s home base, media-soaked Manhattan.

So when Foursquare founder and CEO Dennis Crowley disclosed that his service had a record number of signups on Thursday, a lot of people rushed to declare Facebook the cause.

After all, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a lot of people aware of the idea of checking in to a real-world location online, but then his team took its time rolling it out. In the meantime, a lot of people would have decided to check out the most popular location service to date — which is Foursquare, with roughly 3 million users — right?

My gut instinct says that’s wrong. It’s the classic kind of logical fallacy our professors warned us about in college: post hoc ergo propter hoc, declaring that because one thing happened after another, the earlier event caused the later one.

It’s also a classic sign of inside-the-tech-bubble groupthink: Everything in the world happens because one geek speaks!

First of all, Foursquare’s growing fast, in a network-effects business, where every new user both makes the service more attractive to their friends and helps encourage them to sign up. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that most days would have a record number of signups? This week just happens to be a strategic time to make an observation that Crowley probably could have made on many, many days since Foursquare’s launch in March 2009.

Also, Foursquare’s been doing a lot to promote itself in the real world, from offering stickers to businesses that encourage users to check in, to partnering with popular media properties like the Expendables and Dora the Explorer. Oh, and don’t forget the 25 percent discount Gap offered users checking into a store on Foursquare. Foursquare and Gap didn’t respond to inquiries about the success of that promotion, but people are still tweeting about it — a good indicator of its viral buzz.

In short, Foursquare’s doing everything a scrappy startup should do to make itself heard in the real world. Facebook, in the meantime, launched Places to a super-insidery crowd — even shuttling reporters in a Wi-Fi-equipped bus from San Francisco’s tech-soaked SoMa neighborhood to its Palo Alto headquarters, where reporters listened to Zuckerberg speak and then hung out with Facebook engineers.

Crowley is smart to take a wait-and-see attitude on Facebook Places. Sure, the competition is worth checking out. In the meantime, his users just keep checking in.

[Image credit: Saxon]

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