Back in 2010, of all the people I talked into joining Foursquare, my dad–a retired Wall Street sales trader who likes to “win”–was the one who became the most obsessed. From Unfriending My Ex (and Other Things I’ll Never Do).
Foursquare is the location-based social media game that crowns a person “mayor” of any location once they have visited and “checked in” at a place more than anyone else. It works with your phone’s GPS functionality, so you need to actually be at or very near the place at which you are requesting to “check in.” When someone checks in more than you, Foursquare sends you an e-mail saying that you’ve been “ousted” as the mayor. The other day I was ousted from my mayorship of the Amanpulo resort in the Philippines. It destroys me that I will likely never get it back and there is nothing I can do about it.
My father is a retired Wall Street sales trader with a serious competitive streak. He and my mother are happily married and live in Bridgehampton. They have the kind of connected relationship and home life I aspire to emulate. Nonetheless, thanks to Foursquare, he became wildly obsessed with becoming mayor of as many places in the Hamptons as possible. Most days he would wake up around six A.M. to play a round of golf, then drive through town, checking into Bobby Van’s, Candy Kitchen, Starbucks, Hampton Coffee Company (yes, that’s two coffee places), Pierre’s, and the bank, in addition to any other place he actually needed to be. He even became mayor of long-term parking at JFK International Airport for two months. He felt particularly proud of this mayorship. I think my favorite aspect of my father’s Foursquare addiction, however, was immediately after he realized that one of the perks of being the mayor of certain locations, like Starbucks, was that you got special deals. At Bridgehampton Starbucks, my dad learned, his mayorship granted him one free coffee per day. He would strut into Starbucks, order coffee at the counter, and when the cashier asked him to pay, he would whip out his phone, say something weird like “not so fast,” and flash his Foursquare deal for them, winning his free coffee. It was out of a Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. He had gamed the system. He had won.
My mom and I weren’t concerned about this new obsession; we were more amused—this was so in line with my dad’s personality and we enjoyed teasing him about it. When I visited my parents shortly after introducing my father to the game, he took over our dinner conversation, venting his frustration that someone named “Ian Z.” was still mayor of Bobby Van’s. My dad just couldn’t seem to steal the mayoral title, even though he checked in at least three times a day. The day he finally became mayor was great: We had steak to celebrate, and Ian Z. sent my dad a friend request on Foursquare—maybe out of respect or maybe out of pure curiosity. Ian Z. must have felt the same way that Andre Agassi felt when Pete Sampras beat him: completely floored and humble and exhilarated. I thought that with this victory, my father’s tenth virtual mayoral title, his obsession would die down. I was wrong.
The next week, my father went to work out at the gym, where he was the mayor and was always greeted with open arms by its staff, who couldn’t seem to understand why a man who went to the gym only four times a week was mayor while they, who went every day, were not. Clearly they had no idea about his late-night and early-morning drive-bys. In any case, thirty minutes into the session, my dad’s trainer said, “Ray, I gotta ask you a question.”
My father, unsuspecting, said, “What’s up?”
“Well, the other day, I was heading into Citarella in Bridgehampton and I saw you drive into the parking lot, stop for about forty-five seconds, then pull out again and drive away. You weren’t checking in on Foursquare, were you? Because you know that’s cheating.”
My dad swore to quit Foursquare on the spot—well, as soon as he had stolen the last mayoral title (for Bridgehampton Cemetery—who wants to be mayor of dead people?) from his archnemesis, Ian Z. On, November 2, 2010, my father became the mayor of the cemetery, and he quit Foursquare the next day. Even though I was happy he had the strength to quit, I was also helplessly and absurdly proud that my own dad had become the virtual mayor of all the restaurants and most of the bars I went to in the Hamptons.
Foursquare and its virtual victory quest took over many of my loved ones’ lives for a period, not just my dad’s. A few of my friends would go out at night even when they didn’t want to, just so they could check into places and reinstate their mayorships, or would travel miles out of the way just to get new Foursquare “badges.” If we were a few visits away from becoming mayor, we would aim to go to a specific part of town just to check into whatever bar, hotel, or restaurant we wanted to be mayor of. Sometimes it was for bragging rights; other times there were incentives, like prizes that were blatant marketing ploys. We were addicted to the faux connection, to the distraction.