Why Would Anyone Check In?

If the term doesn’t sound familiar, “Checking In” is when you use your mobile device’s GPS to pinpoint your location – whether it’s at the local Starbucks or a trip to the CPA.  It then posts a status update that shares your location online.    When I first saw people “Check In” to places on Facebook, I could NOT understand the appeal.  In all honesty I considered it an invitation to have your house robbed.  It was like saying, “Hey, I’ll be at the sushi place across town.  I just got here, so you’ve got at least an hour to steal my TV.”

Regardless of how ridiculous I thought it was, Checking In quickly gained popularity.  Foursquare built their entire business model around the notion that people wanted to share their locations with friends and strangers alike.  Robbers be damned!  Now that one in five smartphone owners are hopping on this trend, I had to wrap my mind around what benefit they gained from it.  Sure, there can be prizes and coupons involved, but people Check In regardless of that – and in impressive numbers.

I can sum up the entire Checking In phenomenon in three words: Uncertainty Reduction Theory.  Everything related to Social Media ties into this concept – Checking In included.  It not only sheds light on why people Check In but reveals how it builds confidence in their decision-making!  To put it simply, people will do anything to feel comfortable.  Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable so we try to mitigate that feeling by any means possible.

To understand this theory, you only have to recognize one thing:  removing uncertainty, removes self-doubt.  In the absence of self-doubt, confidence increases.  Think back to any situation where you met a stranger.  Maybe it was at a bar, a work function, or a round of Speed Dating.  Regardless of the location or event, you probably engaged in a conversation that went a little like this:

          You: So, what do you do for a living?

          Stranger: I’m a doctor…  (Pause) What about you?

          You: I’m a real estate agent…  (Pause) Where do you work?

          Stranger: I work at Warm and Fuzzy Hospital.

          You: Really!!! My friend’s sister is a receptionist there!

           Stranger: Oh!  What’s her name?  Maybe I know her!

You are both relieved to find something in common.  In reality, who cares if your friend’s sister is a receptionist at some massive hospital where this strange doctor works?  This is not a substantial connection.  But finding any commonality, no matter how insignificant, reduced your uncertainty and therefore makes you both feel better about each other.  Afterall, what are the odds of him being a serial killer if he kinda sorta might know someone who knows someone who you know?  It may not be much, but it brings you one step closer to deciding whether you like one another or not.  The topics may vary, but we’ve all played this awkward round of 20 questions with a stranger.  We interrogate each other until we discoverany kind of similarity. Then we cling to that connection for dear life.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory is blatantly obvious in Social Networking.  Consider Facebook’s Friend Finder.  It’s genius.  It removes the first layer of ambiguity by telling you exactly how many friends you have in common.  The more friends you have in common, the better the odds that you will like them.   Just like you and the doctor got excited about your faint connection to the hospital receptionist, you are more likely to Friend someone who’s a friend of a friend.

Social Networking expedites the process by which we determine whether we like or dislike someone – without any of that pesky banter.  This makes us bolder in our decision-making abilities – in this case, the decision whether to accept someone as a friend.  If someone from my past friends me on Facebook, more often than not, I go on a fact-finding mission.  (This is a nice way of saying I stalk the hell out of them).   I look at their photos and their status updates.  Do we have any friends in common?  Are they funny?  Are they overly political?  With this newfound information in hand, I feel confident either Accepting or Denying their request.

Applying Uncertainty Reduction Theory to Social Networking is easy.  Let’s complicate things and take it a step further.  How did this theory dispel my disbelief about the popularity of Checking In?  Do we apply the same theory to products and places in determining whether we like them – just like we would a stranger at a party?

Consider Amazon.com.  The main thing Amazon should credit its success to is not its endless list of products, competitive pricing, or free shipping.  It’s all in the reviews!  I can click on any product and find at least 20 reviews, often hundreds – each one building my familiarity with the product.  Reviews are knowledge.  Knowledge reduces uncertainty.   The less uncertain I am, the more confident I am in my purchase.

Sites like Yelp and Yahoo Local have done the same thing for businesses.  The only catch is that you can’t always guarantee that there will be 20 or more reviews on a single hair salon, restaurant, or CPA.  So when we find only one or two reviews, instead of instilling confidence, it actually ignites MORE uncertainty.  Your knowledge is limited.  What if two out of the four reviews were written by the owner?  What if the one awful review was from someone you would never associate with?

Which would you value more:  A recommendation from four strangers or a recommendation from one friend?   My friends win every time.  This is where Checking In becomes so valuable.  If your friend is the Mayor of Super Taqueria (meaning they’ve Checked In a LOT at this particular eatery), chances are that’s where you’ll be going the next time you’re in the mood for Mexican food.  It’s better than any advertising that can be bought because it removes uncertainty.  By Checking In, your friend has given an endorsement.  An endorsement from a friend removes a large amount of doubt, leaving us confident in our decision to patronize that particular business.

Coupons and prizes in return for Checking In are just the icing on the cake.  These offers may diminish any remaining uncertainty about a business, making it worthwhile to explore, but it’s not nearly as persuasive as a friend’s recommendation.  Simply put, when your friends Check In, you feel more comfortable with that business.  Or as Amazon proves, droves of strangers Checking In also instills assurance.  Apparently there is confidence in friends and confidence in numbers.

Uncertainty Reduction Theory explains why anybody does anything having to do with Social Media.  At its core, Social Media is about connecting with people and the world around us to make determinations about what we like and don’t like.  Publicizing that you “Like” something has even become part of the Facebook brand.   This theory  takes the associative art of friending people on Facebook and applies it to businesses.

Social Media is rooted in people’s desire to form a connection   At its core, it’s about finding commonality on even the most basic level: where we like to eat, what TV shows we choose to watch.  We crave these connections, no matter how big or small.  At the end of the day, those connections build our confidence in everything we do – from the people we friend on Facebook to the products we buy and the businesses we patronize.

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