You've heard the advice: "add a social component", "build a community", "make it interactive". So would it surprise you to hear that a major player in social networking succeeded by moving to a single player model?

Yesterday, Gabe Zichermann posted this over at Mashable:

The first incarnation of the location-based networking field was littered with carnage, leading many to write off the entire concept. But Foursquare’s founders, ... concluded that mobile social networking would work if you were to change the dynamic from multiplayer to single player.

Instead of depending on the action of the crowd to provide intrinsic reinforcement (e.g. “Hey, you’re around the corner. Let’s grab a beer!”), Foursquare overcame the empty bar problem by becoming a single-player game. The user competes for badges and mayorships whether or not anyone is there to meet him.

Any website that depends on user activity will struggle until it reaches critical mass. And if generating content requires on interaction -- particularly live interaction -- between early adopters, the struggle will be even harder.

Beyond that, once it does reach critical mass, it will spread more slowly, because many new participants won't already be part of a group that's achieved critical mass. If you don't already have friends there when you join, it's almost as if you're the first one on the site.

Consider geocaching, for example. It started near Beavercreek, Oregon, but quickly spread around the globe.

Geocaching wouldn't be much fun if nobody but you ever looked for your caches, nor if nobody in your area ever hid anything for you to find. So the social component is an absolute requirement.

But hiding a cache can be done by a lone individual without any coordination. And once a cache has been hidden, finding it can be done by a lone individual without any coordination.

Reader Comment:
Nikole Fairview said:
I'm surprised that it's taken this long for websites to realize that it's fun for people to play games online by themselves.  I am just kind of getting into this social thing and it is fun, but I didn't realize that a good number of websites were ...
(join the conversation below)

Foursquare check-ins are the same -- they're socially reinforced, but no real-time interaction is required.

Consider how Foursquare is different from an online forum. With a forum, if you post a bunch of questions and comments, but get few or no responses, there's little incentive to keep posting. Even if some other part of the forum is extremely active, you'll abandon the empty part.

But with Foursquare, there's an incentive to be active even if there's not much going on around you right now -- in fact, the incentive may be even greater. Why? A combination of factors:

  • You know it's huge elsewhere, so there's reason to believe it will get big where you are.
  • If you're an early adopter, there's less competition for mayorships (and other rewards? I don't know -- I'm not a Foursquare user) in the beginning, so you can start off at the top of the heap.

The second point reminds me of the time I finished 2nd in my age bracket in an 8 mile race. Sounds cool, huh? Except that I also finished last in my age bracket (there were only 2 of us). The difference between Foursquare and my race is that in Foursquare, early adopters get a head start -- you're racing against everyone, no matter when they left the starting line.

If you're trying to build an online community, even if your ultimate goal is to foster close interaction, it'd be wise to build in rewards that people can achieve with little or no dependency on other members. If participants have to be active at the same time, or be in the same place (even if at different times), you'll have a lot more work to do to reach and sustain critical mass.