Checking in: A phenomenological study of active users of geolocational tagging services



Geosocial check-in services are a relatively new feature of social media, used by a small but growing percentage of social networking enthusiasts. The purpose of this exploratory phenomenological study is to develop an initial qualitative understanding of the practices, interests, needs, and motivations of active users of mobile geosocial check-in services, and the meaning that they ascribe to the use of geotagging services in their daily life. Through interview analysis and rich description, five key themes emerge. Geosocial check-in services are found to be more than just a novel feature present in social media applications – users employ them to bind together the internal, social, and virtual dimensions of their modern lives, and to situate these dimensions in relation to the physical world around them.


There is a significant and timely need to develop a better understanding of human behavior within geospatial information contexts. The 2009 Horizon Report (Johnson, Levin, & Smith) identifies geospatial systems as a key transformative technology for society, predicting a world that will be “geo-everything” within a 2-3 year time frame (p. 15).

Mobile device users can now share their real-time location with other users via an array of geosocial check-in services, also referred to as “social geotagging” or “location-based services”. These services include standalone applications such as Gowalla — now defunct but in existence during data collection — and Foursquare, or they may be integrated within larger social media platforms such as Facebook.

In a recent national survey (2011), the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 58% of all American adults who own smartphones have used some form of mobile location-based services. 55% of them have used their smartphone for navigational aid or to obtain location-based recommendations, but a far smaller percentage – just 12% — use geosocial check-in services. This number is modest but growing; a similar study just a year earlier (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2010) reported that 7% of mobile Internet users used geosocial check-in services. While ample statistical data is available regarding the frequency and demographics of use of such services, little is currently understood about the firsthand experiences and motivations of active users of social geotagging tools.

Literature Review

In 1996, Gluck stated that the “geospatial needs of the public have not been systematically analyzed” (p. 152). Some 16 years later, this observation still holds true. The majority of geospatial information studies have centered on technical issues related to systems design and information retrieval vs. qualitative, user-centric research into how humans perceive, interpret, and interact in geospatial information environments.

Specific examinations of users of mobile location-based services are limited in number. Kaasinen (2002) utilized scenarios and semi-structured group interviews to explore nascent attitudes towards location-based services and found users had a high degree of interest in being active providers of content. May, Bayer, & Ross (2007) conducted a broad attitudinal survey of 1,200 users of location-based services. Their questionnaire identified 15 broad categories of services, only two that can be partially associated with geosocial check-in services: “Friend Finder” and “Location-based Games”. This is understandable given that Foursquare and Gowalla, the two major geosocial check-in applications, did not debut until 2009. Study results found low awareness of these services but neutral to positive attitudes towards them.

Paay and Kjeldskov (2008) conducted a qualitative field study of location-based service users, employing video observation data and recorded think-aloud comments from participants to understand their perceptions of geospatial data. The ultimate purpose of the study, though, was to inform systems design and evaluation, not to understand the user experience itself.

Researchers and philosophers alike realize that the mobile geospatial web is forging new phenomenological conceptions of geographical space that involve virtual and social as well as physical dimensions. This shifting perception of space has been alternately referred to as “place-world” (Casey, 2001), “geosphere” (Lapenta, 2011), and “thirdspace” (Soja, 1996), where virtual representations of physical space serve as a mediating bridge between the external physical world, one's inner space, the universe of external information, and social spheres:

How do users of geosocial check-in services perceive and experience this emerging thirdspace? How do they incorporate social geotagging into their daily lives, and how is it in turn shaping their daily routines? Such questions have not yet been explored, and hold great import for understanding how the larger social media revolution is shaping society. This study accordingly considers how participants may use geosocial check-in services to mediate between the social, virtual, and physical aspects of their daily lives.

Purpose Statement

The purpose of this exploratory phenomenological study is to develop an initial understanding of the practices, interests, needs, and motivations of active users of mobile geosocial check-in services, and the meaning that they ascribe to the use of geotagging services in their daily life.

Research questions

The central question guiding this study is broadly posed:

RQ: What is the essence of the experience of using geosocial check-in services?

In seeking to describe the common experiences of active geosocial check-in service users, a number of specific issue-related subquestions will be examined. In particular:

RQA: How do users experience geotagging?

RQB: What meaning do users ascribe to their use of geosocial check-in services?

This study is undertaken within the larger context of the study of human information behavior. Both Dervin's (1983) Sense-Making and Savolainen's (1995) Everyday Life Information Seeking (ELIS) theories provide a relevant user-centric context for examination of these questions.


Study Participants

This pilot study includes five participants. Dukes (1984) recommends 3 to 10 subjects for phenomenological studies, while Polkinghorne (1989) suggests a range of 5 to 25 subjects. This pilot study meets the minimum of both suggested ranges. A planned full-length study will include a total of 7-10 participants.

The five participants were selected via a combination of intensity, convenience, and chain sampling. Because the study seeks to develop a rich understanding of users of geosocial check-in services, inclusion criteria requires that participants be frequent, active users (intensity sampling). An active user is herein defined as one who uses geosocial check-in services at least several times per week, preferably daily. Two participants are members of the author's social media networks (convenience sampling), while two are acquaintances of the author's social media contacts (chain sampling).

Four participants, “Abigail,” “Beatrice,” “Diane,” and “Eileen” (false names) are female, with ages ranging from 22 to 37 years. One male participant (“Chris”) is 57 years old. All are college-educated. They each reside in different metropolitan locations in four different, non-adjacent U.S. states. One is a student, while the remaining four are employed in professional or academic positions.

Data Collection

Data collection consisted of interviews that lasted from 45 to 75 minutes in length and were conducted via either phone or Skype videoconferencing. All interviews were captured via digital audio recording. The interview protocol consisted of 13 open-ended questions.

Sample questions:

  • 1.What motivated you to begin using [geosocial check-in application(s) of choice]?
  • 2.How do you use [geosocial check-in application(s) of choice?
  • 3.What benefits do you enjoy from using [geosocial check-in application(s) of choice]?

This protocol served as a general guiding document for each interview, although new and unanticipated questions arose naturally during the course of each interview and were freely pursued. Additional data was sought in some cases via follow-up email requests.

Data Analysis

To prepare for initial data analysis, each audio recording was transcribed as close to the time of the original interview as possible. To maintain confidentiality, all recordings and descriptions were identified only by assigned false names, and any mention of specific locations, persons, or events in transcripts were redacted.

Following an established approach for phenomenological analysis, I initially read through the transcribed interviews several times to develop an overall familiarity with and feel for the data. Significant statements were extracted into a spreadsheet. Initial categorization of statements yielded 27 codes; two subsequent reviews of the transcripts led to a combining of several closely related concepts, yielding a reduced set of 21 units of meaning. These initial codes were clustered into six emergent themes, one pair of which closely related to each other on a more abstract level, leading to a final set of five primary themes that capture the essence of the experience of using geosocial check-in services.


Creswell (2007) identifies eight primary approaches to verification of qualitative analysis and recommends a minimum of two methods be utilized in any given study (p. 209). To ensure validity of the data analysis, I engaged in three of the recommended strategies: triangulation, rich description, and bracketing. Due to space limitations, rich descriptions with ample quotations will be deferred to a future full-length paper. The fact that several of my findings were unanticipated and personally surprising provides some evidence that bracketing efforts were successful. A draft of the full-length paper will be shared with all participants in order to solicit their views on the accuracy of the account; this will constitute a fourth validation strategy.


Reasons for geotagging one's current location involves a broad continuum of personal motivations ranging from the purely personal and private to the wholly social. While all participants expressed motivations on both ends of the spectrum, they each tended strongly to one particular side.

The five major identified themes are briefly summarized and discussed below.

Theme 1: Source of Personal Entertainment

Despite the highly social nature of check-in services, participants cited several motivations that are largely solitary in nature. Several users enjoyed the more playful features of geosocial check-in applications, such as the ability to become the “mayor” of a location, earn points, and gain both virtual objects and real-world prizes. These inner-space entertainment activities both reflect and shape their personal perceptions and constructions of their spatial surroundings. Beatrice recounts, “It's really lame, but I love the little badges! When … we were driving to Nebraska … I actually asked all of my colleagues to let us stop and get out of the vehicles just so I could check in to Iowa [laugh]. So that I could get the Iowa badge!” Another strongly solitary motivation for utilizing geosocial check-in services is as a means for recording one's own explorations in geographical space. In this sense, it serves as a kind of geospatial diary and a means for linking one's inner self to physical place.

Theme 2: Connecting with Others

At the social end of the continuum, geosocial check-in services offer the opportunity to connect with other individuals both known and unknown. It provides a way to signal one's location to others, to share with others that one is having an interesting and new experience, and to feel more connected with loved ones who are at a geographical distance.

Chris, a traveling minister, checks in as an attempt to make his services more available to others, stating, “I want to provide that channel for them to find me and the message that I can share with them.” He acknowledges, though, that his efforts are “bleeding edge” and have not yet generated many connections. Participants did not have many anecdotes to share about connecting face-to-face with other individuals as a result of checking in to a location, nor did it seem to be a primary motivation for them. On the contrary, Beatrice went go so far as to suggest that – even though she discloses her location with others – she does not expect or necessarily welcome others taking advantage of this information to encounter her. This indicates that – although participants use geosocial check-in services as a means for signaling one's physical location to their social contacts, they do not necessarily intend or desire that these two aspects of their thirdspace directly intersect.

By both posting and reading tips and recommendations, geosocial check-in services offer users a chance to engage in a mutually beneficial exchange of spatially-related information. Abigail is highly motivated by the opportunity to provide helpful tips to others, even if she does not know them personally. This altruistic motivation is reflected in many of her comments, such as “It's like I'm here, just to share with people, you know maybe new venues that they don't know, like restaurants or whatever.” Eileen both posts reviews and makes a point of visiting venues recommended by strangers, as a way to discover new places. This reciprocity of assistance is a steady undercurrent driving interpersonal interaction via geosocial tagging services.

Theme 3: Participation in a Community

In reciprocally assisting each other to navigate everyday information needs, users are not just interacting with each other; they recognize themselves as members of a distinct community of geosocial participants. This sense of community can be viewed from multiple, layered perspectives in terms of Soja's thirdspace. It manifests itself both physically and virtually. Users recognize distinct subgroups present within that community, including known persons vs. the larger anonymous community of users. Known persons are further divided into real-world friends vs. social networking acquaintances that exist entirely or almost entirely in the virtual sphere. Their fellow geosocial check-in users are further distinguished from non-users.

This opportunity to engage in dialogue, to feel part of a larger group, and to expand one's network, serves in itself as another motivating factor for using geosocial check-in services. Diane, a baseball fan, utilizes check-in services at stadiums and sports bars to connect with those she may not know, but who “share my same passion for the Cardinals”.

Theme 4: Situated within Broader Social Media Use

As active users of social media, check-in service users do not engage in geotagging as an isolated function; rather, it is an activity that is strategically integrated within a larger suite of social media applications they use in concert with each other, for defined purposes.

Abigail utilizes a broad variety of social media applications with geolocational capabilities, including Facebook Places, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp, and Footsteps, most of which are interconnected to maximize her location sharing. In contrast, Chris maintains five separate Twitter accounts, one for each major aspect of his life, but only connects Foursquare to his ministry-themed Twitter account.

Theme 5: Rules of Engagement

Geosocial check-in services are not used in isolation; rather, they are integrated within a larger pattern of social media use, and users develop sophisticated personal rules for whether, when, and how they will share their location with others. These rules of engagement manifest in terms of the extent to which geotagging is automated and the extent to which geospatial information is shared between different social media applications. They define circumstances in which they will and will not use geotagging. All participants tended to use geosocial check-in services when traveling to new places, with Beatrice going so far as to say she only uses it when she travels. Participants actively distinguish true friends from casual or virtual contacts and modify their behavior accordingly. Abigail, for example, states, “Foursquare I keep pretty restricted to … um, well, to friends I know very well. Or not just to acquaintances.” Users also acknowledge a number of general security concerns with regard to their use of geosocial check-in services and alter their behavior accordingly.


As noted by Casey (2001), “There is no place without self and no self without place” (p. 684), and the world is “not only perceived or conceived but also actively lived and receptively experienced” (p. 687). Soja (1996) defines “thirdspace” as a trialectic of spatiality that incorporates social, temporal, and geographic aspects; one's experience of that spatiality as a interrelated combination of lived, perceived, and conceived interactions. From this theoretical standpoint, geotagging can be understood as a way to mediate, heighten and inform an individual's navigation of the many dimensions of their spatial world.

Users experience geosocial check-ins as a means for geographically situating themselves in the physical world. They also value geotagging as a means for expressing themselves socially, in terms of both place and time. When shared with others, a user's geotagging contributes to a larger, collective sense of social spatiality. Finally, there are wholly virtual aspects to geotagging – a non-physical sense of place that is internally constructed and conceptualized.

Geosocial check-in services are thus far more than just an interesting feature added to social media applications – it is the very glue that binds together the internal, social, and virtual threads of users' modern lives, and situates these dimensions in relation to the physical world around them.