What Gowalla Got Wrong

Last week Gowalla released the newest version of their location-based application, and they ruined it.  These aren’t easy words coming from me.  I have been an avid user and evangelist of Gowalla for over a year.  I would be more precise with that info, but the new Gowalla no longer lets me view my own check-in history.  Accumulating those check-ins was one of the primary points of using Gowalla, I was somewhere around 1,220 unique places that I had checked-into since I first started using Gowalla, but now neither the website or iPhone application display this information to me.  So where I have been and when, information I have saved one thumb tap at a time at locations both exciting and mundane (mostly the latter) is now lost to me.  Why did I bother?

Check-ins vs. Stories

The new Gowalla has abandoned the concept of the ‘check-in’ and replaced it with the ‘story’.  Originally conceived as a digital passport, Gowalla’s distinctive stamps could be collected by globetrotters and homebody’s alike.  I loved the opportunity to look for trips and featured stamps to collect wherever my travels took me, when such opportunities occurred.  Sharing photos and comments with my friends and family on Gowalla was wonderful.  But day to day my check-ins were for myself; my neighborhood, the park on the way to work, the grocery store, my office. I’m not so egotistical that I think anyone but myself gave a crap where I was, but I still checked-in, for myself.

But with the new Gowalla I’m not just ‘checking-in’, I’m telling a ‘story’.  Guess what Gowalla, the huge majority of my check-ins don’t amount to a good story, I was only interested in knowing how often I’ve been to that grocery store.  And it’s not just my own numbers I’m missing.  As I look at different spots on Gowalla, I can no longer tell how often anyone has been there.  Is this spot popular, or a one-off joke? Gowalla no longer lets me know.

Badges and Items

One of the motivating reasons to bother checking-in to new locations on Gowalla was to earn badges for doing so.  Badges were earned for a wide variety of reasons, sometimes just for where you were such as a state badge, or for the type of location you were at such as a coffee shop, or for completing a ‘trip’ or pre-defined collection of locations.  In the new Gowalla, all but the state badges are apparently gone.  I feel like the medals have been stripped off my chest!

Another distinguishing factor about Gowalla was items, virtual collectible knick-knacks to be gathered, dropped, hunted, swapped and hoarded.  Items made Gowalla a virtual treasure hunt, and while I expect many users enjoyed Gowalla without ever understanding or embracing the point of items, many others enjoyed the hunt and the fun of moving items in this quirky virtual world.  Well kiss them goodbye.  Your hard earned collection of items is gone. Sorry.


Why did Gowalla seemingly work to take all of the fun out of their app? I believe they are admitting defeat in the battle of the check-in vs. Foursquare, and seeking to re-invent themselves.  To me the appeal of Gowalla over Foursquare has always been their superior interface, custom stamps and unique user experience. Gowalla was to Foursquare as Macs are to PC’s, not as widely adopted but WAY cooler. But cool isn’t always enough, numbers count, and Foursquare has the numbers. So Gowalla had to abandon the ‘check-in’ and create a new justification for existing, as a travel guide.

With content provided by major entertainment and travel resources, as well as their own users, Gowalla is well equipped to be a wonderful digital travel guide, suggesting spots for me to ‘check-in’, no wait ‘start a story’ at that I might otherwise have overlooked.  But my commuter lot and grocery story aren’t worthy of a travel guide, or a story, and any reason I ever had for checking into them before has been taken away.

I remain hopeful that some of these features that have made Gowalla such a pleasure for me to use will return.  I understand that technology companies much strive to innovate, improve, and be profitable.  But they should also recognize when they’ve made a mistake and damaged their product or business and attempt to recover.  I hope that Gowalla can do so and bring me back, but for right now they have lost me and I’m ‘checking-out’.


Visit Casey’s

What I did on a snowy night at home… created a ‘Casey’s’ trip on Gowalla.

There are plenty of options, but my selection criteria were as follows…

I included only domestic sites.  I love visiting international Casey’s locations, but need to keep this within realistic reach.

Then, start with Coffee (I went there today).

then recreation,

then food (including desert),

then bars,

and finish in my wife’s hometown of Glasford, IL (the ONLY ‘Casey’s General Store’ I included).

I will buy a drink for any person who finishes the trip.  I will buy two drinks for an Casey who finishes the trip!

Happy Trails…



Arlington Cemetery

Arlington WreathsI like cemeteries, I guess I always have. I’m a history buff, and cemeteries are full of that. They became even more interesting to me when I took up genealogy as a hobby about seven years ago and began tracking down the final resting places of distant family members. But I don’t necessarily need to know someone there to enjoy a cemetery. The history of them, and the feeling that even if strangers, the visit and the remembrance is appreciated, is reason enough for me to explore a graveyard.

Having lived in the DC area for 22 years now, I’ve been to Arlington National Cemetery on a number of occasions. You can’t go there and not be awestruck by the sight of the uniform rows upon rows of white headstones. I’ve been their as tourist, tour guide, and as a staff aide (at a memorable memorial service for RFK that is a whole nother story).

But recently, Arlington has stopped being just a resting place for strangers, or famous people I knew of, but who never knew me. This summer, two people I knew, and who knew me, were buried at Arlington. I can’t claim to have been especially close with either of them. One was an employer, the the other a co-worker in the same employ. Friendly acquaintances at best. Regardless, I knew them.

Edward Moore KennedyI worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy for three years as the computer geek in his Senate office in the early ’90s. The world was abuzz with this new ‘Internet’ thing, and Sen. Kennedy appreciated the possibilities enough to let me help bring him online, and in doing so he gave me a career. Working for Sen. Kennedy grants you membership to an alumni association for life. At the annual Kennedy Christmas parties, which doubled as staff reunions, former co-workers would reminisce, swap their current business cards, enjoy the costumed skits that were the hi-light of these events, and then angle for a few moments of face time to share a holiday hello with EMK. I’m remembering now, one year when the Senator had performed as Barney, and afterwards, my wife Jennifer and I speaking briefly with him, still wearing his purple dinosaur costume with only the head removed.

Last August I joined hundreds of fellow current and former Kennedy and Senate staffers on the step of the U.S. Senate, to pay our final respects as Senator Kennedy’s funeral motorcade stopped briefly on it’s way to his final resting place at Arlington.

Bill Cahir was exactly the sort of person I could expect to run into at Sen. Kennedy’s annual Christmas parties. We had both worked for Kennedy at about the same time. After the Hill, Bill worked as a reporter, but after the attacks of 9/11 he enlisted in the Marines at the age of 34 and served two tours in Iraq. He returned and ran for Congress, during which I did some work on his campaign and re-connected for a short time. He lost that election, and deployed to Afghanistan in the spring of 2009. Bill was killed on August 13 at age 40. Earlier this week, his wife gave birth to their twin daughters.

The day after Thanksgiving, my daughter Katie and I visited Arlington Cemetery. We were tourists, visiting Arlington House for a National Park Service Passport cancellation. We were volunteers, tracking down and photographing a few headstones to fulfill requests on the Find-a-Grave web site. We were students, searching out how many different religious symbols we could spot. And we were mourners, visiting Sen. Kennedy and Sgt. Cahir’s graves. Two guys I kinda knew. Bill was just a little more than three years younger than me. Not far from his grave in Section 60, we found another recent burial of a young woman just three years older than Katie. We both fell silent at that realization.

William John CahirToday I returned to Arlington to participate as a volunteer in an event that’s taken place since 1992, the laying of holiday wreaths on graves. I imagined a few dozen people working feverishly, walking rows of graves in the designated sections, quickly leaving a wreath at each. And so it caught me by surprise to find I was one of 6,000 volunteers who showed up at eight am on a cold Saturday morning to pay their respects and place a few wreaths. I placed a few in section 31, one of five sections selected this year, on which approximately 16,000 wreaths were laid. Then I took three wreaths and set off to find the three graves for which I sought to fulfill a Find-a-Grave photo request, one Civil War veteran who died in 1902, and two casualties of the Vietnam war. I went just one for three in my hunt, but the gentleman who had requested a grave photo of his pilot training classmate, Capt David Carl Lindberg, was very appreciative for my photo and to learn I had left a wreath.

And on the way out, I again visited Bill, because I kinda knew the guy. And I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go to Arlington again without visiting him and paying my respects.

For further reading:

Letter to the Unborn Twins of a Fallen Marine
Politics Daily, 8/31/09

‘In a few months…this could be us’
The Washington Post, 12/12/09

200 Days – Happy Birthday America!

Peoria R25Greetings from Glasford, Illinois! We’re here visiting my in-laws over the holiday weekend, and really enjoying the summertime change of pace. I’ve just returned from a nice 5.43 mile long morning run along country roads like the one shown here (without any stopping!), and now after some muffins for breakfast and helping Dad with some yardwork, I expect we’ll visit the old family farm this afternoon and find some fireworks to watch tonight. I have also done some good family hunting this week, tracking down many distant relatives of my wife’s in Glendale Cemetery in Washington, Illinois, and posting the results online at Find-a-Grave.

But the best part of all?? We only have to endure 200 more days of Bush!

Greetings from Hopkinsville, Kentucky!


Hanging out with cousins at the Round Table Literary Park in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. We’re all in town for Uncle David’s wedding tomorrow, and we’ve given ourselves some time to take in some local sights.

A large mural of Edgar Cayce at the local O’Charley’s restuarant has me curious to learn more about Hopkinsville’s favorite son. I will try and make it to the local museum to learn more, but here’s the Straight Dope’s version.

And then of course, we have to get David and Becky married tomorrow as well.

Greetings from I-81


We’re heading southwest across Virginia, on our way to Uncle David’s wedding this weekend in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Currently we’re approaching Lexington, Virginia. Stay tuned for updates.

Update: Hello from the Holiday Inn Express in Dandridge, Tennessee. Pity the poor people who are doomed to hear me say all day tomorrow, “No, I’m not a brain surgeon, but I DID stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night”. To them, I apologize in advance.

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