How the latest social-networking craze could change the way you choose your boozer
Foursquare? Is that like a set square?
Not quite. It's an online service that allows users to create an online record of the places they've been and things they've done.
The point of which is?
To encourage you to explore your local area and share your favourite places with your friends and find out about new things to do in a particular area that you might otherwise have missed. Foursquare likens the service to an "urban mix tape". It's part city guide, part mobile social network, part game. There's around a million users who have made more than 40 million 'check-ins' - so it's being talked about as the next big thing.
How long has it been about?
The service was started by entrepreneurs Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai in 2009. Crowley previously worked for Google and was behind location-based service Dodgeball, which Google bought in 2005. Foursquare initially covered 100 metropolitan areas in the US and Europe but was extended across the globe in January 2010.
So how does it work?
Once you've signed up to Foursquare you can 'check in' to places using your smartphone. Checking in simply means that when you visit a location - a bar, café, museum and so on - you can let people know that you're there by checking in via your mobile phone and leaving a comment, for example: '@The Red Lion, enjoying a pint of real ale'.
How do I check in?
You just need to login to the service using the Foursquare mobile phone app for phones equipped with web browsers - so iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Palm devices. You can also use the service if your phone doesn't have a browser by sending an SMS to a shortcode number, although the service is currently only available in the US.
In order to check in you can find the place you're in by manually searching for it or by using a list of local venues which is generated on GPS-enabled phones.
Once you've checked in, your Foursquare buddies will be able to see where you are and come to meet you. Much like Facebook or Twitter you can search for friends and then make requests to connect with them. You'll also see who else you know is in the area and go to find them, if you so fancy.
So all you do is check in?
You can also leave tips for other people that check in at the same place. A tip might be a recommendation from a restaurant menu or a good place to head after a meal. Foursquare will also provide suggestions of where else you might want to visit in the vicinity.
But what if I'm feeling unsociable?
You can set up your Foursquare account so it doesn't alert your friends when you check in somewhere - but where's the fun in that?
OK, so what if I'm feeling particularly sociable?
If you check in frequently enough or enter new venue information you can become a 'superuser'. This allows you to do more things on Foursquare such as edit venue information, add venue categories and merge duplicate venue listings and delete fake or spam listings.
And if you become the person who has checked in at a particular location more than anyone else, you become the Foursquare 'mayor' for that place.
Of course, if someone else visits the place more than you they will take your mantle as mayor, creating a competitive side to the service.
There can be advantages to being mayor - some companies offer incentives or 'specials' such as free...
...drinks, hotel stays or discounts on products to people while they're mayor. Businesses can also create specials for people who check in regularly or who check in a certain amount of times.
So as well as being a bit of fun for users, the mayor system could also in theory fuel more trade for businesses getting involved with Foursquare.
Are there any more gaming-style elements to it?
There certainly are. You can earn points by completing various tasks: for example, if you find a new place that no one else has been to, you win five points. If you check in at more than one location in an evening, you win two points, while taking your Foursquare friends to a venue earns you a point.
You can also earn badges, much like in the world of gaming. Badges can be awarded for anything from visiting an interesting place to going to the gym a certain amount of times in a week or getting friendly with your local fast food eateries - you can earn the Pizzaiolo badge if you've checked in at 20 pizzerias, for example.
So if I'm a pizza seller or a gym, I can use Foursquare to get more consumers coming my way. Are there any other ways businesses can use Foursquare to promote their services and encourage people to spend money with them?
Yep. We've already covered how venues can provide incentives for Foursquare mayors but other ways in which Foursquare could be used to boost business might be for tourist attractions to offer visitors discounts on their next visit if they check in.
Another use could be for a business to market itself as a top choice by Foursquare users. As the service is fuelled by user recommendations, it could well mean more people are encouraged to use the services that the business provides.
Which big names are currently working with Foursquare then?
The Wall Street Journal has teamed up with Foursquare to offer tips about New York as well as badges for exploring certain places within the five boroughs of the city.
Another example is MTV which lets users who become friends with the music network see which celebrities have checked in on its biggest shows such as Real World or The Hills as well as share their tips for the best music hang-outs where they are.
Sounds pretty groovy. So what other elements are there to Foursquare?
Users can compile their top 12 venues and create a to-do list of places they want to visit next. There are also history and stat sections on Foursquare through which you can monitor your own activity. This could be useful if you were arranging an offsite business meeting in a particular area and you want to go to places you've enjoyed before or that have been recommended by friends.
As you would expect with a social application you can also link your Foursquare account to your Facebook and Twitter feeds so that more people can keep track of places you've enjoyed frequenting and potentially join Foursquare.
Sounds like it could catch on...
It's one of the first services using location in this way to catch on - but there will be plenty of competition coming soon. Watch this space.