Foursquare: New apps, new businesses, nixed rumors... why aren't you playing yet?

Foursquare is part friend finder, part social city guide and part socializing game. It also provides small businesses a way to benefit from social media.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

One of my most shameful grade school moments occurred during a recess game of foursquare. There I stood, bright eyed and hopeful, when a mean girl on the playground called me "L'ego my Ego" -- my most torturous childhood nickname. I snapped. I threw that foursquare ball directly at her. Target hit. I was never allowed to play foursquare at school again. I was a sad young Jennifer.

Fortunately, Dennis Crowley and his team changed my fate. I now play Foursquare all of the time. At home, at work, at a restaurant, while traveling. They've put Foursquare at my fingertips. Sure, it may not be the same as the playground antics, but even in Crowley's version of Foursquare allows me to win every once in a while. Or at least, become mayor.

Launched during this year's South By Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), Foursquare, according to co-creator Crowley, is part friend finder, part social city guide and part socializing game. It's a location-based social network that some might describe it as "a cross between Brightkite and Twitter," but I think that only touches what Foursquare can do. The social network allows you to check in your location via an iPhone application or mobile browser, create a "to do" list based on your friends' completed activities and recommendation, find locations and things to do, and so on.

As for the mayorship I mentioned, that's where the game part comes in. Each time you check into a location or add a new venue and check in you receive "points" and maybe even a badge if you reach a predefined milestone. Each week there's a new leaderboard in which you compete with your friends as well as your city at large for the most points. Once you check into a location more than any other person you become mayor of that location -- at least until someone out-visits you!

Next: How can this be used for business? -->

It sounds silly, right? I'll say the same thing that I said to people a couple years ago when they scoffed at Twitter: "Don't knock it until you try it." It's likely the hottest thing since Twitter (OK, maybe other than FriendFeed). I am addicted, and while I was initially down on the idea of Foursquare, it's now become part of my motivation for doing and trying new things. Really. Look:

You might think this sounds like a huge waste of time and that it will never take off. But remember when people used to go to events and immediately pull out their smart phones and tweet about it? Nope, not anymore (though it all integrates with Twitter if you want it to). When I was at a Gnomedex party in Seattle a couple weekends ago, we all whipped out our smart phones and checked in on Foursquare. Then we talked about which badges we had, what venues we've become mayor of, which badges we're aspiring to get, and eventually, what cool places we like to visit. Foursquare actually sparks social dialogue. And, you can even find out who else happens to be at the same place as you at any given moment. And if you check in somewhere and want some company, you can issue a "shout out" to your friends.

"We're trying to build something with technology that makes life more interesting," Crowley said. "At the very least it can make random Tuesdays much more fun."

Some people still just don't get it, as location-based social networks have yet to skyrocket. Crowley, who created Dodgeball and later sold it to Google, is familiar with this challenge.

"It's the Dodgeball problem. Dodgeball was very early but at the same time it was a crappy one-player experience," Crowley said. "Foursquare was designed to help you connect with friends but has the selfish purpose of helping you find out what to do next, plus the game elements. It's a better one-player experience. Sharing is only one part of it."

So what does this all have to do with social business? Think about it. This is a huge opportunities for small businesses to get into the social media game. Some venues have already started offering promotions for people who are "mayors" of certain locations, or offer drink specials for those who go there and check in on Foursquare. It's free word-of-mouth advertising for the venues, and it's a way to instantly reach out to trusted networks. Sure, this can be done via Twitter, too, but with Twitter there's no hunger for points, badges and mayorship. Smart businesses are taking advantage of the game to promote their offering.

"Traditionally when you think of the success of social apps, it's because people can take over the app and make it their own," Crowley said. "We're seeing that with how the venues are informally using it to drive more people into their businesses."

Next: Crowley squelches Yelp, Twitter rumors -->

Crowley said that the Foursquare team has it's eyes set on three major goals: make it work on more devices, make it work in more cities, and eventually, make it work anywhere.

While many venues are taking advantage of this service, and Foursquare is actually now working formally with some venues on some promotions, Crowley said there are no nearterm plans to turn this into a monetization model. However, they are working on some tools for venues by the way of stats. Crowley can currently see things such as who is going to which venues, how often, etc., but soon hopes to share that data with venues who participate in Foursquare promotions.

As with any new cool social network, the pundits start to make declarations. There've been comparisons to Yelp (Robert Scoble even said on Twitter that Yelp should buy Foursquare). There've been people saying that Foursquare is a "Twitter killer." Yet none of these things resonate with the Foursquare team.

"Foursquare is not a Twitter replacement," Crowley said. "It's something that augments Twitter. Twitter is drinking from the firehose and you have to make filters that make sense of all of the noise. Foursquare is more about specific places and specific times, yet we feed into Twitter if people want to use it as part of their networks."

As for the Yelp conversation, Crowley said they already have reviews with the "tips section," though admits that piece is ripe for a UX overhaul. In terms of an exit strategy that includes becoming part of Yelp, not so fast.

"No official comment, but we're not ready to do an acquisition this early," he said. "We had a real early exit with Dodgeball and it hurt the product.  There's so much we can build and innovate on very quickly right now and I think we're best doing that independently."

There were also some questions as to how Twitter's announcement of imminent geolocation might affect Foursquare.

"It's great! Now we have a whole data set of tweets to play with!" Crowley said. "We've known about this for a while and have been looking forward to it forever. There's a big opportunity to apply geo filters on the twitter dataset... if you think about it. That's kind of what Foursquare is doing already, but now we can add extra data around check-ins / places by pulling from the geo-API."

The downsides of Foursquare? It's only available in a limited number of cities. Visibility into what friends are doing outside of your current home city is limited. And there's no way to create different types of groups (i.e. folks I want to tell where I am all the time vs. those I only want to know where I am during certain outings).

The other challenge of Foursquare is the use if you do NOT have an iPhone. I happen to be a BlackBerry loyalist so right now I am suffering through the mobile Web browser. Crowley has assured me that the BlackBerry application should be completed within the next couple of months. And users of Google Android can rest assured as well -- that app was released today.

All of that said, it's fun. Find friends via Twitter and Facebook. And businesses who want to drive foot traffic during a digital age would be smart to get on the Foursquare bandwagon.

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