Monday, April 12, 2010
I know, I know … you’re sick of hearing about social media platforms. Twitter makes you nauseous, and you consider Facebook, at best, a necessary evil. Never mind Google Wave, Google Buzz and whatever Google-stein monster they’ll be stitching together next in the bandwagon laboratory.
So I understand your skepticism when I come to you with news of the Next Big Thing (For This Week) in online social networking: Foursquare. It’s about to surpass 1 million users, has had fawning writeups in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and is valued as a corporation at $60 to $70 million.
Considering that kind of hype, I understand your skepticism when I tell you Foursquare is kind of fun. Whether it becomes an indispensable part of your daily life or the Friendster of 2010, only time will tell.
What it does
Foursquare is a smartphone-centric application that allows you to mark your current location using the GPS on your iPhone, Blackberry, Google Phone or what have you. They call this “checking in” — where, when and with what frequency you check in is voluntary.
Foursquare isn’t constantly posting your location in real-time so that the Illuminati’s black helicopters can find you. Only those people invited to be your friends, similar to friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter, can see your check-ins (there’s a pretty convenient function that automatically cross-references your e-mail, Facebook and Twitter accounts to help you quickly build a list of Foursquare friends).
Once you check in, that information is then shared on the Foursquare network. From there you can do a number of things:
- Find out the exact location and activities of other Foursquare users, which was conceived primarily to let friends find each other and designate a meeting place. Those users, in turn, can find out your exact location.
- See what establishments are nearby (restaurants, bars, museums, parks, etc.), complete with user reviews, directions and which Foursquare users are currently in those establishments.
- Be alerted by those nearby establishments, if they participate in Foursquare, of daily specials or other promotions.
- Turn your life into a giant role-playing game.
Merit badges, but warped
It’s that last feature which could potentially elevate Foursquare above slightly useful curio into life-consuming obsession. Foursquare keeps track of where you go, how often you visit certain places and generally keeps an unblinking eye trained on your every move.
Based on that compiled data you can earn points, badges and titles. It’s really similar to playing Dungeons & Dragons or World of Warcraft (I think we’ve firmly established that I’m a nerd by now, so knock off the snickering), in that you can incrementally level-up and increase your status. Except instead of pretending to be an axe-wielding dwarf or a sylphic elf woman, you’re just you in the never-ending campaign of your life. It can be argued whether that is more or less depressing.
For example, back to the point system, the first night I tried Foursquare I got five points just for my inaugural check-in, five points for my first check-in at a particular venue and a single point for every subsequent check-in at that venue. Again, kind of like gaining hit-points in a role-playing game (seriously, stop laughing). These points are accumulated throughout the week and posted online. In the future, Foursquare suggests you might be able to use those points as currency or barter in participating establishments, but as of right now they’re just for bragging rights.
Also appealing to your competitive streak, you can unlock different badges. These micro-trophies range from the Bender Badge — “won” for visiting bars four nights in a row — or the Don’t Stop Believin Badge, “earned” for checking in at three different karaoke bars. These have the same appeal as Xbox Achievements (now you’re just being mean with the giggling), acting as warped Boy and Girl Scout merit badges. There are only 16 badges as of right now, but Foursquare plans to expand that number exponentially.
Lastly, and perhaps most addictive to your senses of vanity and conquest, Foursquare can anoint you “mayor” of a place. This coveted title is awarded when you become the person who checks in the most at an establishment.
So if your favorite coffee shop is La Prima Tazza, and you go in there multiple times a day, you could very well be the Foursquare Mayor of La Prima Tazza. It is a title with no legal standing, but the competition is cutthroat. Some Foursquare affiliates are actually providing tangible benefits to their mayors, giving them discounts on food at restaurants or free tickets at movie theaters. Looking at you, La Parilla and Liberty Hall ...
So, yeah, in a nutshell, Foursquare is Twitter if all you did on Twitter was tell people where you were. It’s got plenty more bells and doo-dads, of course, but that’s the easiest way to wrap your head around it.
And also like Twitter, Foursquare has plenty of detractors. Influential media blog Gawker declared in a recent headline, “If You Use Foursquare, You Are an Annoying Jackass.” They call the service and its users “narcissistic,” predicting Foursquare will soon fade into obscurity.
Other critics wonder of the potential dangers in letting the entire universe know where you are at all times. This concern spawned a site called Please Rob Me that reposts location updates on Foursquare and Twitter to let potential burglars know when you’re not home. The proprietors of Please Rob Me insist it’s satire and meant to “raise awareness of over-sharing” — but they’ve since halted posting this info after a woman in Indiana claimed a thief targeted her house based on a Facebook status update.
This sort of sniping, in almost identical language, is lobbed at every social media service. The whole point of social media is to get yourself out in the world and have your voice heard, by definition a narcissistic and public endeavor.
If anything, Foursquare should be applauded for being the first social media service to encourage you to actually socialize. It rewards you for putting down the Wii-mote and getting out of the dungeon. So the true test for Foursquare won’t be if it can deflect those sorts of rehashed attacks, but if it can outlast the initial hype and turn first-timers into depraved junkies.
I can’t say that I’ve yet got the cold sweats from riding the Foursquare dragon, but I am quite curious to unlock that Trainspotter Badge.