Checking in with FourSquare

June 17, 2010

What is FourSquare?  This fairly new social network has been popping up on my radar multiple times over the past few months, prompting me to ask, what is this network?  What does it offer, what makes it different than all the other social networks?

FourSquare was founded in part by David Crowley, one of the creators of Dodgeball, a Google location application that died not long after it was implemented.  Launched last spring at the 2009 SXSW Interactive, FourSquare expounds on the platform of other social networks like Facebook and Twitter by adding a location based focus.  Facebook asks "what are you doing?" FourSquare asks "where are you?"

This is the concept: users connect with friends by checking in at locations (coffee shops, venues, retail stores) and by leaving tips and suggestions for each other.  For example, I'm at the Monon Coffee Shop so I check in, either alerting just my friends or the general public.  My friend Joe, sees I am there and sends me a tip, "you've got yo try a homemade granola bar" or something.  I have the granola bar and a soy vanilla latte which I think is great, so I leave a tip for others - "best vanilla latte ever."  A game-like aspect kicks in here.  FourSquare awards points for every check in and tip and collected points turn into badges.  Additional points are awarded for visiting new places, traveling to different parts of the city, completing "to do" lists and getting other users to tryout your tips.  Points are taken away for being less adventurous or only visiting the same places or areas over and over.  On top of this, the person who visits a location the most becomes the "mayor" of that location.  FourSquare encourages businesses to offer rewards and incentives for people to become the mayor.  For example, if I frequent the India Garden twice a week and became the mayor, they would reward me with a free beverage or lunch buffet.  However, I must continue to visit that location if I want to maintain my mayoral position as anyone could unseat me at anytime by overcoming my number of check ins.  A little confusing, yes, but the game-like aspect has the potential to create camaraderie and competition, both of which would positively affect local businesses.

This year, on their one-year anniversary, FourSquare returned to SXSW Interactive boasting 500,000 users and 1.4 million participating locations.  Over the ten day period surrounding SXSW, FourSquare added over 100,000 users, double the amount of their main competition GoWalla, another location based social network with a very similar goal.  GoWalla is just one of the many new social network companies springing up on the web.  Loopt, MyTown and Brightkite are among the other main competitors, but none of these sites offer the same gaming atmosphere as FourSquare.  The best aspect of all of these networks lies in the possibilities they create for business promotion.  Facebook is great as a social base of operations, but FourSquare allows you to become a destination.  A small coffee shop like the Monon can became a local destination on FourSquare and receive free promotion from users all over the city that check in when they visit.  Factor in promotions and incentives for frequent customers and you create vast opportunies for business awareness and advertising.  It's a win-win situation all around.

The overall concept is interesting, I can learn what my friends are doing and what they like, I can try out their tips and maybe find something new, I can help my friends try new things and at the same time participate in a little friendly competition and reap some real-life rewards.  Not bad.  However, I can't help but to ask...why? Do we really need another site to update every day?  It's true that the benefits of becoming a mayor are appealing, but most business offer rewards programs or incentives for returning customers anyway.  FourSquare counters concerns about privacy by asserting that users can limit their notifications to be viewed only by actual friends or by offering "check in" without posting to the site.  While this helps to calm my fears about stalkers and creeps following me around, it doesn't completely calm my fears about privacy invasion - FourSquare still knows where I am and what I'm doing and catalogs it all in a database about me.  Maybe I'm more skittish than the average user, maybe I'm technology resistant, maybe I just want to keep my business to myself.  But for all those people out there looking for a little friendly competition, maybe some companionship and a chance to earn a virtual badge, FourSquare is the newest, shiniest social network for you.

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