By the time you read this, Foursquare ( may already have hit the million-member mark. In early 2010, the service was claiming 725,000 users and 22 million check-ins, but it was also adding 10–20 thousand new members daily. And rumors were flying that Yahoo! might acquire it. Not bad for a service not yet two years old.

Foursquare debuted at the 2009 South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) technology conference (where Twitter was launched two years earlier), and reportedly took the event by storm. It was founded by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai. Back in 2000, when Crowley was a student at New York University, he and classmate Alex Rainert started a location-sharing service called Dodgeball, which was a text-message-based social-networking service that earned a respectable following. Google acquired Dodgeball in 2005, but discontinued the service in 2009, and later launched its own location sharing service.

Friend Finder Meets City Guide Meets Game

The Foursquare website describes the free service as “a cross between a friend-finder, a social city guide, and a game that rewards you for doing interesting things.” Users can access the Foursquare website from their desktop computers, but the service also provides applications that can be downloaded into an iPhone, BlackBerry, Android device, or a Palm Pre. You can also access the Foursquare mobile website from another type of phone and check in with a text message (sent to 50500). Mobile phones play a critical role in location sharing. They are, in fact, the preferred computing platform for this type of application.

Once you've joined the Foursquare community, you register your locations by “checking in” when you arrive somewhere. The service then uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) on your phone to verify your locale and let your friends know where you are. The service also uses GPS to show a list of nearby places that might be of interest — everything from movie theaters to coffee shops to dentists' offices.

Originally, the Foursquare service was limited to a few major cities, but it now claims to be available from anywhere in the world. Keep in mind that Foursquare doesn't actually track your location via satellite. It's not following you around like Big Brother or Skynet. It only knows where you are when you check in. The service even allows you to check in “off the grid,” which means you use the service without sharing your location.

Tips and To-Dos

Location sharing services are part of the social media landscape because they add an important capability to social networking. But even if you ignored the social component, these services would fit securely under the social media umbrella, because their users are also adding content to the web. On Foursquare, that content takes the form of “Tips” and “To-Dos.”

All Foursquare users are free — make that encouraged — to comment on the places from which they check in. These comments generally come in two forms. Tips are recommendations along the lines of: “Rent a paddle boat and swing around the lake during lunch!” or “Be sure to try the chicken kabobs.” When you arrive at a place, the service displays tips related to that venue. And there are To-Dos, which Foursquare describes as “notes to self.” These might be: “Remember to rent a paddle boat next time.”

Turning Real Life Into a Game

After its debut, the service took off like a rocket in a product category that had previously seen only modest growth and user interest. Social-media mavens suspect that it's Foursquare's gaming component that sparked its warp-speed growth. In April 2010, Crowley told Tim Adams of The Observer, “A lot of our group had grown up with Super Mario, and they wondered about the possibility of turning life into a game. Getting rewards for adventures just like Mario did on screen.”

The service adds up your checkins and uses them to calculate points. You get five points each time you check-in at a place for the first time. If you checkin at a place that no one else using the service has been to, effectively adding a new venue, you get five points. You also get one point per check-in for every place you register, and one additional point with each check-in at that venue.

Points also earn “badges.” Everyone gets a badge for their first check-in (it's called a Newbie Badge), but you can also earn an Adventurer Badge for checking in at ten different places; an Explorer Badges for checking in at twenty-five different places; and a Superstar Badge, for checking in at fifty different places. You get the Bender Badge for checking in at the same place four nights in a row; the Crunked Badge for checking in four times in one night; the Player Please! Badge for checking in with three members of the opposite sex; the Gym Rat Badge for checking in to a gym ten times in thirty days; the Jetsetter Badge for checking in at five different airports; and so on.

In the spring of 2010, Foursquare joined forces with the Wall Street Journal to offer users of the location-sharing service New York-specific badges. At about the same time, Gowalla teamed up with the Kentucky Courier-Journal to create special tours designed to help celebrants make the most of the annual Kentucky Derby.

Think of badges as stickers on your travel trunk. And Foursquare is always adding new ones.

And if you check-in from a place more than anyone else has — even if it's only once or twice — you become “mayor” of that venue. Bars, cafes, restaurants, and other businesses hoping to attract customer traffic through Foursquare are beginning to offer “Mayor Discounts,” or “Mayor Specials” — things like a free slice of pizza or discounts on lattes. As of this writing, Four-square is “experimenting with how points can turn into real-world rewards,” and soliciting suggestions from its members.

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