How Foursquare Works

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Courtesy Foursquare

Devices like smartphones and GPS receivers are enjoying unprecedented popularity in the consumer market. The Apple iPhone broke new ground in the smartphone consumer market and has established a new industry in smartphone applications. The combination of these factors has inspired dozens of developers to create innovative games and applications for handheld devices.

Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai are two such developers. Crowley has a history with Web applications -- he developed a mobile device service called Dodgeball. The idea behind Dodgeball was simple: First, you text your current location to the Dodgeball service. The service would then send that information to other Dodgeball members in the area. The idea was that you could use the service to meet up with old friends or make new ones while out on the town.

Google purchased the Dodgeball service in 2005, but eventually shut it down. Crowley didn't let the setback discourage him. Instead, he worked with Selvadurai to develop a new service called Foursquare. It bears some similarity to the earlier Dodgeball application but has its own set of features that make it unique.

Foursquare doesn't just broadcast your location to other users. It also serves as a game, pairing virtual rewards with real activities. Users earn badges as they visit different spots. Visit one location enough times and you become the mayor. You can use Foursquare to meet new friends, find out who else is in your area or compete against other people in your city.


The Basics of Foursquare

Opening up Foursquare on your Android phone brings up a selection of businesses that are near you.
Opening up Foursquare on your Android phone brings up a selection of businesses that are near you.
Courtesy Foursquare

The first thing you should do before joining Foursquare is check to see if they cover your city. Upon its initial release, Foursquare had coverage for just 12 cities. The founders continue to add more cities to the service; however, if your city isn't on the list, the application won't be very useful.

Assuming your city is covered, all you have to do to create an account is visit the Foursquare Web site. There you'll fill out a simple online form to get your free account. You can also upload a photo to act as your account's avatar. Now you're ready to use Foursquare!

The way you use Foursquare depends on the type of phone you use. If you have an iPhone or Android-based phone, you can download an application that takes care of everything for you. Foursquare founders say they hope to have applications for other smartphone operating systems like Palm's WebOS or the BlackBerry OS in the near future. If your smartphone isn't supported but has Web-surfing capabilities, you can visit Foursquare's Web site. If you're stuck with a regular cell phone, you can still use Foursquare. Just send a text message to Foursquare's SMS code of 50500.

Let's say you have an Android smartphone with a Foursquare app installed. How do you use it? You need to hit the town and visit a location. That location could be a bar, restaurant, club or just about anything else. You'd activate your Foursquare app, which taps into your Android phone's GPS receiver to get an idea about where you are. The app will pull up a list of locations near you. You choose the one that you'll be visiting and the app updates your status.

Update your status at a location enough times and you become the mayor of that spot. Visit enough locations -- or enough of the same type of location -- and you may earn a badge. If your friends also have Foursquare they can see your updates and keep track of what's going on. You might even meet up with them later in the night as you converge on a particular location.

Foursquare Features

After you check in, Foursquare marks your location on a map, allowing friends to find you if they're in the neighborhood.
After you check in, Foursquare marks your location on a map, allowing friends to find you if they're in the neighborhood.
Courtesy Foursquare

The first time you use Foursquare to check in to a location you'll earn a Newbie badge. This is just one of several badges in Foursquare. It's not hard to figure out how to earn some of the badges. For example, visit the same spot several times in a month and you'll earn the Local badge. But others may be more of a challenge. The founders plan to add more badges to the service over time and solicit user suggestions.

One of the ways you earn badges is by visiting locations that have been tagged with specific traits. Let's say you visit several places in your town that are known to be popular with fraternity members -- you may earn yourself the Animal House badge. The founders depend upon the input of the community to tag locations accurately. It's possible that a location's features could change over time -- if it does you may earn a different badge after a few visits.

Users can also submit tips and notes about locations. Let's say you've decided to visit your favorite burger joint. You happen to know their mushroom bacon burger is amazing. You can check in using Foursquare and add in a tip to let others know about your favorite burger.

Since users submit the tips, you could end up seeing all sorts of information about different locations. It doesn't all have to be positive either. If you think the music a certain club plays is six months behind the times, you can pop into Foursquare and share your thoughts. The service has the potential to be both a social networking application and a review application.

The founders of Foursquare hope to form partnerships with various restaurants, clubs and other sites to offer special benefits to Foursquare members. For example, a restaurant might offer up a free appetizer to its Foursquare mayor. One potential obstacle for this approach is that it would be easy to game the system. While the Foursquare app on the iPhone and Android platforms can use the GPS receiver in phones to search for nearby locations, you don't have to rely on GPS to check in. You could be sitting at home while remotely checking in to locations around the city. If restaurants and other companies hand out real rewards to Foursquare members, you can expect some people will cheat.

Behind the Scenes at Foursquare

You can earn Foursquare badges by checking in to different kinds of locations.
You can earn Foursquare badges by checking in to different kinds of locations.
Courtesy Foursquare

Foursquare isn't a huge operation -- on the back end it's just three employees running the business. How can three people build such an application? It requires lots of partnerships.

The Foursquare founders came up with the concept and created an application programming interface (API). They made this API available to developers for various platforms like smartphones. Before long, developers eager to work with the API built applications for the iPhone and the Android operating system. Foursquare employees didn't have to code the applications themselves, freeing them to work on other aspects of the service.

A major challenge for Foursquare is obtaining data about cities to store on the application's servers. In order to support a particular city, Foursquare has to collect and organize geotagged data. The employees reach out to several companies to flesh out each regional database. The process isn't necessarily speedy. On launch, Foursquare supported 12 cities. After a few months, the number of cities expanded to more than 20.

The founders chose to launch Foursquare at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. The conference is a multimedia event with programming tracks for movies, music and interactive software. Unleashing Foursquare at SXSW proved to be an effective strategy -- bloggers, journalists and others used the service to check in at various spots and keep tabs on what other people were doing. Many of them wrote about their experiences with the service and gave it an initial viral marketing boost.

Foursquare has some notable investors. One is Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of the popular Web service Twitter. Another investor is Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg. As more people adopt the service it will become increasingly valuable. If the founders can build a viable business model the investment could prove to be a savvy one.

In the meantime, Foursquare evangelists will continue to lure new members to the service. As more people take advantage of Foursquare, it becomes richer and more robust. And since anyone with a phone can play for free, the member roster will likely continue to grow.

Learn more about Web services and social networking by following the links on the next page.

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