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Foursquare: Urban life as a game

Rory Cellan-Jones | 09:13 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010

I've just seen the future of social networking at a company which is going to make its founder unimaginably rich. Or I've just met a man who thinks the whole world behaves like young New Yorkers and that is going to prove his undoing. I really can't make up my mind about Dennis Crowley and his location-based social network Foursquare.

Screengrab of Rory's Foursquare app


Just like Twitter, Foursquare used the SXSW technology and music festival in Texas as a launchpad - Dennis and his team pitched up there in 2009 and were a big hit. Since then they've steadily built a following and when I visited their offices in New York's East Village I was told  that more than five million people were now using the network, 40% of them outside the USA.

If you think the future of social networking is mobile and location-based then Foursquare might be the business that shows the way forward, Here's how it works - when you sign up, you install an app on your smartphone. Then, whenever you go somewhere, you "check in", notifying your Foursquare friends of your location. At each location you can win points or badges, and if you become the most frequent visitor you will be crowned the mayor of that place.

Dennis Crowley and his circle of New York friends had already tried this idea out with a service called Dodgeball, launched before smartphones became commonplace. "That was how we kept up with people. We felt like were living in the future. We knew that if we could make that work for a larger population of users that could be a very popular service."

But he realised that something more was needed to make this network take off, and the team started asking itself some questions:

"How do you turn life into a game, how do you crowd-source your experience of the city, how do you get rewarded for going out and seeking out new experiences?"
Dennis Crowley


So  Foursquare is half game, half social network, but what's really unusual is that it appears to have had a business model built in right from the start. The idea is that shops, restaurants and other local services will reward Foursquare users who check in frequently with special offers - and will then in turn reward the network for bringing in extra customers. Dennis Crowley explained this:

"Every check-in is like a loyalty flag - I went to a pizza place round the corner and checked in, I went to a coffee place this morning and checked in. And as those repetitive behaviours happen my friends learn  about the places I go to, and the merchants understand that I'm a regular customer."

And the whole mayorship thing becomes very competitive, with users determined to be top of the heap, whether it be at the sushi restaurant, or the coffee stop, or maybe their gym.

The trouble is that most of us live rather duller lives than Dennis and other young New Yorkers. I asked what the point would be, for instance, of me checking into the supermarket every week:

"You could do it for your own personal history, to say I've been there ten times." And he admitted he did it himself: "I actually check in at the supermarket to compete with this guy who's got the mayorship there."

What Foursquare is trying to do is turn the dull parts of our lives in the city, as well as the more exciting aspects, into a mobile social game. I remain sceptical that there is a wide audience for this, but as the song goes, they all laughed at Christopher Columbus, and, as Dennis Crowley reminded me, they laughed at the idea of other social networks too: "Look at Twitter - who's going to want to share what they're thinking all the time, look at Facebook, who wants to connect with all these people?"

My visit to Foursquare was one of the last stops on my journey around the world of social networking for a forthcoming series on Radio 4. On the way, I've been reminded of the power of this new mode of communication, as a way of sharing information and connecting with friends, old and new.

Last night, for instance, I went to dinner with some New York friends who only knew I was in town via my Facebook status updates. Across the United States Twitter followers have given me all sorts of handy tips about people to meet and things to see. 

But it's now, as I try to return home to my family in snowbound Britain for Christmas, that networking is really beginning to matter. I've started anxiously following Twitter feeds like @HeathrowAirport and @UnitedAirlines to work out whether my flight on Wednesday evening from New York's Newark to London really is going to take off. 

Even better, I've been able to crowd-source information from friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter who are attempting the same kind of journey or are just eager to help. So here's hoping that I will soon be checking in at home - I think that may be one place where I can still be the mayor.


  • Comment number 1.

    Another node in the continuing privatisation and expansion of government surveillance.

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting thoughts on FourSquare. I have been trialling it for a few months and I can see the potential for restaurants, bars, hotels and tourist attractions. Welcome to Yorkshire is using it really well. However, I do agree with you that most of us lead duller lives than your average young New Yorker and I can't see FourSquare taking off in your average UK market town. I am now irritated by the competitive nature of Mayorships and don't care that someone has ousted me as Mayor of my local Waitrose. Nor do I understand why people are constantly checking into their own workplaces or homes.

  • Comment number 3.

    Mayor of your own home? In your dreams: you're at the back of the line behind your partner, kids and the dog ;-)

    Merry Xmas, Rory - you've been a constant tech guide over the last year, and I'm grateful for that.

    Hope you and the family have a great 2011.

  • Comment number 4.

    As widely spoken by many in the Tech world, there will be a massive backlash agaisnt Social Media once the Crimnals work out how to use and peoples past come back to haunt them in years to come.

    With people having to cleanse their Social Media History they possibly will be for some the tearaway teenage years crimnal record or drunk tattoo something which may come back and bite you years later..

    I can rember many didnt want video phones (landline many years ago and then mobile a few years back) as it revealed to much (ie where they really are or what they were doing)

    What happens when you start off grid checkin's or simply switching off will you upset your partner/Employer?

    Foursquare, Facebook connect and twitter location plus google lattitude can all easily be "adjusted" to say you were some where..

    I can see a few companies wil get ripped off once people work out the location needed to say they were there.

    If you do use dont use your own full identity you may have nothing to hide but others may want something or find something from that ID.

    The comeback is usually oh just use the settings to hide your details remenber when Facebook changed the settings a year or so ago and even the founder of facebook was caught out.

  • Comment number 5.

    I remember my friend using an Android app that tied in with his Fable 3 character, and rewarded him for visiting certain locations with in game money and items. Amongst those were the stores of a particular high street video games retailer. Now these rewards had no real cash value, but to someone who plays the game, they have value. If Foursquare can tie in with shops on a similar level with different rewards (Facebook credits come to mind) then we could see an increase in this sort of social networking. On the other hand, cities could become full of people running around on smartphones looking at their GPS location like failed treasure hunters with expensive toys.

  • Comment number 6.

    I signed up for FourSquare back in July - used it religiously, got into local Mayor battles, etc.. won all lots of badges, until eventually i thought.. "what's the point?". and there isn't one really.

    - there aren't enough places to become Mayor of to offer you an incentive to get some reward.

    - a lot of the points/badges are still too New York centric, i made several suggestions of London based stuff but heard nothing back.

    - i used to get the "Too many checkins! it's not a race!" message quite a lot. really Foursquare? then why do you offer increasing points for check-ins throughout the day and have a Top 10 & Top 100 table of people with the most points!

    So I quit last month. i haven't missed it at all. if anything i now save myself time my not desperately trying to get a decent 3G signal (hard, on Orange in london) to refresh the locations and check in at where i am.


  • Comment number 7.

    "... and the merchants understand that I'm a regular customer"

    What a shame that the merchants can't recognise him without the assistance of his social media - he must be completely unmemorable. Poor chap.

    BTW, does anyone remember that article (a few decades ago, I expect) explaining that the word "social" used as a prefix is a form of negative?

  • Comment number 8.

    What is it with this "Social Networks" obsession?

    Having a "technology" blog and then twittering(sic) on incessantly about various social networks is akin to having a TV blog and writing about nothing but soaps.

    There are better and more interesting things out there......

  • Comment number 9.

    I just realised why I'm not an internet billionaire, and am extremely unlikely to become one: I too think this, and Facebook, and Twitter, are daft ideas, and had anyone asked me to invest in them at the beginning, I would have laughed them out of the room...

  • Comment number 10.

    I can see the potential for criminals, the same as any social networking software if some lovely criminals follow your feed, they can know when your out, making it so much easier for them to just nip into your house and take some of your precious christmas presents. Then again the potential to make life less boring? Meh. Im unconvinced its benefits outweigh the potential to be abused.

  • Comment number 11.

    It seems that Stephen Fry has just had a lesson in being careful on (in this case) Twitter.....

    If you make a faux-pas in normal conversation, you only have to worry about those that were around to hear. Do it on Twitter and you have no idea who may have seen your "blunder"......

  • Comment number 12.

    Isn't this the same as Yelp? You check-in to places and get Dukedoms etc.?

    Is this any different. I don't know who stole the idea from whom though.

  • Comment number 13.

    There seems an almost Pavlovian element to this. It also strikes me as extremely dull, trivial and pointless. Read a good book instead, for goodness sakes!

  • Comment number 14.

    Yep get past the hype of mayor wars (although it does still bug me a tiny bit!), and the badge addicition too, but foursquare has some commerical use too.
    Weatherspoons recently jumped on the 4sq band wagon, and after attaining mayorship you get 20% of the pub grub (but not drinks regretably!)simply by displaying your mayorship via the mobile, if foursqure could/would go more local then other shops/stores etc could use this as a reward system, after all no one complains about reward cards such as nectar club card etc.


  • Comment number 15.

    agreed it seems a shame people have to be recognised by their avatar and not their real selves...

    It also seems ironic that the more the 'social networking' world takes over, the less people leave their homes so this seems inevitibly useless.

    Also, whats to stop the store's staff being the mayor when they check in all day long?


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