Foursquare: Urban life as a game
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.
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?"
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.