GPS capability gives Foursquare social-networking service an edge

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 28, 2010

So this guy walks into a bar.

He looks around, recognizes the bartender -- and whips out a cellphone, launches an app and taps a button labeled "Check-in here." Then he gets a beer.

That is a routine occurrence for people using -- make that, playing -- a social-networking service called Foursquare.

This free service (http://foursquare.com) turns going out into a collaborative sport: People use its mobile software to check in to bars, restaurants, shops and other venues, to share tips about those places and to see whether other friends on Foursquare are nearby. For their trouble, they get virtual points and badges, plus the more practical lure of discounts from their favorite spots.

It's both profoundly silly and oddly compelling. And the New York startup, almost a year old, has been drawing users -- about 500,000, whom founder Dennis Crowley says check in 1.5 million times a week -- as well as partners and competitors.

Foursquare couldn't exist without Global Positioning System-enabled smartphones that can locate themselves (although you can also use the service's mobile Web site or text-messaging system). That place-awareness sets it apart from social networks that assume most users log in from regular computers.

Foursquare's software -- available for the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android phones, and Palm's Pre and Pixi -- is also much simpler than most social-network setups. Its software finds you and lists venues in its database. You select one and tap a button to check in there.

Foursquare then rewards you with one or more points. They're not good for anything but keeping score, but Crowley said in an e-mail that the company is looking into ways for users to cash in points for "airline miles, credit card points, etc."

As your check-ins increase, the Foursquare program will unlock various badges marking your progress. For example, checking in to the same place three times in a week gets you a "local" badge. Dozens of others await, some less than complimentary (checking in four nights in a row leads Foursquare to label you as having been on a "bender"), and some specific to events or cities.

But the real incentive for taking part in this dorky endeavor can happen if you visit a venue more than other Foursquare users. The service will then crown you "mayor" of the place -- which, at a small but growing set of establishments, earns you a discount, a drink on the house or some other special offer. If you're near one of these venues, the Foursquare software will tell you.

(My cheaply earned mayorship of the Post Pub, alas, has yet to get me any special treatment.)

Businesses don't have to restrict bonuses to Foursquare mayors, though. One bar in Adams Morgan offers a free beer on the third check-in during a week; in San Francisco, the BART rail system offers free $25 tickets to randomly selected riders. Partners such as Zagat and the New York Times have added their own Foursquare rewards.


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