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GPS capability gives Foursquare social-networking service an edge

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 28, 2010; G01

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.

You can also set up a friends list on Foursquare to know when those people are at or near the same place as you. And you can link your Foursquare account to your Twitter and Facebook presences, giving you the option of broadcasting your check-ins and other accomplishments on those sites -- which may only annoy or puzzle friends there.

Essentially, Foursquare adds a layer of Web intelligence to the maps we have in our heads about where to go out and to the databases of good customers that bartenders, waiters and shopkeepers keep in theirs.

But Foursquare has privacy issues. The risk isn't so much that telegraphing your whereabouts makes it easy for people to stalk you -- as a somewhat silly site with the melodramatic address of pleaserobme.com suggests -- but that your own home can wind up in Foursquare's database.

Because anybody can add a place (as I did when entering a nearby park), private homes often show up on Foursquare, and all the company can do is remove an entry after somebody complains about it.

Crowley said the company will soon hide venues marked as "private" by a user from all but the user's friends, which assumes that people will take that extra step to protect their pals' privacy.

Foursquare also has competition to deal with, and not just from rival startups such as Gowalla and MyTown, but companies with far larger audiences. The user-review site Yelp added a check-in feature to its iPhone software last month. Being a "regular" at an establishment will be noted when you review that place, but it doesn't earn you access to any equivalent of Foursquare's "mayor specials" -- at least not yet.

Facebook, in turn, has reportedly been looking at adding its own check-in feature (a spokeswoman said the company had nothing to share about any such plans), and its 400-million user base would give it an immense advantage over Foursquare.

Then again, having to think about the privacy implications of exposing your nightlife habits to your Facebook friends or Yelp's vast universe of users would make this whole check-in game seem less like a fun distraction and more like work.

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