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Summary:

If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re already aware of my obsession with Foursquare, a New York-based service that taps into the narcissistic appeal of being able to post unusual locations such as our office cafeteria, Chatz Cafe, or best recommendations about a place and […]

If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re already aware of my obsession with Foursquare, a New York-based service that taps into the narcissistic appeal of being able to post unusual locations such as our office cafeteria, Chatz Cafe, or best recommendations about a place and marries it to social networking. What’s more fun — it all seems like a game.

You can access Foursquare on its web site, on the iPhone, or via Android and BlackBerry devices. Every time you stop at a cafe, a bar or an eatery, you have the option to check in your location. Sure you can check in your visit to a shopping mall or even a 7-Eleven, but the focus is primarily on going out. The service will then tell you if one of your friends is in the same location. I started out as a skeptic of Foursquare but in just three months, have become an addict. And it’s the addictive nature of this little service that puts it on the fast track to the top. 

Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley

Foursquare, which has received $1.35 million in funding from Union Square Ventures (and others), launched back in March in a handful of U.S. cities. Then earlier this month, it was turned on in 50 additional cities across the world. If the recent increase in the number of requests to connect that I’m now receiving on a daily basis is any indicator, then it won’t be long before Foursquare becomes a mainstream phenomenon.

A prominent story on CNN.com has only helped spread the word about the service co-founded by Dennis Crowley, founder of Dodgeball, a similar pre-smartphone-era offering that was acquired and subsequently shut down by Google. I emailed Crowley recently to ask about Foursquare’s traffic.

“We’ve been growing 50 percent-plus per month,” he said. When I last saw Crowley, back in October, he said the service was growing at roughly 40 percent a month in terms of new users, so this latest figure points to a growth spurt. For a while, there were persistent rumors that the service’s growth had flattened at around 60,000 users.

Crowley, who teamed up with Naveen Selvadurai and Harry Heymann for the startup, said that with Foursquare he’s building the product he wanted to build with Dodgeball, but couldn’t. (He had an acrimonious and very public split with Google.) Crowley believes that if you make software that allows people to discover new places and services, you can quickly build a database of “taste” and “cultural preferences.”

For instance, I have become a big fan of Sightglass, a hip new cafe in San Francisco. Showing up there every day and letting my friends know of my repeated visits indicates my “preference” for Sightglasses’ coffee. The more places I “check into,” the better chance I have to win awards or “badges” with cute names such as “bender” (going out more than four nights in a row), “crunked” (more than four stops in a night), and “overshare” (more than 10 check-ins in 12 hours.) Compared to its rivals — and there are many, including Gowalla (which for some odd reason is popular with a lot of Sand Hill Road VCs) — these little, seemingly silly things are what make Foursquare so much fun. Of course, it helps that most of my friends are big Foursquare users as well, making the other services that much less attractive to me.

In my opinion, structured datasets such as those being collected by Foursquare are going to become highly effective resources for cost-per-action advertising or even e-commerce revenue models. A smart hyper-local advertising platform, coupons or even sponsored badges are possible ways that Foursquare could make money. But Crowley isn’t thinking about revenues just yet; he’s busy getting Foursquare to grow exponentially.

“In the end, we want it to be the Netflix of places,” he said, referring to that company’s movie recommendation system. “We want to use (the) social graph and help with (the) discovery of places.” The company recently launched its API with the hope that it would spur a variety of apps based on Foursquare data — thus making it that much more distinguishable from its rivals.

Like Twitter and Facebook, Foursquare taps into our inner exhibitionist self — a malady of the post-Internet era. It allows everyone to be a Ruth Reichl, the legendary food critic — an arbiter of taste. With a narcissistic quotient that is higher than a genius’s IQ, it’s only a matter of time before it’s discovered by everyone from dithering fashion editors to pro athletes and pop stars. And when that happens, yet another tech pop phenomenon will be born.

This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.

  1. Om:

    Foursquare probably is big fun, but its notifications that are auto-dispatched to Twitter are not. They’re incredibly irritating to non-users of Foursquare. Fortunately, it looks like you (and other thoughtful users) have the good sense to leave those turned off (or turn them off if – horrors! – they are on by default).

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    1. Dwight

      Great points. I think the point of those notifications is that people might have smaller social sets that say me and as a result, it might be okay to tweet them out.

      Anyway I keep them turned off — though sometimes I tweet out my “mayorship” of a place. Just for fun :-)

      That said, what you are suggesting are feature improvements and that I am sure, guys at the company would roll out soon enough.

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      1. I think Twitter should implement some sort of ignore functions for certain Twitter apps. I really don’t mind the FourSquare updates, but those who do could just block all incoming tweets from that particular app. Just an idea.

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  2. Om:
    I want to start off by saying I love Foursquare. I’ve been using since it launched at SXSW earlier this year and I must say that I’m the mayor of a few strategic locations that I will not be giving up soon. But some are obsessed and will do anything to stay on top of the numbers game (ie. cheating or changing the name of the establishment slightly to get a new check in). I just wonder how this will compromise the collection of data for paying customers in the future. Just a thought.

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    1. Agreed Derek.

      I hate it when people will do anything to stay on top of the numbers game: that is like any other game — some (a handful) will cheat and try and route around the rules but generally it is going to be a pretty clean data set.

      They need to build filtering in the system where the audience can help them correct these issues as and when they arise.

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  3. Thanks for this insight! I’ve been using is lightly for a while now (since Fred Wilson mentioned it) good to hear your take on it’s future!

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  4. I’m with Dwight. I will actively stay away from Foursquare precisely because my Twitter is choked with Foursquare updates that feel very… spammy. I can’t stand it.

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  5. I love foursquare too, and not just because they have an Android app!

    Trivia: Foursquare is using Yahoo’s design principal called “Collectible Achievements”, which was open sourced long ago ( pre-Microsoft acquisition )

    http://developer.yahoo.com/ypatterns/social/people/reputation/achievements.html

    Would love to see more apps built on this principal, fun for user lucrative for demographics/metrics ( ala recent Brightkite rebuild of location aware advertising ).

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    1. Todd

      I had not known about this design principle, so thank you for letting me know. I am going to dig into this and see what I learn as well.

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  6. That’s quite an endorsement of Foursquare. I use it too and am quickly becoming addicted to it.

    I recently tried to check-in from Okayama, Japan and had to pretend I was in SF; happy to hear additional cities coming online quickly.

    And your Sightglass example is the best use of the service I can see as actionable at this point. And – I also found myself hanging out at Web 2.0 because of an OM Foursquare check-in last month.

    I look forward to seeing some of the endless possibilities of this service

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  7. I remember interviewing for a sales role in 1996 for CitySearch which included visiting local shops/restaurants and essentially selling them on CitySearch profiles. Its fun just thinking about how those sales calls went :) That model didn’t work well for many now obvious reasons.

    It will be interesting to watch how FourSquare tackles platform monetization. In 2010, there are a lot of options — and a self serve play could really print $$ out of the elusive local advertising market.

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  8. Other useful uses for 4SQ:
    I’ve discovered Foursquare is handy for finding the venues I’m looking for. I’m driving in San Francisco going, “I know Slim’s is around here somewhere….” I just check in with Foursquare then I look at the list of venues till I find Slim’s address.

    Also works, when I’m visiting a new place, to answer the question “Where is there a Peet’s Coffee around here?”

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    1. Andrea

      Thanks for sharing that use case scenario. It was something that I have done so often but had never thought about it the way you described. A location-based venue finder — add one more role for the service. :-)

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  9. Not that many people using it in Stockholm as of yet, but I still like Foursquare a lot. For the record, I also started out as a sceptic, but now I’ve realized the endless possibilities and areas of use where software like this (and data) can become useful.

    Also, the game element of it is more enticing that you might initially think.

    Lastly, I love how it bridges the gap between the social media sphere and interactions with offline service providers, such as bars and coffee shops. Cool to see that there already companies out there that leverage Foursquare as a means for a loyalty program.

    http://foursquare.com/businesses/

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  10. Hello Om,

    Love the new site!

    FourSquare certainly resonates with an niche user but the same thing that makes it resonate with this group makes it very difficult for it to gain widespread adoption. If the flat-lining in growth is true it may be indicative of this it is unlikely that Foursquare will come back and achieve the hockey stick adoption curve. My gut tells me that the novelty will ware off.

    Many before me have mentioned how Foursquare updates are invasive and I agree, I went and turned them off, I also never find myself checking in. Part of the reason is that foursquare doesn’t work in my town. It is one of those things, you love it if you’re peers are using it but once the group starts to lose interest it will fall into disuse among that group, simply because recognition is the impetus to use it. If Foursquare wants to succeed they need to provide real value to improve individuals lives. The game may interest users, but real life value to individuals regardless of who else is there will keep them.

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