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, 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.