Foursquare: Better than Twitter?

So what happens if your company has been bought by Google and then gets shut down? If the company is Dodgeball, and you’re the founders, you start up a new project named Foursquare that takes off like wildfire.

When you’re as powerful and unstoppable as Google, chances are a time will come when you burn a few bridges on your way to the top. This is pretty much what happened in 2009 when Google decided to shut down a fledgling social networking project called Dodgeball, created by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai in 2004. Google purchased the rights to Dodgeball from the co-creators in 2005 and even brought them on to work on the project, but last year the mega-company decided to fold on it without much explanation. Crowley was particularly vocal to the media about his disapproval of Google’s decision, though it seems that he eventually realized that success is the best revenge.

After essentially being dumped by Google, Crowley and Selvadurai decided to team up once again to create a social networking project very similar to their original Dodgeball idea, though this time it would be called Foursquare. Google must be kicking itself now, because after just one year, Foursquare is becoming wildly popular. The site is growing exponentially each and every day; it currently has an estimated 500,000 users from across the globe, though it wasn’t always like that.

When the service first started in 2009 it had limited availability and small pockets of users in the 100 worldwide metro areas in which the service was accessible. What really seemed to make Foursquare explode was the co-creator’s decision to change their location model in order to allow check-ins from any location worldwide. This smart move may be solely responsible for the service being heralded as the next Twitter.

What Exactly is Foursquare?

When the service was first launched at the popular technology and music festival known as South by Southwest in Austin, TX during March of last year, it was pretty slow to catch on. But Foursquare is quickly becoming a major player in the world of social networking for two reasons: it enables its users to “check in” and alert their friends of their current location, while also being able to participate in a fun game with other users.

Technically, the service was first intended to be used kind of like Twitter, but more location-based. Rather than Twittering random thoughts, registered users of Foursquare would use the service to update their friends as to where they are by updating their location. That being said, it seems as if the game aspect of the service is what’s really drawing in thousands of users every day.

Here’s how the game works: every time a user goes anywhere–be it school, an office building, Starbucks, or grocery store–they can use their phones to “check in” to these venues. Each time they check in during weekends or non-business hours, they receive points. Some locations have certain tags for check-in frequency, so if a user visits these locations often they can be awarded “badges” for checking in there. The Foursquare creators have hinted that in the near future, users will be able to create their own custom badges for locations, which many are excited about.

As users begin to play the game more frequently and stop earning introductory badges used to illustrate the milestones of their usage, it becomes more difficult to earn certain badges, and the Foursquare staff are known to remain quite secretive about how users can “unlock” certain badges. For example, some badges are tied to “tags” users give to the venue, and the badge they receive depends on the tag they applied. Others are specific to cities, venues, events, or dates.

In order to ramp up the competition, Foursquare offers its users three levels of "superuser status,” all of which can be obtained by those who check in frequently or enter new venue information into Foursquare. Those deemed superusers can perform certain tasks. For example, level 1 superusers can edit venue information, mark locations as closed, and make Foursquare aware of duplicate venues, while those at level 2 can edit and merge duplicate venue listings and add venue categories to any venue. At level 3, superusers can create venue aliases and delete fake/spam listings, which are rapidly beginning to infiltrate the site. Basically, Foursquare has created a way to entice users into essentially performing site maintenance free of charge to Foursquare.

The stats used to keep track on Foursquare are incredibly cool for a couple of reasons: not only are you competing against your actual circle of friends on Foursquare, but you’re also playing against everyone on Foursquare in your city on a weekly basis. Thankfully for those who are new or who didn’t do very well one week, the stats reset to zero on Sunday night, creating a level playing field for everyone involved.

The goal for many who play the game is to become “Mayor” of their favorite locations. To do this, they must check in to a venue on separate days more than anyone else on the site, and if they have a profile picture on the Foursquare site, they will become mayor. If someone is mayor of your favorite movie theater or coffee shop, you can take their title by checking in more times than the previous mayor. Users are also able to create “to do” lists for their private use, which would basically act as a list of locations they want to check out and possibly take over. Under the “tips” section, users can also include tidbits about the venues they’ve visited, such as great things to see, do, or eat at the location.

Obviously, the gaming aspect of Foursquare is proving to be very helpful to local businesses and economies. This was only further illustrated when in February of this year, the Foursquare creators decided to enter into partnership with Zagat, Bravo, Conde Nast, and the New York Times, all of which will contribute tips to Foursquare users via the site and offer special new badges at locations they’ve featured in their publications or on their websites and shows.

Currently, Foursquare has Android, webOS, iPhone, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile applications. According to the Foursquare website, however, a Maemo is currently being developed.

LBS stands for location-based social network. Foursquare is by no means the first service to harness the capabilities of GPS and apply it to social networking.

Brightkite, an online service that encourages its users to “discover the hidden communities behind the places they visit,” was actually one of the first to employ this type of technology by combining features such as location sharing, friend connections, and streams in one convenient package. Perhaps the reason why the service never really took off is because it also offered a lot of unnecessary features that bogged down the service, whereas Foursquare, for example, is streamlined, concise, and straightforward.

Google Latitude is yet another LBS service, though it lacks the usefulness that most Google products have. It seems as if everything the company touches turns to gold, but this is an example of jumping on the bandwagon without really putting enough work or effort into the service to make it pop. Many have complained that Google Latitude is a Brightkite rip-off, without the features or foresight necessary to make it interesting or useful.

Many who don’t know the history behind Foursquare may be quick to assume that the co-creators, like Google’s Latitude creators, simply jumped on the bandwagon, but lucked out and happened to create a service that is popular. They would be wrong in assuming that, of course.

Of all the LBS services we’ve discussed here (even including the ones we haven’t discussed), Dodgeball was the first LBS service of its kind anywhere, and as we’ve learned, the creators of Dodgeball are the same folks behind Foursquare. Thanks to Crowley and Selvadurai’s tenacity, wherewithal, and fixation on location, thousands of Foursquare users around the world are benefiting from the continuation of their initial vision.

On the social media news site Mashable, Crowley did an interview in which he perfectly encapsulated why Foursquare is not only the perfect LBS, but also why it’s better–and more useful–than services like Twitter.

It seems as if the secret to Crowley’s success is the fact that he and his partner have taken Foursquare further than most. “Other similar applications are all about location and saying, ‘Ok, I’m here,” Crowley said. “The point of our service isn’t ‘I’m here,’ it’s ‘I’m here, so now what’?”    

It’s the “now what” part of the equation that really seems to be resonating with users. Unlike Twitter, where a useless ramble goes off into cyberspace to no effect, Foursquare users’ check-ins and other activity actually help other users. We touched on this earlier, but the “tips” feature on the service is a key aspect, as it allows users to spread the word on places that are worth checking out.

Users can share key things about a venue with other users, friends and strangers alike. If you favorite pizza joint has a killer special on Thursday nights, those near you can see the tip, save it on their to-do list, and then visit next Tuesday. It sounds insignificant, but this could prove to be very helpful to small, local businesses struggling in this economy and striving to compete against major chains and big box retailers.

Plus, once your specific city sees a major increase in Foursquare users, it will be even easier to use these GPS-aware tips to take advantage of dining discounts, drink specials, and sales, among other things. So, Foursquare allows you to stay in touch with friends, offers a fun, insanely addictive game, and has the potential to help small businesses flourish. What’s not to love?

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