By Sree Sreenivasan
DNAinfo Contributing Editor
I tell my students there's no need to jump onto a new social-media service until you know it can fit into your workflow and your life. What I mean is that there are so many new things coming at you all the time that it's impossible to keep up, and you shouldn't feel any obligation to try everything right away. Wait until you can be sure it makes sense for how you work and live.
Take Foursquare, the geolocation service. Even though I make a living, in part, by doing all this social media stuff, I avoided using Foursquare as long as I could. I mean a guy has only got so much time he can use for virtual relationships before he jeopardizes his real-life relationships.
So I've been teaching social media by focusing on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, skipping Foursquare.
But over the last two months, I have been testing Foursquare and am now convinced it has real potential for journalism, for businesses and everyday folks. Like all technology, it may not be appropriate for everyone, but we should all at least be familiar with it.
Here's what I've learned:
• FOURSQUARE'S STATS ARE IMPRESSIVE: Foursquare launched officially in March 2009, and has seen dramatic growth since. It had about 250,000 users by the end of 2009; surpassed 3 million users in August 2010; and crossed 6 million in January 2011.
There have been more than 381 million check-ins, from all countries on Earth (North Korea was the last to have a check-in). It had just two employees (co-founders Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai) for the first eight months of its existence; a year ago, it had seven employees. Today, the Cooper Square-based company has about 50 employees (26 of them engineers). You can see more stats in a Foursquare blog post, "Our year of 3,400% growth."
While there's been talk of buyout offers and a $250 million valuation, Selvadurai denied that figure at a Manhattan event last week.
• FOURSQUARE IS MORE THAN JUST A GAME. IT'S BUSINESS: Even though it's built around a game - check-in at locations to earn points and compete with friends and strangers, it's much more ambitious than that. Visit a place often enough and you can be its "mayor," and there are starting to be benefits of that beyond just bragging rights.
A recent example, I was with my kids at a restaurant and we were going to order dessert, but we saw that restaurant's Foursquare page showed a incentive to get ice cream at a nearby Ben & Jerry's — and that's what we did.
Foursquare encourages people to try new places, especially restaurants and bars. Even at restaurants you know well, Foursquare's "tips" section can give you suggestions for new dishes to try.
Companies, brands and others who want to connect with consumers are using Foursquare in interesting ways. Some examples: History Channel offers historical background when you check into certain locations; celebrities use it to connect with their fans and followers; Sports Authority puts your name in a prize drawing for checking-in; Jimmy Choo creates a scavenger hunt in London with clues via check-in.
Everything is local, so Foursquare can work well whether a company has one location or thousands of locations.
• FOURSQUARE IS JUST GETTING STARTED: I like to say that Twitter is where the general web was in 1996 in terms of its potential, usage and scope. But geolocation is even further behind. It's just getting started and those who can learn how to use it well will get a headstart on the rest. And that can have serious business implications, especially for industries such as travel, food, entertainment, sports, museums and more.
• THE FOURSQUARE EXPERIENCE CAN BE IMPROVED: Because it's still early, there are ways in which Foursquare can improve the user experience.
Since anyone can create venues, there's a proliferation of locations that leads to confusion about which ones are official venues and which ones are not. For example, a search for "JFK" brings up 50 venues in the system - many of them overlapping. People have limited time to use this, so creating "verified venues" and deleting incorrect ones has to be a priority for Foursquare. There's system for an owner to claim a venue, but it's far too complicated and cumbersome.
Its Nearby Specials feature has tremendous potential, but needs to be used more often by local merchants to lure foot traffic. That requires training and encourage by Foursquare (here's a link to the 167 items in the Foursquare for Business FAQ).
Its Tips feature — users leaving suggestions for things to try at particular venues — is terrific, and users should be rewarded for leaving them. While it's an international service, during an week-plus stay in Jamaica, I couldn't find any places to check-in to (might have been trouble with the GPS system). The service works better on iPhone and Android than it does on Blackberry — something thatc is true of a lot of Web 2.0 services.
A note to businesses, event organizers, etc: Please put your venue's Foursquare name into your physical signage, virtual invitations, etc. Just as it's now useful to announce a Twitter hashtag before an event, announce your Foursquare name, too.
And a note to users: Please avoid connecting your Foursquare check-ins to your Twitter or Facebook accounts. Most of the time it just comes across as you showing off the good time you're having while the rest of us are sitting at home. Unless you are sharing useful info — discounts or special deals — it gets really irritating.
• GEOLOCATION IS HERE TO STAY: The idea of sharing not just what you are doing, but where you are doing it means that geolocation services like Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, etc., are going to be the next social-media frontier. Facebook and its 500-million-user empire launched Facebook Places last year and while it hasn't drowned out Foursquare yet, you should never count out Facebook.
Does co-founder Selvadurai worry about Facebook Places? He told a gathering in New York last week that I attended, "We know there is room in the market for more than one service. We knew that others were going to do this." Why will Foursquare succeed in the long run? According to him: "better tools and better data."
• FOURSQUARE HAS USES I HADN'T THOUGHT OF: I thought I knew what Foursquare could do, but nothing teaches you new uses like actually living with a service.
I use it to help me remember during expense-submission time (just check out the check-ins); I also now know when my last haircut was.
It's a way to learn more about the city I know and love — I've gotten addicted to the Tips section to hear what others suggest what to try — and what to avoid — at various venues. I've used it to find people I know in the midst of a crowd or at a crowded event.
It's a way to share a virtual event - the recent State of the Union check-ins showed that people around the country were using it as a way to connect.
• I'VE CHECKED INTO SOME RIDICULOUS PLACES: Because of the points it offers for additional check-ins, I started checking into things like NYC yellow cabs (with the medallion number). I told myself I was doing it to so that I'd know if I ever hit the same cab again. But really, I was trying to get points. While I created a check-in location my office (SreeOffice — and, yes, I'm the mayor), the most ridiculous check-in I've done has got to me checking-in to the Van Wyck Expressway on my way to JFK Airport (1,100 others have, too — I hope they were in a cab and not driving).
• THERE ARE PLACES I WON'T CHECK-IN: I discussed privacy implications of geolocation in my August 2010 article. I can tell you that Foursquare can be a stalker's paradise. A friend's solution: Checking-in only as she is about to leave a venue — that way she has a record of the place, but can't be tracked easily. Couple of other thoughts about privacy: Don't check-in everywhere — I've never checked-in to my kids' school; I don't check-in when I arrive at my apartment. Don't accept the Foursquare friend requests from people you don't know.
• FOURSQUARE NEEDS TO BE PART OF EVERY JOURNALIST'S TOOLKIT: Here's part of what I wrote when Facebook Places launched last year: Geolocation has potential for news organizations, too, as demonstrated earlier this year after the foiled Times Square attack. In the days that followed, there was more than one false alarm, and the Wall Street Journal used a Times Square "check in" on Foursquare to alert others in the area that there was an evacuation.
Editors can also use geolocation to help confirm eyewitness tips from the scenes of news events. That doesn't mean there won't be hoaxes or that the systems can't be fooled, but it's a step up from the e-mails and SMS tips we have now. For other uses for journalists, see "additional articles" below.
I've added to that list of articles below, but can tell you that in breaking news situations, Foursquare can be a journalist's friend.
• IF YOU AREN'T CAREFUL, IT CAN DISTRACT YOU FROM YOUR REAL LIFE: Foursquare's founders will tell you otherwise, but the service may just be the straw that break's a spouse's patience about social media. While Facebook and Twitter are irritating enough, going out to dinner and having someone checking-in to Foursquare instead of paying attention to his or her companions might be considered rude. In the years ahead, that might change. But for now, it's best to learn the art of the quick — and discreet —check-in.
Additional Articles About Foursquare and Geolocation:
Wired: Inside Foursquare
Mashable: 7 Ways Journalists Can Use Foursquare
ZombieJournalism: Uses for Foursquare in news reporting
NYTimes.com: Who Elected Me Mayor? I Did
Mashable: Facebook Places: A Field Guide to place
On Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011, join me and Foursquare expert Shane Snow for a webinar, "Figuring Out Foursquare and Other Geolocation Services" register at http://bit.ly/sreemb8 (use discount code SREE25 to get 25 percent off).
What do you think? Post your comments below or on Twitter @sree.
Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia journalism professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.