Part game, part social networking service, Foursquare announces your location to select friends, awarding you prizes when you visit your favorite haunts more than others in your area. While it's the most compelling of the two big location-based social networks--the other being Gowalla--its novelty can wear off quickly unless you're committed. Still, this smart phone app (available for Android, iPhone, BlackBerry, and webOS) has a clean interface and is a fun way to discover new places near you.
How it Works
Every time you go out and use Foursquare, you accrue points for everything from venturing far from home to trying someplace new. Earn enough points and you'll unlock badges, the purpose of which, much like in the Cub Scouts, is bragging rights. Another honor is mayor, which is bestowed upon you if you check into, say, a local business the most times, and which might entitle you to freebies such as a free drink. However, it's just as easy to lose such a title when others are also checking in frequently. As with Google Buzz, you can leave "tips," or reviews for other Foursquare users when you visit a place. So if you know there's a much better coffee shop up the block, you can say so.
You get points for everything from making a first stop of the night to trying someplace new. And there are tons of badges to be had: there's an Explorer badge and a Newbie badge, among many others. And every time you check in somewhere, you get the immediate gratification of seeing all of your points and new badges listed in a pop-up window. It's much more streamlined--and fun--than Gowalla, which scatters stamps and collected items across the app, none of which translate to any real-life rewards. Like Gowalla, Foursquare offers incentives to go on predetermined trips in your area (one in New York City, for example, involves spots in Central Park).
Foursquare is available for Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and webOS; you can download the app from each platform's respective marketplace. Unlike Gowalla, you'll need to go to Foursquare's website to create an account, which requires your name (you don't need to divulge your surname), e-mail address, location, and an optional photo. You'll then receive a verification e-mail and be asked to click on a link. Once you do, the initial setup is complete.
Of course, you'll want to see which of your friends are already using the service. You can search your Facebook, Gmail, Google Apps, and Twitter accounts, among others, to find friends. However, as a matter of etiquette, we recommend you add only people you might socialize with in real life. Wanting to know the location of acquaintances (and they yours) could look creepy.
Foursqaure isn't private by default: local businesses can see you've checked in, and your name will appear in the public feed of people who have visited a given location. Meanwhile, your friends can see your e-mail address and phone number, and if you've connected your Foursquare account to Facebook or Twitter, links to those profiles will appear on your Foursquare profile page as well. It's easy enough to uncheck these boxes, but there's a world of difference between opting in and opting out of transparencies like these.
Compared to Gowalla, Foursquare's apps are more streamlined. For instance, in neither the iPhone nor the Android app do you have to specify a category when you add a location to the map (a useful shortcut when we checked in from our nondescript office building). In general, both the iPhone and Android apps do a better job than their Gowalla counterparts at highlighting the information you'll likely need. For example, Foursquare divides its list of locations into places you've recently been, trending places, and nearby places. Despite having various colorful icons for categories such as burger joints, Gowalla's list of spots feels more unwieldy, since it's organized solely in order of what's closest.
Old-school users can check in by texting 50500. This is only an option for U.S. customers, however, and depending on your messaging plan, we don't recommend incurring extra SMS charges if you don't have to.
Although you can connect your Foursquare account to your Facebook and Twitter accounts, broadcasting one's location to friends has become something of a faux pas. After all, if enough of your Twitter friends use Foursquare, unsolicited updates on their locations can start to seem like spam. Indeed, we only would have wanted to share our location with people we hang out with in real life. That already limits our prospective friend pool, and even fewer use Foursquare. We probably would have had more incentive to use the service if it were as ubiquitous as, say, Facebook.
Luckily, this social network linkage is optional. You can check in to locations so that only your other Foursquare friends will see it (like any Twitter app, Foursquare apps allow you to view your friends' updates). While Foursquare's apps were cleaner than those for Gowalla, we still found that after our initial curiosity wore off, we checked in less and less. While we saw plenty of friends who checked into the same cafe or gym daily, we couldn't bring ourselves to check into our office more than two consecutive days. That's partly because unless you become the mayor of a place, you're not rewarded for being predictable.
Also, as simple as Foursquare's apps are, it's inconvenient to stop what you're doing and check in, especially on a smart phone platform that doesn't multitask. In situations where we were forced to wait anyway (say, in a line at the bank), checking in was a good way to kill time. But doing so amid the hustle and bustle of our daily lives was never realistic, especially with mostly virtual prizes (e.g., badges and points) at stake. We were especially unlikely to add locations to the map. We did this in the beginning, but grew tired of it, even though Foursquare conveniently requires you to enter minimal information.
We did appreciate that Foursquare tipped us to nearby listings we hadn't heard of yet. Every time you click on the Places tab in a mobile app, your phone will determine your location and automatically generate a list of nearby points of interest. We just wish one could filter the results by category, as you can on Yelp. At least you can search nearby listings, making it easier to find, say, a pizzeria. A way of bookmarking favorites would be helpful, too. Again, without a multitasking OS, we might stumble upon a listing for a nearby locale, but quickly have to disregard it in favor of something else (say, incoming calls or e-mail).
While broadcasting your location and newest mayorships to Twitter is becoming passe, Foursquare remains the most fun of the various social networks that turn exploring new locales into a game. That's because you can get real-world rewards, such as freebies at their favorite places, for virtually checking in. Foursquare is worth a try (it's available on the four most popular mobile platforms), not just because of the bragging rights for briefly becoming mayor of your local Starbucks, but because it's another way to discover places near you while reading quick reviews from other users. However, we recommend tweaking the privacy settings before you get started.