Are You Playing Foursquare?

foursquaregirlOnce upon a time, I was not fond of Foursquare. When you are forced to wear glasses AND a headgear in elementary school (why yes, this did scar me for life, thanks for asking), you develop a wariness of games involving hard rubber balls being bounced in the vicinity of your face.

But time changes everything. Teeth get straightened. Nearsighted eyes get Lasiked. The scars of youth are replaced by those inflicted by adulthood. And one day, you wake up and Foursquare is the most compelling thing since bacon-infused chocolate–Foursquare the location-based social network, that is.

I’m new to the Foursquare scene, myself. My first introduction came this summer, as I read Whiffies Fried Pies owner Gregg Abbott’s tweets declaring himself mayor of this or that. At first, I ignored them. I thought he had delusions of grandeur, or was living out some sort of weird twisted mayoral recall-gone-wild fantasy. Au contraire, he was “playing” Foursquare, a fast-growing mobile social networking phenomenon with a loyal and quickly expanding Portland following and strong implications for social food lovers about town.

It’s pretty simple. Download Foursquare’s free iPhone or Android application, or access their mobile site via your Blackberry (a Blackberry app is in the works), and invite your friends via your Gmail address book, Facebook or Twitter account, because everything is more fun with friends.

As you make your way around the city, Foursquare tracks your location via GPS and offers you suggestions generated from other users on where and what to eat, drink, and experience in the neighborhood you’re trolling. It’s like having your very own trail of virtual breadcrumbs dropped by urban insiders, leading you to hidden finds, fresh experiences, and arguably most important–new things to eat and drink.

For example, while walking around the Pearl this afternoon, with one click of a button I was able to pull up a long list of neighborhood restaurants and bars, then review “tips” left behind by other people. If I like their ideas, I can add them to my to-do folder. In turn, I can leave tips for others.

foursquarecupcake foursquareteardrop

I also “check in” on my phone when I reach a destination, letting my Foursquare friends know where I am and what I’m up to, which allows them to do any number of things–they might join me, peer at me through the window and make obscene gestures on their way by, or ask me for recommendations on what to order when they patronize the same place later that evening. It lets them see the places I like and frequent, it instantly clues them into new food and drink finds I might have, or simply satisfy their inner voyeurs by seeing what I’ve been up to. As Portland bartender and Foursquare user Lance Mayhew put it, “a) it’s fun and b) it allows you to cyberstalk your friends without having to use Facebook.”

“It’s a useful service for finding new restaurants,” said Jacob Grier, local writer and bartender, who joined Foursquare after reading this article sent to him by a forward-thinking friend. “If I see that my friends are regularly getting lunch at a place, there’s a better chance I’ll go check it out myself sometime.”

By enabling “pings” on my phone, I’ll receive a text message letting me know when my friends have checked in at afoursquarepingjpgrestaurant, bar, bakery, food cart, or pretty much any establishment or landmark in Portland.

“The general list of where your friends are is helpful in terms of navigating the real world,” said Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley, 33. “What am I going to do this afternoon, where am I going tonight? We take the list of where you’ve been and cut it up in different ways so we can make recommendations to you and your friends.”

Shrewdly capitalizing on the human attraction to a good game and a little competition, Foursquare operates on a point system that awards you points for each time you check in, complete to-do’s, or visit somewhere new. The more points you gather, the higher you move up on the leaderboard, (currently, I’m in 16th place) which is washed clean each Sunday evening at 11:59am, starting the game anew each Monday. This ensures that nobody builds up an impermeable lead, and nobody feels like they’ve fallen so far behind in the point system that they’ll never catch up, sort of like I feel about seasons of Madmen.

foursquareleaderboard“We wanted the game to be sticky enough to get people to continue using it,” Crowley said. “People check in all over the place now, they check in just to get the points. We reset it every Sunday, because it’s just a game, something fun, something to get people through the week,” he added, responding understandingly to my Madmen analogy with “I’m two seasons behind myself.”

If you visit a participating business, Foursquare also builds in little awards and carrots-on-a-stick in the form of exclusive online offers that pop up on your phone when you’re in the immediate proximity of the establishment offering them. It’s one way restaurants can use Foursquare to promote foot traffic, enticing the people viewing them in their list of Foursquare places to actually walk inside.

“We have this program called Foursquare for businesses, and any venue can create a special offer, anything from free coffee to free appetizers to if you’ve been to a place five times you get something special,” Crowley said. “You can submit the form and tell us what you want to do and we’ll make it happen.”

foursquarebadgeTo recognize frequent users, Foursquare awards badges for different levels of city exploration. For example, after I’d checked in at my first destination (Ping), I was awarded my “Newbie” badge. Go out four nights in a row to win the “Bender” badge. Love karaoke? Three nights of tipsy warbling check-ins in a month and you’ve got the “Don’t Stop Believin’” badge. Visit the food carts three times and you earn “Ziggy’s Wagon,” which is a reference to a beloved food cart at Crowley’s alma mater, Syracuse University. I was disappointed to see that the “Douchebag” badge, which I’d read was earned by visiting several different spots around Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was absent from the Portland collection.

“We launch different ones in different cities,” Crowley explained. “We get thousands of badge requests from users. We added the Ziggy’s Wagon badge after our recent trip to Portland,” during which Crowley visited Whiffies. (In case you’re wondering, he ordered the peanut butter and jelly fried pie, and loved it.)

To further stoke users’ competitive impulses, Foursquare also gives out ‘mayorships’, which are won by the person who frequents and checks in at a certain establishment the most often.

foursquaremayor“Mayorship is what you make out of it, but some of the users are really dramatic about it,” Crowley said. “It goes back and forth, especially if there are specials tied to it.”

Mayhew has felt the pain of mayoral loss, not that he’s letting it get to him. “I was the Mayor of Bishops on Alberta until today,” he said. “I’m not going to rush down and get another haircut because I lost my mayorship, but I suppose I’m now more aware of getting my hair cut on time.”

“I’m also Mayor of Whole Foods on Fremont, which I’ll never lose, I go there daily. I also have some pretty cheesy Mayorships, none of which really mean anything to me. It’s all in fun and as long as I don’t end up the Mayor of the Paris Theatre or something, I’m probably ok. I don’t take this stuff seriously at all.”

Grier was equally laissez-faire about his mayorships. Or so he said. “Right now I’m mayor of 50 Plates, Branch, Alu, El Gaucho, Laurelhurst Market, and Secret Society,” he told me. “I don’t take the mayorships too seriously. If I lose mayorship of a place I may go back to reclaim it, or I may just let it go. After staying home crying for a few hours, of course.”

In cities where Foursquare is more prolific, like San Francisco, New York, and Seattle, placards outside coffeeshops offerfoursquareflyer their mayor free coffee, while bars offer free drinks. Currently in Portland, only the pioneering Whiffies Fried Pies is offering an incentive for its mayor, in the form of discounted pies. Abbott said he first started offering a mayoral incentive informally, to entice frequent Whiffies’ visitors who were using Foursquare.

“I started offering the mayor special and people started showing up to claim it,” he said. “Then the guys from Foursquare called me and asked if I wanted to make the special a thing that’s offered through them.”

Now, Whiffies’ special pops up via ‘push technology‘, which means that when you’re near the cart, a notification tab pops up on your phone notifying you that there is a special deal in the area.

foursquarespecialI asked Abbott why he ‘s the only business in Portland offering a Foursquare special. An avid user of Foursquare since its introduction last year at popular Austin music festival South by Southwest (the same venue Twitter debuted at in 2007) and a user of Foursquare’s predecessor–Dodgeball–before that, Abbott said that like with Twitter, it may take time for business owners to recognize value in Foursquare’s technology.

“Business owners have so much other stuff going on, they don’t really have time to get involved in new technology,” he said.

“I have yet to find a bar or restaurant that’s aware of Foursquare yet,” Mayhew said. “They tend to be curious when I point the application out to them but I don’t know if any have developed any strategies to take advantage of the application. I’d hope that as Foursquare grows, there may be more commercial applications for bar and restaurants to take advantage of.”

Grier also said he saw opportunity for Foursquare to benefit the restaurant industry. “The competitive aspects of FourSquare have the potential to be good for bars and restaurants,” he said. “Competing to be mayor of a place with your friends is fun, and you get points for multiple stops in a night, all of which encourages people to go out more.” But, he agrees, so far Foursquare has been largely overlooked. “So far I haven’t seen restaurants doing anything to formally acknowledge Foursquare. My friend Ron Dollete (from has a secure hold on the mayorship of Carlyle right now, so I’m going to buy a drink for the first person who can unseat him.”

Abbott said he grew his Foursquare community using now-rampantly flourishing Twitter. Like many social media insiders, Abbott draws parallels between Foursquare and Twitter, which, he points out, got off to a slow start. “When I first started using Twitter I had one friend for the first six months,” he said. “We basically used it to text message each other back and forth. It was easier with Foursquare, because I had people following me on Twitter and I started tweeting about Foursquare and people started saying ‘hey I can do that too.’”

Crowley, who said Foursquare is growing by roughly 50 percent monthly, also advocates for the use of Twitter and social media giant Facebook to link friends in with Foursquare. “We have Facebook connect and Twitter connect, and you can promote it by inviting your friends to Facebook and Twitter. We’ve noticed that when people send their checkins to Twitter, it helps.”

“I think FourSquare is a lot like Twitter in that it seems like a weird, pointless application to an outsider. It’s not until you try it and get a few friends participating that you realize how it can enhance your social life,” Grier said. “The best value for me is finding out where my friends are out socializing. When I get off my bar shift I usually like to stop for a drink somewhere. I’m not going to call or text everyone I know who might be out, but if I check FourSquare and see that a few of my friends are at the same place then I may join them. And though it hasn’t happened yet, I expect I’ll meet some new people by realizing via FourSquare that we’re frequenting the same places.”

As Crowley told me, it’s an “awareness thing.”

“It’s not like you get a ping and run and jump in a cab and join your friends, it’s an awareness thing, you know what they’re up to and you know they’re up for something else,” he said.

I tried to raise Foursquare awareness among my friends, one of which frowned and asked, “Why wouldn’t I just use Facebook?”

I asked Crowley the same question.

“Foursquare acts as a filter,” he replied. “It’s a social utility that’s meant to be used when you aren’t in front of your computer–it’s at its best when you aren’t at your computer. You know where people are more than what they’re thinking.

In other words, Foursquare is all about the action, which Crowley validated when he told me the demographic is “people who go out and socialize a lot, who visit lots of different places.”

“Foursquare is all about now,” he said. “Not just what are you doing, but what are you doing in your city, what’s the best way to discover new things to do and new experiences to be had. It’s based more on consuming, and when I say consuming, I mean you’re going out and eating and drinking and doing. You’re consuming–and sharing–experiences.”

Eventually, Crowley said, they envision Foursquare actually helping to generate suggested experiences for users, like having your own virtual guide and event planner. “We want Foursquare to be able to tell you what to do when you aren’t doing something…like, here are 10 things you should be doing, go do them, and we have the tip systems and the task systems to help you.”

If, as Razorfish VP of Experience Planning Garrick Schmitt opined in his recent Ad Age article, experiences “are the new advertising,” then maybe Foursquare is onto something great here, both for consumers of experiences and those providing these experiences, particularly if you’re an adventuresome eater and drinker.

“We want to build something where no matter where you are in the world, you can take your phone out and someone has left you a nugget of advice, like, ‘go into the bar around the corner and ask the bartender about this old story and order this drink,” Crowley said. “I’ve checked in at restaurants in Austin and Foursquare says, ‘order this appetizer and this beer and this dish that’s not on the menu.’ It’s really something special. Nobody else is doing this.”