Saturday, March 27, 2010, the King of SXSW

From my seat, it appeared that the social application Foursquare took the crown at this year’s South by Southwest. (Okay, so there isn’t really a King of SXSW, but if there were…) And other location based applications like Gowalla and Loopt weren’t far behind.

What is Foursquare?

Foursquare is a location based social media application. If you’re a Foursquare player, whenever you go to a new venue – a restaurant, a store, the library, or even a church – you “check in” either via text or by a device specific app. (I have it on my iPhone.) The application uses your device’s GPS to “place” you at the venue. Foursquare allows you to see the first name and last initial of other people who are “checked in” at the same venue, and it shows you who is the “Mayor” of that venue. Mayors snag their title by having the most check-ins at that location. As more and more people visit the venue, Foursquare also proves the place’s popularity (at least to other geeks like me people who use Foursquare.)

Foursquare users sometimes even battle for mayorship. (As well they should – many venues have jumped on the Foursquare bandwagon and offer coupons, discounts and other specials to the mayor. I’ve seen everything from a free yogurt for the mayor to a free night at a hotel. Not bad for merely going someplace you would have gone anyway.) Even if you don’t manage to become a mayor, Foursquare also periodically gives you “badges.” You might get a badge like “Crunked” for hitting five joints in one night or “Superstar when you’ve checked in at 50 different venues in your Foursquare history. While badges aren’t redeemable for money or prestige, they are the psychological pellet that keeps many people checking in, and checking in, and checking in…

Foursquare at SXSW

Foursquare debuted at last year’s SXSW, and its popularity showed no signs of waning this year. Just to keep SXSW goers' interest, the application added 15 new badges that could only be earned at SXSW. Badges like Superswarm could only be earned when you checked in at venue where at least 250 other Foursquare players were also checked in. It’s a testament to Foursquare’s popularity that I earned that one on Day One when I was in the SXSW registration line waiting for my badge. (I also earned “Decathlon” for attending 10 sponsored parties, and “Panel Nerd” for hitting five panels. I missed out on the fun ones like the badge that could be earned for taking a ride in Austin’s famous Karaoke RV.)

So What’s the Point?

Many people don’t see the point in playing location based games like Foursquare. Foursquare even spawned the website and application Please Rob Me, which is designed to demonstrate that Foursquare is very public and an invitation to burglars to rob you while your Foursquare stream shows you out of the house.

This is a valid complaint and highlights the fact that you shouldn’t “friend” people you don’t know on Foursquare or add your Foursquare updates to a very public forum like Twitter or Facebook where less-than-good-intentioned acquaintances might hang out.

In my opinion, the point of Foursquare is the same as Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Which is, duh, being social. You won’t forget the first time you check into Foursquare, see another person checked in, and then share that secret little Foursquare nod. Sure it hasn’t happened to me yet, but I can see striking up a conversation with someone based on our mutual degree of Foursquare checked-in-ness. Plus, it’s a way for me to show my love for my favorite venues.

On the downside, yep, I suppose I could be robbed (though people routinely leave their houses for other things – like work), and I suppose a stalker would have a field day on Foursquare. That’s why it makes sense to only “friend” people you trust and definitely think of your privacy when posting your Foursquare whereabouts on very public forums.

As for Foursquare at SXSW, I’ve been left with a gaggle of new Foursquare friends in other cities and a handful of new badges to display with pride on my Foursquare page. A major accomplishment it ain’t, but fun? It’s at least about as fun than the original four square, and even the non-athletic can do it.


  1. I've been having a hard time understanding the reason for the existence of Foursquare, and I was about to have to admit defeat once again until I read the post about virtual reality and the emergence of gaming as a new force in our society. And then I had an aha! moment. Foursquare is an activity. It's a pastime. It's a game! Now I get it.

  2. One of the things that is most exciting – and generally overlooked by the people who actually participate in social media – is the insane power of metrics that are gathered on the back-end of social media Web sites.

    For instance, I “own” the Facebook Group for my band; once a week we get a report that not only details the activity on our page but also captures info on our “fans,” breaking them down by gender, age, etc…

    As soon as I heard about Foursquare, my mind immediately went to the marketing potential of the application.

    For smaller businesses there are the types of benefits you described – come into our restaurant and we’ll give you a free slice of cake if you’re the mayor – check in and get 10% off your bill. That’s not only fun for the consumer, but might get a company a little bit of buzz on Facebook and Twitter.

    I went a bit bigger…allow me to dream.

    Say, I am a fine upstanding organization with a large base of customers – like the Boston Red Sox.

    A customized Red Sox Foursquare would be a total win for fans; think of the merit badge potential. There’s easy gets like check in at Fenway (and what Sox fan wouldn’t want to be the mayor of Fenway Park?); but with national reach, you could get merit badges by checking in at games in different cities around the country.

    And while that is fun for fans, such an application would allow the organization to gather real, hard data as to not only where Red Sox fans go to eat dinner in Boston – but where they go during games in other cities. If I’m the Sox, I want to know where my fan base travels in the off season. If I know where they are, I can better spend advertising dollars.

    The mere thought of easily tracking customers – in real time – without coercing them makes every little marketing nerve in my body tingle with delight.

  3. Chris, You are such a smarty! I didn't even think of Foursquare in that way. I want your marketing brain!