Yesterday I was contacted by Tyler Dukes from News 14 Carolina, our local cable news channel, requesting an interview about the launch a Foursquare, a location-based social network. The program has rolled out in a number of larger cities, and just added Raleigh to its roster of nearly 40 cities. Here’s the text of the complete article below, and here’s the link to read it in context. And, yes, they did call me Jeffrey, but I told them to, and that’s a different story.
RALEIGH – Jeffrey Cohen was surprised to learn that the social media application Foursquare was launching in the Raleigh-Durham area Thursday.
Just two days earlier, Cohen had been selected as one of five beta testers for the application, which combines elements of social networking and friendly competition to help users explore their cities.
After downloading Foursquare on their smartphones, users can search for anything from restaurants to entertainment venues, then “check-in” when they visit using their built-in GPS. That information is passed along to the user’s friends, along with any reviews or recommendations they might have.
“It is essentially a location-based social network,” Cohen, a marketing and social media strategist based in Durham, said.
But in a phone interview Thursday, Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley said the lead time for the beta testers shouldn’t have been too shocking, given the size of his team.
“It’s four guys sitting around a table,” Crowley said with a laugh. “It’s less formal than you’d think.”
After starting with an initial list of places, Foursquare depends on users like Cohen to add to its local directory, essentially creating a crowdsourced database of — ideally — every business in the area.
“Once we have enough content, the users fill in the blanks,” Crowley said.
Users have already begun this process in 23 cities around the world, from Atlanta to Amsterdam. But Thursday, the start-up firm announced it was expanding the service to 15 additional places, with Raleigh-Durham among them. The service adds cities based on user feedback on its Web site.
Location-based social networks aren’t necessarily anything new. Services like BrightKite and Loopt allow users to share things like photos or places they’ve visited. The microblogging service Twitter recently announced it would add location services as well.
But for Cohen, the defining feature of Foursquare is the competitive element. Every time users check in with the service, whether at a bar or a city park, they receive points. Those points are compared to other users who visit the same place, creating a virtual hierarchy.
“It actually has a leaderboard,” Cohen said. “The more times you check in, the more time it accumulates.”
The user with the most points — or “mayor” in Foursquare parlance — is selected for each location every week. Users can even cash in their titles at participating businesses for freebies or discounts.
“Today I became mayor of Open-Eye Cafe of Carrboro,” Cohen said. “The leaderboard is one of the key things. It adds a competitive element to it.”
Crowley said points can also earn users specialized badges created by Foursquare programmers and often recommended by users.
For example, he said, “if you’ve been to too many karaoke bars, you get the Don’t Stop Believin’ badge.”
The element of competition and the chance for reward has so far kept users coming back.
“It’s really sticky,” Crowley said. “Once you start using it, you get addicted to it.”
And Cohen can attest to that.
“I feel like I need to drive around and go to places to check in to be on the leaderboard,” he said.
But Cohen points out that the service is mostly limited to smartphone users. Although users can access Foursquare on the Web, it has limited functionality compared to the mobile version. Crowley said that’s intentional.
“What we do is build things for phones to make cities easier to use,” Crowley said.
As with all location-aware programs, Cohen said a lot of people are hesitant to broadcast their whereabouts to a large audience. Often, he said, some of the same concerns come up.
“Do you really want people to know where you are every minute?” Cohen said. “If you check in at a coffee shop, people will know you’re not home.”
But he points out that users control what information they put out and who will see it.
Crowley said that control is important to users, and his small team has focused on this element since they first began Foursquare in 12 cities back in March.
“You don’t want everyone to know where you are all the time. You want some of your friends to know where you are some of the time,” Crowley said. “That’s what we’re trying to help you do.”