Foursquare, the smartphone app that gives you points and badges for "checking in" at clubs and convenience stores, is about to reach the one-million-user mark. That's a big deal. But it's also a reminder that, try as we might to cover its every move, most of you haven't tried Foursquare yet. (Or you're using its scrappy archrival, Gowalla.) Here's what to expect when you do:
Stage One: Curiosity
So you've gotten 27 emails about this Foursquare thing, and stupid blogs won't shut up about it, and its always clogging your Twitter feed, and ugh, fine. You'll try it, okay?! "That one guy from Jersey Shore has an account," you think, "so it can't be that complex." As you toy with the app, you realize you can get virtual status symbols for, well, living your life the same way you always have. Suddenly, buying sponges isn't just shopping. It's a quest! For points! And badges! Ditto that trip to the dry cleaners. "Hmm," you think. "This is actually kind of fun..."
Stage Two: Addiction
Once you grasp the basic premise—which usually takes about a day or two—it gets harder and harder to imagine a time when you didn't have an incentive to run everyday errands. You start checking in everywhere: your apartment, your apartment building, your subway stop, your office, your favorite lunch spot, your dentist's office, etc. "It's not oversharing," you tell yourself, "it's the ethos of Foursquare." Eventually, you stumble across a venue that's not in the database, which you can add to receive bonus points. "Jackpot!" you squeal, fist-pumping your iPhone. Everyone arond you glares. They just don't understand.
Stage Three: Socialization
By this point, you've become "friends" with actual people on Foursquare, and you can keep tabs on their whereabouts. In all seriousness, this feature is pretty useful: You can use it to surprise friends/significant others ("Can't believe I ran into you at this obscure nail salon!"), exploit roommates ("I know you're at the grocery store. Don't forget to replace those Pringles you stole."), and even see which bars are buzzin' on Google Maps. "This is way more fun than getting points and badges," you think. And then you discover the Leaderboard.
Stage Four: Greed
Because Foursquare is meant to be a game, of sorts, there are winners (people who check in all over the place) and losers (people who don't). And as soon as you figure this out—generally after a week of just-for-fun use—the novelty wears off, and the competition kicks in. You start guarding venues at which you've been anointed "mayor" (more check-ins than anyone else), just so you can brag about the title. You start frequenting off-the-beaten-path lunch spots, hoping to find a restaurant that hasn't been added (+5 points). You start shopping at different convenience stores, just so you can reap rewards for charting new territory (+3 points). You start checking in as often as possible, hoping to earn those coveted Superstar and Overshare badges. And you may even start cheating, just so you can make outrageous claims like, "I'm the mayor of the North Pole." The whole time, you've also got one eye on the Leaderboard, so you can prove, once and for all, that you are the busiest, most adventurous, most Fouresquare-savvy person in...well, your immediate vicinity.
Stage Five: Apathy
And then, just as suddenly as your Foursquare obsession began, it grinds to a halt. You've checked in at all your usual haunts, explored some new ones, added some others, and scored at least one week atop the Leaderboard. But since the charts reset every week, and you don't get as many points for re-visiting the same places, your moment of glory is fleeting. "Well," you say, sighing, "at least I have my badges." And that's true. You get to keep those forever. But now that you've gotten the basics—Adventurer (10 check-ins), Explorer (25 check-ins), Superstar (50 check-ins)—and maybe a few oddballs, such as "I'm on a Boat!" (checking in on a boat) and Gym Rat (10 check-ins at the gym during one month), you kind of stop caring. What initially excited you about Foursquare—apart from being able to keep tabs on people you know, which you still may want to do—was getting "rewards" for living your everyday life. Once you have to start working for them (spending more money, traveling greater distances), you realize they're not actually worth it.
That, or you start appreciating Foursquare for what it really is: a simple(r) way to stalk your friends.
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