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Playing Foursquare: A Mobile Social Game That Makes Friend-Finding Fun

foursquare-1 Every year at SXSW developers unleash new products upon the tech-crazy hyper-early adopters hoping their launch will stick. And every year there's one product that's the talk of Austin. Two years ago it was Twitter's debut, even though it's just now hitting the mainstream saturation point. Three years ago, it was something called Dodgeball, a location-based friend-finder that was acquired by Google in 2006 (and was recently shut down). This year, one of the minds behind Dodgeball has come to town with Foursquare, a new location-based, friend-finding application that also incorporates a clever social nightlife game. I met up with co-founder Dennis Crowley (who built Foursquare with Naveen Selvaduri) at Iron Cactus, a place that had already logged over 160 check-ins by Foursquare users as well as some helpful recommendations: "Order the table side guacamole. Yummay."

Foursquare is "50% friend finder," says Crowley, allowing you to "check in" at locations with your mobile device. Using a text-based field that works with the GPS skills of your phone, Foursquare narrows down your possible location and remembers it for next time. It can tell you who's been there—helpful for navigating swarms of partygoers—and what they thought of it—helpful for knowing which parties to skip. Foursquare also plays nice with Twitter; when you check into a location, it can ping your Twitter feed.

foursquare-2 And then there's the really fun part, the game aspect. Points are awarded for how many time users check-in to a certain place; if someone checks in to a certain location the most, they're named the "mayor" of that locale. To add another level of fun, users can also win badges (which look adorably like Girl Scout badges), awarded for certain tasks that Crowley pre-programmed especially for SXSW activities. Check in at the karaoke truck that's wandering the streets and you get the karaoke badge; simply travel 10 miles outside of Austin and another badge automatically pops up on your screen. If you get all 16 badges allocated for Austin, you win...well, nothing. But the next step will be to award high-badge earners with more features, including the ability to make their own badges. "It's nerdy, he says, "but that's what we wanted."

foursquare-3For business owners, says Crowley, Foursquare can tell you who's been where, and with what people, a data source that can not only be useful for marketers, but for companies looking for Yelp-like reviews on their establishments that also include how often people are visiting. Eventually, business owners could use the badge-making feature to create games that reward frequent customers, or leave a trail of clues at locations like a scavenger hunt. "Really, we're rewarding people for getting out and finding new things to do in their city," says Crowley.

Foursquare is currently available in 12 cities and still has a few kinks to work out (Apple approved the iPhone app about six hours before Crowley got on the plane). But just a few days into its release, Foursquare has netted some passionate users. "Someone was angry that they didn't get their badge for going to the Digg party," says Crowley. "He was all bent out of shape. I said I'd see what I could do."