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Can Twitter Help Power Foursquare’s Future?

Twitter will help Foursquare in its quest to become “the location layer of the Internet.”

Can Twitter Help Power Foursquare’s Future?
[Photo: Flickr user Valtech Sweden]

It seems like yesterday that Foursquare was all the rage at South By Southwest. But six years after the social-location app’s hyped debut, it seemed like everyone in Austin last week was too busy Meerkating to even think about tapping a check-in button. That’s okay, because if Foursquare has a future, it’s going to look very different from the vision the company launched with in 2009.

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In fact, a big chunk of that future is going to look like the apps that still do have your attention. Like Twitter, for instance. Starting today, Foursquare will provide the data that powers Twitter’s new, more specific location-tagging feature. It’s a nice–and arguably overdue–perk for Twitter users, but for Foursquare, the move represents something much bigger.

Twitter joins the likes of Pinterest, Waze, and Flickr on the list of services pulling rich location data from Foursquare’s API. That list included Instagram until about a year ago, when the photo-sharing app dropped Foursquare in favor of homegrown location data from its parent company, Facebook.

Twitter has long supported the addition of location tags, but only with city or neighborhood-level locations like New York, NY or Financial District, Manhattan. By plugging Foursquare’s API into the back end of its service, Twitter will be able to pull much more granular location names–such as businesses and public venues–which are routinely spot-checked by Foursquare’s superusers and internal team members.

It’s not clear how comprehensive the location data will be at launch, but the Twitter support page detailing the new feature says, “In some areas, you have the option to label your Tweet with a specific business, landmark, or point of interest.” Sounds cool. In some areas.

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Foursquare has been going through a little bit of an identity crisis in recent years. After the buzz of its initial launch died down and its competitors proliferated, the company soon found itself rethinking the location “check-in” model and all the cutesy gamification that came with it.

Instead, Foursquare would shift its focus to location discovery and recommendation rather than letting users duke it out to become the “mayor” of their favorite dive bar. Last year, Foursquare split its check-in feature off into a separate app called Swarm, a move that didn’t seem too popular with many users right out of the gate. For its part, the flagship Foursquare app continues to proactively recommend places to go, based on data culled from its million of users.

But Foursquare founder and CEO Dennis Crowley wants you to stop thinking about Foursquare as a company that makes apps, and more like the “location layer of the Internet.”

Explains Crowley in a post on Medium:

I know the history of our company is rooted in the check-in (and all the fun things we did to encourage people to press that “check-in” button), but remember, the big idea was never “build the world’s best check-in button.” The big idea was to create a system that could crawl the world with people in the same way Google crawls web pages with machines. To then put all of what we’ve learned to use in helping people find the best and most interesting experiences in the real world. And to build a company that would bring our vision of context-aware services – software that can learn about the places you’ve been and can proactively recommend places you’d love –to hundreds of millions of people.

At some point, Crowley and his team figured out that depending on users to manually tap a “check-in” button is a pretty inefficient way to build a geo-social map of the world when you can simply just follow their every move.

In addition to building the world’s most accurate place database, we’ve learned how to see buildings the way our phones see them – as shapes and sensor readings on the ground rather than boxes viewed from space. We’ve built software that can understand when people move through, stop within, and then move on from these shapes –whether the shapes are places, neighborhoods, or cities. And we’ve built search and recommendation algorithms that get smarter as they learn about the shapes you choose to spend time in and the shapes you simply pass through.

For Foursquare, its most uniquely valuable asset remains its data. Few companies have built out a database of locations quite this detailed, which is why even companies as established as Twitter are clamoring for it. If it continues down this path, we might not be hearing much about Foursquare at next year’s SXSW, but more people will be using it than ever before.

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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