What the New Foursquare Says About Geo-Local’s Future

Towards the end of 2010, I had a long chat with Dennis Crowley, co-founder and CEO of the New York-based startup Foursquare. I really wanted to talk to him about the state of geo-local, which seemed to have been stuck in neutral for a long time.

It seemed every app was just aping Foursquare and its check-ins. There was little imagination. Sure, there are a handful of interesting apps, and I have written about some of them (Whrrl, for example). But most of the other apps were basically Foursquare facsimiles.

Matt Galligan, co-founder of another location-based services company, San Francisco-based SimpleGeo, has an interesting theory. He believes that because Foursquare was first out of the gate with check-ins and had tasted early success, people thought the check-in was the innovation — not the geo-local aspect of the application. As a result the check-in behavior was quickly imitated and now has become pervasive in the geo-local apps.

My problem with the check-in driven apps is that they treated checking-in as an end in itself. (And unsurprisingly, those apps prompted check-in fatigue.) As my colleague Ryan Kim puts it, “the check-in is like wearing a shirt in a restaurant, without it, you have no service.”

To me, geo-location is just another vector; it’s a way to slice and dice information, filter it and make that information available in a location-relevant manner.

So I asked Crowley if he thought that we would have this world where location defines all content and data consumption experiences? His answer in short was yes, because geo-location is about experiences — not places.

People are giving us one or two or three pieces of data every day about the places they go to. We can cut that data up. This is a new way to look at your neighborhood based on the places you’ve been, and your friends have been to. (You can read my full interview with Crowley here.)

Foursquare had about half a billion check-in last year and recently passed the 7.5 million-user mark. Yesterday, Foursquare launched its new version 3.0 and took the first steps towards this new future. It started offering recommendations based on inputs such as places you visit, places visited by your friends, the type of places they frequent and favorites. In our review of the new Foursquare app, Ryan pointed out that:

Many of the updates put the focus back on check-ins, but infuse the action with much more meaning. Now users have more reasons to check in to places, instead of just broadcasting their location.

Is the new app perfect? Not really, and I would go as far saying not even close. But as an active and avid user of Foursquare, I think this is not only a big step forward for the fledgling service, but I feel that this should have a positive impact on the geo-local ecosystem.

Just as copycats embraced the idea of check-ins, perhaps, now they will also start thinking about the possibilities of local and start building applications that help bring information to us. I suspect that will remain wishful thinking on my part, because the focus will be on two other big upgrades in Foursquare 3.0 — Rewards and Loyalty.

Gilligan thinks that, soon enough, the geo-local coordinates are going become just another feature inside an app, and it will be an app developers ability to layer data on top of that which will help the apps stand out. Makes sense.

After all, in the middle part of the last decade, everyone was trying to build their own social network. When Facebook offered a big social network for other app developers to use, smart companies like Zynga jumped on the opportunity and built social games that have now turned it into a multi-billion dollar company. Geo-location information is going to follow the same trajectory and we going to see what Galligan calls “location aware” applications. So if you are an app developer, there are two things you need to be thinking about:

  • Your app needs to be social. (Facebook Connect and; Twitter make that possible.)
  • Your app needs to have the ability to use location, marry it to other data and offer suggestions to get relevant information easy.

For instance, instagr.am is going to become even more fun (and useful) if it starts aggregating popular photos based on location and creating a local version of the photo stream. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a quick visual glance into the lives of people near you and at the same time have the option of keeping tabs on your entire network of friends?

Looking beyond a photo service, I think it is not hard to imagine that in the very near future we are going to see apps offering “suggestions” much as the new Foursquare app does, and help people do things and connect with each other.

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