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A check-in at Foursquare HQ (and with founder Dennis Crowley)

NEW YORK -- One of my last stops on my Oct. 11 day trip to Manhattan had nothing to do with Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 launch. Instead, I headed across town to Foursquare's offices.

Or, I should say, "office" -- this start-up, which lets you share your location with selected friends, occupies most of a wide-open floor in the same historic Cooper Square building as the Village Voice. It's not exactly a hierarchical space: The T-shirt-clad fellow hunched over a computer who greeted me as I exited the elevator was founder Dennis Crowley.


(Yes, I checked into Foursquare's HQ on my phone. No, that doesn't get you one of the site's virtual badges, although collecting enough business cards from Foursquare staff can.)

My first question for Crowley, speaking as a traditional-media guy, was about business models: How are you making money? His new-media answer: We don't have to yet. The company just collected a second round of funding, giving it room to experiment with different revenue streams from "brands and media partnerships," Crowley said.

As one example of what that might mean, a check-in at a local farmer's market a few weeks ago earned me a "CNN Healthy Eater" badge.

But one possibility Crowley had suggested last winter -- converting the bragging-rights points you can rack up each week into things like frequent-flier miles -- doesn't seem like it will pan out.

Then I asked about the competition posed by Facebook's new Places check-in feature.

Crowley said he expected that -- "We knew they'd get into the location thing" -- but said it would only help Foursquare's visibility: "Facebook is teaching the rest of the world what a check-in is."

In an e-mail Oct. 12, Crowley followed up on that unsurprising answer, describing check-ins as "the atomic unit of mobile social," on which you can build different services.

In the short term, Foursquare's ability to cope with growth might be a bigger issue. It melted down twice last week, because of what Crowley described as glitches happening "in a huge cascading fashion."

My last technical query covered smartphone programs. Crowley said its iPhone, Android and BlackBerry apps dominate its check-ins, and the company continues to expand the selection, with a Symbian app just released and a Windows Phone 7 version in the works.

Then I quizzed Crowley about his own use of the site, as part of my ongoing inquiry into the etiquette of social media.

Do you, I asked, check into your home? What about your office? He answered that he did that only if he had something to communicate to other people in the "Shout" part of the check-in -- for example, he checked into his home recently "to announce that my girlfriend made me a sandwich." (It was a really good sandwich, he explained.)

Are there any types of places that the founder of Foursquare won't check into as a matter of habit or principle? Not really, although Crowley said he's largely avoided some popular categories of check-in; he checked into a supermarket for the first time the day before my interview.

What about Foursquare friends requests from random people (a pet peeve of mine)? Crowley said "the people I am friends with is a pretty tight list" -- then, when I asked him about the 500-plus people listed on his account, he e-mailed that he'd given up on selectivity for a while to help promote the service and had been meaning to clean up that list. His account also lists a few thousand "followers," a recent feature added for boldface-name types who might want to publicize only some appearances.

Although Crowley said he uses Foursquare's "off the grid" feature -- in which even your friends don't see where you are -- maybe "once a week," he also shares his check-ins on his Twitter account. (Publicist Erin Gleason estimated that a bit over 20 percent of all check-ins get shared on Twitter or Facebook.)

So Crowley's living a more public life than I would recommend. But he also seems to use his service in a different manner than most.

Foursquare's setup allows multiple functions -- as he wrote in his e-mail, it can help you discover new places to go, it can double as a loyalty program for frequent customers or it can help you leave "social breadcrumbs" to remind you where you've been. But he uses it as more of a journalistic medium, in which the check-in is the news peg on which to hang some new tidbit.

"I use this as a way to tell stories about the places I'm in," Crowley said. "I think of the shout as I walk into the place."

I realized on the train home that the Foursquare founder's use of his site might more closely resemble how Facebook intends its Places feature to work. Which, I suppose, only shows how unformed this market is.

If you've begun using a check-in service -- Foursquare's, Facebook's, Yelp's or somebody else's -- what do you get out of it? Is that what you originally had in mind? (Those of you who have avoided this entire service may instead use the comments to ask what's wrong with us.)

By Rob Pegoraro  | October 12, 2010; 2:52 PM ET
Categories:  Location awareness, Privacy, Social media  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Close up with Windows Phone 7
Next: Facebook adds one-time passwords, remote logout


Ok, I'll bite. What's wrong with y'all?

Posted by: tfp_wnc | October 12, 2010 10:45 PM | Report abuse

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