It's fashionable to bash on Foursquare, the location-based, social, game-like service that clutters social networks and seems like pure self-indulgence. It's a lot more useful than most give it credit for, if you dig in and make smart use of it.
Image from The Jolicloud Blog.
Even if you've never touched Foursquare yourself, there's a good chance you've seen it, in the form of Twitter and Facebook posts that start with "I'm at", and never seem to stop announcing where your friends are spending every minute of their lives. You also get the privilege of seeing when they've become the "Mayor" of a location, or earn a "Badge" for, well, something. But just like there are non-narcissist uses for Twitter, Foursquare can be a useful tool that doesn't annoy the ever-living daylights out of all your friends and contacts.
If you've got a mobile phone with a net connection, or you're always toting a laptop or iPad (you modern road warrior, you), these five bits of advice can make Foursquare worth the very small investment of signing up and, when you feel like it, checking in.
Don't Auto-Post to Twitter or Facebook
It's hard to overstate how crucial this is. Unless your goal is to show the world just how amazingly busy you are, you should not have every single check-in also appear on your Twitter and Facebook profiles. At best, you'll lose a few "friends" and followers that find your high volume of nothingness annoying. At worst, you'll be exposing yourself to all kinds of people who shouldn't know where you are at all times:
- Your boss: "So, 'had the flu' yesterday at the Orioles game, eh?"
- The victims of your little white lies: "So, 'couldn't make' my party yesterday from the Orioles game, eh?"
- Creepy types: Who may want to steal your stuff, approach you with a sales pitch while you're at Starbucks, or interrupt the otherwise perfect quiet evening. Or worse.
- Those who can't resist commenting: Want to waste time going back and forth about that pizza place you just checked into with the shouted description of "Best in Chicago"? Go ahead and put it out on Facebook and Twitter.
What if you just want to share the occasional momentous check-in? You can. Head to your Foursquare settings and "connect" Foursquare to your social accounts, but leave the checkboxes under each service blank. You'll use the Quick Check-In option at most places that don't need broadcasting, but when you do have something to say, use the standard Check-In feature (sometimes tucked away in a sub-menu). You'll have the chance to selectively post to Twitter and/or Facebook, and add a "Shout" or "Tip" — which can be very good karma, as noted below.
Locate Good Food (or Charging Outlets) with "Tips"
On its face, Foursquare is about who is where at what time (and how many times, if you care about Mayorships). But users can add a Tip to locations they end up at, and read up on what other users have said or suggested. In other words, it's like having a very geeky restaurant guide on your phone, so you can see what's surprisingly good at the corner Thai place, learn about discounts and deals at shops and get a general feel for any spot. When I was travelling on the cheap (read: multiple layovers) to Austin, TX for SXSW, I found Foursquare an invaluable resource for finding every possible outlet in the halls and corners of random airports. That's a self-selecting example, sure, but much more useful than searching "#JFK" or "#BUF" on Twitter.
Even if you don't have a FourSquare account, you can test out the veracity of Foursquare tips using FourWhere, a Google Maps/Foursquare mashup. It requires Java, unfortunately, but works pretty well if you've got it.
Better Tracking of Cash Spending and Mileage
Whether you're using your own spreadsheet, a shoebox or a legal pad to track your spending, it can all fall victim to the same traps: faded receipts and faulty memories. Where did you spend that $20 you thought you still had in your wallet? Where did you drive on March 15, and did you swing by Target on your way home? If Foursquare becomes a habit for you, it can serve as a good personal tracker of places visited — and, for the most part, money spent. Heck, you could create an account, never connect it or become friends with anybody, and just use it for the complete check-in history as a real-world correlation of mileage and cash spending.
Find (Occasional) Deals
One of the early promises of Foursquare was that businesses would start handing out free drinks and cupcakes to their mayors and frequent visitors. Huzzah! Unless you live in a major city, though, and happen to visit some very tech-savvy spots, that likely hasn't happened. Still, there are deals to be had and tools to find them. When it's open, Foursquare can notify you of nearby deals. Deal directory SnackSquare lists a few offerings from participating vendors, and the Check In Deals blog has its own little database going. Searching food boards can bring up some surprising offers as well. You won't get rich, but nobody ever complains about two-for-one burgers just for hitting a phone button.
Get Motivated to Actually Go Places
Hey, let's face it — Foursquare uses game mechanics tools to make you want to find your friends and earn "badges" for ridiculous "achievements" like going out three nights in a row. That will have no effect on many smart, centred, productive types. For others, though, it can be a nice reminder that there's an entire world outside your LCD screen, and provide a very easy ice breaker to show up at the gathering spot. Photo by dotbenjamin.
Unchecked, you can find yourself drinking far too many expensive coffee drinks just to compete with your less-busy friends, or keep up your mayorship of the local drug store. Assuming, though, that you understand that your time is important, it can be just a subtle motivator to get out and do things.
That's our semi-rant-y take on why, with a good head on your shoulders, you can't make good use, and have good fun, using Foursquare — or the next geeky geo-social-web whatever that comes along. Disagree? Got another actual use to report? Tell us about it in the comments.