Four good uses for Foursquare

Just about everywhere these days, chances are good you’ll see walkers, talkers and (unfortunately) drivers with their faces tilted toward their smart phones as they text and tweet their every move. A byproduct of our digital lives has been an urge to let the world know where we are every moment, whether the world is interested or not.

This is a bane to the digitally uninterested but a boon to everyone else, particularly journalists, who are in the business of finding and talking to people. And topping the list of socially invasive tools with serious people-tracking capabilities is Foursquare, the 3-year-old location-based social networking site for mobile devices that now claims well over 15 million registered users worldwide.

Foursquare utilizes a mobile device’s global-positioning hardware to report where members are at a given moment when they “check in” at venues listed in the application database. The member can acquire “friends,” leave “tips” or advice about each location and post photos. Frequent visits earn travel points and the possibility of becoming “mayor” of that location. Furthermore, Foursquare awards “badges” for patterns of behavior, whether it’s visiting several coffee shops, seeing lots of movies or participating in product promotions.

The useful aspect for journalists is the digital trail Foursquare leaves; they can monitor member movements if they are “friended” by those members. In following this trail, it’s possible to track:

Frequent visitors — Foursquare lists real-time data on location, the current mayor, the latest tips posted by visitors, and the Foursquare identities of frequent visitors. Journalists can sift those lists for potential interview subjects if, say, it’s important to find interview subjects who are knowledgeable about particular locations or the clientele who visit them.

Personal behavior — When members check in at a location, all their friends can see where they are at that moment. Foursquare also displays lists of member badges, mayorships, tips, favorites and approximate arrival time at the last check in. Accumulated points hint at how often members are out and about, so it’s possible to guess an individual’s travel habits.

Trends — Besides seeing where people go, Foursquare shows how many other members are at a location. By clicking “Explore,” and then “Trending,” Foursquare shows potential social hotspots by listing all current check-ins, not just those by members’ friends. Want to find the most popular restaurant, the busiest nightclubs, the best concerts or surprisingly heavy traffic? Just watch where the Foursquare crowd is going.

Location information — Foursquare tips provide reasonably good detail from members about what’s going on at each location, whether it’s bad service at a restaurant or gridlock on the interstate. And Foursquare compiles the tips it receives, helping indicate whether a pattern of activity or potential news is breaking.

Foursquare isn’t the only geo-tracking social medium available, just among the most popular. Other tools worth trying are Gowalla, Loopt, Where, Yelp and, of course, Facebook, which added location-tagging about a year ago.

David Sheets is a sports content editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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