Before I started using Twitter a couple of years ago, I, like many people then and now, assumed it must be the silliest thing ever invented. The stupid name didn't (and doesn't) help. Mainly, I thought people used it for telling the world what they had for lunch, but I then looked into the matter and found that, if it's used correctly, Twitter can be an immeasurably powerful tool.
For a journalist like me who covers specific beats, or for anyone interested in a particular topic, it's a headline service like no other and a great way to find people who belong to particular communities. Of course, for the Slackjaw-American Community, it's still breathtakingly inane, as a quick look through the "trending topics" will tell you. For instance, when I was writing this paragraph the top trending topic was #wowthatscrazy. Sample tweet: "U wun me to do all dat math hmk, read shakespear, aaaannddd study for the economics exam? #wowthatscrazy."
America: Meet your future.
But even for all the shallowness and lowbrow stuff you can find there, Twitter is not the silliest thing ever invented. That would be Foursquare.
As with Twitter, I had my prejudices about Foursquare. A couple of friends used it, and ported their pointless drivel to Facebook -- before I hid either it, or the friends using it, my wall was festooned with update after update about how someone was at the park. Or at Starbucks. Or that they had become the "mayor" of some laundromat. Surely, I thought, there must be more to it than this.
There isn't. I asked my Facebook friends and Twitter followers to please clue me in: I was open to being convinced that Foursquare had some appeal that I was simply missing. A few people tried, but none succeeded. I read widely, but nothing helped. Bottom line: There's not much more to Foursquare than ... telling the world you're at Starbucks. And who gives a rat's ass? (I single out Foursquare because it's the leader in this "market," but everything I'm saying here applies just as well to Loopt, Facebook Places, et al.)
Take one of my Facebook friends, who is, from what I can tell, both smarter and more cosmopolitan than me. And yet, though she's not a heavy Foursquare user, she's a user nonetheless. Other smart friends use it, too. I think this is one of those things -- like "A Prairie Home Companion" or Andy Borowitz -- that some smart, culturally sophisticated people seem to enjoy even though I'm utterly mystified by the appeal.
Foursquare, my friend told me on Facebook, is "a fun game. That's all I see it as -- you rack up points and badges and beat your friends, and sometimes beat strangers." For these reasons, she said, "it's not necessarily as crazy as you think."
I don't know about "crazy," but a competition where you score points by shopping and going to restaurants doesn't seem precisely sensible. Another friend, Erika Cohen, (not a Foursquare user) said she thinks it's all about "ego." Foursquare, she theorized, is for people "who care that everyone knows where they are and what they like."
There's probably something to that, but it doesn't fully answer my questions. I have a pretty big ego (I'm a journalist, it's all we have), but I'm unclear on how one's ego is boosted by informing the world that one is running errands or ordering a Big Mac.
One thing that struck me from the responses I got: While some people mentioned the deals that some businesses offer to Foursquare users, that was far from the chief attraction. For whatever reason, a certain subset of the population simply seems to want to let the world know where they are and what they're doing -- no matter how painfully mundane this information might be.
Still, that subset is large enough for it to make for a real business -- though perhaps not as big a business as some investors seem to believe. A year ago, Foursquare was valued at about $20 million. Now its cofounder, Dennis Crowley, is reportedly seeking a new round of financing that would peg the value at a half-billion dollars. Which is nuts.
Foursquare has about nine million users. It's not fair to compare that to Facebook's hundreds of millions. But think of it this way -- you can just as easily go onto Facebook to tell people you are at KFC. And what's more, you can add some details that your friends might actually find interesting, such as what horrible things the Double Down sandwich is doing to your innards.
And if you insist on simply announcing where you are, there's Facebook Places. That service seems to be more popular among younger generations -- although in general, apparently, teenagers don't really care, or even know about, any of these services. They seem to be most popular among young(ish), tech-savvy, urban adults.
That includes Owen Thomas, longtime tech journalist, editor of the forthcoming publication The Daily Dot, former editor of VentureBeat, and former Silicon Valley gossip writer for Gawker. He has used Foursquare heavily, porting his locational data squibs to Facebook along with near-constant mentions of his dog and updates on his workout regime. I asked him to weigh-in on my Facebook query.
"My dog, Ramona the Love Terrier, marks her territory as she goes," he wrote. "Foursquare lets me do something analogous without getting arrested."
Dan Mitchell has done work for nearly every media organization in the world. That's an exaggeration, but he has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, The Chicago Tribune, and many others.