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Page last updated at 20:07 GMT, Tuesday, 20 April 2010 21:07 UK

Social networking sites take a local approach

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Sharon Carpenter looks at the latest buzz in social networking.

By Sharon Carpenter

A new trend in social media is helping to change the way people interact through online networking sites. Foursquare is the current leader of this emerging trend and is being fuelled by the growing popularity of smartphones and their GPS capabilities.

Foursquare and others utilise the GPS technology in a user's smartphone to pinpoint exactly where that person is. It alerts friends to their whereabouts and gives them valuable information about what is happening around them.

Jeanise Chaplin is one of Foursquare's 800,000 users and is a self-proclaimed addict. She has "checked-in" more than 600 times since January.

"I just like my friends knowing what I'm doing all the time and where I'm at," said Chaplin. "It's faster than being on the phone with them all day."

All in the game

There have been others, such as Loopt and Brightkite, which have yet to take off in the same way. The reason so many people are finding themselves hooked on Foursquare is that it comes in the form of a game.

Mashable.com editor Jennifer Van Grove talks about the impact on local business

Users score points - although no one really knows what they lead to - and can "unlock" a wide range of virtual badges. Attending an event with more than 50 fellow users at the same time will earn you the "Swarm" badge. Buying a gourmet meal or a mere hotdog can unlock the "Foodie" badge.

The most coveted title a user can claim is that of Mayor. Checking in at a venue more times than anyone else will earn you a mayorship and other users will see your name and face when they check in.

Users do take these accomplishments seriously.

"I'm obsessed. I get upset when I get ousted, it's crazy," said Chaplin. "Just the fact that anyone who checks out a location will see me and my picture - it's fantastic!"

Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley realises he has unleashed a new addiction.

"In New York it would be hard to find any place that doesn't have a mayorship," Crowley said. The venues have become much more granular. What started with an airport is now a specific seat on a plane.

"It's how people want to experience it and we let them do whatever they want to do."

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Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley on the success of his business.

Foursquare's direct competitor is a company called Gowalla, which also uses rewards to attract its users. However, both of these year-old sites are about to go head-to-head with bigger players in the industry.

Twitter and Facebook have taken notice of the location-awareness trend and are jumping on it. Twitter recently turned on its GPS feature and any day now Facebook will announce its plans to let its 400 million users share their location with friends.

Implications for advertisers

Consumers are now able to make split second decisions with ease about where to go and what to buy. What is nearby, who is offering specials and what are their friends recommending?

Your comments
If I'm out and someone wants to meet up with me, they'll know how to reach me. Anyone else is just looking for an empty home to rob. All of this is ultimately to build a consumer profile and sell advertising.
Wayne Akiyama
Posted on Facebook

These are the questions that sites like Foursquare can answer at the press of a button and companies have begun to realise the increasing importance of connecting with potential customers on this local and very personal level.

Advertising executive Ian Schafer says the trend can actually offer big pay-offs for businesses, like providing them with valuable information about who their customers are, when they visit and where they go afterwards.

"Understanding where people are going and what people are ordering at any given point in time, these are very key influencers of a decision," Schafer said.

Social media has long been known as a way to connect people in a virtual world, leading to some criticism that it causes isolation from the real world. Now, location-awareness sites seem to be putting the "social" into social networking and bringing people together the old-fashioned way.

The internet has expanded the potential for global communication, but it is also progressing into a tool that can connect neighbours and communities in the physical world. Local, it seems, has become the new global.



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