Foursquare, the location-sharing app that rose from the ashes of the founders’ Google-deleted Dodgeball service, was the breakout of South by Southwest 2009, which makes sense. Although Pepsi is trying its best to transport people to Austin with SXSW livestreams and other coverage, really, you can’t be here without being here. South by Southwest, like Foursquare and real estate, is a case of “location, location, location.”
True to its roots, Foursquare (available for Android, iPhone, Blackberry, Palm, and others) launched version 3.0 of its service (for iPhone and Android) the week before SXSW, with a recommendation engine that finds places to go based on keywords — sort of like a real-world search engine that takes into account places other people and your friends like. It also adds a merchant rewards program to give them more ways to attract Foursquare users and added new SXSW-friendly badges, pictured above.
We asked Foursquare’s head of product Alex Rainert whether Foursquare is scared of Facebook, what the new version means for music fans, whether I can be mayor of a band, why it launched before SXSW this time, and what Charlie Sheen has to do with it (sort of). This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: We’ll get to the music stuff soon, but first, can you sum up what has changed with this new version of Foursquare?
Alex Rainert, Foursquare head of product: The big vision for us is to have Foursquare be an app that you can open up anywhere in the world and it will give you things that you should do, and this is a huge first step in that direction. We’ve had two great years during which we’ve gotten really great data, and we wanted to take that data and use it to help make people’s experiences better — to expose it in an interface that makes sense to a new user. It’s a challenge. So we created main categories for food, coffee, nightlife, shops, and arts and entertainment; we found that these are the things that people are mostly trying to do in the real world.
Evolver.fm: What is the new version of Foursquare going to do for music fans? I can imagine the recommendation feature would come in handy not only in Austin, but any place where live music is a big factor.
Rainert: The new app lets you see parties and venues ebbing and flowing over the course of the night. We launched Trending at the last SXSW and found that people used it to know where to go next, but it’s more robust this year — more venues and more data. The nightlife category [is helpful] in that you can quickly tap “nightlife” and “discoteque” and get recommendations based on that. We also wanted to give people more control — you can type in sushi and get recommendations for that, or things like “gluten-free” or “chocolate chip pancakes” or “karaoke” to search all of the tips people have left about locations. In our internal testing, this is where the delightful moments surfaced because you find those hidden gems that aren’t going to be surfaced by any other recommendation tool out there.
Evolver.fm: A lot of this stuff comes from scale — the amount of data you have. There’s another company that also has a lot of scale, which also does check-ins now, and also starts with a the letter “F.” How worried are you about Facebook?
Rainert: A lot of people on this team have been thinking about location for eight or nine years now [since the Dodgeball days], and Foursquare’s goal has always been to change how you experience the real world. We feel confident in the vision that we have and the direction that we’re headed. We’re happy to see more people play in this space that we’ve been leading and excited about for such a long time now. It just gets more people and more users excited about location.
Evolver.fm: I saw an app called Youzakk at Music Hack Day New York that uses Foursquare check-ins and Hunch to help venues figure out which music to play in order to please their clientele. Is that something Foursquare might look at doing?
Rainert: The new version does include some new kinds of merchant integration that we’ve designed around the social behaviors that we’ve seen on Foursquare: flash specials (i.e. the first 20 people here get 10 percent off) and friend specials (check in with four of your friends and you get 25 percent off your bill). As far as the hack day stuff, we love that stuff — we had a hackathon of our own after that event, and we just love seeing people build stuff like that.
Evolver.fm: Youzakk started me thinking about how the world will start to be designed around people who care less about their privacy. If you don’t mind checking in on Foursquare, your taste can control the music playing at a public venue. But if you care more about your privacy than using this new stuff, your taste won’t be included.
Rainert: From day one, we’ve taken a very user-centered focus on privacy. Everything we do is opt-in, and we give people full control over what they’re sharing and who they’re sharing it with.
Evolver.fm: I was thinking more about what you get for using this: Your environment will start adapting around you to make you happy.
Rainert: Oh, for sure. I think the burden is on us as designers to build products that compel you to want to take part in it, because the value is just that good.
Evolver.fm: SXSW is huge for you guys. Why launch early? And do you expect Foursquare to be as big a deal this year as in years past?
Rainert: A big part of Foursquare is the badges. We don’t consider Foursquare a game, although we recognize the value of using game mechanics to change behaviors. We’ve revisited the leaderboard, which was a huge part of the app when it launched, but now it is richer and rewards many more actions in the real world. The whole product is evolving to the next level, and we like doing that at SXSW because that’s where we started, but also because it’s a great platform to tell a story about your company. The people who made Foursquare what it is and understand what it wants to be are all down there.
Evolver.fm: The “Me” tab on the far right of the app has been redesigned.
Rainert: That’s the new leaderboard. You can see your points from the last seven days, but also how you’re doing in relation to your friends, to get a little of that competitive spirit. There’s no winning and losing –
Evolver.fm: So it’s not a Charlie Sheen thing.
Rainert: Right, there’s no winning, no tiger blood in this release. We’re just trying to build these motivating aspects of the game back into the Foursquare experience.
Evolver.fm: Can I be mayor of a band someday?
Rainert: It’s not currently on the roadmap. What do you mean by that?
Evolver.fm: If I see them the most, I want to be the mayor of them.
Rainert: We’ve always been about places in the real world where you can meet and socially engage. Things like TV shows and bands as they are don’t fit that paradigm for us, but there are ways we’ve been thinking about working with bands that you would be happy about. Nothing immediate though.