You remember your first time, right? The moment you realized email was more than just cool? Or the web, or blogging, or Facebook, or cellphones, or or or — take your pick. There’s always that moment where you realize that this shiny, new thing actually has value for you, and that’s when you really buy into integrating it into your life.
I’ve been using foursquare for a while and having fun with it, but my “aha” moment finally came last month on a trip to Washington D.C. Foursquare (and services like it) use GPS built-in to your smartphone to locate you. They show you venues nearby and let you “check in” at a specific one. Foursquare treats this like a game, and if you check in often enough at a specific location (and more often than anyone else), you become “the mayor” until someone else has more check-ins there than you do. Foursquare also allows businesses to offer “specials” to those checking in, such as discounts or free items. Other services, like Gowalla, BrightKite, and Loopt, mostly just show you where your friends are, which can be handy if you end up near each other and don’t know it. In general, you can also broadcast your location on Twitter or Facebook, and sometime this year Facebook is supposed to implement its own location-based check-in service.
Sure, it was fun when I was the original mayor of MPOW, and I got a glimpse of how useful a location-based service could be during ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Boston in January, when I could see friends checked in at the convention center or a nearby restaurant. But let’s face it — it wasn’t difficult to become the first mayor of ALA, and you expect to see specific types of checkins at a conference. It’s really the unexpected moments that result in a “whoa” or “aha.”
I had two of those on the D.C. trip. The first happened when I checked in at the National Building Museum and foursquare showed me that “Fiesta Asia Street Fair” was a nearby trending place. This piqued my interest, so I looked it up on the web and found out it was actually the National Asian Heritage Festival, which was happening just a few blocks away on Pennsylvania Avenue. I changed my plans, headed down there, and found music, food, vendors, and more. I had a great time, and I wouldn’t even have known about the Festival if I hadn’t checked in on foursquare at the right time in the right-ish place.
I caught another glimpse of the power of information plus location when we went to dinner that night. I checked in at Rosa Mexicano and got a little popup with historical information about where we were courtesy of The History Channel. I’d read about THC’s campaign using foursquare, but surprisingly I only ran into two factoids twice while in D.C. This first one noted we were at the spot where Samuel Morse opened the world’s first telegraph office.
The second one popped up when I checked in at the National Portrait Gallery. Unfortunately, we’re still at a point where “location” can be a little geographically-challenged, so even though I was precise about where I was checking in, the factoid that displayed was for the nearby International Spy Museum. It was also worded in a way that implied the information was about the Portrait Gallery, which is unfortunate. It’s a good heads up that if you end up writing these kinds of descriptions for a local history tour or other orientation to your town, be sure to be explicit in naming places in the description.
Still, it was pretty cool to have information displayed to me based on my location with very little effort on my part. And while I’m calling this my “foursquare moment,” it’s really my location-based services one. It could have happened on any of them, although foursquare seems to have the most critical mass (I very rarely have to enter a venue anymore) and the “trending places” feature has been unique for me so far.
That said, I’m very interested in Gowalla’s trips feature, which lets you create a tour or itinerary for friends. I’m very intrigued by this, and I believe it could be a great opportunity for libraries to offer local information, but Gowalla didn’t click for me on this trip the way foursquare did. I did dual checkins to both services, and while I think I picked up a couple of random “items” on Gowalla, I also had to enter a couple of venues myself, a sign that it doesn’t have the same adoption rate. I had hoped to find some good D.C. “trips” to consider following, but unfortunately the Gowalla app doesn’t show nearby trips, which sorely limits the utility of the service. Every time I checked nearby trips, I got the same list of national ones, even though the Washington Post recently created one specifically for D.C., as did National Geographic.
I expect to see a lot more use of both services during ALA’s Annual Conference in a few weeks. If you’re attending, make a note of the Gowalla trips ahead of time, because you won’t find them serendipitously via the app. If you’re using foursquare, help us make the conference hotspots trending places. And if you have a smartphone and aren’t using either of these services, you might want to give them a try onsite to see if you have your own aha moment.