The short history of foursquare contains several ties to South by Southwest, so it’s only fitting that the location-based mobile app will ring in this year’s SXSW by releasing version 3.0 for Android and iPhone devices Tuesday night.
One of the most prominent new features in the updated app is an Explore tab, which offers suggestions based on users’ previous visited places, friends’ visited places, users’ trends, time of day, and other factors.
It was almost exactly two years today that Naveen Selvadurai and I flipped the switch on foursquare, jumped on a plane to Austin, and introduced the folks at SXSW 2009 to our idea of “turning life into a game.” We’ve told the story a number of times, but we really had no idea whether people would dig the “check-ins and game mechanics” model or laugh us out of Texas. As it turned out, a lot of people loved it. By the time we got back to New York, we had 5,000 users. We started a company, raised a round of funding, and hired a bunch of the smartest people we could find.
Last year, we came back to Austin with a slightly bigger team (12 of us!) and more confidence in our ideas. Not only were people digging the “life as a game” idea, but we were seeing foursquare badges actually driving people to do things (“Gym Rat” badge, anyone?), we saw mayorships encouraging loyalty at coffee shops and restaurants, and merchants starting to reward people for their check-ins (“free coffee for the Mayor!”). It wasn’t hard to see how the social utility of check-ins, tips, and to-dos were starting to change the way people experienced both familiar neighborhoods and new cities. We launched “Trending” at SXSW 2010 — a way to see where a critical mass of people were checked in — and watched as people at SXSW used it as a “sixth sense” to know when it was time to switch parties and as a way to choose which panels to gravitate toward. We left Austin last year with just under 500,000 users.
Now it’s a year later and almost 40 of us (!) are about to head down to Austin for SXSW 2011. Our team has grown to just over 50 people, we’re closing in on 7.5 million users, and we saw almost 500,000,000 check-ins (half a billion!!!) in the past year. And while the numbers are great, this was a challenging year for us: scaling infrastructure from 100,000 to 7,500,000 users is hard; growing a company from 5 to 50 people is hard. And that’s why we didn’t expand the foursquare experience as much as we hoped to — a lot of people still look at us as a “game built on check-ins,” while we had dreams of being something much bigger.
For many, foursquare has been a great way to find out about the places your friends frequent (through check-ins) and learn about specific experiences to seek out (through tips and to-dos). For years, we’ve wanted to build a recommendation engine for the real world by turning all of the check-ins and tips we’ve seen from you, your friends, and the larger foursquare community into personalized recommendations.
You’ll see our first pass at this in foursquare 3.0â€²s new “Explore” tab. The idea is pretty simple: Tell us what you’re looking for and we’ll help you find something nearby. The suggestions are based on a little bit of everything — the places you’ve been, the places your friends have visited, your loyalty to your favorite places, the categories and types of places you gravitate toward, what’s popular with other users, the day of the week, places with great tips, the time of day, and so on. We’ll even tell you why we think you should visit a certain place (e.g. popular with friends, similar to your favorite spots). You’ll find it’s helpful for general things like “food,” “coffee,” and “nightlife” (we built in quick access to these searches), and you’ll be surprised by what you get when searching for really specific things, like “80s music,” “fireplaces,” “pancakes,” “bratwurst,” and “romantic.” The more random you get, the more interesting the results get (though be patient with this first release — sometimes we can’t find every random thing).
And outside of the “Explore” tab, you’ll see some of this thinking starting to surface on the “Me” tab, as well. As we started to tinker with our recommendations algorithms, we started to see “expertise” starting to emerge from the data — we’re seeing friends that have been to every karaoke place within 10 miles or tried every burger in Los Angeles. The new “Me” tab surfaces some of this, letting you seek guidance from your friends on the categories and places they explore most.
You’ll see that we’ve replaced our old leaderboard (and its simple points system and Sunday-night reset) with a sliding seven-day barometer of you and your friends. Check-ins now trigger points for dozens of different types of actions — everything from discovering new places, trying new types of restaurants, visiting new cities, getting groups together, hanging out with old friends, and a few things you might not expect.
Anyway, this post was a very long way of saying that we’ve got really ambitious plans for the rest of the year and that we’re excited to let you play with three big new pieces of the master plan. It feels great to be making progress on things we’ve wanted to build for years, and it’s even more exciting to have you all along for the ride. Here’s to a great rest of the year, and we look forward to seeing a bunch of you in Austin!