In real estate, it’s the most important variable in the equation; in 2010, it’s become the topic that seems to be everywhere. Everyone seems to be trying to integrate location-based aspects into their applications these days, but hyper-local has been around for nearly a decade. It’s not a new topic; it’s just one that has taken hold more so than ever before, driven by hardware and technology finally catching up to truly make location accurate and useful. The cool kids are Gowalla and Foursquare, contenders of this year’s SXSWi Geowars, but they have some elephants in the room that could squash them like bugs at any moment — namely Facebook, Google and Twitter.
Being bigger, however, doesn’t necessarily give the behemoths of the tech world an advantage. You still need to convince a built-in audience that you’ve got something compelling and useful enough to use on a regular basis. Google’s Latitude failed to attract a loyal, active user base. Twitter is using geolocation to provide more context around the messages being passed around their network. Foursquare is a closed network where only the people you choose to share your location with are alerted of your whereabouts — with Twitter, once you’ve enabled the ability to track your location, every message you post is publicly tagged with your parameters. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the privacy concerns with that social contract.
Facebook has the most potential to level everyone in their path. They’ve got a 400 million-strong user community that has already been programmed to give up every minute detail of their mostly mundane lives. Giving them an automated way to share where to find you at any given time is the equivalent of hooking an overshare IV up to a too-much-information-aholic. It’s the next logical step in the Facebook equation. They’ve already begun doing it in more subtle ways, with community-created geolocation applications, but you just know a Facebook-branded geolocation app of their own is just around the corner.
Yelp, with over 200,000 iPhone application users, dwarfs Foursquare’s 40,000. Originally, they only provided listings and reviews for bars and restaurants, but recently created a check-in system that is so similar in look and feel to Foursquare it’s almost criminal. The only hurdle left is to convince the people who were only looking for reviews to go the extra step and check into the places they actually decided to go to. There is a pretty wide gap between the passive audience Yelp attracted with listings and getting them to participate in the activity of a very different type of user, who obsessively needs to broadcast their location.
So how did the players manage to make their mark at SXSW? Foursquare picked up press from CNN (who declared them winner of the #geowars), Bloomberg and the New York Times. They used guerrilla marketing this year at SXSWi, armed with chalk and rubber balls to create DIY foursquare courts on the sidewalks just outside the Austin Convention Center. Who needs an overpriced booth inside the building when you can attract both badge holders and the many others who simply make the trip to Austin to attend the events based around the actual conference?
Foursquare spent their money where it counted, at a packed party attended by the likes of Ashton Kutcher, Evan Williams of Twitter, and David Carr of the New York Times. Foursquare was indispensable as a means of tracking where the parties all weekend were. The ones that had the most recent check-ins would appear near the top of the check-in screen, tempting the user to head where the most action was. Quite simply, Foursquare was built for SXSW, and in large cities like New York — where it’s the media crowd equivalent of SXSWi every night — it’s an equally essential social tool.
Foursquare was a virtual pied piper and you could physically see the teeming masses on Monday night being pulled in the directions Foursquare’s trending locations were leading them, especially along the popular bars on Sixth Street. People were led to a Foursquare afterparty by co-founder Dennis Crowley, who later drew attendees from that and a College Humor event across the street to the lobby of the Hilton around 2am for the annual Austin Hilton Backstroke Race, with The Onion‘s Baratunde Thurston among its participants.
Gowalla had the home field advantage, being an Austin-based business. They threw their party the same night as Foursquare at the Belmont. CNET’s Caroline McCarthy was there and reported it as being well-attended and featuring a DJ set by Diplo. I used both applications while in Austin and didn’t see nearly as much activity taking place on Gowalla — there were far fewer check-ins being pushed to Twitter, if any. It could be the New York media bias in my Twitter feed, but it seemed that Foursquare held on to its already significant lead.
Anthony De Rosa is the co-founder of Neighborhoodr.com. His personal tumblr soupsoup.tumblr.com is, according to Compete, in the top 25 of over 2.3 million tumblogs and among the top 200 blogs in the world listed on Technorati.