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Foursquare: The 21st century's version of 'Killroy was here'?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  January 28, 2010 07:15 AM

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Did you realize that John Harvard's Brew House, the Weston toll booths, and the Back Bay Filene's Basement all have mayors? None were popularly elected, but none were tainted by under-the-table campaign contributions, either.

If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you're clearly not a Foursquare user...yet. The mobile phone software and accompanying Web site turn your daily peregrinations into a competition: every time you venture somewhere (your neighborhood Dunkin' Donuts, or the Boston Garden), you use the Foursquare app or mobile Web site to "check in," getting credit for being there. The person who has checked in the most at a particular location becomes the mayor at least until someone else shows up more often and steals the title.

It's a way of virtually tagging your regular hang-outs. Foursquare also enables you to see which other users have checked in at a place you frequent, or leave comments and recommendations: try the mac-and-cheese at John Harvard's, even though it's pricey, suggests one Foursquare user.

The app has become addictive for some folks in the Boston area. IBM employee Eric Andersen has amassed points for checking in nearly 1800 times, and has been awarded mayorships of almost 100 locations, like the Harvard Square Boloco restaurant, the MIT Press bookstore in Kendall Square, and the Williams-Sonoma shop at the Natick Collection mall. Social media consultant Joselin Mane is no slouch either, having surpassed 1000 check-ins and become mayor, somehow, of Microsoft's research lab in Cambridge (despite not actually working there.)

Foursquare offers an interesting window into where people spend time. Internet video expert Steve Garfield is mayor of the J.P. Lick's in Jamaica Plain (where he recommends the lactose-free vanilla.) Venture capitalist Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital seems to spend a lot of time at Sudbury's Oishii Too Sushi Bar and The Palm steakhouse in Boston. HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah has become mayor of Rani Indian Bistro in Brookline and General Catalyst, one of the VC firms that funded his company. Part-time Arlingtonian Doc Searls, a blogger, author, and fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is mayor of the #77 MTBA bus that runs down Massachusetts Avenue. Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law School prof also associated with the Berkman Center, holds the mayorship of the Moakley U.S. Courthouse in South Boston. Mass High Tech editor Doug Banks is a diner kind of guy (who knew), having used Foursquare to establish his Fonzi-ness at the Action Diner and Lunchbox Diner in Malden. Some people, like entrepreneur Nabeel Hyatt, hold mayorships only where they work (Cambridge's Conduit Labs.)

Foursquare user Susan Kaup says that for her, Foursquare "makes what I'm already doing more of an adventure." It's an opportunity for Kaup, a digital marketer and event planner who lives in Somerville, to share her advice with strangers. At the West Side Lounge in Cambridge, she posted an endorsement of the "amazingly delicious grapefruit gimlet" there.

Some local Foursquare users check in from unusual spots. PR guy and event organizer Chuck Tanowitz has become the mayor of the Law Office of Ellen Rappaport Tanowitz in Newton. (He happens to be married to the good solicitor.) Creating Foursquare locations like that can help generate awareness about a business within the social media sphere. Tanowitz is also mayor of the Taste Coffee House in Newtonville, where he runs a weekly gathering for self-employed PR consultants.

(I tried Foursquare last summer but found it annoying to check in, especially when the app repeatedly failed to recognize where I was, or accept the new locations that I tried to add to its database.)

Andersen, the IBMer who is on his way to becoming the Foursquare mayor of all eastern Massachusetts, says, "I check in to pretty much every place I go," and that he's made new acquaintances using the application, noticing others who frequent his hang-outs. But he contends that he's not a socialite or club kid, spending every night of the week out on the town: "Sometimes it's just checking in on a boring Saturday when I have to go to 11 different places, like Home Depot and the cleaner."

He recounts a recent bloodless revolution at Toscanini's ice cream shop in Central Square, where he ousted the sitting mayor by showing up frequently and either ordering iced cream or a spiced butterscotch latte.

The former mayor, marketing executive Ace Battacharjya, can console himself, though, in his remaining mayorships of Boston's Petit Robert Bistro and House of Siam.

Here's a list of some of Boston's most hard-core Foursquare players, based on their number of check-ins.

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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