For a couple of days in early January, I was mayor of The Independent.
This lofty title was bestowed upon me by Foursquare, a new social network and mobile application that experts are calling this year's Twitter. Like a lot of software startups, Foursquare was big in San Francisco, rolled out across the US, and has just been launched worldwide. It's the best example of the biggest thing to hit social media in 2010: "location-based social networking", aka "geo-social networking". Now you can not only tell the world what you're eating for breakfast, you can also show them exactly where you're eating it.
Once you have your Foursquare account, you can crank up the mobile app and (thanks to your phone's GPS capabilities) "check in" every time you visit a restaurant, a bar, a museum, a department store, or even your own office. All you have to do to become the mayor of one of these locations is to check in there more frequently than anyone else. Hence my brief tenure as the civic leader of these premises. Unfortunately one of my Independent colleagues – let's just call him "Jack" – has since wrested the chains of office from me, simply by arriving more punctually than I do in the mornings.
Perhaps the smartest element of the Foursquare service is its competitive edge. Each time you check in to a new spot, you accrue points. You can collect badges like a cub scout: the "Bender" badge, for instance, awarded for checking in to different bars four nights in a row; or the "Photogenic" badge, for checking in to three locations with photobooths. These incentives generate all the more useful personal information for Foursquare to pass on to advertisers.
If you really want to show off, you can link your account to your Twitter feed and announce each new achievement to your followers and rivals. And if you're the sort to eat out every day and party every night, you might even rise to the top of your city's points leaderboard. I have neither the energy, the money nor the motivation for that. In fact, "Jack" is still my sole Foursquare friend.
One evening last week, however, I was in a fashionable licensed establishment in London's East End and decided to check in. When I did, a message popped up on my phone, informing me that a few days previously, "Jack" had patronised a nearby steak restaurant and recommended it highly (except for the chips, which were a bit starchy). Here's where Foursquare really comes into its own, by dott-ing your city with personal advice and endorsements from friends, relevant to wherever you're standing right now. It sure beats any other restaurant and venue review app I've used; if Yelp wants to keep up, it's going to at least have to offer me a Bender badge. Crucially, Foursquare is simple to use and understand, and it looks like being the first proper, international success from the geo-social networking world. A recent survey of mobile social app users by Mashable, a leading tech blog, chose it as the second best after Facebook.
Of course, there's every chance that an upstart like Foursquare could be buried or bought by a tech giant like Apple or Microsoft in the coming months. Google already has a geo-social app called Latitude, which lets you pinpoint your friends on a Google Map if they've chosen to allow it. And Mashable predicts that Facebook will introduce location-based status updates soon (though it will surely nark most low-level Facebook users to receive constant automatic updates along the lines of "Susie is @ Whole Foods Market!"). One of Foursquare's investors is Jack Dorsey of Twitter, so the two services will presumably complement one another ever more closely as time goes on.
If all this sounds a bit new-fangled to you now, it's worth noting that many of the people who spent 2008 complaining that Twitter was a silly service, useful only for sharing your morning menu with the world, have spent 2009 signing up to it in their droves. So don't be surprised if location-based social networking becomes ubiquitous faster than you can say "location-based social networking."
As the final season approaches, Lost producer Damon Lindelof has this to say about the show's climax: "There is certainly a hope that everybody universally loves the ending, but I don't think it would be Lost if there wasn't an ongoing and active debate." In other words: they had no idea how to wrap it up, and we'll all be just as baffled as ever. But at least we'll get our evenings back afterwards.