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Foursquare looks to make social change, add relevancy with update

by Phil Hornshaw

Social networking platform Foursquare has a new update available for its Android and iOS apps, complete with new features and a new plan to help make social change.

Fashion designer Marc Ecko is using the platform as a means to try to abolish, or at least bring awareness to, corporal punishment in schools. Corporal punishment is the use of physical discipline methods against children, like spankings, for example.

According to Digital Life on Today, Ecko’s campaign, Unlimited Justice, encourages Fouresquare users to use the to “check-in” to their schools. Checking-in is Foursquare’s primary function, and it uses your device’s GPS functionality to log where you are and give you the option to share that information with others. You can also check-in “off the grid,” which means the app notes where you’re checking in without sharing it with your group of friends or making the information public.

Ecko wants users to use Foursquare’s “Tips” capability to make notes about their schools -- specifically, when corporal punishment is used on the premises. The idea is that Foursquare will help get the information out to other people who might attend the school or be thinking about doing so, and get them to think twice: sort of a boycotting effect on schools that use physical discipline on children.

Foursquare 3.0, which hit the Android Market last night, has a big primary change in the addition of the “Explore” tab that lets users search for businesses of different types in the areas around them. The app keeps track of lots of information in order to make recommendations, including the number of users that check in to a given location, places your friends have been that you haven’t, and the frequency and variety of your own check-ins. The idea is that the recommendations are tailored as much as possible to your everyday actions.

Also seeing a big revamp are the various deals and rewards users receive when visiting different businesses. Foursquare is pushing hard to make checking in a worthwhile experience, and that includes adding new categories for various deals users can get from merchants. Now, instead of just occasionally getting a deal for checking in at Fat Burger or becoming the mayor of a Starbucks, users can fulfill different criteria for discounts -- like being one of the first five people to check in to a location at a certain time or checking into the same place repeatedly over a given amount of time. There are seven new kinds of specials available to merchants in 3.0: Check-in, Flash (the first example above), Swarm, Friend, Newbie, Loyalty and the standard Mayor specials.

Another thing that’s seen some attention is the Points system, which allocates users a sort of arbitrary score for doing various things. In earlier versions of Foursquare, points mostly just equated to badges: check-in at four places in a single evening, for example, and you’d receive a specific badge. Travel a certain distance in one day and you’d receive another. Check-in at the same place or become its mayor (a title bestowed on the person who checks-in to a location most frequently during a standard amount of time) and receive a different one.

Now, there are 30 different triggers that allocate points, which are tracked on a big online leaderboard. The idea is to turn Foursquare into more of a game than it ever has been before. Badges persist to document specific achievements, but points are dolled out for smaller-scale actions. The idea is that Foursquare can encourage different behaviors, like frequenting an establishment or trying new places, at the same time that it builds community by making the whole experience a little more fun and competitive.

Between 3.0’s updates and Foursquare’s partnership with Marc Ecko, it seems clear that the social networking platform is hoping to become more relevant in everyday life. Recent years have seen social networking becoming a much more important platform for organization and change -- Twitter and Facebook use in Egypt and Iran, for example. Foursquare has the potential to also encourage such uses, and the step forward with Ecko’s Unlimited Justice campaign seems like the company’s efforts to be more than just a frivolous connection with its users.

But Foursquare isn’t losing sight of the fact that it is best used for linking people together and giving them things to do, and 3.0 is definitely geared toward that. It should also go a long way toward making Foursquare more relevant in the face of its competitors as it works to give users more financial incentives, as well as social and progressive ones, to use the service.