NEW YORK -- A loyal Foursquare user since 2010, I was annoyed to learn that my favorite "check-in" app was reinventing itself.
The service has split into two and got rid of quirky features such as naming a mayor for each venue.
Foursquare began five years ago as a tool for letting people tell friends where they are. You can check in to a restaurant, a movie theater, rides in a theme park or even the "hot dog man" at Penn Station. The more you check in, the more points, badges and mayorships you earn. They mean little in the real world, but users have competed fiercely for such honors.
It turns out there's not a huge market for this stuff. Foursquare has 50 million users worldwide, compared with Twitter's 271 million, for example. As Facebook, Yelp and other services adopted similar check-in features, Foursquare gradually lost what made it special. The company branched out to become a Yelp-like local recommendations service, with an emphasis on suggesting places based in part on where your friends have checked in.
The new Foursquare focuses on those recommendations and moves the check-in part to a separate app, called Swarm.
After a week with the new Foursquare, I can see why the change was necessary. I've found the app useful for discovering new places in new neighborhoods. Swarm, however, is far less useful. If I wasn't so compulsive about checking in and seeing where friends are, I'd probably delete it.
The first time you use it, the new app lets you choose some "tastes" from a seemingly endless list of keywords that range from "chicken liver toast" to "people watching" to "botanical gardens." These choices come from the millions of tips that Foursquare users have left for restaurants, bars and other spots over the years.
The app then recommends nearby places to go in such categories such as "brunch," "shopping" or "fun." Foursquare will show places that match your tastes, come recommended by Foursquare friends or are generally popular in the area.
During a visit to Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, hungry for a late afternoon lunch, I got suggestions for jerk chicken, pulled pork, mac and cheese, spicy food and "off-menu items." In the mood for brisket and bourbon, I went to Beast of Bourbon. I also checked out items under "fun." Apparently my only option for "fun" was a category called gardens, which included an art gallery and a music venue with a garden. Cool.
The old Foursquare awarded badges for checking in to places often enough. You got a "Hot Tamale" badge for Mexican food or "Porky" for barbecue joints, for instance.
The new Foursquare will give you badges, too, but you no longer get credit for just showing up. Instead, you gain expertise in various categories by leaving tips for other Foursquare users. So far, I'm progressing in pubs, airports and train stations.
-- COMPARISON WITH YELP
It's clear that the new Foursquare is aiming for the Yelp market with the relaunch. It's targeting the hordes out on a Friday night, phones in hand, searching for a place to grab a bite or drink a pint. Foursquare is on to something: It presents its recommendations in a more photo-centric and appealing way than Yelp, which does not personalize its suggestions.
But I don't see one replacing the other. Foursquare has been great in helping me discover new places I might like -- wonderful for travel -- while Yelp is good for searching for specifics such as Vietnamese restaurants that are open now, take credit cards and are within six blocks of where I am.
-- ABOUT THOSE CHECK-INS
Foursquare users get automatically taken to Swarm when they tap the "Check In" icon. If you want to see where your swarming friends are, you can see them on Swarm.
Foursquare says the two functions -- recommendation and socializing -- were separated because people were already using the old app in two different ways that didn't overlap. Either people wanted to see where their friends are, or they were looking for a place to have dinner. That might be true, but unlike the new Foursquare, Swarm feels like a clumsy afterthought.
Foursquare stopped awarding mayorships to the user who checks in to a venue the most often. There is some confusing way to get mayorships on Swarm, the app I have no patience for. It involves competing for the honor with my friends who also use Swarm; let's face it, that's not a big group. A place can now have multiple mayors. That's like saying everyone is a winner, when we all know better.