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Foursquare courts the rest of us

A revamp for the location-based networking service both differentiates it from big new competitor Facebook Places and potentially makes it appeal to an audience beyond the hard-core user.

Yesterday morning, thousands of New York-based users of geolocation service Foursquare received a "check-in" that had nothing to do with a friend announcing her presence at a Starbucks or a co-worker logging a breakfast meeting in midtown: It was a news alert from The Wall Street Journal, informing them that Metro-North commuter rail service was suspended due to a fire on a bridge over the Harlem River.

If you were, say, a Philadelphia-based Foursquare user who "followed" The Wall Street Journal account, you wouldn't have received the alert. Nor would it have shown up on the screen of your smartphone, if you were a New Yorker who had recently checked in out of town. It's a breaking-news application that can actually work on a local scale, and it's probably not what Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley initially envisioned geolocation could do when he built Foursquare's predecessor, Dodgeball--a where-you-at text-messaging service that primarily served to help party-happy urbanites find where the beer was flowing, until Google purchased it and eventually shut it down.

But Foursquare's already grown up beyond what Dodgeball ever was, even when you discount the obvious technological advances that took place in the meantime (the proliferation of smartphones with data plans, the rise of app platforms). And it's going to have to push further, now that your location is the latest addition to the portfolio of "things about you that Facebook wants to own."

A "Foursquare 2.0" app, released on Monday, after weeks of under-the-radar alpha testing, attempts to tackle the dual goals of locking up the marketing and media worlds on its service, as well as appealing to the demographic that tech entrepreneurs sometimes refer to jokingly as "the normals"--the people who, shockingly, may not be all that drawn to an application that lets them tell the world where they are.

What's new in Foursquare 2.0? There's a bigger focus on "tips" pushed on behalf of users, as well as brands like restaurant guide publisher Zagat, lifestyle TV shows from Bravo, and the aforementioned Wall Street Journal. There's also a new addition to the Web interface that lets users amass lists of brands' and bloggers' tips through an easily distributed "Add to my Foursquare" button. If Foursquare, as its founders have pitched it, is one part social-networking service and one part custom city guide, Foursquare 2.0 tilts it slightly more in the direction of city guide.

The launch of Facebook Places last month was probably a scary one for Foursquare, which had been kept largely in the dark about what the massive social network was cooking up. And, indeed, it replicated the "check-in" nearly by rote. But the lucky break for Foursquare here was that Facebook Places seemed focused exclusively on the ability to tell your friends where you are and log your location as though it were a status message. There was not, as an Advertising Age story had speculated in May, an array of brand partners on board to use Facebook Places for promotions. Nor has there been a rush of developers looking to seize upon Facebook geotagging. Facebook Places, since its launch, has been quiet--maybe too quiet.

Foursquare, meanwhile, opted to keep turning up the volume. The company now distributes physical stickers to encourage small businesses to advertise their Foursquare deals on their storefronts, keeps bringing new media outlets and publishers on board, and was conveniently able to sync up with restaurant blog title Eater (whose publishing parent is housed in the same downtown New York building as Foursquare), as it launched a venue directory, complete with "Add to my Foursquare" buttons, in time for the New York Wine and Food Festival this week.

The new Foursquare, consequently, is less about pushing out your location and more about pulling in what's around you, be it a celebrity chef's tips for dining in Las Vegas or news alerts about electrical power on the fritz. It's annotation and organization, not simply checking in.

Still, amid the flurry of new partnerships, new gimmicks, and new design tweaks, there's not a whole lot of talk about whether this will turn Foursquare into a profitable business, as tired as it may be to flog the concept of a trendy Web start-up without a solid revenue model. The company reportedly charges in the five figures for a sponsored "badge," but if Foursquare 2.0 is any indication, the relatively static virtual achievements that first got the early-adopter crowd hooked on Foursquare may be one of the app's more faddish attributes. Facilitating a system of mutable, customized information that changes with both time and location is more interesting, but the path to making a (sustainable) few bucks off it isn't particularly easy.

Maybe that's what will be revealed in "Foursquare 3.0: Show Me The Money." As we await that riveting installment, at least its just-released prequel can tell us where to buy tasty popcorn.