I'm referring, of course (ahem), to location-based mobile social networking applications. I've been playing with eight of them lately: Buzzd, CauseWorld, Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, MyTown, Whrrl, and Yelp. These apps all offer ways to find friends, local hot spots, and often both, and they're increasingly incorporating location-based advertising.
I have mixed feelings about the overall craze. I've discovered friends near me through these apps, and I've learned about local destinations. Yet it can get antisocial; I've discreetly checked in under restaurant tables across the country. And when I've really wanted to be discreet, yes, I've done it in the bathroom. It gets to be a problem when you start interacting with the apps so much that you're not interacting with the people in front of you.
After weeks of using some of these and months of using others, I've provided a rundown of how these apps differentiate themselves. To bring them to life for those who aren't actively using them, I've paired each app with a celebrity that personifies it. Note that all references below are to the latest iPhone versions, and the corresponding links go to the iTunes store.
Buzzd: Lindsay Lohan
Buzzd doesn't give a bleep if you're in JFK or the grocery store. It wants to tell you what's hot and where the A-listers are. Are you the party girl -- or the paparazzi? Take a spin with Buzzd, which remains far safer than hanging out with Lohan, since you probably won't wind up in a rehab clinic by sunrise. Buzzd is a little too cool for me so I don't use it as much as the others, but if you're more into bottle service than cupcake trucks, party on.
CauseWorld: Lance Armstrong
I dare you to say something bad about Lance Armstrong. Come on, the guy has won more Tour de Frances than, well, whoever has won the second most Tour de Frances, and now he's become one of the best known faces of philanthropy. CauseWorld may not be as much of a name brand as Armstrong, but it's just as much the do-gooder. Every time you check in somewhere, largely at retailers and restaurants, you earn karma points that you can donate to a number of charities, all thanks to sponsors. The appeal here is all about the charity rather than finding your friends.
Foursquare: Ashton Kutcher
Foursquare's the red-hot celebrity trailblazer. Just like Ashton keeps doing things his own way, from popularizing the cougar craze to starting his own production company, Foursquare is responsible for a lot of how we think about mobile social media, from "merit" badges to local advertising. Foursquare may not be as mainstream as Ashton, but Ashton likes hanging with the geeks and cool kids now anyway. It's tough to say how well Foursquare will play to the masses, as the whole idea of checking in creeps some people out. I still like using it to see if I know people at certain venues, but a lot of the fun of the badges has started to wear off.
Gowalla: Anna Kendrick
You might be thinking, "Anna who?" That's the reaction I still get when talking about Gowalla, even as it racks up investments and increases its global appeal. Kendrick is the younger female lead in "Up in the Air" with that breakthrough performance, and Gowalla is also adorable in its own way with a big opportunity ahead. I like the gaming aspect of it, where you find virtual objects in various locations, and you drop objects of your own to claim spots as a founder. And as Kendrick isn't just a pretty face but brings credible acting chops to her roles, Gowalla has its own talents with locating you and keeping you honest. You can only check in if you're really at or close to a location, something Foursquare doesn't require.
Loopt: Mark-Paul Gosselaar, circa "Saved by the Bell"
You remember Gosselaar. He was an adorable kid during the "Saved by the Bell" middle school years and then became the heartthrob in high school. But his popularity faded when they tried stretching the show to college. I fear the same is happening to Loopt. Sure, it was in Apple's ads for awhile and may have a passionate fan base. But it seems short on features compared to its competition. During its "college" phase now, it's the one I keep forgetting about. Remember though, "Zack Morris" returned to rave reviews in "NYPD Blue" and even played Broadway in a successful run; Loopt still could have a strong second act ahead.
MyTown by Booyah: Ellen DeGeneres
MyTown has the most fun with location-based checkins. It's bright and cheery, and you can't help but get caught up with how much fun it's having -- not unlike watching Ellen do her little dance routines. In MyTown, you buy properties and upgrade them, and then you keep collecting rent while finding new items to boost your points (writing this reminded me that my rent was due). And just like Ellen has done alright making a living off of her shtick, the latest version of MyTown includes various game boosts for sale, both for real dollars and virtual treasure. I spent $1.99 for a pack of "leaderboard wins" that increased my points, and I may have to shell out a bit more. Its popularity is on the rise; TechCrunch reported this month it's bigger than Foursquare and Gowalla.
Whrrl: Dame Helen Mirren
Whrrl's not the newest or the hottest of the apps, and it's been around awhile relative to some of the others. It's more of the artiste, like Dame Mirren, and a bit of a shape-shifter who myou can't always recognize. Whrrl has been through a number of changes in its career, but it remains focused on storytelling, and does the most to encourage sharing captioned photos of where you are. It's not a must-use for me, but I like how it practices its craft, including telling you the most popular spots people go after checking in where you are. Expect more innovation to come from it.
Yelp: Michael Jordan -- on the Chicago White Sox
Yelp's a monster when it comes to review apps, dominating its field. It has the chance to be the Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls style) of review sites, if it doesn't get crushed by Google. But now it's trying a new game, adding check-ins. While users love it for reviews, the notion of checking in is not part of its core purpose. I found myself checking in for the sake of doing so, not because I particularly enjoyed it. Still, when I used Facebook Connect to find which friends were using it, I added dozens of connections instantly, giving me more of a network there than on any other such app.
I'm not getting rid of any of these apps just yet, and I'm sure I'll wind up trying others. But I won't need to check in at every place at every venue, as I'd rather make the most of the time with the people in front of me rather than earning points for broadcasting my whereabouts to others. If the habit's so bad I can't do it at the dinner table, I'm better off not practicing it.