Where Are You Now? Downtown Tampa? St. Petersburg? Share It On Foursquare

Kevin Paget no longer reigns supreme over his own home. He received an e-mail one August morning alerting him to the person that visits his home most: his girlfriend.

It's become a bit of a game between the two, who live in St. Petersburg. Try to "check-in" at the house the most during the day, enough times to beat the other person for the title of "mayor."
This is Foursquare.

A location-based social network, it doesn't revolve around status updates or 140-character messages. Instead, Foursquare users let others know where they are by "checking in" at certain locations.

The site's logo boasts that it "gives you and your friends new ways of exploring your city."

You can become mayor of any location by being the one who visits it the most. You can unlock different badges for doing things like stopping at a bar so many times in one night (Crunked), checking into 10 different venues (Adventurer), or finding places with photobooths (Photogenic).

At first, I was a little skeptical about this premise. It took me about a week to figure out how to "check in." I consider myself pretty savvy in terms of social networking -- I'm on Facebook, I know how to use Twitter hash tags. But the location-based site Foursquare baffled me. My first thought: Isn't it a little creepy to let people know where I am all the time?

But then my Foursquare friend list grew. I began to take note of some of the places I saw pop up frequently. I slowly began to think of check-ins not as creepy alerts, but as part of a network of locations that provide a neat way to document local hot spots. Something that, as a college student in Tampa, I realized was pretty useful.

Finding Hip Places To Hang

The narrative about the Tampa Bay region often revolves around sandy white beaches, white-haired retirees and political shenanigans. And for Tampa, in particular? Strip clubs.

In May 2010, The Tampa Tribune wrote an article about Tampa hosting the 2010 Republican National Convention. It included a compilation of what other news outlets had to say about Tampa. The Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City, Utah, reported that "Salt Lake officials are smarting a little after the Republican National Committee recommended Tampa to host the 2012 GOP Convention. But it was kind of a no-brainer when you look at it a little more closely. Sure, Utah has its selling points. But Tampa, Tampa has lap dances."

Those of us who have spent more than a couple of days in the Tampa Bay region smart over that image because it's unfair and inaccurate. We know there's more to the region than the clubs on Dale Mabry Highway, and it's reflected on my Foursquare account.

On a weekday afternoon, a quick glance at some recent Foursquare check-in reveals locations far more representative of the Tampa Bay region that I know. As a Foursquare user, you are "friends" with people on Foursquare in the same way you are on Facebook, but you can also see check-ins from people worldwide simply by going to the network's homepage. I browsed through my friends and others in the Tampa Bay region to find these frequently visited local spots:

    •    Midtown Sundries on First Avenue in downtown St Petersburg, a restaurant that has plenty of televisions for sports viewing, a bar and some classic American food.

    •    The Bricks on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, a restaurant/bar opened by the Skatepark of Tampa.

    •    St Pete Brasserie on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, a "typical European brasserie" that serves simple, inexpensive French dishes.

    •    Davis Island Dog Park, 1002 Severn St., Tampa, a fenced-in area for dogs to play on the beach.

    •    Soho Sushi, Bearrs Avenue or West Kennedy Boulevard, a trendy sushi bar that quickly outgrew its humble start-up location on South Howard Avenue.

    •    Artpool, First Avenue in St. Petersburg, a hip collection of art from the community housed in an innovative space created by local artist Marina Williams.

    •    WMNF 88.5 Community Radio, 1210 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Tampa's decades-old, non-profit, listener-sponsored community radio station.

Sharing Where You Are

Kevin Graham, a 29-year-old assistant editor for a military magazine, heard about Foursquare for the first time at Tampa's annual Gasparilla festival. When a bunch of his friends were talking about checking in at the event, Graham was confused. The only Foursquare he knew "was the game we played in elementary school." (It involves a ball, four players, and four squares drawn on the ground.)

A week later, he created an account. Secretly, he says, because he thought the site was "kinda stupid and unnecessary work." Soon, though, Foursquare became more appealing.

"My love grew when I realized you could live more in the moment by checking in on Foursquare than updating your status on Facebook. Sometimes a good Facebook status can have some shelf life. But if you say what you want to say because you're at a particular venue, it's like having the best of both worlds," Graham says.

He is now the mayor of Lifestyle Family Fitness on Hillsborough Avenue in Westchase. He is there at least three times a week, teaching step aerobics classes and working out with his personal trainer. He's also still the mayor of his old place of employment. Though he's been with a new company for a few months, he remains the one who has checked into the Jacobs Technology office building the most.

"Guess they aren't as hip yet," he says. Though it may not have the number of users that Facebook and Twitter do, Foursquare is gaining recognition for its unique location services. Earlier in the year, the St. Petersburg Times told the story of Tampa eye doctor Nathan Bonilla-Warford, a social network enthusiast who had the idea of a new holiday: Foursquare Day.

Through tweets and Facebook pages, the local man's idea made its way to the Foursquare company, who declared on March 26 that April 16 (4/16) would be the first day dedicated to its site.

People worldwide, including groups of people in the Tampa Bay region, celebrated this day, inspired by social media's new mobile service.

Now, the location service has sparked the interest of social media giant Facebook. CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in mid-August the site's newest application, Facebook Places. According to PC World, the service is smartphone-based, and is designed to: Help people share where they are in a social way, see which friends are nearby, discover nearby places and new places through friends' profiles.

Meeting Your Peeps

As days passed after I set up my Foursquare account, e-mail notifications began pouring in, telling me where my friends were. Your friend @ New World Brewery ... @ Daily Eats … @ Ceviche.

Neat places popping up constantly on my screen. Places I had never heard of, but now wanted to check out.

And that's kind of the beauty of the site.

Because you choose your friends, it's likely that you will have similar interests. And you'll want to hang out where they do (if you don't already). This may seem odd, and too telling of the overly social network society in which we live: Going online and easily spotting where your friends are eating, or seeing movies, or spending their Sunday afternoons.

But trust me, it's a lot less creepy and much more useful than it sounds.

Michelle Stark, a freelance writer who is a newspaper/magazine junkie and a caffeine fiend, frequents Tampa's indie clubs/concerts and does Pilates. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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