Image: Nerd Merit Badges
Nerd Merit Badges
Check it out! Ain't these just adorable? Now, when you earn merit badges on Foursquare, you can buy the corporeal versions at www.nerdmeritbadges.com!
Helen Popkin
By
msnbc.com
updated 3/17/2010 8:47:13 AM ET 2010-03-17T12:47:13

The battle for my gentleman friend’s attention used to be between me and his cell phone. Now it’s between me and Foursquare, and kids … it ain’t lookin’ good for me.

Saturday nights were punctuated by the constant ring of his phone, each call a “possible emergency” … you never know. Now it’s a single application on my gentleman friend’s iPhone that needs regular tending, for each location in our travels must be immediately checked on Foursquare. And as long as the app is open, why not check for tips from friends who have been at this bar or gallery before, and have a look to see what his Foursquare friends are up to?

Sigh.

Foursquare, if you don’t know yet, is a hipster-habituated, location-based social networking Web site in which you earn virtual merit badges by punching your coordinates into your iPhone (or whatever) whenever you hit a bar, brunchery, gallery — or hook up with other Foursquare friends.

(Hitting four spots in one night earns you the “Crunked” badge. Checking in with three members of the opposite sex gets you the “Player Please!” badge. Meanwhile, check in at one place enough times and you may earn the “Mayor” title. You get the idea. )

Image: Foursquare Boy
Foursquare
This is the dude version of the Foursquare logo. He's tossing one of those big red P.E. balls (the kind that make that satisfying, resonating spank sound upon hitting someone), not bowling. I sort of hate this kid.
If you haven’t heard of Foursquare — let alone “location-based social networking” — it’s probably because you don’t live in a major metropolitan area and/or aren’t a social media nerd.

Here in New York City, a major metropolitan area lousy with social media nerds, I can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a friend or acquaintance in the act of notifying Foursquare pals about what groovy establishment he or she is chilling at right that very moment. (Not that I would swing a dead cat. That’s wrong.) Soon enough — just like that Facebook you said you’d never use and the Twitter you just didn’t get, that may very well be you.

Recently, Foursquare, which has approximately 500,000 users, made a big splash at the interactive portion of the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. SXSW is like Burning Man for social media nerds … unless Burning Man is Burning Man for social media nerds. Hmmm.

Well, anyway, SXSW is a big nerd conference where lots of nerd leaders make keynote speeches, the highlights of which are tweeted by their nerd minions. Also, a bunch of startups and whatnot host booths and give away lots of swag in an attempt to convince industry-types that they’re the next big thing. (If I sound bitter, it’s because I never get to go.)

Foursquare was the belle of the ball when it premiered at SXSW last year, and this year it’s touted as the social network to beat at the center of what the technorati are calling the “location war.” The guys behind Foursquare are also the guys behind Dodgeball, a similar location-based social network that was acquired, then killed, by Google.

Back in the Dodgeball days, GPS-enabled smart phones weren’t as prevalent or effective as they are today. Now everyone wants a piece of the location-based mobile advertising dollar. Gowalla, which is a lot harder to cheat (log into places you didn’t go) because it requires GPS coordinates, is coming up fast. Facebook and Twitter — both developing location-based features — are snapping at Foursquare’s heels.

None of the other location-based social networks have merit badges, however. Foursquare has loads – each more entertaining than the next. These charming virtual prizes are compelling to earn and may be just the bit of creative genius that keeps Foursquare ahead of the pack.

(And now, you can even buy corporeal versions of the merit badges at the Nerd Merit Badges Web site.)

Earning the merit badges on Foursquare isn’t as easy as you might think — the exact behavior algorithm is sort of a secret, so it’s tough to know what activities will get you one.

Holding the title of “Mayor” at 16 or 17 locations earned Internet-famous art blogger/Foursquare friend Paddy Johnson the coveted “Super Mayor” badge. She’s even “Mayor” of the Detroit airport, because she’s checked in there twice. (She will, of course, lose that title once another Foursquare member checks in three times.)

“I wouldn’t say I use it because of the (merit badges) but I do feel disappointed when I see I’ve lost a mayorialship,” Paddy says. She also boasts the “Warhol” badge (for many, many art gallery check ins) and the “Far and Away” badge (for traveling to the scary netherworld above 57th Street in Manhattan).

Despite Paddy's merit badge treasures, “I’m still disappointed that I haven’t got the ‘Douchebag’ badge,” which one achieves by frequenting bars frequented by … well … you know.

Mostly, however Paddy says she uses Foursquare as sort of a digital Day Runner to keep track of all the places she’s been and the things she’s done. “I do a lot,”she says. “I want a record of it.” As the early badges imply, Foursquare was launched, and is most useful, for those with an active nightlife. But not so much Paddy’s kind of nightlife.

“I hate the art world!” Paddy says. But really, Paddy doesn’t hate the art world. If she did, blogging about art would be just weird. She’s frustrated that more of the art world isn’t on Foursquare, where it would do her some good during gallery openings and art fairs.

“Galleries have these analog versions of Foursquare,” she says, referring to the guest books often posted at the desk. Those, people use —to both sign in and see who else stopped by. But you can’t tell you if those people are still in the area.

During the New York City art openings in September, “I had 30 friends I wanted to meet up with, and I couldn’t really text them all at the same time,” Paddy says. Foursquare would’ve really come in handy. “There aren’t enough people in the art world or other professions yet to make Foursquare really effective,” she says.

Maybe you’ve read this far into the article and you’re still all, “No way! Foursquare (and by association, any other location-based social network) is something I will never do.” And if you’re me, with my formidable history of stalkers, you probably won’t. Otherwise, you probably will. Just like you joined Facebook.

Anyway, it’s not about you. Neither is Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Friendster before that.(Hey, remember Friendster?)

All these new-fangled social networks that play to our narcissism and our need to belong are tools for capitalism. You know, ways to sell you crap. How can Foursquare and other such networks sell advertising, which in turn will attempt to sell you crap? Take Foursquare friend André Sala.

The other night André’s sitting on the couch, watching TV and poking around on Foursquare. He notices that a lot of people are checking in at the Mercury Lounge, a music venue a few blocks from where he lives.

Digital guy that he is, André heads over to Twitter search, plugs in “Mercury Lounge,” and learns that his most favoritest band MGMT is having some sort of super-secret record release party via a bunch of tweets that pretty much read like this: "holy s***, MGMT coming on stage, performing their new album, and mercury lounge is half empty."

This is exactly how location-based social media is supposed to work. Well, this is exactly how location-based social media is supposed to work if André bolted off the couch and over to the Mercury Lounge, thus benefitting the venue and any surrounding businesses Foursquare might recommend once André “checked in.”

“Sadly, I'm a lazy old man and didn't actually get dressed and head out,” the … ahem … 29-year-old says — not that he didn’t appreciate the social network synergy. “I thought it was pretty magic,” he says.

Of course, this is only magic for Foursquare if, unlike André, most people get off the couch.

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