Some of you may be familiar with Foursquare, the fast growing location-based mobile application that encourages people to explore local businesses and check-in for points, potential discounts etc. Like many, I was initially a bit hesitant with the check-in service because I couldn’t quite understand its value.
Two years ago, I asked an early Foursquare adopter what he got out of Foursquare. His response- “It’s the future”- didn’t quite satisfy. Recently, I took another unscientific poll. Responses ranged from: “It’s pretty cool- I get free shots checking in at a bar!” to “It’s pointless.”
Well, let me take a stab. This is primarily an argument for Foursquare, but can also serve as a general defense of technology. It is inspired by a thoughtful post from my dear friend Sarah Kaiser-Cross’s blog about Modern Day Nomads.
In prehistoric times, humans peeked their curious heads out of their caves and thought, “Maybe there’s something beyond this cave. Let me take a look.”
They found rivers to swim in, branches to swing from, and tribes to powwow with. Boom- the world became their playground. Barter systems were established, log cabins constructed, new hunting practices developed.
The world was changed.
Today, we operate on slightly different terms. We peek out of our mobile devices and think, “Maybe there’s something beyond the www. Let’s go out.”
We then venture into the concrete jungle- vastly more commercialized than that of our predecessors -and experience a world replete with social transactions.
The digital sphere thus serves as a supplement. Correction: a lifestyle. We garner Foursquare badges, spout tweets, and virtually check-in. The world whizzes by. It seems like the future has arrived before we’ve fully appreciated the present. But I’d argue it’s not much different from the days of the past.
To me, Foursquare check-ins are just new ways of saying “Hello. Check this place out. And hey, did you know x y & z about it?”- almost like a simple hand wave from one caveman to another. Almost.
In our ‘shrinking world’, it’s easy to decry information overload. Enough! Among my less technologically-inclined friends, I am often sub-consciously in defense mode when it comes to my technological habits. Why do I blog? Why do I tweet? Why do I check-in? Who cares?
Here’s my response. With or without all this virtual chatter, we are all explorers. Discovery is not new; it’s a prehistoric disposition. Foursquare simply aids an innate quality.
Since coming to New York, I’ve used Foursquare to explore my surroundings. I’ve gained helpful tips from user reviews of restaurants I would otherwise know nothing about. Last week, I discovered a new restaurant (The Masala Wala) through Foursquare’s Explore tab, which afterward became the first addition to my list of “regulars”- a compilation of my favorite ‘highly recommended’ places. Just as I have gained value from the opinions and feedback of others, I share and publicize so that others may find my tips helpful as well.
Foursquare is also being used at universities to enhance knowledge of historic buildings on campus. Some universities including the University of Florida are looking into leveraging the Foursquare API so locations on the map can have user-generated content, such as photos, according to Bruce Floyd, lead social media specialist at UF.
We don’t live in an information age, we live in an age of networked intelligence. Foursquare is at the center of this movement to help us discover good things that are worth our time and money through the most basic additions to our existence: fellow humans.
As our world grows smaller, I understand why skeptics continuously ask, WHY? And I appreciate it. To retain our humanity, we must continuously ensure that each new tool truly adds value, lest our minds be inundated with clutter.
For me, Foursquare’s value lies in its ability to tie the past, present, and future. We live in the future with the virtual check-ins, yet engage in communal practices originated from the past, while enhancing our experience NOW.
As Sarah describes, the modern day nomads are the people more businesses will want to resonate with:
The modern day nomads come in every shape, size and color. We are the people who break barriers. We are the people to introduce ourselves to someone who has never met an American, we are the people who eat tongue or intestines and enjoy it, we are the ones who learn the cultural dialect no one else speaks, we are the ones who are changing the world. Never staying in one place, the desire to experience the new, the unknown is unquenchable. Packing up and landing in the next place, the modern day nomads are a continuation of the nomadic developments since the beginning of time. We, however, are different in one very important way. We’ve got Facebook. ha. Just kidding. But really, we have the ability to spread our new-found knowledge, self and cultural awareness to others. Understanding is the only way to stop war, suffering, stereotypes and misinformation. So, fellow nomads, lead well, learn much, and share what you’ve learned so the world can learn with you.
We are explorers. Complain all you want, but technology like Foursquare taps into our human drive for discovery and social connection. Use it and you might find yourself saving money, time, and learning more about the world around you. What can be more basic and beautiful than that?
How did we ever find good restaurants and services before the Internet? I remember the days when observations like “Mrs. Smith told me that her friend’s son’s girlfriend’s mother’s ex-husband recently opened an Italian restaurant that’s pretty decent” were considered highly useful. Based on these sole recommendations, off we’d go to the pizzeria- such adventurers- usually only to be…disappointed. Ah, back to the same old Chinese takeout then.
These days, not a whole lot has actually changed. We still discover places through word of mouth but the web of connections is definitely not single-sourced, and certainly not expressed so confusingly. Instead, the tangled web of connections is known simply as “Yelp”, “Foursquare”, or “Foodspotting”.
I’ve always been a fan of trying new places. When I reviewed food in my little college town of Gainesville, I was like Mowgli exploring the Amazon. So you can imagine what fun I’m having exploring a metropolis like New York.
Yelp and Foursquare have been my travel partners in crime. They’re like those trendy friends who know the ins and outs of the city. They are the go-to experts on everything ranging from the best peppermint cocoa in Brooklyn (Gimme Coffee!- thanks Yelp) to the cheapest salon in the area for an urgent eyebrow waxing need (thanks Foursquare).
However, amid all the plethora of choices, I’ve begun to yearn for a regular go-to place. You know, like that favorite neighborhood diner you frequent far too much? In Gainesville, that was my dear Maude’s (coffeeshop with the best cheescake). Today, I think I found the first locale to start my New York list. The Masala Wala is located on the Lower East Side just a block away from the famous Katz’s Deli. It greeted me with rich brown decor, reminiscent of the aromatic spices of India. The place is small, but that adds to the appeal. I felt comfortable whipping out my laptop and working like I was at Starbucks, even while people around me formally dined. Certainly helped that there was free wi-fi.
My first night here, the waiter gave me a free sample of mango lassi. I ordered the Masala Chai (their staple drink), which paired well with the vegetarian kofta (a pan-fried dish with carrots and beets, pictured above). I returned for the second time today not so much because the food was delicious (though it certainly was), but because of the impeccable service. My waiter last time was so attentive and I couldn’t forget the owner’s welcoming smile, a friendly Indian man who encouraged me to stay as long as I wanted for good food or even just the free wi-fi.
While sipping on Masala Chai today, I met the vision behind the restaurant, Roni Mazumdar, who emerged from the kitchen to tell me the story behind its opening just a month ago. A joint venture between him and his now-retired father, The MasalaWala is the product of years of experimenting and loving authentic Indian food. With a flair for India’s street food, it brings you fast-casual with the usual naan but also some lesser known dishes found under Chat-Pat (Street-Side Favorites). The menu is a mere two pages, not too overwhelming, which thankfully means it might actually be possible to try every dish here at least once. Deliciousness cannot go to waste.
As if I didn’t already like the place enough on taste and decor alone, after hearing Roni’s passionate recount of why he opened the business, I felt more compelled to write and share the goodness of it to all. Roni is a man of many trades- engineer by day, an actor on the side, owner of a production company, and now entrepreneur- but that’s not much of a surprise because you can see all of this incorporated into the restaurant with its sustainability (100% biodegradable tableware) and technological know-how (e-receipts and iPad point of sale!) Super impressed. This is how local business should be done.
I should mention that I stumbled upon this place through a TastingTable newsletter titled “Triply Good Chai in New York” (which by the way was forwarded to me from a friend in Florida). After reading the article, I perused Yelp for reviews (perfect 5-star rating!), Foursquare for tips, and the restaurant’s website for general information and presentation. When a place gets high marks from nearly all parties, you’ve found a gem that cannot be missed.
With the unveiling of some exciting new additions in the near future (Happy Hour with South Asia-influenced drinks, plus Indian-Chinese fusion dishes?!?!) , I am certain that The MasalaWala will be at the forefront of some up-and-coming fast yet sophisticated Indian street food movement.
In a city like New York where transactions are done in 1-2-3, connection is still key. Most customers will come back to a place for its great taste and value, but the most loyal ones are baited for far greater reasons: strong purpose translated into action, a vested interest in customers, and serving them well. Beyond the transaction, connection is key.
My experience today would not have been possible without modern social digital tools. Thanks to TastingTable for notifying, Foursquare and Yelp for verifying its legitimacy, and the thousands of people for writing, rating, and recommending, allowing places of real value to surface.
By the way, The MasalaWala hasn’t had to spend a dime on advertising. When the product is good and you have an engaging online presence, there’s no need. May the word continue to spread.