02/16/2011 03:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mayor of Galapagos: A Conversation With Foursquare

In television's early days, typical ads involved a guy standing in front of a camera smoking a Lucky Strike and reading a script. That's simply because it was done that way in the previous golden age: radio.

Early automobile designs similarly included the reigns inherited from their horse-drawn forebears (seriously). That's the way technology goes and that's where we are with mobile media: lots of app features inherited straight from the PC.

But we're starting to see techno-Darwinism unfold as mobile apps are growing into their own skin. One way this is happening is the concept I've badgered readers about for the past few years, recently coined by John Doerr as "SoLoMo".

Besides sounding like something you'd order at Satriale's Deli, it represents the collision of social, local and mobile media. Startups building on this principle include Foursquare, Gowalla, SCVNGR and the many mobile local check-in services that have followed.

But the reason SoLoMo matters is that it's unique to the mobile device; it doesn't make sense on the desktop the same way steering columns didn't fit 19th century horse-drawn carriages. It's the platypus of the mobile app ecosystem.

And it's taking form in local discovery. This shuns the search paradigm that ruled the desktop web in favor of pushing things to you. Deals, suggestions or events are pushed based on your check-ins or social activity as you wander across different tiles of the Earth.

"The core utility is simply getting friends to find each other," Foursqare GM Evan Cohen told me. "Building on that, it's the notion of discovering what you should be doing next, or tonight, or tomorrow, based on your tastes, proclivities and what your friends have done."

Foursquare has gained an early lead among these check-in apps that originated to score virtual badges or brag to friends about the club you just got into. But novelty wears off in mobile apps faster than you can say "swarm badge."

In this environment of techno-Darwinism on crack, Foursquare has been the biggest proponent of evolution. That translates to going beyond badges and mayorships for twenty- something urban foodies, to extend offers of monetary significance.

It's done this for a while with check-in specials, but recently started working with brands like Pepsi to target offers more precisely. This triangulates user interest based on broader patterns of check-ins. Here Cohen takes a page from online behavioral targeting gurus.

"We see ourselves in some ways as the Netflix or the Amazon for the real world," he says. "We do some of that now in showing what's around you, what's trending and friend check-ins. We can do so much more."

More targeted offers could be well timed, as they tap into growing consumer interest in deals and coupons. The love child of recession and recent technology, deals are easily now the hottest area of digital media. Just ask Groupon.

But Groupon primarily exists on the desktop, carried on the back of good old email marketing. Does it make more sense in mobile? The immediacy and buying intent of on-the-go consumers could fill gaps left by Groupon's latent buying cycle.

The idea is to create flash mobs. It's group-buying meets mobile and the merchant ROI happens much faster than Groupon's 24-hour deal clock, not to mention weeks-long redemption cycle. It could work for businesses with dynamic inventory like restaurants.

A Milwaukee bar called AJ Bombers has already done this by offering deals to users that unlock and show Foursquare's Swarm Badge -- the prize for checking into a location with at least 50 other people.

Foursquare isn't public about anything being developed, but Cohen and company are thinking along these lines. Daily deals have an interesting local discovery element, he says, in buying things you wouldn't otherwise seek out, like pottery lessons or hot air balloon rides.

We're now in what I like to call the Friendster stage of location-based services. Winners haven't been crowned, just as Circa-2003 social networking giants couldn't yet see Facebook looming in the rear view mirror (threats may be closer than they appear).

Foursquare shows signs of longevity, if only in the strength of its leadership team. It will likely avoid Friendster's fate, but the big question is who will be the Facebook of this emerging sector (maybe it will be Facebook)? Conversely, who will be the dodo bird?