So, what exactly is different in the new Foursquare, the little location service that could? Technically, everything is different. "Five or six months ago we set off on this process to take all the things we've built and think about what we have, then took them apart and put them back together to reflect the direction we're going as company," Alex Rainert, Foursquare's head of product, tells me.
You might actually wonder what that direction is, in a way, since Foursquare seems to be pushing in multiple different directions with Foursquare 5.0 — it doesn't look like it's exactly focusing on one thing. For instance, Foursquare's redesign makes it more like the other social networks, in some ways. The main feed is newfeedier, surfacing comments and photos in way that almost feels less Foursquare and more Facebook+. And there are hints of the kind of typography and photo layouts we've seen in the new Google+ mobile app, Facebook Camera and Instagram. It's nice.
But ignore that stuff right now. Just focus on what's in the middle of the new taskbar: Explore. That's where things are going. More specifically, that's where you're going.
I've already said that Explore, which tries to divine places you'd like to go based on where your friends have gone, where you've been before, and where people like you go, makes Foursquare better than Yelp. Rainert says that since it launched last year, the Explore team is the fastest growing one inside of Foursquare. This isn't surprising, and you don't even have to look inside of Foursquare to see why — just look at the launch of Google+ Local.
The question, "Where should I go to eat/drink/exercise/whatever?" is a kind of search. And for all the talk of layering a person's social graph on top of their searches, it's one of the things where it perhaps makes the most sense to do that. After all, who knows you and what you like better than your friends? (And who knows the real world better than real people?) The problem I potentially see with Google+ Local is basically the same one everybody sees with Google+ proper: If not enough people use it, it means weaker social data and lamer recommendations.
Foursquare hasn't been immune to this problem, either, since it uses entirely homegrown data for Explore (it doesn't pull any info from outside sources, except for menus): Since moving from New York to the Atlanta area, I've noticed the quality of Explore recommendations dropped precipitously, since I have fewer friends in Atlanta than in New York, and they're not as hardcore about food.
This is one of the things that should get better, according to Rainert, since Foursquare's going to start surfacing recommendations in Explore in different, more meaningful ways. Like based on whether you're in a familiar or unfamiliar location. If you're in Paris for the first time and you open Explore, it'll immediately show you some interesting things nearby. It might show you "places popular with locals" or "places popular with tourists" — no (or few) friends required. But if you've got friends who've been to Paris, it might show you where your friends have been. And liked. Yes, Foursquare is getting ratings for users to express preferences, albeit simplistic ones: Like or Dislike.
There's a lot more happening in Foursquare 5, too, like a more accessible personal history (though the truly interesting stuff you'll be able to do with that history is coming later) and faster checkins, since the check-in button is now on every screen. But the new Foursquare is ultimately about something more profound than the check-in, a concept it practically defined. It's about something that no other social network does right now. It doesn't want to ask "what's on your mind?" It wants to say, "Here's where you're going."
(Oh, given that one of Foursquare's main goals is to tell you where to go later versus simply showing you where people are now, you might think it was time for an iPad app — I've been thinking that, anyway. And we would be wrong, for now. Rainert acknowleges they've "talked about potentially building an iPad app," but it's totally not in the cards at the moment. Nor is a new Windows Phone app — the new release is for iPhone and Android later today, BlackBerry in a few weeks.)