Jerusalem Post gets Andre Oboler’s take on the rise of Foursquare in Israel

Sharon Udasin,Vying for control of the Temple Mount – on Foursquare, Jerusalem Post,  December 16, 2010.

For Ariela Ross, being the “mayor” of Al-Aksa Mosque and the Old City’s entire Muslim and Christian Quarters is quite natural – as these are the places where she spends much of her spare time.

With 66 total “check-ins” as of Wednesday afternoon, Al-Aksa’s coveted mayorship currently remains in Ross’s hands through her own nine check-ins on the increasingly popular smartphone application called Foursquare, which allows users to tell their friends exactly where they are at any given time.

The app – which has 4 million users worldwide – maintains a history of who has gone where, also providing users with a platform where they can share and view tips about local destinations, according to GPS. The mayor of a site is the person who has checked in there the most times.

“You can see where the party’s going on, what’s a good restaurant to go to and where to avoid if you don’t want to meet people,” says Ross, whose mayorship at the Western Wall and in the Jewish Quarter was recently ended by a user named “Gavin S.”

While Foursquare has been trendy in the US since its release in March 2009 and has also become fairly popular in Tel Aviv and the country’s hitech center, it has only begun to take hold in Jerusalem recently, users find. As in Silicon Valley and New York City, people are generally more attached to their iPhones, Blackberries and Androids in the tech-savvy Tel Aviv and Haifa regions, says Ross, who herself works in hi-tech.

But experts predict that now that Foursquare has caught on here, it has the potential for the rapid growth that American cities have seen.

“Jerusalem is particularly active with events, lectures, launches, think tanks and international gatherings. It’s also a very small city with people who know each other and meet regularly even without the aid of technology,” says Dr. Andre Oboler, social media expert and director of the Community Internet Engagement Project. “In this environment the use of Foursquare and similar services can take off with viral growth. Adding to this is the regular flow of American tourists and longer term students.”

Even among Jerusalem’s currently close-knit group of users, competition is already fierce.

“I’ve noticed a few people checking into places that they’re not exactly at,” says Ross, who herself has 40 mayorships, most of which are in Jerusalem.

“I’ve been fighting with Jewlicious for a couple mayorships,” she adds, referring to fellow Jerusalemite and Foursquare user David Abitbol, who runs Jewlicious, a blog geared toward Jewish 20- and 30- somethings.

Ross says that she and Abitbol are battling at the moment over Al-Aksa Mosque and the Basher cheese shop inside Mahaneh Yehuda market.

“He currently has Basher – he just got back from a trip oversees and within two days he got it back,” Ross says. “It’s just a fun little thing but it’s a game in the end.”

While Abitbol agrees that running after virtual titles is silly and calls anyone with over 20 mayorships “crazy” – he has only 13 – he remains pretty angry when anyone impinges upon his own territories.

“I can’t tell you how many times I was at a place and then got an alert that one of the usual suspects just checked in, when in fact they were nowhere to be found,” Abitbol says.

“I live near the shouk [Mahaneh Yehuda] and every time I go there, I check in. Some people have begged me to not check in so that they can be mayor, others have bypassed that process and simply created duplicate entries.”

Abitbol is currently mayor of the shouk, leading the total 511 check-ins with his 22.

But it turns out that much more than the mere satisfaction of earning a mayorship title drives people – and companies – to take part in this game.

“For businesses, when somebody checks in, it gets broadcasted to all of their friends,” Ross says. “It’s another way to get the word out, it’s another marketing tool.”

Oboler adds, “Foursquare is all about where you are and what you and your friends are doing. Unless of course you are a business, in which case the key is who your customers are, where they are and when they are there.”

Oboler says that in addition to local restaurants and shops, larger offices like the Tourism Ministry could easily make use of Foursquare to attract visitors to various destinations within Jerusalem. But he warns that like other geo-location and social media tools, spreading information about oneself also “poses a serious security risk to certain individuals and types of individuals,” particularly to people like soldiers.

But security risks aside, Jerusalem users hope that yet another American trend will catch on here – namely, the willingness of local businesses to provide secret coupons and special offers to frequent checkin guests and mayors of their locations.

“In the US, some venues offer mayors or people who check in there inducements to do so – like free food or discounts,” Abitbol says. “In Israel that aspect has yet to catch on, but people still get a little crazy.”

Meanwhile, however, users like Abitbol and Ross will continue to enjoy frequenting their favorite spots, some of which are far more holy – and far more contentious – in real life than any smartphone game could reveal.

“I’ve spent so much time at these places,” Ross says. “It’s not like, ‘Oh I own the Kotel.’ It’s a fun little joke, but it doesn’t take away from the experience. Think of it as a virtual world.”

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