By Jon Hussey

OK, I apologize for the trite headline. Journalists have been told for a couple of years now that every social media application that comes along is a game-changer. The problem is, it’s not the applications that are game-changers (I promise that’s the last time I’ll write those words in this post), it’s the technology behind them.

Social media applications will come and go. But with the introduction of every new social media tool, entire industries are forced to communicate in a new way.

Twitter forced journalists to let go of the need to always break news and accept that some of the most important information is being distributed in real-time by citizens. Geolocation applications are making journalists look at how citizens interact with the cities and towns in which they live.

Foursquare is a geolocation game that allows users to check into restaurants, bars, offices, parks—just about any place other users deem check-in worthy. Users vie to become “mayor” of those venues by checking in more than any other user. They are also awarded badges for certain actions: a “crunked” badge for four check-ins in one night or a “I’m on a boat” badge for checking in on a boat.

Sounds like a silly, fun game.

But when 1 million users begin to tinker with an application like Foursquare, they find uses that the programmers and founders never imagined.

The New York Daily News is using Foursquare to give New Yorkers a history lesson. When a user checks in at the Brooklyn Bridge, the following tip will pop up on their smart phone, courtesy of the newspaper:

Completed in 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States. Click “More Info” to see some of our amazing photos of the bridge throughout history!

Foursquare isn’t the only player in the geolocation game. Robert Hernandez (@webjournalist) notes in a blog post on the Online Journalism Review, that two new applications—Whrrl and stickybits—have great potential for journalists.

Hernandez says of Whrrl:

On Twitter or FourSquare, you are telling the world where you are… in Whrrl, you are “creating a story.” Your posted photos and notes from your check-in are auto-grouped with others and, potentially, are telling the story of a moment collectively.

Stickybits acts much like Whrrl, but with the added wow factor of using QR code technology. A user can add photos, videos, and a story to a location and then print a barcode to be left at the location for other users to explore.

Today journalists are struggling with the mobility of readers. Most readers don’t pick up the newspaper anymore, so websites became more important. Smart phones took over and now newspapers create mobile applications to bring the news directly to users’ phones. But why not bring the news into the city itself? If a crime occurred on a street corner, a story could be digitally attached to that street corner for the local community to read. If a restaurant has several health code violations, a story with the documentation on those violations could be digitally assigned to the restaurant.

All of these applications are fun to play with. Some will be here in five years, some will be gone in five months. But the technology of geolocation (and augmented reality) are here to stay. So play around. Tinker with them and don’t stick to the guidelines given on the Whrll, stickybits, or Foursquare websites. It’s the tinkerers who find the best real world applications for the technology behind the “app.”