Dennis Crowley is the reason people "check in" today. Crowley went from an aimless tech startup refugee to the Mayor of all Foursquare, the little app that's changed geography.
We wanted to know what pushes a person to not only create new software, but create new software that redefines the way many of us think daily — about each other, about where we are, and about where we might be. This sounds like lofty stuff, but it all started somewhere, right? Every big idea has an origin, no matter how modest. Sometimes, as modest as a local bar. We talked to Crowley to get to Foursquare's first steps.
Foursquare started with another name you might faintly recall: Dodgeball. Crowley had a vague idea for what he wanted his pet project to be: a replacement for restaurant and city guides. A place to read ratings. A digital version of something that had existed in print for a long, long time. Crowley was prompted by his new home in New York City: "[Manhattan's Lower East Side] was changing so much. [I thought] we should add our own places to the database, our own reviews." It's a nice thought, but not exactly ambitious. And then something changed. Foursquare's foundation, Crowley says, is "based off problems that we've had in our lives" — and the problem Crowley realised was he and his friends sitting around. Apart.
After the Dotcom implosion and 9/11, Crowley and his tech-savvy ilk were adrift. Jobless, demoralised, and often sitting around at the Bleecker Street Bar. The least they could all do was meet up. With Dodgeball, the proto-Foursquare, Crowley's friends could "go out for a drink after work, [then] broadcast where they are any time of the day". Their favourite watering hole became a smartphone beacon. Dodgeball was quickly purchased by Google.
So what do you do with all of these checkins?
"When we were working on Dodgeball at Google, we had a lot of checkins. We could run queries on them at my desk and it'd show me all the places my friends have gone to dinner in the East Village that I have not been to, all their checkins that don't overlap with my checkins."
What turned Foursquare into Foursquare?
"Foursquare is kind of a different idea — the awareness of your friends that came with Dodgeball," combined with "the best travel guide of all time." Crowley realised his creation could become something much more. Before a trip to Scandinavia, he asked close friends to fill in the Foursquare "tips" box for a few cities with their recommendations. He expected one or two word replies, but instead got entire narratives, pouring personality and anecdotes into what are otherwise just buildings. It's this infusion of personality into the database that makes it much more than just a list of people and places.
What does Foursquare mean to you now?
"I like telling stories online. I love telling stories. In college, I used to be really into making fanzines, desktop publishing, mailing them off to people. But I quickly became tired of that, started taking pictures with disposable cameras and scanning them. Here are the stories of my friends. Foursquare is a way of telling a story. The stuff I really like in Foursquare is the stories people start to tell in tips — these are not uses that we've expected, but its the stuff that makes the product magical sometimes. it's magical."
What Was It is a series of short interviews co-hosted that asks the luminaries of science and technology what inspired them.
Photo of Dennis: Justin Sullivan/Getty