Dodgeball: A eulogy

What happens when Google decides to shut down one of your favorite Web apps? Not a whole lot of people will miss Dodgeball, but those who do will remember it fondly.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

Dennis Crowley (top) created a mobile app called Dodgeball and sold it to Google. But its base never expanded beyond quirky blogger kids like those shown here, and now Google's shutting it down. Nobody's surprised, but some of us are sad. Dennis Crowley

The irony was a little too much.

A who's who of New York's new-media set were packed into a surreptitious basement bar on Bleecker Street in downtown Manhattan on Wednesday evening, braving rapidly plummeting temperatures and an overnight snow forecast in order to make an appearance at the 35th birthday party of one of the city's blogger elite.

Like so many things involving young bloggers, it was a quirky, albeit cliquey affair: there was a password at the door ("tacos"), the drinks were thrown back a bit too liberally, and someone had used a scarf to hang an oven mitt shaped like a chicken from one of the chandeliers. (That's an in-joke.) It was also quite possibly the only place in the world where 16 of those present had used mobile where-you-at service Dodgeball to announce their presence. Yes, a few people are still using Dodgeball.

It was, as a result, also quite possibly the only place in the world where a sizable number of people really cared about the news that Google, which acquired Dodgeball in 2005, was shutting down the little-used service as part of a belt-tightening measure. Dodgeball founder Dennis Crowley was in the room, in fact, and said he'd just heard the news via a phone call from his former business partner, Alex Rainert. Harry Heymann, the lone Googler still keeping Dodgeball up and running, was there too. He hadn't been told about it.

To be sure, Google had every reason to put the kibosh on Dodgeball. It didn't make the company any money, and its user base had shrunk to a small cadre of digital-media enthusiasts based primarily in New York. It's sort of the Arrested Development of Web apps: not particularly popular, and most people don't even seem to really understand it, but those loyalists sure are loyal. And much like a TV show with a small fan base, the corporate parent pulled the plug.

'John C.' uses Dodgeball to announce his nefarious intentions at Dodgeball founder Dennis Crowley's Christmas party. Dennis Crowley

I will out myself: I am a Dodgeballer, albeit late to the party since I didn't really use it much before last year. I was there at that Bleecker St. bar on Wednesday night, and yes, I "checked in" (Dodgeball's term for text-messaging your location; the service then finds it in a directory and tells your friends on the service). Dennis Crowley, whom I initially met when I interviewed him for a CNET News story way back in 2006, lives a few blocks away from me. He threw a great Christmas tree-decorating party this year. And I, too, was sad to hear Wednesday night's news--or rather, see it pop up in my iPhone's browser. Because with the death of Dodgeball goes one of the trademarks of New York blogger culture.

Crowley, now 32, started Dodgeball as a side project nearly a decade ago while he was working as an analyst at Jupiter Research during the dot-com boom. One of his colleagues, a fellow named Andrew Krucoff, went on to become the writer behind early local blog Young Manhattanite and one of Dodgeball's most prolific users; earlier this week, Krucoff was using Dodgeball's "shout" messaging feature to inform his friends on the service that he held them responsible for the swift downfall of his New Year's resolutions.

As Crowley puts it, Dodgeball's total expenses were $20 per month for hosting and $100 on promotional stickers. It eventually became his thesis project at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Shortly after Google acquired it in 2005, it experienced a flurry of interest among digital-media mavens on both coasts. But in the rest of the tech world, it faded from favor, especially when the more open-ended Twitter took off as the mobile group-messaging service of choice, and Crowley left Google in 2007 on less than pleasant terms. But a few dozen people clung to Dodgeball as their companion for navigating the dark, hectic, and cold (this time of year) grid of New York's streets, and Google kept it ticking.

According to Harry Heymann, Dodgeball's No. 1 most-checked-in venue is actually in San Francisco, a bar called Zeitgeist. But in New York, its top venues are a roster that wouldn't surprise avid users: Brooklyn video game bar Barcade; Lower East Side media hangout The Magician; a bar called Loreley, where seemingly every Dodgeballer was dancing into the early morning hours for longtime user Kevin Kearney's birthday in November; and East Village hipster music venue Lit Lounge. (The only surprise? No karaoke bars. New York bloggers have been known to adore karaoke.)

There are the hilarious anecdotes, like the time when someone stole Krucoff's cell phone and used it to mischievously "check in" to bars where he'd be afraid to show his face (all-male revues, anyone?), or the time very, very late at night when six bloggers were in such a state of intoxication that none of them remembered that they'd been to an East Village nightspot until they saw it in their Dodgeball feeds the next day. There's also the running joke about that guy that nobody liked, and how everyone else would avoid bars where he'd checked in.

But clubby and insidery does not a business model make. And when Google chose to cut costs, Dodgeball was an easy target (pun intended). Crowley has been working on its successor for months, a slick iPhone app that he's calling FourSquare. He wants it to be ready to make a splash at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival in March. Lucky for him, no other location-based networking app has taken off like wildfire yet. But there are plenty, like Loopt and Brightkite, that are vying for the market.

Maybe it was fitting that the demise of Dodgeball, the engine behind a few dozen bloggers' drunken New York nights, surfaced while its most active users were all together to celebrate a 35th birthday, one of those milestones that can make us all awkwardly aware that we're not getting any younger. Location-based networking, like the rest of digital media, will evolve. Dodgeball never grew beyond a tool for a clique of young urban bar-hoppers, and no one can be a young urban bar-hopper forever. So with its failure the digerati move onward to the next burst of innovation, to the next cool geek toy, to the next chapter in life.

And we'll miss the Dodgeball days.