FourSquare: Life in the SXSWi hot seat

For those of us who have played with the location-based mobile app from its bug-filled inception, seeing it take off at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival has been a fun process.

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
4 min read
Here's to FourSquare! Former Dodgeball loyalists gather poolside at SXSWi to celebrate the new app. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--"I couldn't be any more psyched for how it's taken off," FourSquare founder Dennis Crowley said of his brand-new mobile social-networking application, which made its public debut here at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. "It's been, like, 5,000 times better than I expected."

We were wearing bathing suits. A fellow hardcore FourSquare user, media consultant Rex Sorgatz, had used the service to announce a "bikini flash mob" at the rooftop pool of the Omni Hotel on Monday afternoon. When about 20 people had showed up, Sorgatz--in a cowboy hat, Texas-flag swim trunks, and his trademark hipster glasses--raised a drink and said, "Here's to FourSquare!"

I'm biased. We all were. The iPhone-centric FourSquare has been a project near and dear to our hearts in the New York tech scene, as many of us were loyal users of Dodgeball, the service that Crowley built as a graduate-school thesis and sold to Google in 2005. In January, Google announced that it would be shutting the service down amid budget cuts, and Crowley (along with co-developer Naveen Selvadurai) got cranking on its successor so that they could debut it in time for SXSWi. I was an alpha tester, as were most of those at the impromptu pool party.

If the number of FourSquare friend requests in my in-box are any indication, it's been a hit this week. While it hasn't been as buzzworthy as the then-new Twitter was at SXSWi '07, it's undoubtedly one of the things that people will be talking about when they return home from Austin later this week. And if it goes as Crowley and Selvadurai hope, they'll keep using it, too.

Like Dodgeball (and other location-based mobile applications like Whrrl, Brightkite, and Loopt), FourSquare lets you broadcast your location to your friends. Unlike Dodgeball, FourSquare uses GPS on the iPhone (an SMS code and a mobile Web site is available for other devices, but apps for Android, BlackBerry and the like are down the pipeline) and lets users rack up points and badges for awarding nightlife habits and accomplishments.

"Naveen and I had been kicking around these ideas for a while, since last summer, and then nothing was seriously built until, I guess, that night that we were all at Lock's (that'd be Curbed founder and prolific Dodgeball user Lockhart Steele) birthday party and the rumor started spreading that Dodgeball was getting shut down," Crowley said. "We started to talk (about how) we've really got to build this thing because it's going to be turned off."

FourSquare was built in a matter of weeks, because Crowley and Selvadurai wanted to be able to roll it out in time for SXSWi. "It is, admittedly a little bit sloppy, and it's buggy, and people call us out and say we launched too soon," Crowley said of the occasional slip-ups and outages for FourSquare, which went live in the iTunes App Store less than 24 hours before SXSWi kicked off.. "The goal was to launch here and have people take it back to wherever they live."

Now, they're literally building the application in the SXSWi petri dish, a massive gathering of digital-media's early adopters and innovators who are all eager to socialize and navigate the labyrinthine Austin party scene. Special "badges" have been created for SXSWi. On Monday morning, I earned my "Panel Nerd" badge for spending what FourSquare deems to be too much time at the Austin Convention Center. (Message to my editors: Take note of this!)

He said that while user interest has been through the roof, investors--FourSquare is currently self-funded and run out of Crowley's apartment as well as a number of East Village coffee shops--have been quieter. "I haven't really seen any investors here, to be honest," he said. I've been getting e-mails from a few people, but I haven't run into anyone in the halls or anything." He'll probably need that if FourSquare gets much bigger just to keep its servers afloat. But with penny-pinching the inevitable VC habit du jour, it could take some work.

Crowley also laughed off a Gawker report that Google's lawyers were about to start breathing down his neck over the similarities between Dodgeball and FourSquare--even though Google has launched its own location-aware platform, Latitude.

When Crowley and Selvadurai return to New York later this week, they'll have a lot to do. FourSquare users at SXSWi have been blunt, sending out Twitter messages pointing out bugs and asking when there will be better features to find their friends, like an address-book import function. They'll have to figure out some way to control users attempting to game the system, something that Crowley says has already popped up, and work on building a FourSquare presence in other cities. Right now there are 12, including Boston, Denver, and Minneapolis.

Plus, location-based mobile networking is a hot space. Competitors like Brightkite and Whrrl are better-established, bolstered by investor money, and have already worked in features like Facebook Connect integration. Crowley and Selvadurai have some catching up to do.

They'll also have to deal with what happens when they use FourSquare to "check in" to downtown pizzerias and I show up to steal their food. Just sayin'.