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Q&A: Foursquare co-creator on privacy, Easter eggs

Newly launched Foursquare is off to a brisk start as a mobile social network. We chat with co-creator Dennis Crowley about what's coming next.

Developers who launch a new app at SXSWi have the distinct honor of getting it hammered on by a group of ravenous users. Foursquare, a social broadcasting and discovery tool that launched the night before this year's conference, is no exception.

It's the second location-based social network from developer Dennis Crowley, who teamed up with Naveen Selvadurai to create it. Already it's growing at a faster rate than Dodgeball--Crowley's previous creation, which was acquired by Google in 2005 (and then was shuttered earlier this year). Unlike Dodgeball, however, it's arriving at a time when smart phones with GPS are becoming increasingly mainstream. And similar to successful SXSW launches like Twitter, Foursquare is making it easier to both post and consume information while on the go.

I tracked down Crowley on Wednesday to talk up some of Foursquare's finer points, and to see what's coming next.

Dennis Crowley

Question: Fourquare's badge system takes a page from online games and things like Xbox 360 achievements. Some things like "newbie" and "adventurer" make sense, but can you tell us how to get some of the more elusive ones like "photogenic," "crunked," or "superstar?"
Crowley: Well, I don't want to give too much away, but 'photogenic' has to do with checking into places with photo booths (read: tagged with 'photobooth' on the Foursquare Web site). 'Crunked' is more than a handful of stops in one night, and 'Superstar' is based on how much you check-in over the course of a month.

The badges we designed for launch are pretty generic. Ideally I'd like NYC badges to feel more like the ones we made for SXSW in Austin. Those were cryptic too ("How do I get Redford? How did you unlock Party Crasher?"), and our hope is that people start asking around to get an idea of what they need to do. You could see that in Austin by watching Twitter; people bragging about what they got and doling out advice to other users.

Are there plans to have user-created badges, and/or ones for special events or locations?
Crowley: Yes. Actually I think this is where things are really going to get interesting. The 16 badges we made for these cities, they're a start. But like 20 percent of the e-mails we're getting from users read as 'you know what would make a great badge...' and they're really good ideas. Things I wouldn't have thought of, and they're really going to bring some much-needed diversity to the service (read: less bars, more museums, parks, late night food trucks, coffee shops, etc.) I'm really excited for this. I was actually working on this today (making tools for users to create created badges), but it's a kind of a difficult thing to build--it's like writing the Smart Playlist tool in iTunes.

Any plans to incorporate another service like Yelp or CitySearch to make the app a reference tool as well? I know when I'm out and considering going somewhere nearby (in the local favorites section) it would be nice to do that without leaving the application. The 'nearby tips' section is a boon for that, but what about taking it a step further?
Crowley: You know, a lot of the city and tips stuff we're doing is a response to Yelp and CitySearch being frustrating products to use. I don't read reviews, but I do want people to recommend things to me. More specifically I want my friends to recommend things to me. That's what we're trying to explore with the Top 12 lists: how do you create actionable items that can be tied to rewards and accomplishments? I think both Naveen and I have big ideas about how to make this work, we're just so busy fixing bugs and making things run smoother and faster that we haven't had a chance to focus on it yet.

Some of Foursquare's merit badges, which will soon be user and business generated. Foursquare

How have downloads and new user sign-ups gone since SXSW? Where has some of that long tail been coming from?
Crowley: Hmm...not sure if we're giving out usage numbers yet, but it took us about five months of Dodgeball (back in 2004) to get to where we where we were after five days at SXSW. I'm pretty happy with the numbers so far. Enough to make it interesting in the 12 cities we launched in, and not too many where we can't sleep 'cause we have so many users to keep up with.

What cities are seeing the most activity?
Crowley: The top seven in order are San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Portland (Ore.), and Chicago. (I'm) frustrated that New York is always in 2nd place; Dodgeball was the same way.

Have any businesses contacted you about sponsorships, or to credit your app with an influx of customers?
Crowley: Yes. Sponsoring badges seems to get everyone excited. We've been talking to everyone from retail brands (coffee shops, record stores), product brands (energy drinks, cola), bands and TV shows. Again, lots of people have really great ideas about the type of things users should be able to unlock with usage.

Any new functionality planned with the upcoming iPhone OS 3.0, or are you trying to keep everything the same across multiple platforms?
Crowley: Well, I think everyone's been drooling over push notifications for about a year now, so we'd love to play with that. The NFC stuff (near field + Bluetooth) sounds cool, but i'm not sure if it's practical right now. To be honest, we literally have a 100-item laundry list of iPhone fixes/improvements to make. I'm really anxious to drop a new skin on the app to make it look a little tighter. We're working with Mari Sheibley who's a really great designer.

You guys set it up so when you become friends with someone on the service you give that person access to their phone number and e-mail address. Have you been getting a lot of feedback from people who would rather keep the messaging limited to just the app?
Crowley: This was by design. The service is designed to make social coordination easier and better, and having the ability to text or call someone is a big part of this. We didn't do a very good job explaining this to users (we were so rushed pre-SXSW) so there was a little pushback from users, but ultimately I think people are cool with it.

With a lot of social-networking services, there's no consequence to having a ton of friends, and I think people get used to that 'I'll be friends with everyone' mentality. We saw this with Dodgeball too. We had an influx of users who were previously on Friendster and friended everyone in sight, and then had a 'wait, these people know where I am!?' moment and then reconsidered who they became 'friends' with. I think we're seeing the same type of 're-valuation' with Foursquare, and I think that's a good thing.

"With a lot of social networking services there's no consequence to having a ton of friends, and I think people get used to that 'I'll be friends with everyone' mentality."
--Dennis Crowley, co-creator of Foursquare

To that end, are there plans to add other social services where people can import their friends? I'd personally like to be able to do this from Facebook since many of the people I'm friends with on Twitter I don't actually know personally and would rather not have them have my information.
Crowley: Yes. It's really just a 'not enough hours in the day' problem for us. We just added the ability to scan your Gmail contacts (and the people you're following on Twitter). And the new version of the app (v1.1 - being reviewed by Apple now) will let you scan your address book to find friends that are already using foursquare. Facebook connect is also coming soon.

So will there eventually be a way to create groupings of friends for whom you wish to share things like location and shouts? I know much of the appeal of the app is about telling all your friends, but what about refining that distribution?
Crowley: Yeah, I think we're get there eventually, but I haven't heard this much from users yet. Maybe it's because people have fewer Foursquare friends than they do Twitter followers (so it seems more manageable), or because it's lower-maintenance where we aren't buzzing in your pocket with every check-in like we were with Dodgeball. I'm sure the need will arise eventually, but for now we have 100 other fires to put out first.

Previously: Foursquare: Life in the SXSWi hotseat