In 2001 Dennis Crowley, a young interactive telecoms graduate from New York University, found himself turning over a particular problem in his head. Crowley and a lot of his friends had been involved in various internet start-ups which, after the dotcom bubble burst, had gone pop. The problem was this: the friends were mostly living in East Greenwich Village, and they were around most days, but they never got together as much as they liked. Some days someone would be going to a baseball game, or someone would be going to a bar, or to the park, but there was no easy way of co-ordinating this social life among the group (this was back in the mists of networking time: Facebook hadn’t been invented; even Friendster hadn’t been invented). Crowley found himself applying his idling mind to the question of whether there might be a way of letting your friends know where you were, without making 20 phone calls; of taking the chance out of chance meetings.
A decade later, after various part-evolved efforts to come up with a solution to this problem, Crowley seems to have found one that works. He is the co-founder of Foursquare, an internet site and iPhone application that allows you not only to advertise to friends (or friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends) exactly where you are in the world, but also incentivises the processes of going out, and meeting up. Foursquare has extended way beyond Crowley’s mates; it is becoming a bookmarked fixture among circles of friends in cities across the States and the world. The application is approaching its millionth user; inevitably, in the way of these things, blogs and investors are buzzing about it — and rival “location, location, location” services, such as Gowalla — as this year’s Twitter: the next geeky obsession to become a mainstream media compulsion.
Crowley explained some of the potential to me last week on the phone. “We want Foursquare to be a lot about encouraging adventure,” he said. “To give you a reason to do things and go places that you might not always think to do.” He was, when he was developing his idea with his business partner Naveen Selvadurai, particularly interested in a couple of phenomena: the first was the psychology of Nike , the sensor that allows you to collect data about your jogging and store it and analyse it on your iPod. “After I started using it,” he says, “I was struck by the idea that if you forgot to turn the sensor on one day, then the run itself seemed to have no point. It was the sort of game-playing, data-collecting habit of the run that encouraged you to do it.” He became fascinated by the idea of virtual rewards. “A lot of our group,” he says, “had grown up with Super Mario and they wondered about the possibility of turning life into a game. Getting rewards for adventures just like Mario did on screen.”
Foursquare incorporates all of these ideas into its format. Using GPS location in your mobile phone it encourages you to “check in” to any location – bar, café, shop, event, park bench – and not only to share that fact with your friends but to win virtual badges and points for your activity. There is a competitive element to this. If you achieve the most check-ins at any one place in the course of a week, then you become that place’s “mayor”. You can also review and add comments about your favourite locations, so the site, accessed on a phone, becomes, in theory at least, an anecdotal and endlessly updating guide book. “I was interested in the metrics and analytics of encouraging friends to go uptown, or to try new places,” Crowley says. There are obvious commercial applications to this: 2,000 tuned-in venues, he says, already offer free drinks to their Foursquare mayor – that week’s most loyal regular (several major corporations, like Starbucks, are already working on developing this possibility).
Crowley is keen to extend the demographic of his “game” outwards from the mostly techie twentysomethings who use it. He suggests it is great in places like airports where, having checked in, you might (conceivably) also want to “check in” to see if any “friends” are in the building. It being a New York- based idea, however, he is also finding, he says, “that a lot of mothers are using it in parks to set up play dates with nearby kids”.
The race to colonise this junction between GPS location and social networks like Facebook and Bebo has become, in the last year, the latest virtual gold rush. Though Foursquare is the clear leader, each pretender – Whrrl and Hot Potato and Loopt — offers different incentives and medals and points. Gowalla, a native of Austin, Texas adopts an Aussie backpacker accent (of the stylised kind you might find in a Walkabout pub). It gives you a virtual passport, which you stamp as you colonise different “spots”, and you are encouraged to share “a hidden gem of a coffeeshop, a heavily trafficked museum, or a scenic overlook off the beaten path.” In the manner of Wikipedia, these posts are overseen by a “Street Team Elite” of regular and passionate users, who are alert to censor those who “malign or slander” a location (“don’t be a hater”) and to encourage a kind of slacker atmosphere: “Your favourite bend in the river is likely of greater value to the community than your garage. Just sayin’…”.
Among these rival applications there has been talk of virtual turf wars, of “The great geo-social showdown”; but Crowley is keen to stand aloof from such competition. “Though at the moment we are on a much different scale, we see ourselves as more equivalent to Facebook or Twitter,” he says, hopefully. Both of the latter have, of course, informal links with the new kids on the block; both are in the process of adding a location element to their own offering.
I spent some hours last week seeing what this territorial world might bring to the streets of Highgate in north London. Crowley’s vision of a city in which you are “surrounded all the time by possibilities that you don’t realise exist”, I couldn’t help feeling, had a somewhat more prosaic cast in my local high street. Having downloaded the Gowalla and Foursquare apps onto my iPhone I did my usual round of local pub and park and Caffè Nero, checking in at each place by touching the onscreen button, and duly collected points and icons and medals; as my phone tracked my odyssey to the local hardware shop I felt moved to offer a little paean to its compendious stock levels; I found myself surprisingly eager to become mayor of Pond Square, just down the road, so I checked in there, and felt a fleeting surge of virtual power. This point-scoring Bloomsday was lacking in real drama, however. Inevitably, of course, one or two people had got everywhere first – some were already checked into the pub and the café, though I tried in vain to match their “passport photos” (of uniform wild abandon) with the faces of the cappuccino suppers and lager sippers. Geo-sharing was not quite the 24-hour party invitation or the incentivised land-grab that I had imagined. More, I guess, the loneliness of the early adopter.
Even in the absence of friends, some of the implications of using the sites quickly became clear. One is that they slightly change your sense of geography. A curious aspect of the generation now reaching Twitterhood is that, for better and worse, they will never – as long as they keep their phones charged – have the experience of being lost. Foursquare and Gowalla add an extra level to that: there will never be another surprise to discover around the corner. Voluntarily tagged users will always know that they are 273 yards from yet another of “the coolest bars in town”; they will rarely bump into an old friend by chance – rather they will have already been tracking his or her satellite progress all evening. On the upside, the days of arriving in a room full of people and discussing the weather with strangers will be over; distress signals can be sent to friends in crowds who (you hope) answer the call.
One of the apparent virtues of these applications is that they add a real-world element to the virtual acquaintanceships that you can make online with Facebook and the rest. They make them “stickier” in the language of internet tribes. Along the way they not only redefine what we might mean by a mayor, however, they also further recast our blurring notion of “friendship”.
Robin Dunbar, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, has lately been researching online social networks, partly to look at their implications, if any, for what has become universally known as Dunbar’s number: the maximum 150 friends with whom – he has argued extremely persuasively — human beings have the capacity to maintain relationships.
I asked Dunbar if he saw anything in the evolution of online networks to suggest that the next stage might extend our social horizons in any meaningful way.
“The question really is,” he said, “does the technology open up the quality of your social interaction to any great extent, and the answer to that question is, so far: not really.”
Dunbar has been studying the ways that, despite our hyperconnectivity, relationship quality with people invariably declines in proportion to the distance you are apart. He has little evidence that technology mitigates that decline. “Our informed opinion is really that in the end you still have to have that face-to-face contact to properly renew a friendship.”
There is, according to Dunbar’s research, a marked gender difference in the way that we use social media. It is, in this respect, not surprising that the early take-up of the geo-location sites is weighted toward men. “To avoid relationship decay among friends, men have to do stuff together, for women it is enough to chat.” The real-world slant of Foursquare and Gowalla make them natural vehicles for male bonding. Added to that is the opportunity for peacocking with their mobile phones, which have, to the evolutionary biologist, become a substitute for sexual display (men will always put their phone on the table and fiddle with it, women tend to keep theirs in their bag…).
What none of it changes, though, despite the number of “friends” and “followers” we may attract, is the number of people we typically trust as friends: three or four with our lives, 15 or 20 we love to see, 150 for Christmas cards.
Even Clay Shirky, New York University’s fast-talking professor of the new new thing — and Dennis Crowley’s tutor — is not persuaded that social networking has the ability to improve the nature of friendship or change Dunbar’s Number. “What these games and applications do,” he says, “is extend and churn the edges of our network, which is often how new ideas are brought into it.” Shirky, as if by way of example, was explaining this on a phone from a New York taxi, and while he talked to me he directed the taxi driver through the real Manhattan streets (and no doubt tweeted and pinged and buzzed).
He recalls the genesis of the Crowley’s idea quite clearly. “In 2001 and 2002,” he says, “we were all talking about big game theory, and the idea that the grid of Manhattan was like a grid in a game scenario. At the time GPS didn’t work in New York because of the canyonlike streets so Dennis developed something called Dodgeball which was a sort of text-based map of the city. Google bought it, sat on it and killed it.”
In those days, at NYU, he recalls they would spend a lot of time discussing the ludic mechanics of social lives. People had all sorts of theories about where game playing began and ended, arising from Wittgenstein’s notion that no one had ever really come up with a working definition of the word “game”. In reality, however, Shirky concedes, “those interested in this were more likely to go to work and then go home and play Warcraft, so the two arenas were still pretty separate.”
What something like Foursquare or Gowalla does, he suggests, is to begin the process of blurring those lines, not least commercially. “Foursquare is absolutely the first national-scale test case we have for looking at the interaction between game mechanics and social software and geolocation.”
The power it gives you, in Shirky’s eyes, “is basically the power to see through a wall, a wider sense of what is going on around you.” If you are sitting by yourself – as I’m imagining many Foursquare early adopters might well be — this is obviously a useful thing. “It dramatically increases the serendipity of socialising…”
In this view, Foursquare is a kind of existential act, one with which we are certain to be become more familiar in the future. While most reality “games” take you out of the physical world and into a virtual space, the novelty of geolocation is that it reverses that relationship: it takes a game template and overlays it onto your social life. “You are not playing through an avatar,” Shirky suggests, “you are just being you, but playing at the same time.”
Either that, I guess, or you can just meet a mate for a pint.