The New Foursquare

“Damn, here we go again
People talking shit, but when shit hit the fan
Everything I’m not, made me everything I am”
—Kanye West, “Everything I Am

In 2000 Dennis Crowley founded a company called Dodgeball, which built an application that ran on your not-so-smart phone. The point of Dodgeball was to link up with your friends and discover new things to do. It was great fun for extremely social, high tech geeks. The founders eventually sold the Dodgeball to Google in 2005.

In retrospect, Dennis observed something about Dodgeball that he believed would be the key to creating a magical product. Because Dodgeball captured where people really were and therefore what they actually liked to do, the data set could be the basis for the greatest local recommendation engine that the world had ever seen. Rather than finding out about local businesses via payola and advertising schemes, people could get real information based on where their friends and people with similar tastes actually went. He could build a system based on accurate data rather than perverse incentives. The product would truly make cities more usable.

Obsessed by his observation, in 2009 Dennis co-founded Foursquare. This time, he was building on the smart phone platform, which had things like GPS making the original dodgeball functionality more powerful and the data set richer. From a feature standpoint, Foursquare started out much as Dodgeball before it, but always evolving towards the vision of being the ultimate local recommendation engine.

Along the way the team added many features designed to make cities more usable. The cumulation of this work was a breakthrough mechanism called Pilgrim. Pilgrim enables a user to “checkin” without ever having to take her phone out of her pocket. Without ever taking action or even opening an app, a user who loves sweets instantly discovers that a local bakery has the bomb ass cupcakes.  This magical functionality was made possible through over 6 billion checkins, which enabled the Foursquare software to figure out the exact shapes of over 60 million venues. Such data exists nowhere else in the world today.

Despite the breakthrough functionality, the application itself did not feel quite right. Combining the database building social networking features with the local recommendation service meant putting two very different sets of use cases into one app. Most problematically, this meant two separate privacy models. While you probably want every Foursquare user to see your recommendations, you definitely don’t want them to all know where you are. Most users find two privacy models in one app to be quite confusing.

For the past year, the Foursquare team has been working to solve this important problem. They recognized that although the local social networking features had been an essential part of building the data set, with Pilgrim in place, they were no longer needed for the recommendation portion of app. So they split the app into two: 1) An app to keep up with your friends: Swarm 2) An app to get the most relevant and honest recommendations imaginable: the new Foursquare. The old monolithic Foursquare is now two apps with very straight-forward, super clean privacy models and consistent use cases.

When you try the new Foursquare, you will understand exactly why splitting the app in two makes perfect sense. The new products are straight-forward, easy to use and truly unlock the best of what cities have to offer. And, if when using the new Foursquare, you miss the features of the old monolith like checking in, just remember that everything Foursquare is not made it everything it is.