When AOL and the Huffington Post “checked in” at Mergerville, the first person to learn that may well have been a man named Dennis Crowley.
Crowley, who goes by the handle @dens on the Twitter feed, is now worth is at least $80 million, according to a valuation last April in Forbes. Although he may seem to be an overnight success, Crowley, 34, ginned up what has now become the famous self-broadcasting tool exactly one decade ago at New York University.
The mother of invention took the form of the deep canyons of Gotham that made GPS very spotty. Crowley wanted to set up a system of synaptic signals that took the virtual world and mapped it onto the real world, the offline world. The first attempt at mapping the hive mind was dubbed Dodgeball, the game of fast reflexes and a sure throw.
His thesis adviser, Clay Shirky, said that their discussions about the GPS problem as far back as 2001 proved the spark for his pupil’s idea. “We were talking about … the idea that the grid of Manhattan was like a grid in a game scenario,” Shirky said, as quoted by Tim Adams in the Guardian.
Crowley thinks that his idea, that anyone can broadcast their own location at any time to whomever, “has made people more efficient. If you think about information overload,” Crowley said, “a lot of things is trying to, you know, take all the information overload and put it into these filters that enable people to go out and have more interesting experiences.”
The power of suggestion is the keystone of the social media architecture involved here, structured into an algorithm that he intimated was proprietary (the “secret sauce”).
In essence, Foursquare synthesizes what the hive is doing, based on all of the aggregated data from its 6.5 million users worldwide — 40 percent of which is from traffic outside the United States — and suggests to itself where all of its nodes ought to be and what they ought to be doing, or as he formulated it, “Netflix suggests movies, Amazon suggests books and Foursquare suggests experiences.”
With 50 employees paid by two rounds of funding totaling $21.3 million, the entire project hinges on a sociological phenomenon called crowdsourcing, a newfangled term used to refer to collective projects like Wikipedia or HitRecord or anything else that pulls from a cloud of voices in order to manufacture a symphony composed of both the dominant notes and discordant currents.
At the end of the day, it is all about the collective consciousness of what people are doing, he said. “We recycle their data and spit it back to people.”
Crowley scoffed at the idea that things like Foursquare are corroding real social bonds, as Sharon Steel posited in a recent Time Out New York piece, substituting a collective self-absorbed loneliness for actual connection.
“You could look at anything the same way,” Crowley said. “TV makes me people sit at home and watch TV,” he added in a mock tsk-tsk tone. His tone shifted to sincerity. “But TV also gives people a shared cultural literacy.”
The whole thing begins to sound like someone out there paraphrased a Yaakov Smirnoff routine: You don’t read the Web, the Web reads you.