From Dodgeball to Swarm, Foursquare seeks to move beyond the check-in

On May 1st, 2014, Foursquare announced that after nearly five years, it'd be splitting its app in two. The main Foursquare app still exists, but its focus is now on location discovery and local recommendations, thus positioning it as a competitor to Yelp and Google. If you want to check in to a place to let your friends know where you are -- you know, the idea that Foursquare was based on -- you'll now have to use a brand-new app called Swarm. Debuting today, Swarm is described as a sort of social heat map that tells you where your buddies are in relation to you. It inherits a lot of the more social aspects of Foursquare, like mayorships and insights into your whereabouts (like if you've gone to the pub five days in a row this week). In many ways, Swarm represents what Foursquare used to be -- a location-based social platform that encourages you to meet people in the real world. It's an app category that Foursquare practically invented. It's also one it can't rely on.

It all began with Dodgeball, the predecessor to Foursquare that founder Dennis Crowley created in 2000 with fellow NYU student Alex Rainert. Born from the frustration of not knowing where people were partying, Dodgeball was a fairly basic service. Simply text your location to a city-specific Dodgeball email address (say, or, and friends would instantly be alerted to where you were as long as they were signed up to the service as well. Crowley called it the "Friendster for cellphones." After introducing it at SXSW Interactive in March 2005, it appeared the concept worked. Early Dodgeball user Eddie Codel, a live-video consultant, said it was a great way to see what was happening in real time at the tech conference.

"I knew that if a bunch of my friends were checking in at the Ginger Man, then it probably was a place I wanted to be as well," he said.

In a sense, Dodgeball became a passive method for socializing -- simply announce where you are and hopefully someone will show up.

The service soon became popular in major cities like San Francisco and New York, especially among early web adopters, one of whom was yours truly. I used Dodgeball as it was intended, eagerly typing out my location on my T-Mobile Sidekick II and sending it out into the world in the hopes that my friends would join me. Like Codel, if I saw that a group of buddies was convening at a pub, I'd make the attempt to head over to see what was going on. Though the rules weren't officially laid out, it was generally understood that you wouldn't be checking in somewhere if you didn't want people to join you. In a sense, Dodgeball became a passive method for socializing -- simply announce where you are and hopefully someone will show up.

As popular as Dodgeball was in my immediate social circle, it didn't connect with the mainstream. According to a Wired UK article, its membership apparently never went over 75,000. Still, it showed enough potential for Google to snap it up in 2005 for an undisclosed sum. The search giant would eventually shut it down and incorporate its location features into a product called Google Latitude, which itself ended in 2013 as Google+ adopted some of its functionality.

Frustrated by Google's "hopeless social strategy" at the time, Crowley left in 2007 to pursue other career paths. He never gave up hope, however, and came back in 2009 with a new partner, Naveen Selvadurai, and a reimagined location sharing app called, you guessed it, Foursquare. It blossomed at SXSW Interactive in March of 2009, where it went up against Gowalla, a competing app that debuted at the same time. Even though Gowalla proved to be quite popular in its own right, it just couldn't compete with Foursquare's growing clout, and was eventually bought by Facebook in 2011.

Foursquare retained the Dodgeball idea of location check-ins, but took it a step further. It added gaming elements like earning badges and points, so you could compete against your friends to see who was more socially active in a particular week. It also introduced the idea of mayorships -- for those who checked in the most at a specific spot -- which has since become one of Foursquare's most recognizable features. While Dodgeball's only incentive for checking in was to hang out with your buddies, Foursquare encouraged users to check in pretty much everywhere. Checking in wasn't just about telling your friends where you were -- it was also about exploring new places and documenting your whereabouts.

"I'd say my use of Foursquare has changed since the heady days of Dodgeball," Codel said. "I don't see nearly as much of a 'critical mass' of check-ins at events in SF as I did in the early days. I also check in to create a historical record of my activities. Turning that data into visualizations is pretty cool and a good way to see at a glance what my and other people's habits are."

Carla Borsoi, vice president of customer experience at iMatchative and another longtime Foursquare user, noted the change in her use of the app. "I used to use it mainly to see what people were doing and if I should go join them," she said. "Now I use Foursquare for personal-history logging, friend and family awareness, [keeping] track of what friends are up to in their day-to-day lives and finally to get tips." John, a software developer who goes by @johnthebastard on Twitter, said the same, stating that back in the day, members of his social circle would just glance at their phones to find out where their friends were. "That still happens a fair bit now, but not as much," he said. "Yelp and Facebook adding check-ins fragmented the social map and made it less useful. We have to make plans in advance now. It's less spontaneous."

Checking in wasn't just about telling your friends where you were -- it was also about exploring new places and documenting your whereabouts.

As he mentioned, Foursquare is no longer the only app that lets you check in. Facebook added it in the form of Facebook Places, and so did Yelp, both of which have much larger existing user bases. By the end of 2013, Foursquare reported over 45 million registered users and about 50 million monthly visitors. Though impressive, that doesn't come close to the 100 million people that check Yelp every month or the 1 billion or so folks who frequent Facebook just on their phones. Other standalone location apps like Highlight and Glancee cropped up too, but even they struggled to grow outside the Silicon Valley bubble -- Glancee was eventually acquired by Facebook in May 2012, while Highlight is still waiting for wider adoption.

To add to Foursquare's concerns, Facebook also recently added a new ambient location-sharing feature called Nearby Friends that'll alert you to friends in your vicinity, which sounds a lot like Swarm. It's clear that Foursquare needed a hook beyond just letting people check in and broadcast their location.

According to Crowley, the plan for Foursquare was always to be a customized discovery and recommendation engine first, and a social tool second. Those check-ins, he said, actually give Foursquare a rich source of information about where you and your friends go, giving them the ability to feed completely customized suggestions based not just on your location, but also the kinds of places your friends like. Think of it as a more personalized Yelp. "I refer to Foursquare first when trying to find a new cafe or restaurant in a place I'm not familiar," said Codel. "I'd much rather have friend-moderated referrals before general reviews of a venue."

Foursquare became an app with two seemingly divergent purposes, social and discovery, thus the move to divorce the two. In a lot of ways, it makes sense -- having such different features in a single app can bog it down -- but it's also a little disconcerting. Foursquare has become so synonymous with checking in and mayorships that existing users might find it a surprise that the check-in feature is no longer there. Additionally, a location check-in app only has value if most of your friends use it, a problem that Swarm might have down the road. If you're an existing Foursquare user, Swarm will have all your contacts there already, so it's easy for you to get acclimated. But if you're not, there's little incentive for you to get on board, especially since Swarm doesn't have all the discovery features and recommendations of the larger Foursquare app.

"I will definitely try Swarm -- I say try, because there's a network effect there and if it's a ghost town, it won't be something worthwhile," Borsoi said.

John echoed the sentiment. "I worry that the already shrinking pool of friends who use the social map for meeting up won't survive the transition to Swarm," he said. He was also soured on the news that Swarm would allow for multiple mayorships of a single place, thinking it might be better to get rid of the idea altogether. "That pretty well kills all the fun of the game."

But perhaps the grand idea of a dedicated location-sharing app is a dying one.

Some people, like Codel, remain optimistic. "I understand why Foursquare wants to do that," he said, "as there are very different use cases in the way it's used. I'll likely use Swarm more than Foursquare once that's the case. If it improves the user experience and speed, then it sounds like a win-win."

But perhaps the grand idea of a dedicated location-sharing app is a dying one. My use of Foursquare is still restricted to only a few trusted friends, simply because I don't want everyone in my life to know where I am. I can't imagine I'm the only one who feels that way. If that's the case, location-sharing apps will likely never gain the mindshare of the public at large. That's fine if "checking in" is just one cog in the machine, but it isn't quite sustainable as an app of its own.

Like Codel and Borsoi, I'll still give Swarm a shot and try to use it to hang out with my friends. But not before I head to Foursquare to find out where to go first.