On any given day in New York City, there are usually close to a dozen, if not more, “meetups” for people who work for tech start-ups. There are NY Tech Meetups, monthly events that can attract nearly a thousand people to an auditorium at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where developers have five minutes to demonstrate what their technologies do and then get to network with the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs and bloggers and assorted hangers-on in attendance afterward at Black Door, a bar on West 26th Street. There are breakfasts for Women in New Media and for entrepreneurs in North Brooklyn, poker games at the apartment-slash-office of a start-up in Harlem called SpeakerText, Ping-Pong nights at SPiN New York, and dinners for the residents of a Union Square incubator called Dogpatch Labs.
And of course there are the myriad smaller gatherings of 27-year-olds who talk knowingly of series-A rounds and angel investing at places like the Scratcher, the bar on East 5th Street that has seen legions of 27-year-olds come and go, and Destination Bar on Avenue A and 13th Street, which is co-owned by a founder of an online product-development firm called Hard Candy Shell that shares office space with the geographical social-networking company Foursquare and the mini blog empire Curbed, in the building on Cooper Square that also houses the Village Voice.
Even in a city as large as New York, it’s not hard to figure out where anyone in the tech scene is at any particular time, because they have usually “checked in” to their location on their iPhones using Foursquare, which allows users to accumulates points and earn “badges” based on the number of places of the same type they go to in a night. (The person who has checked in the most to a location becomes the “mayor.”) Foursquare is also useful if you want to let everyone know that you are, for example, at the offices of Union Square Ventures, perhaps meeting with Fred Wilson, the venture-capital firm’s co-founder, to discuss funding your start-up, or that you’re having lunch at the Breslin, the restaurant in the Ace, with, say, Ben Lerer, the 28-year-old angel investor and founder of the men’s e-mail newsletter Thrillist, whose father, Ken Lerer, co-founded the Huffington Post. Foursquare is essentially an urban network of hipsters, their favorite haunts, their favorite food and drinks—a marketer’s dream, in other words.
Foursquare—which now has close to a million users—has been around since March 2009, when it launched at South by Southwest Interactive, the annual tech conference in Austin, Texas, that attracts a combination of tech entrepreneurs, journalists, bloggers, and social-media consultants for five days of panels and parties. These early adopters brought their Foursquare badges back to New York City, where the service began spreading a new way of experiencing the city—using the web to amplify the urban experience, making it richer, deeper, more fun. It’s the opposite of the canard that technology is ultimately alienating, that it has turned us into a nation of pale, hypnotized Second Life denizens who have forgotten what it’s like to interact in real life. Using New York as their laboratory, Foursquare—and Meetup and Yipit and Venmo and Hot Potato and dozens of others— facilitates and documents urban interactions, usually in real time, often with an eye toward building communities of users. While consumerism is at the core of the business model for many of these start-ups, that’s only part of the point. The entrepreneurs behind them have a sense that the city belongs to the rising generation, not some Wall Street guy or old-media geezer or other antiquated gatekeeper. In a way that can, at times, seem overly idealistic, even naïve, they believe in a sort of golden rule of Internet behavior, one that chooses trust over suspicion, optimism over skepticism, hope over doubt. And for the time being, hope seems to be winning.
Three weeks ago, while in Silicon Valley for the Where 2.0 Conference, Foursquare’s co-founder Dennis Crowley took a grand tour of its richest companies—chronicled, of course, by his own company’s app. He checked in at Apple, Twitter, and Square (Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s new start-up), so all of New York’s tech world could note his progress. There were rumors—spread with excitement using these tools and eminently believable—of a possible $100 million deal with Yahoo. If the future of the web is social media conducted through mobile devices, Foursquare could be very useful to a company like Yahoo. But the fever over the hypothetical deal had a lot to do with a larger sense of what it implied: The West Coast tech world, for once, was at least sipping New York’s Kool-Aid. Foursquare and its brethren are, for the moment, on the cutting edge.