Go to a party for an “old” media company, and there can often seem to be a cloud of doom hanging over the proceedings. It can seem like half the guests have been laid off and the other half fear they still could be. The talk is of cutbacks and making do with less and paradigm shifts whose conclusions are, inevitably, the death of the industry.
And so, to spend a couple of months immersed in this new culture of optimism was, mostly, refreshing, if startling. Wasn’t New York the place where misanthropes and cynics flocked? Wasn’t New York the place for people who thrived on knowing, and never revealing, the secret phone number for Keith McNally’s restaurants—not the one for people who held open networking parties for anyone who wanted to attend? Wasn’t that so very uncool? But that forbidding, closed version of New York has, for this new generation, itself become uncool.
“Start-up culture is about really changing the world,” says Scott Heiferman, the 37-year-old co-founder of Meetup. “I know that’s a cliché. But Si Newhouse never wanted to change the world.”
At a recent party for a literary magazine, I was talking about social media to an editor—in his late thirties, though seemingly of an earlier generation—at one of the more august publishing houses in town. He had never heard of most of the companies I mentioned. “I guess they just really do fundamentally believe in the power of technology to improve people’s lives,” I said, completely unironically.
He rolled his eyes and laughed. “Oh, come on.”
The Interactive Telecommunications Program—or ITP, as everyone calls it—is an NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate program in art and technology housed on the fourth floor of a university building that takes up most of a city block, from Broadway to Mercer Street and Washington Place to Waverly Place. I’m there on a warm March afternoon with Crowley, the 33-year-old co-founder of Foursquare, who is a 2004 graduate and sometime instructor. Crowley’s first company, Dodgeball, a kind of Foursquare precursor that was sold to Google in 2005, was developed here with a fellow ITP student named Alex Rainert.
ITP feels like an Alice in Wonderland version of graduate school. There’s a piece of wall art that, Crowley points out, is actually a mirror; stand in front of it, and the wooden slats move. Crowley—who is wearing turquoise Adidas, jeans, and a gray long-sleeved sweatshirt—gestures to several innocent-seeming plants hanging from hooks near the big windows overlooking Broadway. “Those are Botanicalls,” he says. “When they need to be watered, they send you a message on Twitter that says, ‘Water me, please.’ I have it hooked up with one of my plants at home.” There’s a vending machine that, next to Twix and salted almonds, sells Photocell 200K light sensors for $1.25. The machine doesn’t take cash—you pay online, and the machine automatically registers it.
Crowley, who majored in communications at Syracuse, had been laid off from Vindigo, a city guide for Palm-device users, in 2001. He was planning on applying to business school when a friend invited him to “this weird art show.” It was one of ITP’s twice-annual student shows, and Crowley felt at home. “There was a girl who had a project that was just three robots following each other around. I said, ‘I need to be here playing with this stuff. This is where I belong,’ ” he says.
In the lounge, a bunch of students are sitting around tables on their laptops. “See that foosball table?” Crowley asks. There are four guys playing what looks like an intense match. “That was my first project at ITP. I put sensors in the goals. When you started playing, you swiped your NYU I.D. on the table and your stats got shown on the screens behind it. If you scored a goal, it would show.”
“I wanted to make the foosball table smarter,” he says. “My professor”—Internet-culture guru Clay Shirky—“said to go analyze a source of social data. I had all the data from the foosball table, and I started thinking, What do friendship circles look like? Who are the outliers? Who doesn’t connect to other folks? I was trying to wrap my head around it.
“To make a foosball table smarter isn’t that different from ‘Let’s make a city smarter,’ ” he says.
There’s an overthrow-the-overlords spirit at work in the tech world now. “Here we were schlepping around, protecting the power of gatekeepers and publishers and Barry Diller,” says Heiferman. “Fuck that. We really have to look at ourselves—the Internet is reinventing and rejiggering everything. We need to see ourselves as making a new New York.”