Now that people are breaking up with each other through text messaging, it’s only natural that the hottest social-networking program to emerge in recent months is Dodgeball, a free texting service that lets users tell their friends and crushes what bar they’re in at any moment so they can meet up. Two recent NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program grads, Dennis Crowley and Alex Rainert, both 28, launched Dodgeball last spring as an alternative to loud cell-phone calls from bars. When Dodgeball users “check in” at a given locale by sending out a text message, it goes to all their preselected friends, as well as any friends of friends within a ten-block radius. A photo is sent along with the alert—which helps with identifying near strangers. Introductions are made, beer is poured, and then hookups can occur—casually, and in a low-pressure environment, all under the guise of knowing someone in common. It’s Friendster, except in real time and in the real world.
On a recent night at 288, an Elizabeth Street bar, Crowley and a dozen young Dodgeballers have gathered to catch up, joke around, and explain why this technology has become so addictive. Crowley, a wiry, intense guy in a Pac-Man T-shirt, lives Dodgeball—he uses it nightly to flirt and party with an inner core of early Dodgeball adapters who view him with a mixture of admiration for his technical savvy and ridicule for his shameless opportunism. Over a beer, Crowley tells me one of the most popular features of Dodgeball is its “crush” function, which lets users select up to five crushes at any given time. (“I’ve given myself a little bit more,” he says wryly, “because I need to test the system and make sure that it’s working.”)
When a user decides he has a crush, the crushee gets a message letting him know who’s interested. Any time the crushee checks in at a location within ten blocks of the crusher, the crushee automatically gets the name and photo of the crusher and a message along the lines of “Dennis is at 288 and thinks you’re cute.” Crowley says he wanted to put the information in the hands of the crushee, not the crusher, to avoid stalker-type situations. “The last thing we want is people chasing down other people.”
Still, it doesn’t always work. A spiky-haired creative entrepreneur named Doug Jaeger, 29, explains that he entered his Soho home office as a location, and one night after he’d checked in, “this random girl showed up at my house, and she had four dudes with her. They were all standing outside waiting to come in. I was like, ‘What is going on here? This is really bizarre.’”
It was because of problems like this that Crowley and Rainert realized they needed a way for users to have more control over their lists. As people started dating through Dodgeball, and inevitably started breaking up as well, ex-lovers in each other’s networks found themselves in a very modern dilemma. Every time they checked in, their exes found out exactly where they were—and often, with whom. “We called it ‘the ex-girlfriend bug,’ ” says Crowley, “and devised a function called ‘manage friends.’ Now you can move certain friends into a category where they can’t see your location, but they don’t know you’re blocking them. They just think you’re never in the same neighborhood.” If the two exes eventually make up, they can put each other back in their networks, creating ever-changing “It” lists and “Shit” lists.
Jaeger exchanges a few words with Dianne, a raven-haired beauty who works in trend-spotting, and the smoke-free bar becomes thick with mutual tension. Turns out they dated this summer, it didn’t work out, and then the two started playing mind games with their cell phones. “Sometimes she blocks me, and sometimes she doesn’t,” he explains. “It makes me think, What did I do wrong? Why does she hate me now?”
As Dianne smiles vaguely into the distance, Jaeger tells Crowley and Rainert he has a suggestion. “If two people have blocked each other, then why not have the system give them each a message that tells them where not to go? Don’t you think it would be good?” It turns out to be not such a big deal, because six months ago, Jaeger met his current girlfriend, Kristin, a 24-year-old ballet dancer, through Dodgeball, and they are now wildly in love. “What’s unique about Dodgeball,” Jaeger explains, “is that it doesn’t have the awkwardness of meeting someone for a date. You’re going to a place where you’re going to meet people that you like, because your friends are there.”
A different Kristin, 24, who works as a print broker and is a frequent Dodgeball user, has dated two guys she met through Dodgeball and likes the low-pressure situations it creates. She says she’s too much of a wuss to use the crush function, but frequently meets friends of friends. “I’d rather meet a person when I’m in my Converse and my jeans and my hair’s a mess and I can see the people he’s friends with. I don’t think the type of restaurant someone takes you to or how shiny his shoes are is an indicator of who he is,” she says firmly. “I want to know funny stories of you from last Saturday and who your friends are, because that’s how I get to know you.”