Like last year, Foursquare is all the rage at SXSW
Ever since Twitter exploded three years ago at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, many venture capitalists and technology commentators look to the annual conference as a forecaster for the next big Web start-up.
Last year, Foursquare was it. The location-centric social network launched in anticipation of SXSW 2009 and made friends instantly.
The project of Dennis Crowley, who sold his last location-based social network called Dodgeball to Google in 2005, and co-founder Naveen Selvadurai earned a second consecutive unofficial title of SXSW prom king.
To make the real-life mobile game more attractive, the New York company created 16 unique badges specifically for SXSW. Players earn badges when checking in to certain locations or a string of places. For example, checking in to barbecue joints unlocks the "porky" badge.
A social component is key for websites looking to gain traction at SXSW. It helped Twitter, a social network that could be utilized with any cellphone, catapult itself into the hearts of techies. The increasing prevalence of smart phones contributes to Foursquare's viability -- something that certainly hindered Dodgeball's growth.
While most of the early adopters who attended the SXSW Interactive conference are back home recovering and detoxing, Foursquare continues to be a prevalent tool at the SXSW music festival, which continues until Sunday. Friends are using it to keep in touch as they hop between concert venues and 6th Street hotdog stands.
Foursquare may have captured the buzz on the streets of Austin, but that's not to say there weren't competitors in the location space.
Gowalla, an Austin start-up that is gaining prominence in Silicon Valley, takes Foursquare's game element to the next level with a virtual treasure hunt. The company even went head-to-head with Foursquare with its party -- both hosted events on Monday night.
Competing networks Brightkite and MyTown have more users than Foursquare, which has about half a million, but they lack the hype. Brightkite demonstrated a mobile application at SXSW that lets you check in to multiple location sites at the same time. MyTown, which is popular among a younger audience, had recruiters near the convention center attempting to coax the twenty- and thirtysomethings into using the service.
Just a block away, however, Selvadurai, fellow Foursquare developers and a crowd watched as an impromptu game of foursquare -- the schoolyard version -- was being played on a chalk-drawn box in the heart of downtown.
Foursquare continues to spread organically. The company reports adding nearly 100,000 new users in a 10-day period surrounding SXSW Interactive, and on Wednesday, users checked into 352,595 locations worldwide.
Through deals with bars in several cities including Los Angeles, Crowley has already accomplished the goal for his last company.
"Our goal with Dodgeball was: If we could get people free drinks, then we win," Crowley said on a panel on Sunday. "Unfortunately, we couldn't do that."
Location networks are almost over the "why" hump that hampered Twitter's growth initially, Crowley said.
"I think by the end of the year, people will stop asking, 'Why do my friends care where I am? Why do I care where my friends are?'" Crowley said.
Moving forward, Foursquare is looking to improve how it aggregates and display all of the data it catalogs and to make money through brand partnerships. For now, the company has earned a spot at the nerd prom after-party.
-- Mark Milian
Photo: Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai is left of the ball holder during an impromptu game of the schoolyard activity that inspired the website's name. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times