Foursquare’s Crowley: We Never Thought Mayor Badge Would Become This Big

“Mayor” badges got tossed into the Foursquare app at the last minute, says CEO Dennis Crowley. Now the company is preparing to launch a new set of game mechanics to reward users for playing.

Foursquare's Dennis Crowley

Ask someone the first word that comes to mind when you say “Foursquare,” and you’re likely to hear “Mayor.” But, according to CEO Dennis Crowley, who spoke at All Things D’s Dive Into Mobile conference Tuesday, that’s a fluke.


“We didn’t think it would blow up into what it is now,” Crowley said. The game mechanic that rewards a Foursquare user who has the most check-ins at a given location with a “Mayor” badge was added almost as an afterthought as the team prepared to introduce the app at South by Southwest in 2009. They were concerned about user adoption and added the concept of mayorships to get people over the “hump” of that first month or two of usage, Crowley said.

In fact, the whole idea of Foursquare as a game is a misconception, Crowley said. It’s a tool, he said, “that makes people’s experience of the real world better,” that emerged from the founders’ previous experience working at companies that got people to explore the world around them. After selling Dodgeball, his previous startup, to Google, Crowley worked at Area/Code, which creates games that mesh the online and offline world. Co-founder Naveen Selvadurai was at Socialight, which produced crowdsourced travel guides. The two created Foursquare to produce an app that could help people figure out where to go in their home cities and what to do once they got there. Said the former NYU student: “We were just trying to figure out how to make New York easier for us and our friends to use.”

Crowley said Foursquare is now in the process of revising the app’s game mechanics. Early next year, they will launch new features to reward users for their loyalty to specific locations. Crowley declined to tell Fast Company what the new features would be (he didn’t want to tip off competitors, he said), but during his talk with All Thing D’s Kara Swisher, he pointed to examples of potential new mechanics–systems that would reward users not just because they came to a place the most amount of times, but, for example, giving them a reward on the fifth time they checked in to a certain location, or if they arrived with five friends.

Even as Foursquare adds new features, they won’t be ditching the badge program (“Game Mechanics 1.0,” as Crowley called them). “We don’t want to tweak the things that work,” he said. “We want to tweak the things that don’t work so well.”

And indeed, even if the mayor concept was somewhat of an afterthought, it seems to have taken hold. After the conference concluded, one attendee told another as he was gathering his things: “I’m so pissed. I just left town for two weeks, and someone stole the mayorship of my gym.”

About the author

E.B. Boyd (@ebboyd) has holed up in conference rooms with pioneers in Silicon Valley and hunkered down in bunkers with soldiers in Afghanistan