From the Archives: Soliloquy for Dodgeball


Note: I am gathering some of my better essays from the past and collecting them on Medium, as they are easier to store here than my Tumblr.

This one was written January 15, 2009. FWIW, I still miss Dodgeball very much.


So, despite the perils and trials of Health Month (yes, it’s true. On top of everything else I run a cult diet, along with partner Keith Butters and Buster McLeod of 43 Things fame), I managed to make it out to Lockhart Steele’s birthday last night.

While there, I had the pleasure of running into my old friends Dennis Crowley and Harry Heyman. Dennis was the founder of Dodgeball, which you may have read about today. Dodgeball was a mobile social networking website and application that Dennis and his pal Alex Rainert. Caroline McCarthy (also present at the party last night) has a great eulogy for Dodgeball that sums up the trials and tribulations really well over on CNet today. Dodgeball was purchased in 2005 by Google. We all celebrated Dennis’ good fortune at the time, and predicted good things for Dodgeball. Two years later, after literally zero activity from Google, Dennis and Alex left in frustration. Yesterday, Google announced that Dodgeball was being shut down.

Word came of Dodgeball’s closure while we were all at the party. The party turned into a wake of sorts, though we all weren’t sure it was rumor or not, since Google hadn’t bother to tell Harry yet. While the rest of the world never used Dodgeball, and of those that did, most had stopped, 17 people at that party were Dodgeball users. Caroline counted 16 but I had I had left my Dodgeball switched to Seattle from a recent trip, because there are also dedicated Dodgeball users in Seattle and San Francisco.

In my seven years now owning this company, there really haven’t been too many moments when I thought “my god, I wish we built that.” Dodgeball was one of those moments. I met Dennis through my good friend Harry Heymann, who I’ve known for about five years now. I was already registered to Dodgeball before I met Harry, or Dennis, and before Google acquired it. Kenji Ross, ever the Internet in-the-know (can that be a noun?) hipped me to it not long after it launched.

I was impressed then, but I was more impressed as Dodgeball took off (and, despite what you will read these days, it did indeed take off at first). But once I met Dennis, and Google acquired Dodgeball, and I found myself more often in New York (which was always one of the two main epicenters of Dodgeball use — the other being SF, natch) I became truly impressed. I recall one night being with Harry at a bar in my beloved Lower East Side, and a Dodgeball notification came in to Harry from one of his friends. Along with being able to “check in” at bars, you could also send out announcements to all your friends — presaging by years Twitter’s power. A friend of Harry’s was on a bad date and needed an “out” and somewhere to go where she had some friends. Harry responded, and a few minutes later his friend could be seen outside our bar, making some excuses to her bad date, and in she came. All within minutes.

There’s been tons of equating Dodgeball with Twitter, and calling Dodgeball not as good as Twitter. The story is framed, especially by those without any firsthand knowledge, as a simple one: Dodgeball existed, then Twitter came along and it killed it.

In fact it was a more depressing tale. The world’s most loved, most revered startup (and in 2005 we all still loved Google — the backlash hadn’t begun yet) had bought a great product, and let it die. At one point they forgot to renew the short code. One developer — Harry — was assigned to the project to make sure that it stayed up, but resources were never applied to do anything more. Google did nothing to promote the service. Even with the rise of the iPhone, and Google’s competing Android, and the heating up in the mobile social media arena with startups like Brightkite, Google did nothing. It was a damn shame.

Not only that, Dodgeball was a phenomenally well engineered product. In the “coming months” before Dodgeball shuts down, perform this experiment: Out of the 22 largest cities in the uS, pick your favorite bar or restaurant. Take an iphone. Text the name of the establishment to GOOG, Google’s joke of an SMS-search service. Then open up maps and type in the name of the place. Then, after you’ve given both of Google’s other products a nice head start, text the name of the bar to Dodgeball. Dodgeball will text you back the name, address and phone number of the bar, quicker than either of Google’s other products. Not only that, it’ll tell you the freakin’ cross street — something Google seems to be completely unaware people actually need. And it was this good before Google even bought it.

It boggles my mind that nearly three full years after the power of Dodgeball was decisively proved at SXSW, becoming the “it app” of 2006, that no one’s surpassed or even rivalled Dodgeball’s functional excellence as a mobile social network. Not only that, it is, to this day, still the ONLY SMS-based app I have ever been impressed with. Twitter’s a knockoff, and the SMS app always kinda blew and it only really blossomed oncePivotal Labs fixed it and the iPhone apps rescued its mobile strategy. Twitter’s “it app” status at SXSW ‘07 was a joke — text messages would come 2 hours late, making it impossible to find your friends who were over at the Mohawk while you were at Emo’s. The only people who managed to find each other? Those of us who were still using Dodgeball, conclusively proving it wasn’t the network’s problem, it was Twitter’s.

The mind reels at what Dodgeball could have become under Google had they paid it attention. What would a link off of Google’s home page done even for one day? Hell, what would a link off of iGoogle have done, even with its fraction of traffic? With the economy what it is, and the preposterous valuations that swirl around Twitter, this is not mere idle speculation.

And this, of course, raises an interesting point. Though obviously not impossible, it seems far-fetched to think of a company like Google ever actually maturing one of their products and selling it off. Through IAC, CBS Interactive, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL/Time Warner, and Fox Interactive, there’s certainly no shortage of possible buyers for a successful site, but it doesn’t seem to be in the eyesights of any of these companies to recognize revenue through their products through a sale. It would aid a competitor, I assume, and that’s no good. And while this is moot now in our frozen M&A environment, I do think it says something that any of these companies would let a great product die rather than sell it to a competitor. There are precedents in the tech world — Eudora comes to mind — but I can’t think of one the Web world, and certainly not the Web 2.0 world.

The analysts will applaud this move as a sign of austerity — though of course it’s a joke. Dodgeball’s expenses were coverable out of my own pocket — Harry’s 20% time and the SMS and Domain costs. The userbase was small, of course, so not many people will be that upset: especially since it seems most of us know Dennis and he’s working on a new product for us all (I love this, by the way. How many posses roll their own web apps?) But still, it is sad to see Dodgeball go. So a virtual toast to our old friend. And another to the future.