Gowalla CEO Josh Williams on The Future of Social Media [ Interview ]


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Catch the full Josh Williams / Gowalla interview at Mashable

Josh Williams, Tech InterviewJosh Williams, the grinning, long-haired CEO of the rapidly growing geo-social application Gowalla, is the kind of guy who wears flower shirts and cowboy boots under a sports jacket when he goes to New York for meetings. Outdoorsy and family-oriented, he’s a visual designer turned social network founder, who goes by the Twitter handle @jw. He and Gowalla CTO, Scott Raymond, who wrote one of the first books about Ruby on Rails, sat down with Mashable for an hour during their recent trip from Austin to NYC to discuss the changing landscape of social networking.

Gowalla is an app for iPhone, Android, and soon for BlackBerry that utilizes GPS triangulation to pinpoint users’ locations, and allows people to use their phones as virtual “passports,” stamping and collecting digital souvenirs as they go.

With a constant focus on design and exploration, recently the service launched several features to further distinguish it from its chief rival, the social nightlife game and friend-finder, Foursquare. The current version of Gowalla allows users to add photos to specific GPS coordinates, create temporary venues (so your birthday party doesn’t remain on the map forever), and comment on others’ check-in activity.

“We want to build Gowalla as the best service for recording and sharing your favorite places,” Williams explains.


Gowalla, which now has about 250,000 users across the world, was conceived in October 2008, when Williams stood in the middle of nowhere near Lake Tahoe (on the border of Nevada and California). Wishing he could capture the moment on a passport or perhaps a travelogue on his phone, Williams sat down with a sketchbook then and there and drew the first version of what would become Gowalla. His close friend Raymond built a prototype of the app in just a week, and after successfully checking in via iPhone-to-satellite link down the street, they said, “We should do this.”

Foursquare’s similar app overshadowed Gowalla’s buggy product during its debut at SXSW 2009, and when Gowalla made a comeback with its snazzy second edition that September, many people assumed it was simply a ripoff. But even then, Williams didn’t seem to be concerned. The space was growing.

Technology Interview, Gowalla

Now, as both companies gain eager users by the thousands, and more competitors enter the space, a common concern is that “old” networks like Facebook or Twitter might swoop into the space and crush Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, and everyone else. But again, Williams isn’t ruffled. “Location in general is going to become almost ubiquitous to mobile services and ultimately to the Internet,” he says. “The idea of a location-based service will become redundant,” he adds. “We see Gowalla coming beyond just a declaration of ‘this is where I am,’ but ‘this is where I am, these are the people I was with, and these are the photographs that were taken.’ So I can go in and pull up my buddy who checked into the Mavs and Spurs game in Dallas last night and see all the photos taken by fans there, and it becomes this snapshot of what happened in that moment.”

When confronted with the idea of sharing their location –- even with friends –- people tend to rattle off concerns about privacy or say things like “Why would I want to do that?” Gowalla thinks that mindset will quickly evaporate.

“In the late 90s, people were constantly talking about information overload,” Raymond says. “It’s a little bit laughable now to say that in ‘94 people were going to go nuts because of all the information available to them.” He expects the same thing to happen with geo-social networking.

Another common prediction of skeptics is that these networks can never break into demographic segments outside of single 20- and 30-somethings in big cities. At a million users and climbing, Foursquare seems prepared to challenge the predictions of quick obsolescence, but its core audience definitely falls in the above category. Gowalla, on the other hand, is seeing success in reaching older demographics, perhaps because of its “kick-back, explore the world attitude,” as opposed to the fast-paced throb of Foursquare. Williams, who’s married and seems to be a pretty laid back guy himself, says his dad even just commented on his check-in when he arrived in NYC, asking, “What are you up to in New York?”

Gowalla is another way to share your life and keep in touch with old friends, Raymond says. When a friend of his back home in Kansas City checks into a grocery store, he says, it recalls good times and opens up opportunities to reconnect over fond memories.

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