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Summary:

SXSW 2012 was all about location-based social interactions, with Highlight being the belle of the ball. But for all the hype ahead of the show, a number of people I ran into there didn’t seem to understand why they would even want to use these apps.

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Last year, SXSW was all about group messaging, with GroupMe leading the pack. This year, it was all about location-based social interactions, with Highlight the belle of the ball. Sure, some of the people in Austin seemed to understand exactly why they would want to use such apps, which are variously called Social-Local-Mobile (say it with me now — SoLoMo), ambient awareness or social serendipity. But what’s more interesting is how many people didn’t get the utility.

“Have you tried Highlight yet?” was a familiar refrain around Austin over the past weekend. And for those who hadn’t tried it out, there was the inevitable discussion — and confusion — as one party attempted to explain the concept to another. Once the app was demoed from one user to another, the question would be asked: “So why would I want to do this?” Maybe not everybody had that experience, but I saw this interaction unfold enough times that it seemed more than a few people were unsure of the ultimate use case of these applications, which include startups like Glancee, banjo, Sonar and Glassmap.

That’s hardly fatal, of course. It wasn’t readily apparent why someone might want to broadcast his or her location data when Foursquare first hit the scene, except maybe to Dennis Crowley and a few of his friends. And people were really confused about the utility of a platform that limited communications to 140 characters at a time when Twitter first started. Use cases develop, and the utility of applications and platforms become understood over time. Despite glowing reviews that each received at the time, I doubt the inevitable success of those platforms was etched in stone due to SXSW.

Which is why I think this question of who “won” the festival is so interesting. Erin Griffith has a thought-provoking piece on Pando Daily in which she gives some pretty good reasons why there wasn’t a breakout startup this year: Basically, all the geo-local hype that’s been dished out has created more noise than signal. The event is bigger, there are more startups than ever, and there are more apps coming out that are basically all doing the same thing.

So I think it’s too early to call winners and losers. If you really want to know who won, wait a few weeks. Maybe a few months or a year. Let’s see which of the apps that launched around SXSW gets downloaded by more than just a few tens of thousands of early adopters who descended on Austin for five days in March.

There are certainly some cases where press success stories become mainstream phenomena. Foursquare got a lot of glowing press during SXSW 2009, as did Twitter a few years earlier. But the first time I knew Foursquare “won” was the moment I checked into my parents’ local grocery store in suburban South Jersey and saw that it had a mayor. That experience showed that it wasn’t just the digital media set on the coasts and in major metropolitan areas that were using the app to signal whichever bar they had just arrived at. It showed that Foursquare was also being used by regular folks and in pretty banal places. But that was about a year, year-and-a-half after SXSW 2009.

At the same time, there have been just as many tech startups that have been lauded by the tech press but just never caught on. Hot Potato, for instance, was pushing the limits of social, location-based messaging and sharing around SXSW 2010, but failed to resonate with mainstream users. It ended up settling for a relatively modest acquisition by Facebook.

That said, just because users don’t quite “get it” right now doesn’t mean the SoLoMo segment is doomed. Ambient awareness seems to have legs, and there are good reasons to believe there will be consumer demand for this type of app in the future. And let’s remember that Foursquare was also considered creepy once upon a time, and that Twitter was ridiculed for being stupid until users saw real value from using it.

There will most likely be a winner at SXSW 2012, have no fear. We’ll just be placing that label on whichever startup it is as soon as it’s clear that the app has real user traction and isn’t going away anytime soon.

  1. Dave Elchoness Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    I think the notion of ambient awareness is interesting. I just don’t think most people want to connect with strangers, even if they have things in common, solely because of proximity. It’s just plain uncomfortable and proximity makes it even more painful (in the same way you might duck an acquaintance in the supermarket.) Certainly it’s not something I want to do everyday. This may change, but it’ll take a while. Used to be tweeting a stranger was weird. Before that, linking-in to a relative stranger was offputting. That’s changed. And maybe having computers in our hands all the time will render apps like Highlight a bit more palatable over time. (Oh, and by the way, they kill battery life.) For me, what’s more interesting about the potential of SoLoMo are the actual NEEDS that can be filled – the GAPS left by today’s web. My company, Tagwhat (http://www.tagwhat.com), makes it easy to deliver and discover the location-related multimedia that you wish you had at your fingertips when you’re at a place. People are curious about their surroundings. Unfortunately, the mass of content we’ve created on the web, from blogs, to websites and YouTube videos and social updates never get to those places to enhance an experience there i.e. to illuminate or entertain. For example, how do you find the artist’s inspiration for the statue you pass in the park? How do you listen to the mp3 of the band playing at a nearby theater? How do you know the history of the ornate mansion on your block? The best you can do is Google, but that doesn’t satisfy the need for a quick a multimedia story. It forces a ‘browsing’ effort around lists of often unresponsive results. We’re making multimedia ‘fit’ at location for mobile users to consume. Even my mom gets it. One click to what she’s curious about. My mom wouldn’t get Highlight.

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  2. J. Andrew Rogers Tuesday, March 13, 2012

    These applications would be more compelling if they were smarter and more contextual. If real serendipity requires too much user effort or fails to be delivered in the majority of attempts then the payoff is not there after the novelty wears off.

    These kinds of applications are unlikely to work well without a much stronger and deeper analytics technology stack than these companies are currently using.

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  3. SoLoMo is Useful for Much More…

    Ryan, provocative headline, but I think the conclusion applies only to a narrow subset of SoLoMo apps, e.g., those apps that reveal nearby, “like-minded” individuals to one another.

    By enabling users to create, tag and view content “curated” by Location and Social Networks, SoLoMo is becoming an integral, “must-have” capability in a much broader range of contexts and applications, as the following innovative apps illustrate:
    1. CityMaps – displays the latest social media in a neighborhood (tweets, daily deals, check-ins, reviews, etc.) http://bit.ly/w1JxDx
    2. Trover – allows members to share interesting discoveries within locations http://www.trover.com/
    3. Pinwheel – Flickr founder Caterina Flake’s new app allows individuals to leave notes in places for others to view http://bit.ly/x82dsh
    4. Localmind – allows individuals to ask questions of local experts http://tnw.co/wt3nvl
    5. TripXP – allows locals to offer their services and activities to tourists http://bit.ly/ApVM9m
    6. Alfred by CleverSense (recently acquired by Google) – indicate who you’re dining with, and Alfred recommends restaurants (and dishes) that the whole group will like http://bit.ly/z2k5nt

    TagWhat (mentioned above) looks useful as well.

    These are just a few examples of emerging solutions that leverage SoLoMo to personalize, simplify, and enhance users’ experiences in places.

    SoLoMo is also revolutionizing shopping and M-commerce, as discussed here (http://bit.ly/qOhnft) and demonstrated more fully in a forthcoming report.

    Dr. Phil Hendrix, immr and GigaOm Pro analyst
    @phil_hendrix

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    1. Steve Letterman Wednesday, March 14, 2012

      Oh and you forgot Localscope! A location browser that aggregates local info from 11 sources.

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  4. You touch on a key point: giving users a reason to use an app like Highlight. Foursquare solved this problem in the early days through game mechanics and then diversified into other offerings like Specials.

    I think Highlight’s opportunities, luckily for them, are also highly monetizeable. If I were part of their team, I’d focus on 1) user utility and 2) business development. Both are revenue-positive and give users a better product.

    Specifics and details over on DVWLR.com: http://bit.ly/zenDls

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