The geo-social revolution that wasn’t

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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.

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