A new iPhone app called Yobongo is launching Thursday, with plans to make building connections between locally-based, like-minded users easier. The app provides a simple chat-based interface that groups users based on location and seeks to make it easier for people to get to know each other both in-app and in the real world.
Yobongo works by selecting people based on where they’re located, and grouping them together in virtual rooms of 10 to 15 users. While the app’s algorithm uses location as a starting point for grouping users together, it never explicitly reveals where a participant is located, ensuring the privacy of its users. Conversations begin when someone begins using the app, so by just logging in, users are opting in to the service. Over time, as the app sees who users have been chatting with, it will adjust its placement to ensure that they see some of the same people each time they log on.
Yobongo was founded by former Justin.tv VP of product Caleb Elston along with software engineer David Kasper, who have been working on the idea full-time for about the last six months. While most social mobile apps focus on importing your existing social graph, Elston told us in an interview that Yobongo seeks to reduce the friction that exists for users to meet people they don’t already know. That means creating an easy-to-use interface for chatting, without having to deal with the stress of explicitly introducing yourself to a stranger — you know, like in the real world.
Some may find the idea of being grouped based upon location a little bit creepy, but Elston sees it as a trade-off that’s worthwhile. The idea is that, just like with other location-based or social services, “If you put a little bit into the commons, you can get a lot more back.” So that stranger you meet in a room of 15 others might actually become a real-life friend. While still in a very limited beta test of about 150 users, Yobongo has already had some success with spawning real-life meetups between users, Elston told us.
The Yobongo app can be downloaded from the App Store today, but the service will only be available in select cities at launch. Yobongo is launching in New York, San Francisco and Austin, Texas to capture some tech-savvy early adopters and (hopefully) tap into the SXSW zeitgeist. The goal is to improve the algorithm in a limited number of cities and ensure the back end of the service scales before incrementally rolling out to other major metropolitan areas.
If users in other cities try to log in, they will be asked to sign up for a notification when that city is available and “vote” to help launch the service in their local areas. That will allow Yobongo to see which city’s users are most interested in having the service available for its staged rollout.
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