There's a new trend in social media and application development, and it's called "social discovery". If you haven't already heard the term a lot, you will soon. SXSW is famously an event where a lot of startups get to make their first major marks on the world. Some fizzle out. Some are Twitter. Quite a few are betting on the "social discovery" element as the next big thing. Some might simply find the whole thing a little too creepy. On the other hand, some find Google and Facebook creepy. Either way, the trend is here, and of course, there are always opportunities for businesses to take advantage.
Are you comfortable sharing personal information with people who happen to be nearby? For some of these apps that is essentially the founding principle. Tell us what you think.
What is social discovery?
The concept of social discovery is not really new. You might say it's been a valuable part of social networks for years, and an area where some of them have improved as time has gone on. Early location-based services like Foursquare have gone on to improve the discovery part of the equation overtime. I'd say Facebook will be getting better in this department as it recently acquired one such service in Gowalla. The Gowalla team is said to be working on the Timeline feature, so that could play a big role in Facebook's "social discovery" strategy. The Open Graph apps are certainly key.
Wikipedia's description of a social discovery platform indicates it as one that lets users search for other users, either by physical location or by other criteria (age, name, interests, gender, etc.). Under that definition, you could include sites like Pinterest and its clones, but the physical location part seems to be more connected to the broader trend, particularly at SXSW.
AdWeek calls social discovery one of the five trends to watch at the event.
Uberlife's focus is extending online connections into the real world. It's been available in the UK since January, but just launched here in the U.S. WebProNews interviewed CEO Sanchita Saha about the service, which she says sets it self apart from others that focus more on people discovery. "Uberlife is more about groups of people," she says.
She says where Google+ hangouts are about hanging out online, Uberlife is more about finding groups of people to hang out with offline. "At the moment, we have no people discovery in our network. You can download the app and find out what hangouts are happening near me. What are people meeting up about around me? And that could be hangouts based around interests. It could be around a gig that you really want to go and see that's going on nearby, and you really want to find a bunch of people to go to that with."
You can sign up through Facebook or Twitter. It looks at your Facebook likes.
Privacy may be an issue with some users, though they should be aware of that going in. Uberlife, for example, says it will implement features in the future that let only your friends connect with you, but right now it's totally open. That might be a little creepy to some, and that is likely an obstacle a lot of these kinds of apps will face in terms of growing adoption.
"Right now, there is certainly an element of human nature," where some may resist joining in hangouts, admits Saha. Particularly the more personal ones. But still, anyone in the Uberlife community can join hangouts that are going on around them.
There may be some big opportunities for brands to capitalize on this social discovery trend. Really, we've already happening to some extent over recent years with the rise of smartphones, and apps like Foursquare, Yelp, Urbanspoon, and even Google Places. But that goes for this new crop as well. Saha says food, drink and clothing brands have already approached the company, as well as some bands (a natural fit for such an app).
"We've yet to have one actually creata a hangout," Saha says of brands. "But their interest is around being able to engage their customer base offline - or to mobile their customer base offline, in really a fun, spontaneous way that's great for things like flash mob events."
The main interest, she says, for brands, is that when you create a hangout, the attendee can check in, upload photos, etc. and share that stuff through Facebook and Twitter. It's about connecting customers with each other as well, which could be helpful for the brand in the long run.
Highlight would be another one of the new apps that's getting a lot of buzz around SXSW. This one calls itself "a fun, simple way to learn more about the people around you". As my colleague Mike Tuttle wrote about it, "stalkers of the world rejoice."
"If someone standing near you also has Highlight, their profile will show up on your phone," the official description continues. "You can see their name, photos of them, mutual friends, and anything else they have chosen to share. When you meet someone, Highlight helps you see what you have in common with them. And when you forget their name at a party a week later, Highlight can help you remember it. As you go about your day, Highlight runs quietly in the background, surfacing information about the people around you. If your friends are nearby, it will notify you. If someone interesting crosses your path, it will tell you more about them."
Highlight has been around for a little while, but it just got an update, which it being touted around SXSW. The new version tells you when people in your timeline are "still nearby". This way, users can catch each other before they get away.
Another social discovery app, Sonar, has been available for iOS, but is now launching on Android. It's another one designed to get users to connect with people around them. The word creepy has been tossed around with Sonar for the better part of a year.
Similarly, Glancee touts itself as a way to "discover and connect with new interesting people around you," though interestingly, it also throws "safe" into its description. Not a lot of additional explanation is given on that note, however.
Glancee's been around for a bit too. As has Banjo, which has a new update. Banjo alerts you about your friends when they're nearby.
Another app, Kismet, promises to help you "easily meet new people in the real world. "We'll tell you who you should meet, why you should meet them, and who you know in common."
Inconvenience and annoyance
In terms of privacy, you have to think about this stuff before you start using any of these apps. If you're not comfortable with people near you knowing about you, you probably shouldn't be using the services. Since this is generally the main purpose for such apps, it shouldn't be that big of a deal, because there should be this understanding going in. Of course the "cool" factor can sometimes trump common sense, and that's not to say there is no value to be gained from "discovering" new friends, if your'e the social type. It's not as if this is a new concept. It used to be called going out to the bar and striking up a conversation. Of course, that didn't always end well for everyone either.
Beyond privacy, users could simply be setting themselves up for inconvenience. It probably depends on how much of a social butterfly you are. Sometimes you may want to go to a place and not have to "stop and chat" with someone who you may or may not already be friends with, just because you're nearby.
Regardless of how you feel about these types of apps, having attended the last two SXSW Interactive events, I can tell you, the event is a perfect testing ground for this kind of thing. Austin is basically one big party, with a whole lot of things to do, great places to eat and drink, and lots of people with similar interests (of a wide variety) to hang out with.
In fact, it may give some of these apps to a misleading start, as the SXSW crowd is in this mindset. The real test will be how well such engagement holds up back in the real world when everyone goes back to their day-to-day lives.
That goes for the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, as well (while maybe not to the party extent of SXSW), where TheLoop chose to announce its new social networking site, which it describes as as “a new social discovery and broadcast network.” They chose to launch at GDC, because they are reportedly seeking app developers to create content for a new site, rather than "overly-saturated existing platforms."
But it just goes to show that "social discovery" is the big buzz word, and a major area of focus for startups these days.
SXSW is credited with the launches (or at least big coming out parties) of both Twitter and Foursquare. Will one of the new crop of "social discovery" similarly get its big break at the event this year? Can such a service have such an impact? What do you think?
Are social discovery apps a fad or the way of the future? Let us know what you think in the comments.