With the SxSW media circus coming back into town, it’s hard to believe it’s been almost a year since “social discovery” burst well and truly into the consciousness of the tech industry at last year’s conference. People discovery apps were hailed as the next big thing and the hottest bets were about making offline connections and the GPS-enabled apps that let people learn more about others around them.
Our team was there as the sole social discovery startup from Europe (beta launching our app uberlife) alongside the main US players Highlight, Sonar, Banjo and Glancee. All of whom where competing for the title of standout people discovery app, albeit each with our own unique core features.
If press hype was the measure, the crown was Highlight’s last March – although no app escaped criticism. With common complaints over the “creepiness” factor, and the battery draining nature of the ambient tracking-based apps. The tenuous mutual connections and Facebook interest matching also rendered the actual people recommendation part weak and annoying.
But what since then? Has the reality lived up to the hype?
In a word, no, or not yet anyway, but it’s interesting to review how each player has adapted their approach in the last year as the race to win “the” people / social discovery app title continues into year two.
Highlight, have pretty much stuck to their original mission and are working on more ways to help users find out more relevant information about people who are nearby. Now alerting users in real time when people with commonalities are in their immediate vicinity and including information around users’ employer, neighbourhood, hometown, school and relationship status.
Their focus on building a richer picture of the people around you is to provide better recommendations to motivate users to take the next step of actually engaging with others based on those recommendations, instead of using the app passively to observe who’s around you. However, so far it appears that the main usage remains in a conference environment and within densely populated tech and media cities namely San Francisco and New York, helping to maintain professional as opposed to personal relationships.
Banjo and Glancee
They’ve both dropped out of the people discovery space. Glancee bowed out of the race, after being bought by Facebook soon after SxSW and shut down. Banjo opted to expand on its original formula for social discovery apps by providing tools to discover what your connections are doing in specific locations elsewhere in the world. They moved the focus to the “there” from the “here” letting you view location-tagged posts from other social networks. It’s much more useful as a way to transport yourself to an event and see what’s going on than to meet people.
Most interestingly to observe has been Sonar’s journey, who have focused on adding features that let users find and interact with people they actually know rather than strangers, releasing Sonar Status and Notifications, similar to uberlife’s two core features, essentially letting Sonar users receive automated notifications when friends were located within a certain radius.
Beginning life as a more venue-focused app, Sonar made a subtle shift from showing which places nearby people mutual connections had just checked in, to showing the people close to your current location ranked by relevancy.
“My own view is that that this shift was premature with much more potential in place-based people discovery to exploit”
Sonar should have pursued this over following Highlight’s direction with Sonar Presence – the battery-draining GPS feature that was Highlight’s core feature at SxSW. Indeed the next feature for uberlife was similar to Sonar’s original “places” approach.
Going beyond shared interests and mutual friends
Preceding Uberlife, we drew on our own experience starting up parent service CitySocialising in 2007, focusing on connecting new groups of people together offline, so social discovery for us was not as new as the label it was christened with in Austin last year. uberlife has had some of its own challenges and we’ve been focussing on evolving the interest based aspect of connections with our sister service citysocializer and will launch a brand new app in the near future.
While the common theme of the other apps in this space is that they enable us to see who is around us based on interests and connections, it’s proved proximity doesn’t necessarily result in the creation of meaningful relationships.
Shared interests and mutual friends may be enough to bring people together and start the conversation, but our belief is that people recommendations need to be meaningful beyond the factors gleaned from users’ online “personalities”. Individuals’ lifestyles and lifestages need to be taken into account as well as the social activities that users enjoy in their every day and the places they like to go.
“To that end foursquare, if they chose to, remain in the best position to exploit the people discovery space in a meaningful way.”
Additionally, if people discovery apps want to be successful in powering genuine relationships amongst “regular people”, and not just for professional networking, then more is needed beyond recommendations and one offline interaction – friendships are not made in a “real time” instant, they’re made and nurtured over a period of time through the enjoyment of shared experiences. And along with this, trust and clear control over location privacy are paramount to overcome the “creepiness” factor in order to win over the mainstream.
Our focus remains on un-locking real value and meaningful relationships offline beyond the initial online connection, using only data that is truly useful in forming a real world view of a person to power accurate recommendations.
So as we approach the first anniversary of the people discovery buzz at SxSW last year it’s safe to say that no-one has yet un-locked the route to mainstream success. Still, with the gates wide open I can’t wait to see what will be happening a year from now.