The SXSW prognosticating season was officially kicked-off by TechCrunch’s MG Seigler just the other day; and I’m ready to throw my hat in the ring with my picks for this year’s darlings. Of course, there’s no real way to predict this; and entrants are likely to come out of the woodwork between now and the start of SXSWi, but recent trends point to a few promising possibilities. In my opinion, the big winners are going to be the micro-social network applications and sites. Why? Because group texting services like Beluga, GroupMe, and others will help attendees cut through the noise of the conference and connect with those closest to them.
Why do I think that inherently non-viral products will catch on at SXSW? Recent history provides the best clues. The launches of Twitter in ’07 and Foursquare in ’09 are examples of how the interactive crowd embraces products that help them make a large, overwhelming conference seem more intimate and personal. Twitter and Foursquare, at launch, allowed users to connect in new ways; ways that leverage connections weak and strong, provide real-time, high-quality information, and help cut through the noise and clamor of a crowded environment. These tools and services gave people the ability to create a personal, custom experience for themselves in a very noisy and chaotic space. And while Twitter and Foursquare are much more open than Beluga or GroupMe, my picks provide the next evolution of delivering those same important elements.
Twitter broke at SXSW in 2007 and was widely used at the festival in 2008 as attendees surfed and Tweeted the #sxsw hashtag to find the parties, venues, impromtu gatherings and panels that were most noteworthy. In ’07, people used it as not only a communication tool, but as a networking and real-time information network. A network that connected like-minded folks with one another in a way that wasn’t possible before. And the rest is history as Twitter blew-up, becoming the preferred communication tool for the digerati and, with later help from Ashton and other celebrities spread to the early-majority crowd as well.
But as Twitter blew up, it’s utility for connecting at SXSW ’08 diminished. Too much noise. Too much pollution. It’s value as an information source remained; but the #sxsw hashtag became unruly and less valuable to help ferret out the best events. It opened up a new opportunity for Foursquare to provide that high-signal, that more personal, manageable connection that Twitter delivered the year before.
Foursquare launched and provided a similar noise-filtered way to connect with friends at SXSW ’09 and again at SXSW ’10. Interactive conference attendees used the service to find out where their friends were. And the SXSW-specific rewards only helped to make using the service more fun. With the Twitter stream polluted and the quality and ease of groking it for useful information diminished, Foursquare stepped in and provided a better filter on connections and information. We had gone from Scott “Laughing Squid” Beale Tweeting about being at a bar next door, to people just watching their friends check-in to venues and forming impromtu gatherings as those check-ins reached critical mass.
Last year, at SXSW, one of the best parties was not a planned party at all. Brian Solis and a small group of influencers checked-in at The Driskill Hotel and within an hour the place was packed. The word was out and the party swelled. After an hour you couldn’t move. The power and faults of a service like Foursquare were evidenced in one short moment. The service worked brilliantly, connecting members of those people’s networks and letting them know where their friends were without any additional coordination or communication. On the flip side, as the message propogated and grew, the event tipped from a small gathering to an all-out free-for-all. The utility of the service fell apart. It went from an intimate gathering to a ridiculously jam packed event. And, for the rest of the conference, many of those people checked in off the grid to keep a similar scene from repeating everywhere they went.
Robert Scoble recently asked how SXSW could regain the intimacy of the conference in face of the ever-growing crowds.
Me? I want to get more of those intimate experiences we used to have. I remember when the entire Web Standards Project fit at one picnic table. I remember having a fun conversation with a small group, all huddled around Craig Newmark in the rain at a BBQ place across the street. I remember being able to get into parties without being a VIP and last year the VIPs even had to wait in line at nearly every party. Heck, I remember when Scott Beale Tweeted in 2007 that he was sitting all alone in an empty pub and I joined him and had a leisurely beer at a picnic table with him and a few other friends. Those days are seemingly gone.
Scoble doubts that we can, because there is too much opportunity cost. I think he’s wrong. I think we can with better tools. It’s not that we’re attention-deficited people who can’t decide where to go and what to do (ok, we are,); but that the tools we have have become too bloated to be effective. Twitter and Foursquare have lost their ability to create those unique, intimate moments because we’ve bent them out of shape with oversized followings and over-subscription. I believe the next wave of services that succeed at SXSW will be those that bring that intimacy back – that allow us to navigate the crowded noisy environment of SXSW and give us a better experience because of it.
Scoble starts to get at it here:
It seems weird for me to say this, but I’m tired of going to big massive parties where you collect a lot of business cards but don’t have any good conversations to show for it. I now have enough business cards. I don’t need more. I bet many of you are in the same place. In fact, this year we’ve seen companies like Pip.io and Path come along and try to serve smaller “micro” groups. Path limits you from sharing photos with more than 50 friends. I’ve come to like that constraint, somewhat. It’s just that I wish I could share with many small groups.
So, how about this as a proposal:
Kill the big parties. Instead, follow Zappos’ lead. This year they hosted a bus. It could only hold about 30 people (it had its own bar, after all). But the time I spent on that bus is still my favorite experience at SXSW. Why? Because it forced a small handful of people to sit together and talk. Even if it was just for 15 minutes it was nice to have an intimate experience with a small number of other people.
And it’s Beluga and GroupMe that can bring that intimacy and limited connection to the table – and create the passionate followings that ignite services like these to broad influencer adoption and buzz required to tip one of these services in terms of awareness and users.
Out of the two I’m picking Beluga for two reasons. First, because you connect your account with Facebook you can see which of your Facebook friends is using Beluga and automatically send them a message or add them to a group. This is going to help the viral spread of the service. Second, the ability to add friends based on email address or phone, over just phone makes the service more early-adopter friendly and allows you to add friends who you may have connected with online; but are not necessarily friends with on Facebook or whose phone number you don’t have. This will allow more loosely-connected groups to form to make dinner and other plans at SXSW and then disband just as fast. (GroupMe also has expiring groups, which are very interesting for ephemeral groups.) Other groups will persist as back-channel mobile chat rooms that will be running as its own data layer on top of the Twitter feed, Foursquare check-ins and other conference noise.
The benefits of a limited circle are most obvious when we’re in high-density network situations like SXSW. Over-subscribed friend and follower counts limit the effectiveness of the tools. When you’re in tight quarters, when you’re looking for high-quality information over the noise, when you’re looking for that quiet dinner party with your friends, more isn’t better. Better is better. Beluga and GroupMe and others can help give us a better experience. Can bring the intimacy of SXSW back and will be the darlings of this year’s conference.