At SxSW interactive this year, the big hype was about location-based social software, with a number of apps (examples here and here) focused on exposing your location, or finding people nearby who shared similar interests to you.
All this provoked a variety of reactions in me. The first question I found myself asking was why would I want to use this. I couldn’t really find an answer. There are plenty of existing methods of notifying people of my whereabouts which offer the flexibility of a) not telling people who I don’t want to know, and b) not kidding me into believing that anyone outside my immediate circle of acquaintance would be that bothered anyway.
Secondly, this “social” technology didn’t actually seem very social. Why would I want to focus my social interactions around just my interests, political leanings, biases and prejudices? To do this is to remove a lot of what’s fun in life - interacting with people who disagree with you, who find the flaws in each others thinking. This is how ideas get tested and refined and people grow through positive interaction.
And yet the tech crowd were seemingly all-a-flutter with this upcoming, supposedly life-changing new paradigm. This was all about making individuals’ lives easier, more fun and more productive.
I think the hype and then lack of traction with these apps in the months since is testimony to the inherent flaw here. You see, SxSWi is itself a gathering of a fairly specific segment of society. This isn’t a problem in itself, but when the sub-culture doesn’t recognise itself as a subculture then things get a little bit weird.
Firstly, and most obviously, virtually everyone there was of a techie/futurist bent. This can warp the underlying collective subconscious. A response might be, “but by being futurists we are just the kind of people that everyone will be in the future”. To an extent this is true - the technologies that us techies are now adopting may be the technologies that in a few years will be used by everyone (take Twitter in 2007 for perhaps the closest this comes to truth). But what will not be shared by those who didn’t bother to make the trip to Austin is the futurist psyche - otherwise in five years time they won’t be using the technologies we are using today, they’ll be using the technologies we’ll be using in five years time.
More significantly in this case is that there seemed to be a failure to recognise the shared purposes of those experiencing the excitement. Yes, those at SxSW were there to have fun, learn things, be inspired and the like but many also had something else in common: they were there to sell something. And that is the real use case for these apps - they are great for someone attending a tech conference for a few days along with 20,000 or so other enthusiasts and trying to find those people most likely to want to buy their product or service.
Despite society as a whole becoming more technologically proficient, I can’t help but feel that the technological community continues to fall into the trap of finding ideas which seem useful or fun to them and then trying to sell them to the rest of the world as if they are all on the same page. This seems particularly to be the case post-Facebook and post-Twitter - apps whose success is thanks to their ability to encompass so much of our lives. There seems to be a clutching-at-straws to fool ourselves into believing that a tool we’ve created which may be useful for one or two use cases will revolutionise our whole existence.
Anyway, this was supposed to be a post about app.net - that will have to wait till later.