group messaging gold rush. My thoughts…

so I woke up this morning and my inbox was full of even more invites to even more group messaging applications. I’ve lost count – GroupMe, Beluga, YoBongo, Ditto, Ask Around (and a few other stealth startups whose names I cannot mention yet) are just the tip of the iceberg. There will be more…but they all seem be missing a key component….errm…can we say – USE CASE 😉

I get the pressure of wanting to launch something before SXSW (or “SouthBy” as the digerati are clearly wont to call it now) but it seems that many of these developers need to remember that:

It’s USE CASES FIRST – then APPS to satisfy them.

Use cases can (and will) certainly evolve. Twitter as a messaging platform evolved into news in ways that I doubt Ev and Biz predicted at the very beginning.

But building an app on the use-case premise of Kevin Costner’s “Field of Dreams” (“If you build it, they will come” for those too young or too lazy to Google) – seems like an exercise in both pointlessness and frustration.

The funny thing is – the industry will support this – to a degree. There is sufficient overlap between the early adopters that form the hardcore of the SXSW crowd and the young business angels funding some of these exercises – that it’s perhaps understandable that they can’t see the wood for the trees….but let’s step back for a second and consider this.

Group messaging apps that create chat groups on-the-fly by geographic proximity seem to have generated a lot of excitement in the blogosphere.
It seems to me that the use cases are quite slim.

I’m not the only one – even Robert Scoble who is notoriously bullish on any geolocation app – struggled to identify use cases in a recent interview with the founder of Yobongo.

It’s of course possible that a use case will arise here that no-one has foreseen – but the hype got me thinking about the whole idea of geofenced instantly created chatgroups.

So I’m at the bus stop and I can chat to the 60 year old matron who is coming back from her weekly bridge game.

No wait.

An “interest graph” of some sort could protect me from this – because I will only be able to chat with – oh wait – NOBODY – when I’m at the bus stop – because I don’t live right next to people who are tech geeks that also love surfing and fly helicopters.

Ok what about (to use Scoble’s example) I’m at a party at SXSW – I can talk to 1000 people now.
Signal to Noise ??

No wait.

Perhaps we can make smaller groups (as the CEO of Yobongo suggests in the above video) – so say I only have groups that are approximately 10-15 people in size.

For sure I can see ways of managing the group size (especially if you just create new groups constantly) but if by some miracle a discussion actually ends up being interesting – the random nature of the chat could easily mean I end up getting shunted into another discussion – and never be able to pick up the thread again.

This kind of approach could easily lead to the bastard stepchild of IRC and ChatRoulette.

Ask Around is in a similar space – also seems a little bit strange to me.

That one doesn’t have the heat of Yobongo but it comes from an established (it a little web 1.0) brand of ask.com – so they’ll have the muscle to push it into the marketplace at least to a degree.

I have to say I have not played with Ask Around but here’s their messaging based on the article Into Mobile published – link above.

Ask Around is about using location as a common denominator and allowing location-based Q&A to blossom into conversation – giving you a window into the real-time dialogue unfolding around you.

I find this more than a little strange. When I walk towards my local Starbucks the real-time dialogue unfolding around me seems to fit into some very straightforward categories

Public and random
“Look at the cute puppy.”
“I can’t believe I got another parking ticket.”
“It’s so friggin’ cold in Los Angeles today.”
“So d’you think you’ll go out with him then?”

or

Private and specific
GUESS WHAT – I didn’t hear any of these 😉

And that’s precisely my point. In a tech-dense common-interest area like a city block or street in certain areas of San Francisco there is a small – but greater than zero – chance that ad hoc geofenced instant messaging could provide some social relevance – but anywhere else (to paraphrase my own tweet) – this seems like the social engagement equivalent of clicking a Like button to cure cancer…i.e. not very USEful – or to keep within the theme of this blog post – USE-CASE-less

I would love to see these services grow into use cases – but at the moment I just don’t see it.

Then we have Ditto – awesome pedigree (see RWW article) but the article implies that Ditto would prefer I make no decisions at all on my own but I ask my friendship graph.

Hmm – this seems like another disturbing development – as I find myself questioning the premise of trusting my own social graph more than myself.

When I wake up in the morning I don’t think “I have no idea what I’m going to today – so let me ask my social graph.”
When I pick up my phone I don’t stare at it and think “Do something useful for me.” – it’s a tool. It complements my desires and activities – it doesn’t define them.

Perhaps some people’s lives are 100% whimsical – but frankly I’d be amazed if that’s the case.

Life is not an “I’m feeling lucky” search button.

Which brings me back (does it…I dunno anymore…but I’m bringing it back regardless) to group messaging.

Group messaging (whether geo or otherwise) and group social dynamics are a very interesting playground. Namesake and Convore are both doing interesting work in the space of asymmetric social graph knowledge sharing/communication.
You can follow people, topics, trends (in a way that seems far less self-serving than my experience so far of, for example, Quora).

But the key thing that stands out for me with a system like Namesake is that it’s designed with an asynchronous nature of group communication at its core. Designing with real-time group communication as a premise is complicated at best – but utterly flawed at worst. Once again it’s a solution looking for a problem.

If my instincts are true – this means that almost all of the mobile group messaging services will see a SXSW spike – but are doomed to be irrelevant later on – unless a compelling use case evolves (or is made to evolve)

Of course I could be totally wrong 😉

When we looked at the location sharing process for echoecho (and I include the new meeting place suggestion in this) we were always driven by solving very explicit pain points in real life.

Not just because of the VC oriented painkillers or vitamins dilemma (although this is a nice side effect) but because I don’t get that much of a kick out of making an app that most people consider fun but useless – and discard after day or so.

But hey – we’re in a Bubble right ??

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