Ahhhh! Run for the hills! Here come ambient social apps, where you’re just walking around and someone who happens to like the band Toro Y Moi sees that you like them too and then stalks you (in a friendly way). A number of people had their creeped-out buttons pushed at SXSW when the buzz began to build around “social discovery” mobile app companies like Highlight, Sonar, Banjo, Gauss and Glancee. Yeah, you’ve probably heard about them by now. Don’t like the concept? Too bad, because it’s a natural progression of the profile browsing and over sharing that everyone has gotten used to doing with Facebook and Twitter — and it could work out to be something very cool.
What ambient social (or “so-mo,” for social mobile) does is reinforce that you are a node of interests and activities other people you do or don’t know may find engaging. Participating with any of these services means that you are opting-in on the continuing experiment that social networking sites helped to define and transform. It doesn’t mean that you have to interact with everyone who happens to share an interest. Just because you are node doesn’t mean you can’t also be filter. You have to adapt your behavior to derive any possible benefit. That said, if enough people view this new spin as intrusive, only an obscure subset of participants might end up caring enough to use it. I just don’t think it will stay small.
Like it or not, ambient social is the next logical step for social and mobile apps. Each of the companies listed above is very conscious of the “creepy” factor and spins their app as a friendly facilitator of connections. They are dedicated to teaching us how to get past the anxiety of approaching people we don’t know and want to help enable us to form meaningful and lasting connections. Essentially, they are telling people, “Jump in, the water’s fine.”
Some go even further. Gauss states that they are not a social network (huh?) but allow you log in to your favorite network. They also make it clear that they are not a dating or flirting app, but rather they are the “Disney of social discovery”. I’m not sure how appealing that is, or their stated goal of wanting me to “never feel lonely again.”
These awkward first steps are to be expected when trying to bridge the online world with flesh-and-bone. It’s going to be messy at first, and some people just won’t like it. But it’s going to transform people’s lives as well. People with desired skill sets will be accessible and the codes of behavior for interaction will evolve based on using this technology. When you are able to have an immediate encounter with someone, a number of steps to make it feel safe or not will come into common practice and parlance.
So, go ahead. Stay away while others play. Can’t blame you, but eventually you’ll probably get sucked in, too. Just remember: I told you so.