October 09, 2010

Yobongo App Encourages You to Chat With Local Strangers

Before the advent of personalized home pages, blogs, and social networks connected to our real identities, many of us participated in anonymous chat rooms, where we tried to connect with strangers with similar interests. These chat rooms were filled with intrigue of finding new conversations and insight from people we might never meet in real life. Some were about hobbies or careers, and many more were built with the goal of hooking up, but others were about location. Today, with our smartphones having the option to determine our location, and with virtually all of them having pervasive access to the Internet, there lies an opportunity to recreate the chat room experience on the mobile, with strangers, tied together by our GPS coordinates. An old friend to louisgray.com readers, Caleb Elston, has announced he is leaving a comfortable job at Justin.tv and striking it out on his own to spread the word about this new experience - and it's called Yobongo.

Caleb first crossed our radar more than two and a half years ago with the launch of his shared OPML site, Toluu. At the end of 2008, Elston started a gift recommendation site, called Kallow, and earlier this year, he launched a Techmeme-like site for top news, called Kickpost. But unlike those three projects, Yobongo is going to get his full attention - as he believes it "is going to be a big thing."

Starting a Yobongo Account, Alerting Local Friends

I spoke at length with Caleb Thursday night, before his announcement, to learn why Yobongo has got him changing his life path, and found not just what inspired its start, but also, details about how the product has been in open testing in Canada for several months.

The idea came about when Caleb was in a crowded movie theater. In advance of a showing, people were "fooling around" on their cell phones. As he recalls, people called out funny lines on the previews and microconversations started happening. As he thought about it, he realized there lay an opportunity to connect everyone in the theater, leveraging smartphones' location capabilities and introducing real-time chat for those connected. But existing solutions were almost exclusively explicit or sexually-based, and there remained an opportunity for a non-adult option, to connect complete strangers for whom location was the single link.

An Active Yobonbo Chat Room

"We thought there might be a possibility you could communicate with people you didn't yet know but shared a location, while using your real identity," Caleb said. "It has to be instant, with no rooms to join, all one one screen."

The algorithm behind the product starts with a basic premise of the target number of people who are active in a single room. The current target of 20 people feels full to users, and there are several dozen active Yobongo sessions, with 2-3 of them in Toronto. Why hasn't Yobongo yet come to the US? Caleb says the company doesn't yet want to launch in full in the country until the mechanics of being truly hyperlocal are solved.

"The big thing is that we believe chatrooms will live on in mobile phones, just as they lived in the late '90's," Caleb said. "The problem then was the bad actors were so motivated, and they had the technical ability to circumvent banning mechanisms, making regular people uncomfortable. But in the earliest days, it showed promise of connecting people."

With Yobongo, identity is tied to a unique phone. If a bad actor is banned, you would essentially have to buy a new phone. Also, in the last 20 years, the culture and technology of the Internet has evolved to make revealing one's true identity more comfortable and accepted.

"Authentic communication can happen between people you do not know," Caleb argued. "For the personal device you have with you all the time, connecting to people is an exciting mechanism. There are more mobile connected devices next year than PC devices."

The application is initially targeting iPhone users, but with time, one should suspect the app to hit more screens and more systems. As Caleb told me, it's "iPhone only right now - but that's not the end game".