March 16, 2011

SXSW 2011 "Winners": Foursquare and Hashable


The crowds at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive event in Austin this week were said to be 20-30 percent higher than the previous year, which led to longer lines, more crowded venues, less parking, and far-flung panels and events at hotels well beyond walking distance. Even bigger than the larger crowds were the expectations many people had for startups targeting the show for major visibility and possibly, stardom on the level much glorified with Twitter's rise to public awareness in 2007 and Foursquare's launch in 2009. But the reality of it was that of all the noise one heard before the show and during the show, the old brands seemed to hold serve, and most of the challengers made minor impact.

Two years removed from their buzzy debut, Foursquare doubled down ahead of the SXSW event with version 3.0 of their location app on both Android and iPhone, making the application much more fun than before, and introducing an "Explore" function which promoted trending venues, highlighted a running 7-day leaderboard for friend connections, and smartly added historical data to every checkin, letting you know the last time you were in a space, and marking the first time(s) you had checked in with other friends.

This, combined with a rollout of many challenging to obtain SXSW specific badges, and a large presence with shirts galore and a real foursquare court surrounded by easily approachable Foursquare employees, put the app in front of everyone. For all the talk of group chat, it was Foursquare I saw picked up time and again from venue to venue, leading people to the next destination, to watch as party attendance rose and fell, or to see what was swarming. I look forward to the post-SXSW update from Foursquare that gives the full rundown of statistics, but despite a big push from Google for Google Places and Hotpot, and some work by Gowalla, the LBS world was extremely one sided.

When people were group texting, the usage seemed pretty split, but from what I could tell, there were few converts. Those using GroupMe before the show kept using GroupMe, and those who liked Beluga kept using Beluga. Meanwhile, TextPlus' much larger audience, which I was told is pushing upwards of thirty five million messages a day to eight million accounts, is not the typical SXSW attendee. Yobongo got a fair amount of press for its unique iOS app as well, but lies tangential to the group text space.

The one new application I left SXSW using that I wasn't before, was Hashable. Though skeptical at first about its utility, I sat down with the company's CEO, Mike Yavonditte, and learned more about how the company's service has you checking into people instead of places, and how it could serve not just as your new business contacts database, but as a potential replacement for LinkedIn, acting not just as a repository for former business connections, but one for new links and intros from within your network. As I checked in from place to place with Foursquare, I was also tapping Hashable to say who I was with, who they were and what we were doing. Meanwhile, those in my "inner circle" were doing the same.

Now back home from SXSW, I expect the frenetic pace of checkins and connections to decrease. It's also possible that many of my most important meetings will be noted privately in Hashable, rather than broadcast to the world. Similarly, those confidential introductions I'll do between people might take place outside of the app and in email, until I get a full grasp on what's public and what's private with the world. But this said, Hashable has a place now that is not filled by any competitor, and they're now in my social repertoire.

No one service "blew up" at SXSW and captured the imagination. Beluga sold before the show. Fast Society tried to be visible and you couldn't go too far without tripping over a Chevy, Pepsi Max or some other corporate gimmick. But Hashable is in the vernacular now and may prove very useful, while Foursquare surprised many of us and smartly cemented its position as a major tech leader. They're still young, but they're the kings of their space and should keep it. For what it's worth, I didn't hear a single mention of Facebook Places. Could be the crowd, but I assume if you take something fun, take the personality out of it and flatten it out for the masses, nobody talks about it any more.

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