Posted in: Gadgets & Handsets, geolocation, mobile, social networking, twitter

Why Mobile Social Networking Isn’t Working in the United States

With the public closure of Yahoo’s Mixd and various press articles about Twitter, Dodgeball, Loopt and other products that incorporate some kind of social networking or group communications for mobile phones, I have been doing some thinking about why mobile social networking and group communications haven’t taken off in the United States. The easy answer is that networks aren’t good enough, handsets aren’t powerful enough, etc. I do think that distribution is a huge challenge here, but I also can’t say that I have seen a ton of products where I feel that overcoming the distribution issue would make the product suddenly useful. I think the real answer is that most of the products in the market today are either trying to boil the ocean or are so targeted as to appeal to a very small user base.

At the end of the day, building a great mobile social networking application has to start with the core realization that the mobile phone is the ultimate conditional access application — whether you answer the phone or reply to a message depends on how you as an individual weigh what you’re doing at the moment, who’s trying to reach you, and a host of other factors before you decide to pick up the phone or otherwise respond to a prompt. I don’t know how you automate that process because it’s really personal. But I do know that recognizing that its complex, personal, and really important to the end user is critical to building an application that people will actually want to use.

In thinking through mobile social networking and communications, I think there are a handful of features that I think a “kitchen sink” application ought to have:

  • Mobile blogging and status updates – Twitter-like ability to post short blurbs about your status, where you are, what you’re doing. Other high-engagement services (IM, Facebook, etc) have implemented these features and it’s clear to me that users like being able to toggle IM status messages, Facebook status messages, and other low-cost ways of letting folks know what they’re up to at the moment.
  • Friend finding – Your friends are out and about. So are you. Solutions like Loopt can help find friends who are geographically nearby.
  • Friend making – I’m not sold that this is a huge opportunity today, but there is a role for social discovery. Specifically, the ability to make new friends in a mobile context based on friends in common, shared interests (you go to the same restaurants, you’re at the same bar, etc) or some other vector.
  • Group messaging – The ability to communicate with a group of folks over text messaging or some other format is useful.
  • Media sharing – The ability to share media (mostly photos and videos) with a group of friends and contacts. I’m not talking about media broadcast or music sharing like what the Zune claims to offer.

What’s the must have set of features from the list above? I think that the status update feature is a no-brainer. It’s very lightweight, easy to use, and delivers lots of value to users. I also think that friend finding, if done right, is also a huge win. I think all of the other features can wait – friend making, media sharing, and group messaging all feel like specialty applications to me. I could be swayed to include group messaging as a “must have” but I don’t think it’s something you need to do every day.

Will customers really warm up to client applications? I don’t think that client applications are per se a bad idea, but it begs the distribution question. I’ve played with some great client applications that I am happy to download (Google Maps for Mobile, Gmail client, etc) and a few others that I would download if I could (Loopt). However, I don’t think that most customers think of their phone as a computer (yet) and the idea of downloading an application that does not have daily core value (mapping/routing, email, IM, etc) is a tougher sell. Unless you can seed the market in some way other than working directly through carriers, this is a hard, tough, and expensive road to go. That being said, there are some clear benefits to owning a client where you can control the user experience.

What’s the right way to handle presence/location? As an end-user I’m looking for a balance. I don’t believe that most people want fine-grained access controls where they can configure who can see their presence/location – if there are too many knobs to toggle, most people won’t bother due to boredom or feeling overwhelmed. At the same time, I do want some ability to control who has access to that information. The IM equivalent is the person who appears to always be invisble or always online — I have many friends who use a binary, always-on indicator like this and rely on their friends to ping and ask if they’re actually around before chatting. I think the same would work for mobile. I would be happy to have 4 modes: public broadcast (anyone can see where I am), friend broadcast (people with whom I am friends can see my location without asking), private (actually online and pingable, but my location is kept private) and offline (unreachable). Those four modes would cover most of my use cases and I imagine that I would be in either private or friend broadcast most of the time.

As an aside, I think the bigger risk is not being able to ascertain someone’s exact position in realtime. The potentially more damaging thing is to be able to recreate the audit trail of where someone has been going. That kind of information is the kind of information that I do believe individuals would want to keep private and those kinds of audit trails are the ones that could be damaging in both personal and professional terms.

Comments are open if you have thoughts to share.