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Friday, February 17th, 2012

It’s been a while since I posted here — I seem to end up sending more stuff to FB or Twitter than writing posts. Microblogging FTW I guess.

I just read about Pinwheel and I love the idea. If you read some of the initial reactions on Techcrunch, they seem overwhelmingly negative. Basically they question why a new well-funded start-up should focus on anything as old-hat as making the real world of locations findable online, since that’s clearly been covered by Foursquare or Facebook Places and a number of other start-ups which are closer to Pinwheel, like Repudo (pick up or drop ‘digital objects’ in the street). I think it’s fairer to say that Foursquare, Places or Repudo are the first entrants in a field that will become almost incomprehensibly dense. Lots of people don’t see that right now, but it’s clear that real locations offer a (real) world of possibilities. Please excuse the puns, but there is a lot of space here for new ideas. The real-world location aspect of Shadowcities makes it a lot more fun. I love finding out what MMORPG spirits are around the different neighbourhoods I inhabit. There are suddenly lots of other dimensions to familiar places.

Repudo seems a kind of geocaching play for brands, a kind of SCVNGR with virtual geocaches instead of challenges. Pinwheel looks to be more whimsical, more content-focused and to give more space to the user to make of it what they will. One of the fabled important lessons that I remembered from Amy Jo Kim was to give the community the space they needed to make their choices; witness Ms Fake’s previous start-up Flickr, which pivoted into its current form partially due to the community taking the functionality into their own hands and shaping the conventions of the site-to-be. Perhaps a better analogy (if we have to use these ‘new start-up is just a combination of old start-up’ similes) is a Tumblr for the real world.

I think there is a lot to like in Pinwheel. A few simple things make a big difference. I like the use of the word ‘note’ rather than ‘digital object’. I like the intimacy of some of the conversations and the simple clean design. And I think there’s a feeling of space. There’s a lot more space here for a small business to add real grassroots content on some of what they know the most about: their local area. It’s going to be fun to see how it develops.

Three reasons to love Scoville

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

If you haven’t seen it already, check out Scoville. It’s got a lot to like. Scoville is a local social play sitting on top of Foursquare. I have a list of great moves Scoville is making. Here are three of them:

1. It helps curate the best places.

Now that there are more as many as 22 million Foursquare places — sorry, venues — it’s about time we found better ways of filtering out the best places. Some unmoderated ways to approach that include: using check-ins as a measure of popularity or normalising check-ins based on the total number of check-ins for a region or the number of users in that region or the number of places (early adopter areas have more 4sq users and more check-ins which can skew things). Scoville offers users a way of like-ing their favourite places, not just the ones they frequent the most, and automatically parceling the best places into easily accessible buckets, called Likeboxes.

2. It broadens verticals from going out.

4sq as been encouraging users to add new venues and new categories of venues for some time both with point incentives and by calling out top categories on a user’s profile (I think the content an app shows about a user is as important as what points are given for). It’s peculiar that it doesn’t push that further by giving users more points for adding photo’s. Scoville accentuates this broadening away from restaurants, pubs and clubs by forming Likeboxes for other categories (e.g. bookstores).

3. It targets Foursquare super-users.

Foursquare super-users are users who check in a lot or add new places. Foursquare now has enough scale that there are a lot of Foursquare super-users and these are just the right segment to target to curate the best places. I got my invite from folks that I saw regularly on the 4sq leaderboard (although noticably not from the one man to whom I regularly come second).

CityGrid on the fragmentation of local

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

We have been in love with CityGrid’s business model and approach for some time. They are doing great work in building out a highly scalable business model which leverages the fragmentation of the local search space, rather than fighting against it.

CityGrid, for those who do not know already, allows local search publishers to get great local content and local targeted ads on their properties. They will even power your whole search solution. For advertisers, they act as a huge hyperlocal network composed of a useful blend of search engines, directories and a long tail of (hyper)vertical and (hyper)local sites and mobile apps. This means that the more local publishers come online, the more the value of the CityGrid model increases.

When asked recently why local search fragmentation seems to be accelerating, Jay Herratti, CityGrid Media’s CEO, said that APIs like Google’s Places or SimpleGeo are enabling more and more developers to build local search products. As these products are used to a greater and greater extent, developers will naturally looking for monetisation approaches — and CityGrid is waiting to greet them with open arms.

Thoughts in full Color

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

There has been a lot of press about Color in the last few days. For those of you who’ve been living in a cave somewhere, Color is a new start-up that raised $41 million for product launch and prompted many questions about whether we are in another tech bubble. It’s much more interesting to focus on what makes Color quite so exciting.

Local social context

Color is a mash up between Instagram or Path, and a Foursquare or Gowalla. Color is a photo sharing tool that uses your location context to decide dynamically with whom photos are shared. Color is interested in driving revenues by allowing business owners to advertise Groupon-like local deals using the context of which pictures shared on the premises. A couple of years ago I blogged about said Zcapes (here and  here), a Dutch start-up which used location and other user mobile characteristics to determine context dynamically and associate micro blog posts with each other. Zcapes explained the concept beautifully: “We need small services for people in similar situations”. It used both explicit search and implicit search. For example, users could explicitly subscribe to the objects, things, the situations they valued, but also discover relevant information about their current place or context through their mobile device. It was the focus on implicit search I found so exciting in 2009. Location is the first part of context, but as Color and Zcapes have noted, at some point, the app can use other data which mobile devices can track.

Monetisation by leveraging meaning from images

I also blogged a while ago about Spinvox, a voice transcription service. The service was interesting to me primarily because of the monetisation focus on implicit search. I gave the example at the time of getting a voicemail from a friend suggesting you meet up for dinner that evening in the city, and Spinvox leveraging its semantic understanding of your speech to make highly relevant suggestions of good businesses, given the context.

Through a combination of both machine learning techniques and crowd sourcing approaches such as Luis van Ahn’s fantastic Games With A Purpose, image labelling and recognition has become possible on a scale unimaginable only a few years ago. Third-party services such as IQ Engines leverage these techniques to deliver accurate image tagging profitably for a few cents per image. Even though location-based social applications such as Foursquare or Gowalla do allow users to add photos there is a real paucity of interesting visual content in these apps. As an example, most images at a coffee shop are of cups of coffee. Yet who knows what kind of visual content would be delivered if users understood that their dynamic context will be used to associate their pictures with each other? This visual language is one element of the potential of Color: to generate rich tapestries weaving images into local social contexts, and then use the semantic labels behind these contexts to drive local monetisation approaches.

Tn the words of Bill Nguyen, Color’s CEO, they are hoping they can pull the same move on Groupon that Google Adwords pulled on Yahoo Panama. It might just work. However, it seems a pity that this interesting mash up of implicit search, image recognition and local social context still has to focus on the incredibly crowded space of consumers going out together. There are a lot of blue sea opportunities to apply these processes and technologies to other verticals and monetisation routes. These would most likely require a tiny fraction of Color’s funding, but be able to deliver real innovation. None the less, Color is absolutely a start-up to watch and play with.

Visual games with the space to discover play

Another interesting visual start-up is (let me know if you’d like a beta invite). Canvas, built by 4chan’s founder moot, allows users to play and remix images. Context in canvas is simply an image and its history of mash ups. Nonetheless, the capability of easily remixing, the playful community and the implicit social exchanges that result are hugely addictive. Instagram allows a variety of lenses to give different effects to the photos users take. One thing that appears to be missing from Color is a way of customising or remixing existing visual content in a local social space. Perhaps that’s an iteration or two away.

Great start-up services have always allowed their users a certain amount of freedom to use the service in new and unthought-of ways and are able to respond to quickly leverage these. A community of users is the best group to come up with etiquette, convention, and collaboration, unfettered by the wishes or design of the apps makers. Color has already shown itself capable of retreating quickly releasing new changes based on user feedback. But, more importantly, the application has both a huge amount of freedom and some key constraints built in from the get-go. The rather ominous sounding rule of Color “Do not use Color alone” (which reminded me of the three rules for keeping a Mogwai, although hopefully he does not have the same consequences) means that wherever and whenever Color is used it has a social local context. Yet what users might use Color should for in this social local visual context will be fascinating to see. Hopefully, as its name suggests, there will be a spectrum of interesting behaviours. It seems likely given the early adopters and the locations in which these groups are placed, that groups of users will start to customise their collective visual spaces around the social behaviours which they are used to. I would expect certain social game mechanics to emerge, such as collections, points and leaderboards, and implicit social exchanges, such as adding visual comments or making visual jokes. Many of these can already be seen on, Flickr and Instagram, but sharing around a local social context should accelerate this.




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