The Silly Putty age of social media

A handful of social-media start-ups let you build small and temporary networks rather than one big one, and Facebook is starting to catch on, too.

Is your social-media identity going to be continually reshaped? CC meandmybadself/Flickr

For something that seems very rudimentary in a world of iPhone apps and fancy smartphone operating systems, text-messaging services were getting a whole lot of love at October's edition of the monthly New York Tech Meetup.

Along with about a dozen other start-ups eager to pitch the audience of potential partners, investors, and advisers, two back-to-back presentations from new companies called GroupMe and Fast Society showed off different takes on the same basic concept of group text messaging.

They have extremely similar premises. Both GroupMe and Fast Society require a single user with an iPhone (or also, in GroupMe's case, a browser connection) to kick-start a group and invite people by phone number so that they can text away. GroupMe assigns that group a unique phone number; Fast Society uses a single short code for text messages, mandating that each user can only participate in a single "team" at a time. You can keep a GroupMe group alive for as long as you want; the maximum lifespan for a Fast Society team is three days.

"We realized that our friends are fluid and dynamic," Fast Society co-founder Matthew Rosenberg told CNET. "We never go out with the same people twice. We really wanted a tool that would go out there and help us make temporary groups."

Concert-goers are an early user base for both, and the two seem to be playing a game of Battleship with regard to which live music festivals they can sync up a partnership--GroupMe scored a deal with Austin City Limits last month, whereas Fast Society nabbed a partnership with the New York-based CMJ festival.

At first both start-ups seem like a more modernized throwback to ping-your-friends services like Dodgeball and Upoc , both of which emerged when text messaging was less than mainstream in the U.S. and both of which ultimately petered out. (Dodgeball is back, sort of, in the form of founder Dennis Crowley's much-talked-about Foursquare . But the app-based Foursquare is much more about logging your location and soliciting tips about where to go than its ping-happy predecessor.) Text messaging really isn't the point here. What is, rather, is how GroupMe and Fast Society treat social interactions: quick, light, mobile, and often temporary, letting you dabble in corners of your digital persona that can be turned off and on or shut off altogether. If your Facebook profile is analogous to a house, services like this make up the paint job--or, to suggest something even more mutable, the seasonal holiday decorations on the front lawn.

"We realized that our friends are fluid and dynamic. We never go out with the same people twice. We really wanted a tool that would go out there and help us make temporary groups."
--Matthew Rosenberg, co-founder, Fast Society

"Part of the reason for building this was just the broadcast overload," GroupMe co-founder Jared Hecht told CNET. "There's a lot of noise in your social graph, but I feel like the world is getting more sterile because everything you say is getting broadcast to so many more people."

That's core to what GroupMe and Fast Society, along with other new communication apps like MessageParty, and even recent Facebook acquisitions Hot Potato and Drop.io, have to say about the social Web. It's getting big and static.

Remember about a year ago when it seemed like everyone interested in the next big thing in Silicon Valley was talking about the "real-time Web"? This was pitched as a constantly flowing information "stream," with companies scrambling to pull all varieties of social-networking services, blog clients, news readers, and instant-messaging applications into a single hub that promised a single, universal social identity. But " everything in one place " often amounted to sheer information overload. Not to mention the fact that it turns social-networking as something monolithic, when that simply isn't the case for most people.

What's real-time, companies like GroupMe and FastSociety hint, is your identity itself--too flexible for the likes of Facebook in the traditional sense. They want to make your social-networking experience something that can be squished and reshaped like Silly Putty.

"I think what people have realized, now that Facebook has been around for six years, is that a big part of the nature of social interaction are these ephemeral interactions," said Amanda Peyton, co-founder of the iPhone app start-up MessageParty, which lets users communicate in spontaneous "parties" of concert-goers, bar-hoppers, and other social animals who happen to be in proximity to one another. "You meet someone at a conference, maybe you go out to dinner, you hang out a few times, and it's like, OK, now you're Facebook friends with them forever."

Geared toward ordinary people
What's more, these mobile services like GroupMe and Fast Society often aren't geared toward tech early adopters. They aren't looking for the hyper-networked people who momentarily flocked to all-in-one, real-time streaming aggregators like FriendFeed. What they want, rather, are ordinary people who probably use Facebook for everything at this point and are looking for something less static. GroupMe co-founder Steve Martocci says he's been astounded by the use cases for the service that have popped up, saying that the several hundred thousand GroupMe messages that are pushed through the service each day have been elevated by extended families, impromptu Ultimate Frisbee coalitions, and fantasy football leagues.

It gets even more specific. "Hunters (are) using it in the woods because they can't talk, and texting individuals takes too long," Martocci explained. "So it's the preferred tool of hunters now."

"Part of the reason for building this was just the broadcast overload."
--Jared Hecht, co-founder, GroupMe

Fast Society, which pitches itself specifically as a tool for parties and going out, nevertheless wants to ensure that it comes across as a simple tool that anyone can use.

"It's one short-code always. You never have to worry about random numbers, it's one number all the time," Fast Society's Matthew Rosenberg explained. "For the majority of people out there, technology is still scary. iPhones still scare them."

Investor interest in these companies has ticked up. Rosenberg said that in the wake of the New York Tech Meetup presentation, he and his co-founders have been approached by people interested in backing Fast Society, which currently has not taken on any funding. GroupMe, which raised an $850,000 round in August from a band of early-stage investors including Betaworks, Lerer Media Ventures, and First Round Capital, has attracted the attention of some seriously big names in Silicon Valley, with sources telling CNET that firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital have been dialing up the tiny company to express interest. If it continues to grow quickly, it may well require more venture funding to keep it afloat.

But perhaps the best gauge of this new, temporary and malleable chapter in the evolution of social media is the fact that Facebook's catching on. Two of its most recent acquisitions, New York-based start-ups Hot Potato and Drop.io, have origins ensconced in the idea of the real-time and temporary. Hot Potato, much like MessageParty, allowed users to group themselves around events, and Drop.io facilitated on-the-fly file sharing through password-protected "drops" with expiration dates.

Granted, Facebook shut down Hot Potato and will do so with Drop.io in December. But what the company really wants is the expertise of the two companies' respective founders, Justin Shaffer and Sam Lessin. Shaffer, we've already seen, was enlisted to build out the revamped, far more intimate and chat-friendly Facebook Groups . Lessin's role at Facebook is not yet clear, but it's safe to say that his experience at the helm of Drop.io will likely play into it somehow.

But some might not agree that Facebook, the arbiter of all things open and shareable, is the best player in the industry to spearhead the development of real-time grouping and messaging. The huge social-networking site has come under fire for, ironically, its own mutable identity--frequently changing features and guidelines that sometimes confuse users as to what's private, what's public, and what's somewhere in between. And that may not jibe so well with the essence of a service that lets you amass a group of friends into an ephemeral digital channel that serves primarily to enhance real-life connections.

"The real-life network is a private one," GroupMe's Steve Martocci insisted.

 

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