At Demo Spring, a 'social' tsunami

At tech showcase, products, services, apps built around connecting numerous people to different kinds of functionality dominated at perhaps an unprecedented level.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

PALM DESERT, Calif.--Demo has been hit by a social tsunami.

For two days at the Demo Spring conference here, just about every presentation hit on the idea of social interaction, either directly, or indirectly. It almost seems that unless a company's product had a serious social element to it, Demo wouldn't consider opening up a speaking slot.

From applications that let users instantly tweet photos of themselves trying on clothes in a virtual dressing room to browser plug-ins that enable real-time interactive conversations right on Web pages to services that promise to bring the wisdom of the crowds to search engines, there's little doubt that this show was all about social.


It's no surprise that Demo would go this direction, given that just about everywhere you look these days, Twitter and Facebook are the most popular kids in the room. With 600 million Facebook users and 200 million Twitter accounts, it's gotten to the point where if you're not carrying on your life via social media, you're being left behind. It's also not surprising that when Charlie Sheen joins Twitter, as he did yesterday, he could accrue 111,000 followers without having made a single tweet. As of this writing, that is. About an hour before these words were typed, Sheen's twitter account had just 35,000 followers.

This is a new world. And the folks behind Demo are doing their best to make it clear that the show is still relevant in the face of pressure from similar shows like Michael Arrington's Disrupt and Jason Calacanis' Launch. And that means putting together a roster of companies whose products will appeal to an audience of press and investors keyed in to the ubiquity of social media throughout today's world.

That would explain the agenda at this week's show. On Tuesday, for example, the schedule featured three separate sessions entitled "Demofocus on social and media technologies." There were so many companies that fit into that general category--15, to be precise--that they needed to be split into the three sessions. There were also one-on-one discussions onstage with titles like "How social media is affecting new e-commerce," "How the social wave is impacting investments in early stage companies," "How sales happen in the new age of social and data networking," "How social media is affecting security in the enterprise," and "How social trends are affecting the product building process."

It all makes your head spin a bit.

It also wasn't the first time Demo based its programming on a major topic. In recent years, mobile has been the hot topic at the conference, with a focus on iPhone applications dominating the stage.

And Demo Spring wasn't entirely about social. Other hot topics were well represented. Yesterday's afternoon session was all about cloud technologies, with companies spending their 6 minutes to introduce the audience to a wide variety of topics related to Web-based applications.

But if you know anything about cloud services, you also know that many of them are built around making it easier for people to interact with their social applications. So, for example, Nimble, which presented during the cloud session, is a service that helps users bring all their social services--Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Gmail, and so on--together in a single dashboard. From there, they can do deep dives into the social graph that emerges from the collective community of people whose constant updates appear, and the never-ending supply of information that those people produce.

At the same time, Tuesday afternoon's session, "Demofocus on mobile technologies," featured a group of companies whose smartphone- and tablet-based applications were also frequently built around social. This is an actual quote from an executive from one of the companies that presented during the mobile session: It's a "social mobile app that's poised to change the way people communicate with each other around the world." I could tell you which company uttered those words, but they probably could just as well have been part of a dozen different presentations during the show's two days.

Another company, News360, is positioning its news aggregation iPad app by asserting that "any successful mobile news platform needs to have three [elements]: Real-time, local," and, yes, "social." And Screenreach came up just minutes later with its Screach mobile app designed to let any smartphone interact easily with any screen on any device. And guess what? It's "social," and "sits on top of Facebook."

Is this a bad thing? Not at all. People are interested in social because applications and services that connect us make us feel closer to friends, family, and even strangers. And in a world where so many of us spend so much time in front of computers and mobile devices, anything that helps us feel like we're closer to more people is a plus.

And for investors and press who know that social is hot, coming to Demo and seeing one presenter after another pay homage to the subject is a validation that they're on the right track. Venture capitalists need to know that coming to a show like this is going to result in finding companies working on some of the very latest technology in the field with the most buzz. And reporters need to know that they can find stories tied to such a newsworthy topic.

The only problem is that over the course of two days, such a single-minded focus gets a bit overwhelming. It makes you start to think that the world of technology no longer has the diversity that can keep a wide variety of people alert throughout a conference like Demo. If you're not all that interested in social, after all, you probably stopped watching the presentations pretty quickly. Then again, if you're not into social, maybe coming to a tech conference in February 2011 isn't all that smart.

Social, of course, is a very, very broad concept that can encompass many different areas of technology, from consumer electronics to enterprise applications, and, as we've seen here at Demo, everything in between.

With Demo now over, the question is what topic could dominate the show as much as this in the future. My guess is that for the next couple iterations of the show, social will continue to be the hottest area--since it is only growing. The same is surely happening at other tech conferences, and I don't think it's likely to stop anytime soon.

It all does make me look back at Charlie Sheen's Twitter account, though. By the time I wrote these words, he was up to 267,000 followers. And counting.