At SXSWi, Twitter may finally have met its match

No question Twitter is still huge here, but Foursquare and Gowalla have to be considered a major part of people's organizing principle.

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

AUSTIN, Texas--Has Twitter finally met its match? At the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival here this week, some would say the answer is yes.

With SXSWi in its final hours, a rumored 15,000 geeks have spent the last five days engaged in a never-ending series of panels, discussions, parties, and late-night prowling around.

Given that this group of people is on the digital cutting edge, SXSWi has for years been seen as the proving ground for social media applications. Make it here and you've got a shot at mainstream success. Fail to impress those at "South-by" and you've pretty much got no chance.

In 2007, I wrote a story about Twitter's explosion onto the scene here. And as everyone knows, it was that coming-out party that helped the microblogging service jump-start its hockey-stick usage progression. It had been processing about 20,000 tweets a day prior to SXSW 2007, and that number tripled to 60,000 over the course of the five days of the event.

In 2008, everyone wondered who would be the next Twitter, and plenty of long-forgotten services tried to convince people it would be them. In the end at SXSW 2008, Twitter was the new Twitter.

The same was true in 2009. Even though Foursquare launched at last year's event, and quickly gained some fervent adherents, I don't think it immediately gained critical mass. And while many experienced a bit of Twitter saturation, it quickly became clear that there still was no other way that was as efficient for organizing your life here in Austin. Indeed, Twitter was the organizing principle, pure and simple. Twitter, again, was the new Twitter.

But now flash forward to the last five days here. It's fair to say that for the first time, at SXSWi at least, Twitter may finally have met its matches as that organizing principle: Both Foursquare and its geolocation check-in rival Gowalla are forces to be reckoned with this year.

To be fair to Twitter, it's not that people aren't using it like crazy here. They are. I did a search while working on this article, and there had been 1,500 tweets sent with the #sxsw hash tag in just the previous 43 minutes. So clearly, Twitter has not lost its mojo. It's been used for everything from finding out where wine blogger Gary Vaynerchuk was hosting his #secretwineparty to people expressing their discontent during Twitter CEO Evan Williams' keynote interview to people trying to find out where to eat dinner, find friends, and everything in between.

Indeed, because there is such a flood of tweets, many people have worked through the saturation problem by doubling or tripling down on their use of hash tags so that when they search for something they can refine the results and find the needles in the haystack. That practice was in evidence last year, but I'd say there's a bit more use of it this year as people have become a little bit more savvy about how to get value out of the mass of tweets.

But in a way, Twitter has become sort of part of the fabric of the event. Like, of course we all use Twitter here. But what else can we use to get even more out of SXSW.

No typing required
Here is where Foursquare and Gowalla have perhaps taken a big bite out of Twitter's dominance.

"This year, I wound up not using Twitter for rendezvous or trying to coordinate meeting up with people," said Andrew Lih, the author of "The Wikipedia Revolution. "Last year, [Twitter] was sort of a universal SMS, and everyone kind of was hacking Twitter to a location-based service. But this year, Foursquare wound up being more useful for me for rendezvous and finding out where to hook up [with friends] because even typing in [on a Twitter app on an iPhone] 'I am at Ballroom A'" is annoying.

On Foursquare and Gowalla, people were able to simply hit a "check-in" button and bypass that process. For those with a good group of friends on either of those services, it became easier to track down their posse by using either Foursquare or Gowalla. And while neither of those two services has a search function like Twitter that makes it easy to see just how many people are using it in real time--such as being able to easily see that there were 1,500 tweets sent using the #sxsw hash tag in just 43 minutes--there's little question that people were checking-in a storm all over town.

In pure numbers, Twitter probably still has the upper hand here and certainly outside of SXSW. It's got 70 million users worldwide, after all, and neither Foursquare nor Gowalla can come anywhere near that.

There's also a danger to those two services that Twitter may be going after their business. Twitter added a location feature--not so coincidentally, I'm sure--just before SXSW and the topic of more than one conversation I've been a part of has been just how easy, or hard, would it be for Twitter to also build in a check-in feature. After all, it's not like most Foursquare users aren't also Twitter users.

Still, for the first time since Twitter hit the big time here in 2007, you would be safe in saying that it wasn't the only important game in town. In truth, people are probably now able to better organize themselves at SXSW--and in the outside world, too, of course--because they can double-down on the services they use, especially on their mobile devices.

Then again, their mobile devices may actually have one--or even two--services built into them. After all, when you're in a crowded bar or party and you really want to get a hold of a friend, what method do you turn to first? I would argue it's neither Twitter nor Foursquare nor Gowalla. It's text messaging.

"The best digital tools, the most powerful digital tools, are the ones that do the best job of connecting you with actual humans," said travel and tourism writer Sheila Scarborough. And "one of the most powerful pieces of [technology] to date to have on someone is their phone number."