Wearing your Stickybit on your sleeve, or elsewhere

One of the start-ups hoping to make a splash at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival is Stickybits, a set of bar code stickers that you can "tag" with anything.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read
There's a Stickybit on my laptop, and if you find me at SXSWi, you can hear what it has to say. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

It'll be stashed somewhere in the promotional "swag bags" handed to South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) attendees when they check into the conference starting Thursday, squirreled away like a hidden piece of Halloween candy--a matchbox-like pack of Stickybits.

They don't look all too different from the bar codes that you'd see on a magazine or a six-pack of beer. But Stickybits, a new start-up from co-founders Seth Goldstein (most recently the founder of SocialMedia) and Billy Chasen, has been talked up as one of this year's SXSWi runaway hits. It's got just about the perfect formula for a hot trend at the annual digital-media conference: a novel, slightly offbeat convergence of the physical and the digital that could also capture the attention of the marketing world.

Here's how Stickybits work: put one of the stickers somewhere and take a photograph of the bar code with the Stickybits app, now available for iPhone and Android. You'll be able to "tag" it with photos and comments, as will anyone else who uses the Stickybits app to photograph the same bar code. There's a location tagged, too, thanks to a partnership with location software company SimpleGeo (whose co-founder Joe Stump called Stickybits "one of the more interesting and wonderfully weird products I've played with in quite awhile").

"I wanted to be able to physically attach something digital to this location, to this physical object and have other people see that and interact with it," Chasen told CNET earlier this week.

Stickybits are now sold in packs on Amazon. You can also use the Web site to make your own, and print them--or, you can use the app to "tag" regular bar codes that you see anywhere. Anybody else who sees the same bar code (remember, the UPC code on all cans of Sprite is the same) can do the same. Barcode-based advertising has been around for a while, but Stickybits stands out because of the consumer-friendly, do-it-yourself angle that it puts on the concept.

"When you solve a very compelling application and the architecture is open enough, then you give people the opportunity to create new applications that you've never dreamed of," Goldstein said, referring to the company's decision to distribute 12,000 packs of Stickybits at SXSWi and tell attendees to have at it. "Obviously, long-term, we hope and we believe that Stickybits can be a really powerful consumer and business platform."

"We're trying to have really, really big ears in pushing these stickers out there in a fairly open way to really listen to the strangest, most interesting, most creative, most practical uses that people have with them, and then kind of amplify that to the rest of the community," Chasen said.

But how strange can those uses get? One can only imagine the headaches that local authorities would have if Stickybits start showing up plastered all over sidewalks, or what would happen if a prankster decks the halls of the Austin Convention Center with porn-tagged Stickybits. Giving this much control to the users could result in some bad PR for the company if its team isn't careful.

"We're not condoning you to do anything illegal, and I keep using the analogy of a Sharpie. The possibilities of what you can do with a Sharpie and also a Stickybit is also limitless. You can graffiti walls and stuff, but we're not condoning that," Chasen said. "As far as posting content that's against our terms of service, we can moderate that." Porn, he said, is against the rules. We'll see how well they deal with that.

To further promote the new product, Stickybits is sponsoring the Foursquare party on Monday night. Meanwhile, there's a Stickybit on my laptop now. If you see me at SXSWi, don't be shy--come scan it, leave a note, and maybe I'll write about the whole experience.