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Dabble launching 'social graffiti' mobile app

Put Twitter, Highlight, and Foursquare in a blender, and this is what you get.

In Dabble, you "drop postcards" at locations so people can see your clever advice later. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

There's a little battle forming up in a new mobile app segment: the graffiti app. The idea with these apps, of which Catarina Fake's Pinwheel is one, is that when you go to a location, you mark that you've been there and then maybe leave a note or a photo. Later, when your friends (or maybe not your friends) show up at the location or nearby it, they can see what you said and add their own comments.

The highest concept of these new companies is Wallit, which makes an augmented reality tagging app. You hold your phone up to a wall at a location and you can read what others have written on it, or drop your own content. It's cute, but a little too involved. Maybe when Google Glasses comes out it'll be a thing.

And then there's Dabble, which launches on Wednesday at the Demo conference. This app has an almost Path-quality mobile app that makes it fun and fast to use. Dabble is also the only check-in app I've seen that is kind of a dictator about the data you have to put in to create a tag. In Dabble, you have to enter a location, a photo, and a note. At least it makes short work of it.

I'm in the beta of Dabble and I can see co-founder Santosh Jayaram's vision in the app, Jayaram told me he wants Dabble to capture the "bursts of activity" around people converging at a location. He says that Twitter is part of the way there, but it's not a good system for seeing what people have said previously about a place you're visiting. He's right about that. (Jayaram worked at Twitter for a year starting in 2009.)

With Dabble, content is designed to be persistent. Jayaram says with it you need "never feel like a stranger," when you visit a new place, because you'll be able to see what friends (or friends of friends) said when they were there before you. "It's the persistent Twitter for places."

The iPhone app is very good at showing you locations nearby where your friends have been. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

And it's not Foursquare, he says. It's not about checking in to find people who are there now. It's about the deeper, longer-term connection. And it's definitely not a stalker app like Highlight. While you can see where your friends have been, it's not set up to tell you where they are. Jayaram says that this philosophy is one thing that makes the app palatable for women.

Dabble is indeed very good at showing you locations near you where your friends have been. If you're sitting at a coffee shop and want to know which of the nearby restaurants your friends like, this app will tell you in a very intuitive interface, and let you quickly page through photos and comments.

Assuming, of course, that people actually use it. And that's the real vulnerability of all these micro-review, check-in, or tagging apps, from Foursquare to the departed Oink. Dabble does borrow some smart thinking from Instagram here: It can post to Facebook easily (as with Instagram, it's easier to create a photo post in this app than in Facebook itself), and there are even a few photo filters you can pop on to images.

Jayaram also says that since the data model on Dabble is persistent, the network works with a smaller number of contributors than you need on a system designed for real-time, as-it-happens networking, like Twitter, Foursquare, or Highlight. He has a point, but even so, even this good app has to thread the needle between other mobile apps calling for the user's attention when he or she lands at a location: Fourquare to check on friends, Twitter to blast out a short quip about what the guy in line just said, Facebook to advertise to your friends how cool your life is, etc.

I want this app to succeed because the social content on it, at least what I've seen so far, is genuinely good and useful, and also because it's fun to use. But it feels a bit more like an Oink than an Instagram.