Flying Too Close To The Sun

Remember Highlight? Sure, it’s still around, and it’s premature to write it off. Yet the new app that received the most buzz at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year just gained a new competitor: Facebook.

There have been many instances recently of the rich getting richer, with the best functionality and features getting incorporated into the most dominant platforms. Facebook, Google, Apple, and Twitter are among those especially adept at making dreams come true while simultaneously unleashing nightmares.

Here are four ways this has been happening lately:

1) Proximity Networks

Tracx reported that Highlight, Glancee, and Sonar respectively received the most buzz at SXSW in March. All three offer twists on a similar theme: find friends near you, and potentially your friends’ friends as well. To most people, the idea of constantly sharing one’s location to strangers sounds creepy, so it doesn’t have mainstream potential in its current form. That’s presumably why Foursquare, which was all about finding friends before it relaunched to focus on discovering local businesses, has been cautious here. Meanwhile, Apple’s Find My Friends mobile service is entirely focused on locating select people, and generally only for brief intervals.

It’s Facebook that will now likely determine to what extent any of this catches on. Not only did Facebook acquire Glancee, but it is testing out a feature dubbed Find Friends Nearby (initially codenamed Friendshake) that emerged from a hackathon. There are bugs; tech legend Robert Scoble commented on TechCrunch how it didn’t live up to what Highlight did so well. But this is version 0.1 of a feature that Facebook barely publicized. Version 0.1 of a feature from Facebook with its nearly 1 billion users is a heck of a lot more meaningful than version 10.0 of a service that reaches 10,000 or even 1 million users.

2) Facial Recognition

As discussed in this series last week, Facebook recently acquired Face.com. Days later, I received an email from Google+ with the subject line, “Is this you in Daniel Berkowitz’s album?” Daniel’s my father. He uploaded a number of photos, and didn’t tag anyone. But Google recognized me because I enabled a feature called Find My Face. Google’s documentation notes, “After you turn on Find my Face, Google+ uses the photos you're tagged in to create a model of your face. The model updates as tags of you are added or removed, and you can delete the entire face model at any time by turning off Find my Face.”

Few people probably know this setting even exists, so it won’t have much of an immediate impact, and many will prefer it stays off. Heck, the Daily Mail reported that Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, said the company “was ‘unlikely’ to employ facial recognition programs.” Yet vain as I am, I love the idea that Google can find photos of me. I then have the option of tagging myself. Really, who wouldn’t want to know what photos of them are online? This hints at what Facebook can do with Face.com, following Google acquiring related technology PittPatt last year to create its own offering.

I’ve used facial recognition software for years, and nothing prepared me for receiving that email from Google. As a bonus, it found seven photos, and all of them were of me. It’s all the more impressive given that in many photos, it’s hard to tell me apart from my oldest brother. How long will it be before facial recognition software can tell the difference between identical twins? We can’t be that far off.

3) Check-Ins

Checking in has proven to be a fad, for the most part. Even Foursquare minimized the prominence of the check-in feature in the latest version of its app. Yet location-sharing remains all the more important, especially when considering how common it is now for people to append their location to posts in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other services. Now Apple may be dabbling with check-ins. Bloomberg reported that Apple will incorporate Yelp’s check-in functionality within its new mobile mapping software coming this fall. Yelp was always an also-ran with check-ins, and most other check-in-themed services have long since died through acquisition or disinterest. It’s questionable how core Yelp check-ins will be for Apple’s maps, but once the upgrade is live, Foursquare could be further marginalized.

4) Curation

There once was an amazing service called Summify that aggregated the links shared by anyone you followed on Twitter and then delivered them as email digests. Then Twitter acquired it, and Summify started winding down operations. That made room for other services, such as News.me -- one not quite as good, but an acceptable alternative. Then Twitter came out with its daily email digest, which also isn’t as great a product as what Summify offered, but it’s very good and will likely obviate the need for any others. Summify and then News.me made Twitter far more useful for me. It turns out Twitter’s now doing that on its own thanks to its new addition.

The Sun

Glancee, Face.com, Yelp, and Summify all won by creating products that have the potential to become core parts of major companies’ value propositions. Yet that’s a dangerous game, like Icarus playing chicken with the sun. Facebook probably didn’t even need Glancee, as its rival prototype came out of a hackathon. Apple will hurt a slew of local services by focusing on Yelp.

Yet as a character once noted on “30 Rock,” “When a big one falls, four little ones move up.” Google and Facebook may inspire others like Microsoft and Apple to invest more in facial recognition. Or others may look for the next generation, whether it’s voice recognition, retina scanning, or DNA-based friend finding. Even when a few get burned, plenty others still want their shot at getting close to the sun. A few will even overpower it.

Tags: social media
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