Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Wave of Superfluous New Startups Is Surest Sign We're in a Bubble

One social network bravely asks: “Why have a conversation with someone standing next to you when you can video chat with them?”

  • May 27, 2011
When all conversations are mediated, only the mediated will converse.

This is not a headline from the Onion:

New Apps Aim for Social Serendipity In Real Life

And the author is completely serious when he says:

[A] new wave of apps aim to help people create spontaneous connections when they arrive at specific locations, giving rise to temporary social networks that are built around a place and a time.

Temporary social networks … built around a place and a time. Like going to a party and talking to people? Asking your neighbors how they’re doing when you run into them at the dog park?

The charitable way of looking at startups like Karizma, “a location based video chat messenger that banks on the theory that people want to video chat with people who are geographically close to them,” or Sonar, which allows people to “connect with others right around them for […] live interactions,” is to say that they have the potential to connect us to other people in a manner totally unlike, say, Facebook. That is: in real life.

But let’s be honest, this is insane. The way to connect with people in real life is … to connect with them in real life. As commenter Ken put it:

I can clearly understand social groups via the internet. But, if I was within 300 feet of somebody, would it not be easier to just socialize face to face, like we used to do? I guess my idea of a temporary social network built around a place and a time involves human interaction. Otherwise, I am not clear of the importance of the place component. It kind of seems a little bit like a solution in search of a problem.

The fact that startups designed to replace real-life interaction with other human beings are a trend worthy of angel investment does not bode well for the immediate future of web startups. Or maybe it does, because it means in this climate, any idea can get funded?

Of course I could be completely wrong, and for the most sinister of reasons: perhaps a generation of young people raised entirely on mediated interactions (elaborately curated status updates, text messages and shared photos) will lose the ability to perform the social and conversational rituals required to connect with people in meatspace. In which case it would absolutely make sense that they might use their Foursquare checkin to identify potential Facebook connections via Sonar, and then chat with them on Karizma. But god help us if it comes to that.

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