First of all, for those of you who don't know, the South by Southwest conference, also known as SXSW, is a gathering of people from the worlds of technology, music, film and fashion. It began in the 1990s, and now takes place every year in March in Austin, Texas. This year the festival runs from March 9 through March 18.
Honestly, I only know about it because my son works in the music business. He went to the conference last year for the first time. And this year he again traveled to Austin to spend the weekend schmoozing and networking. But aside from that, SXSW apparently really is a gathering of hipsters, geeks and cool cats -- people who, for better or worse, are developing the future of our social and virtual universe.
But anyway, for those of you who want to know, I have it on good authority that this year's most talked-about item is something called "ambient social networks." These are location based applications for your smartphone -- one is called Highlight -- that merge Facebook and GPS technology to tell people who in their social network is currently located in their vicinity.
So, with an ambient social network app, you can be sitting in the food court at the local mall, and just by glancing at your iPhone you can see if any of your friends -- or friends of your friends -- are sitting nearby. Maybe the guy at the next table went to the same college as you did. Maybe the woman in line over there shares two friends with you.
Does this sound cool to you, or a little creepy?
The idea is that the way we meet people in our lives tends to be random and inefficient. This application gives us the tool to target people we want to meet, and people we want to keep in touch with.
Of course, the flip side of that comes not when you're tracking other people, but when other people are tracking you. Just as you can see somebody else's name, and their photo, and the names of their friends, so others can see your photos and background and friends. And do you really want other people at the mall to be walking around knowing where you went to college, and who your friends are? Isn't that kind of weird?
I can see this application being very useful to young guys at a singles bar. It could really improve their pickup lines. But that's not going to be helpful to me -- I'm long past that phase in my life.
But I do see another concrete benefit. You are introduced to someone at a meeting, but of course you forget their name. A week later you see them again at a party. You panic. You should remember their name ... and where did they say they work? Presto. Check your iPhone. "Well, hello Mr. Jones, how's your son doing at Stanford? Did you get out to play golf last weekend?"
If you think I'm making fun of "ambient social networks," I'm not the only one. Check out "The Highlight SXSW Drinking Game."
But maybe people making fun of an application actually helps create the buzz. That's okay with me. I myself don't plan on using this app. anytime soon. First, I'd have to get a smartphone! But I don't mind doing my bit to promote technological progress.