Each year at South by Southwest Interactive, a belle of the ball emerges. 2009 was dominated by Twitter and its ecosystem of related apps and services. In 2010, Foursquare charged to the front of the collective geek consciousness with its promise of location-based sparkles. This year, based on my experience at the festival as well as missives from my peers, is the year that messaging stayed micro but got cliquey.
Group messaging, which includes startups Beluga and GroupMe, allows you to segment your friends into small groups and issue messages only to them, creating mobile chat rooms where updates are pushed to each member. This is in stark contrast to Twitter, which specializes in one-to-many communication as opposed to one-to-a-select few. The intent of group messaging is to take what people like about Twitter (short, fast messages) but subtract what they dislike (the clamor that comes from being connected to hundreds of people).
Did it work? Yes and no. Here’s an example of the affirmative.
On the first day of SXSWi, a friend added me to a GroupMe group called simply “SXSW.” It was made up of Boulder residents who were attending the festival, all of whom I was acquainted with. I began my group messaging adventure with a quick hello and was greeted with a steady trickle of updates from friends throughout Austin.
As the event wore on, we relied more and more on the service to stay in the loop on the group’s whereabouts, the length of lines at certain parties, things to avoid. Ordinarily, this information would be posted publicly to Twitter, where it would get lost in the sea of tweets. Group messaging, via its core function, keeps the world out.
Sadly, it’s not perfect. As with any new social offering, there are disadvantageous aspects that should be considered. In the case of group messaging, there is the issue of sharing a group with strangers.
“There ends up being a lot of information that’s not relevant to me,” said Ginger Pelz, corporate communications for DaVita. “People I’ve never heard of get added to a group, and then my phone starts blowing up. I don’t know these people, and I don’t care what they’re up to.”
People can be easily removed from a group, but you run the risk of alienating the person who invited that person in the first place. Aside from that, there’s the potential to make a new connection, though most of us would prefer to meet that person in real life before allowing them to invade our phones.
The big test for any new social service is whether its users will integrate it into their normal routines.
“I won’t use it much when I get home,” Pelz said. “It makes sense at a big conference, when you’ve got a specific combination of people to coordinate with. But I don’t see a big role for it in my life.”
I haven’t decided if I’ll group message upon my return to Boulder. I like the idea of smaller, specialized groups to make plans with. I want to form the Funyun Faction, a small cadre of ne’er-do-wells committed to the acquisition and consumption of onion-flavored rings. If group messaging makes it easier for me to communicate with them on a reconnaissance mission, then I’m sold.
Ef Rodriguez writes about geeky stuff for the Colorado Daily each week. Only email him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re cool.