Social discovery

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In a recent Economist, in the article on Facebook’s planned IPO, a quote caught my attention:

Some form of social-discovery feature in Facebook is inevitable [Joe Green, the boss of, a web business that promotes activism and philanthropy]

This lead me to consider how we engage with new people, and how we are using the internet to engage in social discovery (meeting new people, and engaging in social dialogue, and possibly ‘learning’ from them).

Since starting this post, I’ve also become aware of an upcoming genre of apps which are designed to aid location-based social discovery (more on this below).


On a flight, or train journey, do you start talking to the passengers in the seat next to you?

It’s a fantastic case study for the way that we approach social discovery – many people are resistant to talking, and would rather immerse themselves in their own thoughts/peace.

Others are willing, but then of course, it largely needs both parties to act this way. What determines whether social intercourse is consummated or not?:

  • First impressions count! – does the person look like someone you want to know? can you associate yourself with the way they present themselves? do they appear interesting? – clearly stereotypes and prejudices play a big role at this stage;
  • Are you in the right mood? – are you feeling talkative, tired, stressed, distracted by other topics, busy, etc.?

My experience is that more often than not, people do not engage themselves in discussion on flights (just look around any plane, other than those that board together and clearly know each other); perhaps a little more on train journeys, especially when seats are ‘facing each other’ (around tables, or in cabins/compartments).

Social discovery on Facebook, and the rest of the web

And back to the quote in the start of this post – in my view Facebook historically has not promoted social discovery, rather it has significantly demoted it – it encourages you to connect with people you already know, it suggests advertising based on your social data, and it uses your ‘likes’ to suggest other topics that you might be interested in.

In the short-to-medium term it would appear that this trend is likely to continue with even greater “leverage” of its knowledge about you to increase its relevance to you (and its profits from increased rates from more relevant, successful advertising).

So if Facebook is not promoting social discovery (or at least, not yet), who is?

The sites which most effectively promote social discovery are those that ‘mix up’ users in a way that allows people with similar interest to connect, for example:

  • Quora – people do not generally group themselves by their existing social circles, but rather by their interests (the questions that they follow); people might start by following friends, but sooner or later it’s just the questions themselves, or people who they see posting good questions or answers that they follow (see also ‘The new ‘news’, and how you find it‘)
  • Twitter – again, people start by following people that they know, but through “retweets” they become exposed to people known by others who they don’t follow, but could very well be interesting to them.
  • Pinterest – an ‘online pinboard’ (where connections seem to be made around artistic/lifestyle content), currently gaining momentum, and seemingly attracting non-geeks (ie, not just the geeks who are quick to test new apps).

I’ve named a few examples, but there’s plenty more appearing. In addition, blogs often bring together people with likeminded interests (through the blog post comments section), especially to the benefit of the blog ‘owner’.

Social discovery hits SXSW (lovingly referred to just as “South by” by some)

It is rumored that this year’s SXSW festival will be a showcase for ‘social discovery’ apps (in the past SXSW was known for bringing mass attention to twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla and others).  As is often the case, there are several apps vying for the title of survivor of the mini-segment (in 2009 Foursquare and Gowalla were head-to-head).

Soical discovery apps (or ‘People discovery’ apps, as Robert Scoble calls them) that will likely be discussed at SWSW include Glancee, Highlight, and Sonar. Scoble discussed this yesterday on a guest post on TNW, ‘The two hottest apps you’ll “run into” at SXSW‘ (check out also the videos of the interviews with the founders of Glancee and Highlight, the two apps which he claims are “hottest”). Interestingly, Glancee uses Facebook’s own data (your “likes”, etc.) to determine who you might want to be ‘meet’, making me wonder whether Facebook might yet enter this game, in the way that ‘Facebook Places’ eventually took on Foursquare.

Whereas with previous SXSW ‘battles’, where there was ultimately a clear winner (Foursquare clearly outlived Gowalla for location-based ‘check-ins’), this time it might be possible that all players can survive – while people may pick their own preferred app to use, so long as they have downloaded the other apps, they can still be ‘reactive’ to social discovery ‘introductions’ from people who use their own preferred apps.

Given the fact that many of these apps have a location-based service element to their approach (see also my earlier post ‘Location’ is where it’s at – my take on location-based services‘), it will be really interesting to see if they result in more physical real-life social connections being made (ie, in person, not just over the web).

Wrap up

Of course, social discovery, even ‘social adventure’ is not new to the internet – even since the beginning of the internet chat rooms, forums, message boards, Second LifeChatroulette, and others have allowed people to aggregate or connect, and engage in discussion, with varying levels of popularity, and sometimes controversy.

So what’s different now?

The internet has grown up (or at least ‘learned’ from past mistakes, or perhaps even more accurately, survival of the ‘fittest’) – successful social discovery happens where people with like-minded interests can connect, and still have some control how they choose/control their connections.

10 Responses

  1. Pete Cashmore (of Mashable fame) cashes in on this topic, which he calls “ambient social networking”, too (also mentioning the same 4 apps):

    Interestingly, he refers to it as ‘scary’ …

  2. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for your comments and the link to that website. It is has some very nice projects and it is totally inspiring.

    I am still trying to resist Facebook and Twitter, not sure for how long i can do it, as I feel like I am missing out on something. I wonder if there are many more people like me out there – trying to resist. Haven’t heard about Quora, but Pinterest is the ultimate…being able to follow people who share your interests or passion and being able to put your “pins” together is just awesome.


    • The NYTimes article mentions several apps, including the ones that I mentioned in my post, plus a few others:

      Kismet, Glancee, Highlight,, Meeteor, Pearescope, GetGauss, Intro, Qrious, Mingle and Sonar

  3. Yesterday at CeBIT, the ‘digital’ conference held in Hannover, in hall 16 at the Code_n section, I came across a team who were there presenting their app Xattel.

    Xattel describes itself as a “mobile application that allows you to interact with other users based on two main factors: proximity and interest. This puts it in a very similar category to the apps mentioned above, but Xattel included something that I’d not seen in the others – an Augmented Reality Engine.

    Check it out:

    ps. (I beat @scobleizer to ‘blog’ about this one …)

  4. […] Social Discovery ( […]

  5. Interesting TechCrunch article, “How to Fix Location-Based People Discovery”:

  6. […] I recently wrote a post about social discovery, and some of the the new apps that have recently been released in this space (“Social Discovery“). […]

  7. I built the above blog post around a question whether Facebook was in fact encouraging social discovery, and then went on to discuss others, like Glancee, who I thought were – well, Facebook has now acquired Glancee …

    The Glancee news post:

    “We started Glancee in 2010 with the goal of bringing together the best of your physical and digital worlds. We wanted to make it easy to discover the hidden connections around you, and to meet interesting people.

    Since then Glancee has connected thousands of people, empowering serendipity and pioneering social discovery.

    We are therefore very excited to announce that Facebook has acquired Glancee and that we have joined the team in Menlo Park to build great products for over 900 million Facebook users.

    We’ve had such a blast connecting people through Glancee, and we truly thank our users for being a part of the Glancee community.”

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