With more than 1 billion tweets a month and 100 million users, Twitter has, arguably, changed the way we communicate.
Celebrities announce break-ups on Twitter, the President of Venezuela tweets and censored protestors in Iran launched their opposition to the 2009 election on the social networking site. Created by a 10-person startup in San Francisco, its signature microblogging encourages users to be permanently connected and always current.
Twitter is free to everyone, so does it make money? Like Facebook (who failed in an attempt to buy Twitter back in 2008), Twitter’s risky business strategy has been to prioritize user expansion and product innovation over profit. But, in 2010, Twitter rolled out its plan to monetize its exponential growth by inserting sponsored tweets into the Twitter stream. Whether the aspiration is to transform everyday communication and affect the course of global history or to simply be the next gimmick, there are plenty of young startups looking to become as ubiquitous as Twitter. And some might just succeed. Here are a few to lwatch.
Launched in March 2009, this mobile application is battling it out with a few others to become the “geosocial networking” tool of choice.
Using your smartphone, you can broadcast your location to other users and earn real and virtual rewards whenever you “check in” someplace. You can also choose to update your friends on Twitter and Facebook with your whereabouts and pursue a game-like challenge to earn “badges” for your visits or become the “mayor” of a place that you frequent enough times.
Co-founded by the 33-year-old Dennis Crowly, the application has vast potential as both a market research and promotional tool and the concept is breeding imitation (although their programming interface is available for anyone to use). Crowly sold his first company, Dodgeball (a similar social/locator application), to Google in 2005 and Foursquare is rumored to be on Yahoo's acquirement radar.
Gowalla, a competitor to Foursquare, is another location-based social networking game created by Alamofire. It is also primarily a mobile Web application that enables users to check in at Spots (popular landmarks) in their area or take Trips (pub crawls, restaurant tours) and earn real-world rewards or virtual “items” as a bonus that can be swapped or dropped at Spots. And, like Foursquare, they offer an open source code public version of the Gowalla API to allow developers to build applications that use Gowalla data. This Texas-based company won the Mobile category in the 2010 South By Southwest Interactive competition.
Using the Foursquare API, Vinicius Vacanti and James Moran — both former investment bankers — launched Yipit to give you personalized recommendations about deals that you would likely be interested to know about in your area. The Web-based and, now, mobile application uses your location and your preferences to send you daily updates about good deals at area shops, restaurants, spas and other businesses. And if you are also a Foursquare user, it further tailors its recommendations to your check-in data. It’s a world of difference from the value pack of coupons you got in the mail.
Hunch is a personalized Web-based search service that was co-founded in 2009 by Caterina Fake, who sold Flickr to Yahoo in 2005. Hunch asks you a series of questions to compose an individualized taste profile. The site then suggests movies, vacations and other fun products and services tailored to your personal interests. It also calculates how confident the program is with its recommendation. The questions are community-generated, but the answers don’t come with any community commentary — just a single answer. Elegant and decisive, so if you don’t want options, just answers, this is for you. For instance, are you confused about which Android phone to buy? Are you wondering if you should break up with your partner? Hunch told me to get the Nexus One “Googlephone” (have one already) and that it was 99% sure that we should stay together. Whew!
There are a number of companies out there trying to make you more comfortable watching TV and movies through the Internet — by making it more social, more compatible with conventional TV screens, more easily searchable or more marketable. Boxee, which launched in 2007 using source code from the first-generation Xbox, is a freeware media player that integrates your personal collection of stored media with Internet streaming media that can be watched through your own TV and combines that with social networking features. Since Boxee itself is partially open-source, users can create their own apps, plug-ins and “skins” (visual interfaces). And coming soon is the Boxee “box” — a device that will allow you to watch Web video on your TV without attaching your laptop to your television. But, the limits to what Boxee can offer and the propriety of streaming video in general came into questions when Hulu blocked Boxee’s access to its network-sanctioned offerings. Still, there is plenty to watch with Boxee’s search and save functions.
Clicker is another company looking to enhance your Web TV experience. Launched in 2009 with $8 million in venture capital, Clicker is sort of the TV Guide of the Internet with some of the functions of a DVR. Instead of searching Google, Hulu or YouTube, you get a consolidated programming guide and easy access to what you want to watch. It also has a wiki function that allows users to submit information about programs, which then becomes part of the catalog. It doesn’t stream video so it avoids some of the copyright problems of Boxee and it curates the immense amount of Web video by only cataloging “legitimate” content. It doesn’t get that much traffic yet (well under 1 million unique visitors in January of this year), but the traditional TV business is warm to it, so it probably has legs.
You got a project? You always wanted to make that film or take your band on tour or launch your line of custom baby blankets but never thought you could raise the cash? You might think about making your plea on Kickstarter. Tapping into the ease of eCommerce, founders Charles Adler, Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler launched Kickstarter in 2009 to connect creative people of all kinds with potential funders. It's called "crowdfunding” and the way it works is a project creator sets a fundraising goal, deadline and an optional set of rewards for backers. If the fundraising goal is reached by the deadline, everyone is charged via Amazon Payments and Kickstarter takes 5% of the money raised for its commission. If the goal is not reached, nobody gets charged. The biggest project funded so far was for a book of Obama-campaign images called Designing Obama, which raised $85,000.
Shopping for clothes online has also been reimagined by a number of upstart companies. Polyvore has made it into a participatory and creative act that gives users the virtual power and influence of Anna Wintour. It isn't overtly a shopping site, but more of a paper-doll game for amateur stylists — one that happens to gather enormous amounts of data on what bags, shoes and dresses its users are interested in at any given moment. Users can make “sets” with an electronic scissor called the Clipper that enables them to collect pictures from all over the Web for use in Polyvore’s signature fashion collages. Users can then share them on the site, user blogs or on Facebook. It's basically free advertising for the brands the users are clipping and companies like Barney's and Calvin Klein have gotten in on the game — sponsoring set-making contests that use their products. It is user-generated fashion and the site has 1.4 million registered users and counting.
9. Gilt Groupe
If brand names are what you want and exclusivity is a lure, Gilt Groupe has figured out how to make you feel like you’ve got the hookup to the best designer deal in town — even if you don’t live in town. More than 2 million “invitation only” members have registered since Gilt Groupe launched in 2007 and they are projecting sales figures of $340 million for 2010. Their business model of eCommerce is the “flash sale” — alerting its exclusive users of a limited-time designer discount — a virtual sample sale. Things sell out quick and that makes for a competitive frenzy — the virtual equivalent of merchandise flying off the racks. It is rumored that executives leave meetings to get dibs on, say, a Burberry dress marked down from $4,000 to $1,500. A number of imitators with similar “flash sale” models have launched, but none have the same pull as a Gilt Groupe sale.
For those interested in submitting to a more surreal, voyeuristic, kind of creepy social experiment, Chatroulette is just that. The no-frills Web site allows users to connect to and video chat with other random users. The site automatically activates your Webcam and when you click “start” you suddenly see someone staring back at you on-screen. You can choose to interact (via voice or text) with that random stranger or you can “next” them (or they will “next” you), instantly calling up a new stranger. Launched in 2009 with 300 users, it has grown to more than 4 million visitors, speaking to its weirdly addictive lure. And, after some mystery about its development, it was revealed that it was founded and built by a Russian teenager named Andrew Ternovskiy who built the site so that he and his friends could meet new chat buddies. Now its users are Daily Show punchlines.
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