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When everybody knows your name

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image Social Discovery or People Discovery as it is sometimes called, would certainly make navigating events such as this multi-chamber mixer a breeze. But is it really for everyone? Mitch Traphagen Photo

Social Discovery fires up at SXSW

By Mitch Traphagen

Do you ever wish you could be like Norm on the 1980s television series Cheers? I’m not referring to being a rotund man wasting his life in a bar; I’m referring to the fact that whenever he entered the bar, everyone would yell out “NORM!” in greeting. As the theme song suggested, it was a place where everyone knew his name.

On Sunday, I walked into Popi’s Restaurant and no one so much as looked up. However, it might have been an entirely different story had I taken the next step in the evolution of social networking. My cell phone could have announced my arrival.

With 865 million users, Facebook has entered the realm of ubiquity with those hundreds of millions of users sharing how their days went or what they had for breakfast. Notice that is all past tense with people generally posting what had already happened. More recently, sites like Foursquare have appeared, allowing people to share where they are at any given time. Facebook has also adopted such a check in. Steve Wozniak, one of the founders of Apple Computer, is a big Foursquare user, thus allowing the world to know that, with the exception of taking his dogs to Outback several times a week, the life of a bazillionaire really isn’t all that different than anyone else’s life, with the exception, perhaps, of massive philanthropy and all-around good cheer. But, like Facebook, Foursquare still requires some effort as part of checking in to the service.

Enter “Social Discovery,” a hot item at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas. SXSW is the super cool annual event where the hip make or break the newest and most sophisticated trends while taking in the music and films for which the conference was initially founded. In 2007, Twitter found its mojo there and took off. In 2009, Foursquare was the breakout app of the year. This year it is Social Discovery — and it is live and real-time. With Social Discovery, just a glance at my cell phone alerts me to what friends — or even friends of my friends — are in near proximity and they are alerted to my presence.

Does it sound kind of creepy? Why, yes, it does. But then again, Facebook and Foursquare were also considered kind of creepy when they first kicked off. Privacy in the era of social networking is a nebulous term by choice.

Social Discovery will evolve, of course, into something that supersedes your existing friends and connections. With 3D imaging, no doubt someday people will be able to map an entire nightclub, forever negating pick-up lines. You won’t have to ask an attractive stranger “What’s your sign?”; you’ll already know it along with his or her name, what they had for breakfast, and, most likely, the name of their cat.

What will most likely keep Social Discovery from being merely a fad for those on the prowl, however, are the immediate and obvious money-making aspects of it. With Social Discovery on a cell phone, any store that you pass can pick up your profile and send you a coupon tailored to your tastes. It is the ultimate in targeted advertising. With that in mind, Social Discovery not only has the means to take off, in the future it will likely need to be turned off or opted out of by those who seek some measure of anonymity as every business on the planet will want to ensure you are tuned in to what they have to offer.

In an era when millions of people announce every facet of life’s hardships from death to divorce on social networking sites, the idea of privacy is being transformed. Social Discovery blurs or, perhaps, shifts the line even further. As it grows into the mainstream, safety concerns, particularly for children and women, will need to be addressed and surprise birthday parties could become a thing of the past.

But then again, should you find yourself looking to escape the cold by walking into a tavern in Boston on a winter’s night, perhaps it will all be worth it. Because, as Gary Portnoy once sang for the Cheers theme, there will be a place: “Where everybody knows your name.” In fact, there might be a lot of places like that.

For more information about social discovery, visit two startup companies that made waves at this year’s SXSW: Glancee at www.glancee.com and Highlight at www.highlig.ht.

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