SAN FRANCISCO--By late afternoon on Tuesday, it was getting awfully hot in the conference venue hosting TechCrunch50. Blame it on the body heat, or maybe the scores of laptops humming away.
But the air was sure to get a little hotter when it came time for the "Social Media Streams" category of start-ups to present.
The organizers of TechCrunch50 decided to save the last slot on the final day of the event (you know, right before everybody starts downing booze at the cocktail reception) to showcase new start-ups that deal with Silicon Valley's most hyped niche of the moment: real-time social media. As if Facebook and Twitter couldn't be dominating enough headlines here, there were six start-ups filling up the "stream" category: Threadsy, Lissn, Radiusly, Stribe, Clixtr, and The Whuffie Bank. And the panel of judges was joined by Twitter-savvy rapper Chamillionaire as a surprise guest.
Guess what? The judges, some of whom have been known to drink Silicon Valley hype Kool-Aid as though it were the world's finest wine, didn't think we needed most of these companies.
Threadsy, whose founders called it "the world's first integrated commnications client," was the best received of the bunch by far. It's a messaging client that aggregates e-mails, Facebook messages, Twitter replies, instant messages, and also "unbound" communications like general tweets and status messages that aren't necessarily geared to you. "We built Threadsy to pull you back together," CEO Rob Goldman told the audience, citing the rapidly growing percentage of Americans who are using more than one messaging client ona regular basis.
It's got a slick interface, can also aggregate automated profiles for your contacts' social-network feeds, and can track Twitter queries in an almost dizzying visual format.
"I think Robert Scoble's head was about to explode," conference organizer Jason Calacanis commented afterward, referring to the Valley mainstay's near-pathological obsession with social feed aggregation.
Scoble's response was remarkably pragmatic.
"I'm just wondering if it has the FriendFeed problem," he said, "which means there's not enough people in the world that care about aggregating all their friends' social networks," but added that he wanted to try it out as soon as possible. A few of the other judges raised questions about how Threadsy will make money, considering inboxes have never been a huge trove for ad dollars. Goldman's answer was a little bit convoluted, which this reporter took to mean that Threadsy hasn't quite figured it out yet.
Up next was Lissn, which appeared to be a combination of a news aggregator, a chat room, and a question-and-answer service. "Lissn starts with a conversation," founder Myke Armstrong said, and then demonstrated the app by posting the question "What would happen if the moon disappeared?" and watched comments and answers roll in. What wasn't really clear was exactly why anyone would use it, what with Twitter, Facebook statuses, and various "conversation" trackers out there already.
"Why would I leave Twitter to join this?" Scoble asked. Harsh words coming from the guy who loves to rave about the next shiny thing that streams words across your laptop screen.
Lissn was followed by Radiusly, which aims to solve scaling and communication problems for companies and brands that want to use microblogging and other social-media tools--many of which aren't terribly customizable. A company can build a Radiusly profile to create a directory of official social-network profiles for its employees, manage them internally, and share media like product images and videos for marketing and customer service purposes.
"I think you guys aimed at the right target but your dart hit the wall and not the target," Scoble said. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman chimed in, "In a rare position I agree with much of what Robert (Scoble) was saying." Ouch.
Next in the lineup was Stribe, which is in the same vein as Meebo's chat toolbar and Google Friend Connect--in other words, something that a smattering of established companies are already trying--adding social-networking features to any site by adding a chunk of code. Stribe can provide metrics pertaining to traffic and engagement, too.
This was another well-designed one, but it was met with more skepticism. "I think one of the hardest things about these networks is actually getting the community to sign up," Facebook exec Mike Schroepfer said on the panel of judges. Dick Costolo gently reminded the Stribe team, "You can do too many things and then it becomes difficult for people to understand what they should use your product for...when you try to do a lot of things at once, it confuses people as to how they should use it and then they just don't use it."
The fifth company in the lineup received a somewhat better reaction. Called Clixtr, it's an iPhone app (and eventually expanding to more handsets) that combines photo-sharing with location awareness, turning the phone into what CEO Fergus Hurley called "the ultimate social camera." Clixtr's hook is event photos: The iPhone app lets you browse pictures from geo-tagged events, send photos instantly to other Clixtr users' phones, and find events near you.
"I think that was awesome," Schroepfer said, but expressed some confusion over exactly how geotagging could sync up to an event. Scoble complimented its sign-up process, but said "I'm not sure it causes enough gameplay, or enough something-else that gets me into this." He wasn't the only one to point out that getting people to use the app would be a challenge. "I would up the level of incentive for participation," Reid Hoffman said, and added that Facebook could easily build location-awareness into the photo feature of its mobile apps.
The last company was what Calacanis called "one of our wild-cards," The Whuffie Bank. Named after the deplorable term preferred by marketing-buzzword-loving social media consultants everywhere (basically, it's slang for social capital, a term coined by science fiction author Cory Doctorow), The Whuffie Bank is a non-profit organization for building a virtual currency around online reputation and influence. You can then use that currency to pay others with "whuffie," like tossing a bribe someone's way to ask them to retweet something you've posted on Twitter.
Note to the Whuffie Bankers: At the very least, please choose a different name for your organization. "Whuffie" sounds like something that would happen in porn movies. And the judges seemed to think that however cool of an idea it might be, it might be best if the currency stays in science fiction.
"The problem with these kinds of currencies is you generally need some kind of banking system to regulate them," Reid Hoffman said. "A lot of cool things...I think conceptually it's going to be extraordinary difficult."
"I want to hear in one line, what do I get?" celebrity judge Chamillionaire asked. "It seem like you've got to do a lot of work for them to raise your reputation...It seems like you can fake it."
And with that, it was happy hour. Or so everyone hoped.