The growing success of a little web startup called Radar.net begs an interesting question: are we getting tired of lifecasting?
Think about how many blogs are started every hour, and how many are soon after abandoned. Blogs — like Twitter and MySpace — fulfill a fundamental need for expression and sharing, but can also be tremendously unrewarding. By nature, all three are declarative, not conversational; even with comments and wall posts, whatever communication is had is disjointed, public and brief. It's a little like talking into the wind; you know your words are traveling, but you're largely clueless about who's hearing them.
Here's what Radar does: once you sign up for free, you can use your mobile phone to capture pictures of your daily life, and upload them to the site. Only your group of friends can see the pictures, and they serve as prompts for communication between you and your pals, not as free-standing photos that beg for commentary (as on Flickr). It's sort of like instant messaging with a group of friends, except there are little pictures involved that help prompt a new string of conversation or inject a spark into an existing one.
Last week I sat down with the CEO of Radar.net, a sharp, unassuming guy named John Poisson. While Radar.net is based in San Francisco, it sounds as if much of his philosophy about communication — and it's extensive — was shaped by his experience working for Sony's mobile phone division in Japan (that's right, Japan: the real deal.)
Online life, Poisson theorizes, isn't about plastering up a static facade ala Facebook or talking to everyone (and no one) on Twitter. Instead, he prefers to think as the web as a tool for chronicling the smaller moments in life, and doing so within a forum of your friends. The natural medium for doing this, he believes, is photographs — especially since the tool you're using to do your chronicling, your cell phone, isn't great for long-form writing. Meals, tickets, traffic; photos of almost anything can serve as useful, heartfelt and unique prompts for conversation. That's what Radar's banking on.
According to Poisson, most people end up with a group of friends between 60-80, far less than the several hundreds you see users racking up on Facebook or MySpace. If Poisson is right, that's because it's only really valuable to have ongoing online relationships with very close friends, and few people rack up 364 best buds. But that doesn't mean that every picture you post on Radar has to be seen by every friend. Instead, users have groups of friends (i.e., "College Friends," "Work Friends") to whom they can post pertinent pictures. Within each of those groups, there is even more privacy; if you'd like to make a picture available to only a few people, you can. Or, if you'd like to make a private comment on one of the photos, you can do that too. "We don't go head to head with Facebook; they're about face-making," Poisson says. "The world is getting over the notion of everything being public. Things like Twitter have a limited lifespan. We're enabling people to converse."
People getting over Twitter? Those sound like fightin' words.
If they are, they're rational ones. Poisson believes that Web 2.0 is growing up, and I'm inclined to agree. Once fascinated by the power of the internet for self-expression over thousands of miles and billions of eyes, users are becoming less intoxicated with quantity and more interested in quality. If I write a blog, who cares if some random guy in India reads it? I'd much rather know my friends are reading. Using Radar, I would know that — and they'd have a chance to talk back.
Of course, there are problems with this model. Social network fatigue is the most salient; most of my friends would be loath to sign up for yet another account at yet another website. That said, if these are my real friends — which they would need to be, for Radar to be fun — they'll do it if I ask nicely. And maybe buy them beer.
As far as the mobile usage goes, Poisson claims that Radar's software will work easily on pretty much any modern phone, and in my limited testing, it does. Not everyone has the multimedia messaging service required to send pictures to Radar (the option is an extra on most carriers' plans), but mobile users can also email their photo to a special address at Radar that will also do the trick. As an iPhone user, I took this tack, but there is an iPhone application in the works as well.
Though it's easy to use and easy to install on almost any phone, I initially had trouble deciding what Radar's role in my daily routine would be. Would I do most of my commenting on my phone or PC? Most of my photo uploading from home or the road? How quick is too quick to respond to a photo? (I'm thinking of the requisite lag time considered to be polite when responding to Facebook messages.)
In the end, I fell into a routine that became damn fun, and not a little addictive. Not since my early Facebooking days have I been so enthralled with the minutiae of my friends' lives and thoughts. The difference is that comments and photos on Radar aren't premeditated or crafted the way profiles are, so you get to see more of your friends' quiddities. And that's cool.
Undoubtedly, some of you — Blackberry users — are screaming that this already exists. And it almost does, in the form of Blackberry Messenger, a kind of BB-only photo-capable IM software baked into all new Blackberrys. The difference here is that the conversation is quite usefully expanded by online use, and it's also archived so you can go back and see what kind of silliness was going on between you and your friends a few months ago. Can't do that with BB Messenger.
I'm not entirely convinced that the world will tire of lifecasting soon — or in my opinion, soon enough. But when they do, Radar will be ready and waiting.