Malleable social graphs and mini-mobs: why Facebook could destroy Foursquare and Gowalla with one check in

I didn’t write about the big location war at SXSW (between location-based apps like Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Brightkite, Whrrl, and others). Why not? Because, well, MG Siegler at Techcrunch has been. But I did participate, and took notes and now I’m looking at what’s next:

1. These apps are great for creating “mini mobs.” I saw several happen at SXSW, including a party in the lobby of my hotel at 3 a.m. (I watched that form, saw it was fun, and got out of bed to join it). Check out the video of these “mini-mobs” being created and destroyed at SXSW.
2. These apps will really show their form when malleable social graphs arrive. What are these? Well, right now social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz have very un-malleable social graphs. IE, they don’t change who they present to you based on the behavior of your friends. More on that in a second. First the mini-mob video at SXSW:

If Facebook understands these two new capabilities and makes their location features do them even partially well they will decimate the newbies. Why? Well, today I visited San Jose’s hottest new park. Thousands of people have visited in the 14-days since the park has opened (it just got a $72 million upgrade). On Gowalla and Whrrl only two geeks had checked in at the park. Here’s the park on Gowalla. Here’s the same park on Foursquare. This is in the center of Silicon Valley, home of all early-adopter bubbles. These new services have NOT gone mainstream here and have NOT gotten enough adoption. Aside: this park rocks for geeks who have young kids.

Facebook, if it does these two features right will bring its 400 million users (Foursquare only has 500,000 or so) and could take away all the oxygen from this new group of services that’s trying to follow Twitter’s path to success (Foursquare has reached 500,000 users faster than Twitter did and is only a year old).

So, this is a warning to all the VCs who are ready to throw big money at Foursquare: Facebook could mess up this whole party and even if it doesn’t this is VERY EARLY DAYS for location-based services and the services themselves have NOT explained to any of us what they are useful for (they are useful for social media networkers like me, but not for the normal person — yet).

First, a cautionary tale. Facebook will also have to face the very real location backlash. These two posts show that location-based services help stalkers, Michelle Greer says, and help thieves, Nick O’Neill reports.

These are anti-forces Twitter and Facebook never had to face and will, I predict, prove to be why these services WON’T follow Twitter into the path of mainstream hype and acceptance. That’s why I’m looking for all of these to go down a different path: the path to malleable social graphs and mini-mobs.

My son walking on a pig at Happy Hollow park in San Jose

The way I found this path is fun. It ended up today at the new Happy Hollow park in San Jose (just reopened with a $72 million upgrade). The pictures that you are seeing here are mine, shot with my iPhone and Gowalla today. The kid you see climbing on the pig is my son.

Malleable social graphs, what are they?

Well, right now, if you are looking to go to a Napa Winery, or three, and you go to Twitter or Facebook everyone looks the same to you. But, now, check in in Napa with Foursquare and all of a sudden you only see people near you. I have more than 7,000 friends and when I tried this last week (I was visiting a startup near there) I only saw four other people. So, now I was talking with four other people who were on my social graph and who actually were located near me. Now, I bet I could text each of those four and ask them where to go and I’d get very good answers.

That is a malleable social graph. IE, it changes based on conditions you set in motion.

What are some other examples?

1. Check into “24” (the TV show). Why would you see anyone who also isn’t watching 24? Now, if some of them say that there’s a new cool video on YouTube that is interesting, are they more likely to match your tastes than the general population? Absolutely yes!

2. Check into a car wash. I did today on Gowalla and Foursquare (here’s my photos and details on Gowalla). Now look at your phone. What businesses did Gowalla bring to you? Mine brought me a lamp store across the street. Dumb. That is NOT a malleable social graph. Why would ANYONE checking into a car wash be interested in a lamp store? How about showing where the bathrooms are? How about showing where the closest junk food places are to grab a snack? If Gowalla did THAT then it would be demonstrating a malleable business graph. Right now Gowalla doesn’t have either a malleable social graph, nor does it have a malleable business graph. It’s dumb about this stuff, that is a major opening for Facebook. Foursquare isn’t much better, although it does better with the social graph stuff (at least I only saw people near my carwash, unlike in Gowalla).

3. Check into politics. I told Facebook that I’m a liberal Democrat. So why am I still seeing Republican crap in my news feed? Facebook hasn’t implemented malleable social graphs yet and, so, its newsfeed is still presenting information to me that I might not care about and, in some cases, might actually make me angry.

4. Check into a London pub. Gowalla has this really cool feature called “trips.” Here’s one for London pubs. Does my social graph change if I complete a tour around all the pubs to show me all the other boozers who have visited London? No. But what if it did? What would that let my social graph do? Well, for one, if you are expert on London Pubs, like my friend Hugh Macleod is (he took me on a tour of such pubs a few years back) well, I bet he’d also be pretty good at finding the best pubs in Texas where he now lives. Which he is. Why would I take advice on pubs from someone who has never been in a real London pub?

5. Check into sushi. One of my favorite sushi places in San Mateo, Yuzu, has a few negative reviews. Why is that? It’s called the “masses are asses” problem on Yelp. Here’s what happens: Yuzu is a place that is awesome for advanced sushi lovers. I’ve eaten sushi all over the world in places like Tokyo, Yokohama, New York, London, and other places. I love advanced sushi. I look for restaurants who do sushi well. But most people aren’t like me. Most people don’t even like sushi. So, if they get dragged to a place like this they try to order “Americanized” sushi like, um, California rolls. Or fried crap I can’t even pronounce. That is NOT sushi. Anyway, these people, er, newbies, get to Yuzu and find that all the other “non-sushi” stuff sucks. So they rate it low. Me? I could care less about all that other non-sushi stuff when I am looking for a sushi restaurant, which is why I rate this place five stars. Now, Yelp does NOT have a malleable social graph. We can’t filter out all the “sushi newbies” who don’t like sushi anyway. So, this is a major way that Facebook can take over. Alikelist does a lot better at this than anyone. At least so far (I did two videos with that company to understand their view of malleable social graphs. I came away wondering how long it would be before Facebook buys Alikelist).

6. Check into movies. If I say I like Avatar why would I care about what someone who doesn’t like Avatar think of other movies? Yet I see their reviews on all the review sites. Malleable social graphs are needed to reorder movie reviews. tries to do that by asking you to compare movies and then finds people like you. is working on malleable social graphs and is largely seen as one of the best-positioned companies to compete with and other movie review sites because of it.

Anyway, I could keep going. This just gives you a taste of what malleable social graphs could do. Now let’s talk about mini-mobs.

Mini-mobs and how they will improve your life.

I’ve been in a few mobs. I remember one time when the San Francisco 49ers won the Superbowl and I was downtown and got caught up in it. Very scary, the mob surrounded my car and shook it, breaking the mirrors off. Not an experience I wish to repeat.

As my history teacher in community college used to say “the masses are asses.” Yelp is seeing some of the masses are asses problem, as we discussed above. So are other review sites. But Facebook was supposed to save us from these “masses.” After all, we’d only friend or follow our personal friends and people we knew and that would solve all the world’s problems. Well, it didn’t.

Why not? Because our friends still form mobs that don’t really give us the best experiences.

Talking with Bill

Look at what happened at SXSW this year: the crowds got so big that the experiences that some of us had weren’t as good as previous years. Jolie O’Dell says she’s not going back. I, too, felt that there was less goodness this year. Mostly because you couldn’t escape from the masses. Masses are fun for a while, but the really extraordinary experiences I’ve had have been smaller. Far smaller.

Look at this chat I was a part of with Bill Gates. I’ll forever remember it. Partly because it was Bill Gates, but partly because it was small, intimate, and focused. The best parties at SXSW were that way too, which is why I woke up to go downstairs to join the Revolving Door Party.

So, if mobs are bad but small mobs are good, well, then we need to encourage the production of these new, mini-mobs.

Zappos did that by driving a bus around Austin at SXSW. The bus had its own checkin, so you could join up there.

But what do you really want? Well, first, you need malleable social graphs that will show you people who are probably more likely to get along with you. After all, if you hate wine why would you go and hang out with Gary Vaynerchuk? So if you are looking to start a minimob, like he does (he moved his party to a new venue after it got too crowded and the lines got too long to create minimobs) wouldn’t it be better if your Facebook showed you four people near you who were like you? After all, Facebook knows who your REAL friends are. You know, the ones that are like you and the ones you interact with. Those stalker kids might look like you but you don’t interact with them and Facebook knows the difference.

See where we’re going with this? What if Facebook only shared your political thoughts with people like you? What if it showed you sushi restaurants that sushi lovers like me cared about (and only showed you when sushi lovers like you are in the restaurant)? What if it matched your movie tastes to yours and only showed you friends who also liked Avatar?

Wouldn’t that help you build minimobs that match your style and interests? Yes!

So, now, where is Foursquare or Gowalla or the others going to find the oxygen to survive the Facebook onslaught?

Well, it needs both and it needs both quickly. And those companies better be praying every evening that Facebook doesn’t get this stuff for a year or more. If Facebook comes out with a competent location system in April at its sold-out F8 conference this little “check in” game will be over. Sorry, none of these services has enough users to survive a competent Facebook.

My bet? It’s on Facebook but I will use Gowalla and Foursquare all the way until we see how competent Facebook’s offerings are.

See you at the end of April.

Oh, and while we’re talking about mini-mobs, I’m creating one of my own. Next Friday night at the Apple store in Palo Alto on University Ave. Come by anytime in the evening, I’ll be there all night until the store opens and I can pick up my iPad. Plancast has a way to plan our mini-mob, join the fun!