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Where Are They Now? Hot Apps From Past SXSWs that Didn’t Have Much of a Future

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Yahoo Tech

(Photos by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

AUSTIN—Blame Twitter. It’s the reason South by Southwest has been overrun by marketing types looking to promote their #brands.

Back in 2007, Twitter lit up SXSW. Its traffic tripled over that weekend, and then all the influencers who had gotten hip to the charms of providing value judgments in 140-character chunks came home and kept on Tweeting.

Every year since, other social-media startups have been trying to run the same marketing play:

1. Go to SXSW and get people to use your app
2. ???
3. Profit!

And you gnome how this ends. Not every company is a Twitter. And even a successful bout of “growth hacking” at SXSW can’t guarantee the success of an app once all those early adopters go home from Austin and sleep off their hangovers. Consider how some of the darlings of the last few years of SXSW have fared since:

Glancee Gone, Highlight Dimmed

At the first SXSW I attended in 2012, the big thing was people-discovery apps that would alert you to the proximity of friends, friends of friends and people with similar interests. Two apps in particular, Glancee and Highlight, topped best-of-SXSW reports at places like CNet and TechCrunch.

But outside the SXSW social-media hothouse, two weaknesses of these apps became a lot more obvious: They were brutal on batteries at a time when first-generation LTE hardware was already causing smartphones to run down alarmingly fast, and many people aren’t that anxious to chat up algorithmically-chosen strangers.

Highlight peaked at 23rd in the App Store’s social networking category (according to AppAnnie’s rank-history data) and has bounced mostly downhill since. Glancee didn’t even do that well, getting no higher than 94th place in iOS social-networking apps, but then hit the “acquihire” jackpot when Facebook bought the startup a few months later.

Two years later, the Glancee team’s work led to Facebook’s Nearby Friends feature. Most of my friends don’t use that, and I’ve yet to have it notify me of a pal’s proximity before I’ve already begun speaking to the person.

The Appeal Of This App May Be A Secret

The 2013 edition of SXSW didn’t feature any breakout apps (Vine won a lot of fans at the show, but being owned by Twitter gave it a massive head start and made it nobody’s idea of a startup), but 2014 saw the anonymous secret-sharing app Secret launch barely a month before SXSW. With help from SXSW appearances by founders David Byttow and Chrys Bader, it experienced a minor boom.

Subsequent media coverage—for instance, Nellie Bowles’ memorably weird re/Code post about a dinner party hosted by a Secret user for strangers who responded to his Secret post—helped the app get as high as 11th place among iOS social-networking titles. But it’s since skidded to 167th place; the Android version that launched later got no higher than 27th place in the Play Store’s social category is now down to 110th place.

Anonymously sharing your confessions with friends who don’t know it’s you doing the sharing may be addictive to some, but the appeal apparently isn’t universal. Apps that target college campuses, like Yik Yak, seem to be doing better, even if these apps can be used both for support and bullying.

We also learned a few months ago that Secret’s anonymity was less than complete when hackers figured out how to learn the names of users using a workaround.

Will Meerkat Do Better?

The hot app this time around is a video-streaming tool called Meerkat that lets you share live footage on Twitter. SXSW attendees, Yahoo Tech journalists included, have been using the app to share the experience—even if the Meerkat footage has only been of other Meerkat users employing the app to stream video.

But that app has already hit a pothole, in the form of Twitter limiting its access to the service. Why? Because Twitter plans to launch its own live-streaming service built on the Periscope app it quietly bought in January.  

Meerkat may overcome that holdup, but this development certainly blows a hole in the heartwarming “little app makes it big at SXSW” storyline.

SXSW Apps We Could Actually Use

While it’s tempting to mock the entire SXSW-hot-apps meme, putting this many people in one city and challenging them to connect with each other does reveal needs that everyday apps don’t handle well or at all.

For instance, all week long I’ve been flipping between different messaging apps to stay in touch with co-workers and the friends I’m sharing a rented house with. The onscreen experience has been a mess. And with so many of these messages some variation of “where are you now?” or “where will you be,” I have to admit that the now-withering people-discovery apps of 2012 addressed a real issue.

(2009’s breakout SXSW hit Foursquare made a move to address that by adding a messaging feature to its Swarm check-in app last week. But when most of my friends either don’t use that app or have cut back on their use, I haven’t been able to benefit from that.)

Maybe SXSW 2016 will see apps that bring some order to all this back-and-forth communication. Or maybe the hot app of next year’s festival won’t do anything more complicated than nag you to charge your phone if you put it down at night without plugging it in.

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.