East End Tech: This Column Will Self Destruct in 27 Seconds

Will Snapchat and other social media upstarts stand the test of time?
Will Snapchat and other social media upstarts stand the test of time?

Technology moves fast. Really fast. Five years ago, 140 characters seemed like an impossibly short way to communicate. Now it seems verbose.

It runs deeper than that. The digital age has accelerated everything. New sites and apps and devices are launched overnight. Consumers adopt new behaviors in the blink of an eye. Trends catch on and go stale before many people even know they exist.

But in the race to find the next big thing, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish a fad from a phenomenon.

Take Foursquare for example. Do you realize that Foursquare launched just five years ago? Within a few months it had millions of registered users. There were stories of fistfights (virtual and real) to become the Mayor of Starbucks or 7-11 or Sal’s Pizza. It added a new layer of gameplay and active participation to social media.

Now ask yourself: When was the last time you checked in on Foursquare?

See what I mean?

Groupon is another prime suspect. Like many, the company blew up overnight, going from unknown to ubiquitous. Copycats popped up in waves, like a mob of fresh zombies on The Walking Dead. Economists began to herald a new age of social shopping.

Now ask yourself: When was the last time you opened a Groupon daily email?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not my intention to slam these companies. Far from it. I’ve had two startups that never went anywhere, so I know how difficult it is to actually execute on an idea. It’s just fascinating to see how the accelerator effect can saddle social media companies with the burden of high expectations. Cuts both ways, right?

So which of today’s hot startups are at risk of falling into the same trap? One that comes to mind is Snapchat—and the notion of disposable digital content. Snapchat is a fast-growing messaging service with a twist: the photos, images and other shared content evaporate after a short time period. Kids love Snapchat because you can send and view dirty selfies that your parents will never see. Parents hate it for the exact same reason.

Snapchat made headlines when it reportedly turned down a $3 billion offer from Google. Or was it Facebook? Who knows? The point is, the company has millions of rabid users, zero revenue to speak of… and it turned down $3 billion!

Will disposable content ever become established as a new type of consumer behavior? No one really knows, and anyone who says they know is lying. As the father of three young kids, I can tell you that many parents are desperately hoping that Snapchat is just a fad.

Here’s another emerging social behavior to keep an eye on: anonymous posting. Secret is a startup that’s only a few weeks old. It has already raised more than $8 million in funding from a who’s who list of Silicon Valley investors. Its claim to fame: All of the reviews, comments and users are anonymous. There’s no way to track down who said what, or determine their intentions, motivations or biases.

It’s the anti-social social network.

Secret’s founders think this is a good thing. They contend that people are actually more likely to be honest in social messaging with their identities protected. It’s the same logic that journalists use—“anonymous sources” always seem to go deeper than folks on the record.

Again, I have no dog in this fight. I can’t tell you whether anonymous posting or evaporating selfies will become fads or phenomena. And I certainly won’t predict whether Secret or Snapchat will turn into the next Tumblr and Facebook. Remember, I’m the guy who once devoted an entire column to ridiculing Netflix. (Thanks for not firing me, Dan’s.)

My point: If you look at the technology and social media companies that truly matter, nearly all of them solve a fundamental problem or fill a void that previously existed in our daily lives. If you can’t find either of those in a popular new site or app, chances are it will fade away.

Or, as my father used to say: Before jumping on any bandwagon, make sure the instruments are plugged in.

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