February 21, 2011

Yobongo: The Open Chat Room In Your Pocket (Preview)

In the four months since Yobongo first gained attention, CEO and co-founder Caleb Elston has been working to prepare his product for the visibility and scale potentially demanded by what's potentially the world's biggest tech event, SXSW, an environment which can catapult new sites into the stratosphere, or should they fall flat, have them forced to regroup. The service, currently in private beta on the iOS platform, has seen increasing activity at practically all hours, the equivalent of an open bar for discussion with members of the local community, which never closes.

In the last few weeks, I've finally found a reason to keep my iPod Touch nearby, in a home full of Android devices. The magnet-like pull is from Yobongo, whose goal is to bring people, potentially perfect strangers, who share a geographic location, together to talk about anything. The application's real-time nature, enabling true conversations between friends and others, goes beyond the world of serve and volley status updates or Q&A, putting the focus back onto the world of conversation instead of performance and counting of replies, retweets and likes. In fact, there are no points of feedback for updates - just a constant flow.

Yobongo in Action. Note notifiers for private messages, number of people chatting.

The concept hasn't changed since October, with the idea being people in shared spaces may discover they have common interests and can engage in intriguing discussions. For the many of us who routinely bump into the same faces and avatars on every network, this could be refreshing. Yes, just like any other social situation, it's easier to talk to those you know than those you don't, but Yobongo eases that process by mixing everyone in a single space.

So each morning, after turning off the iPod's alarm, I peek at Yobongo to find Caleb talking with users in the private beta. Some folks I know, and others I don't, but I am getting to know. And it's incredibly easy to jump into the stream of consciousness. For one, your avatar displays when you open the app, so they can welcome you. Second, the app doesn't start with a blank screen, but shows all the text flowing through the river - with the newest updates below. Should you want to, you can scroll up and see how the conversation evolved, see updates from people whom you may have missed, and get caught up.

Posting to the site couldn't be easier. There are no groups to join, as with other apps, some I like a lot (including Beluga and TextPlus). There are no demands to friend folks, as you're already connected to everyone live. And once you start typing, everybody knows because the system lightly says "... is typing." If more than one person is typing, the system updates there too. So you immediately, even in a small space like the iPod Touch, get an idea for all the participants, the ongoing messages, you can get updated on private conversations and see the thread as it evolves. Not bad.

An active Yobongo chat and a separate private message.

Caleb, previously highlighted on this site for his work with Toluu, Kallow and Kickpost, started the project with fellow Justin.TV ex-colleague David Kasper, who is responsible for engineering while Caleb handles product, the "yin and yang" of the operation as it stands now, he told me. While the company has been mentioned in the same breath as big group chat monoliths like GroupMe and others who have raised millions, Yobongo has not yet taken any funding. Lucky for them, they do have free residence at Dogpatch Labs, courtesy of Mike Hirschland and Ryan Spoon of Polaris Ventures, who would probably have the first in to a round A if Yobongo wanted to be YoFunded.

Like Quora, Facebook and other sites, Yobongo holds a few rules to help avoid abuse of the system. It's preferred that guests use real photos and use their real names. The app's short community guidelines ask to "be friendly", "be respectful" and "be authentic".

Does the world need yet another place to chat beyond the big social networks, and new places like Convore or the host of group messaging participants, including Beluga, GroupMe, MessageParty and TextPlus? It seems to me there is room for a lightweight system that doesn't feel like work, that is open to all who arrive, and leverages proximity. Whether Yobongo is the solution to an event like SXSW or not, only reaching those on iOS, remains to be seen, but I can see clear value to talking with both the friends you know, and the friends you don't yet know.

You can get in on Yobongo's private beta list by heading to http://www.yobongo.com. The service's first official intro video is below.