Brightkite: Blazing New Paths in Microcontent

Picture 7.pngA few weeks ago, I received an invite to Brightkite so I signed up, being the early adopter that I am. What I saw instantly resonated with me.

Before I get into the technical and usability “stuff” let me explain the resonance I had. first there was Twitter which blazed onto the scene with the concept of microblogging in 140 characters or less. Twitter challenged the status quo by being so simplistic that anyone could use it. The beauty of twitter was hidden to the average user, and is still largely missed by people who haven’t used it. The beauty was in the API which allowed people to utilize Twitter from their cell phones (over text message), via desktop clients, and allowed developers to create cool mashups such as Summize (a search tool for Twitter) or Politweets which monitors Twitter for candidate mentions and displays the timeline in a relevant way. In other words, Twitter’s simplicity was the greatest strength for “selling” itself to the masses.

What Twitter didn’t do was provide context to the flow. It is difficult to track conversations. It is difficult to send tweets to only a select group of people.

Leah CulverThis is where Pownce showed promise. Pownce took the concept of Twitter and made it contextual. Groups were possible, so I could have “real life friends”, “internet friends”, or “PR bloggers”, for instance. Pownce added the ability to post images or mp3’s so I could share media with my friends. However, until recently, Pownce had no API and the API they do have now is too little, too late. There was no SMS integration so I couldn’t text my comments in while I was sitting in traffic on I-95. I was glued to a website, when I had other things to do, as opposed to having a client that just sat there in the background polling the service and letting me know when there was something important to read. Pownce has the high distinguishment of having the hottest developer, Leah Culver though, so that counts for something.

Brightkite has come along, and though in very early beta, they are building their service around making the service as accessible and easy to use for anyone. Therefore, the simplest of all APIs is text messaging, which Brightkite uses perfectly. The hitch here is a telco hitch. Verizon Wireless, according to Brightkite, cannot support Brightkite because the short code used for interacting, 80289, has not yet been approved by the carrier. Apparently, Verizon is building parental controls for their service to allow parents to restrict access to specific shortcodes and so are not approving anymore codes until that functionality is built. Those of us on Verizon continue to suffer.

However, mobile phone users (including Verizon Wireless) can interact with the service over email as well. Each user account is assigned a unique email address.

In addition to the limitations I’ve already listed, Brightkite is currently a US-only service. So Canadian and other non-US users have to use the email address route.

Brightkite operates primarily around a “Where are you now?” premise – which is different than Twitter which asks “What are you doing now?” Therefore, a primary action within the service is the “check in”. Check ins allow users to say “I’m at Starbucks in Columbia, MD” or “I am at Latitude and Longitude x and y” (think application development in the future with GPS integration on, say, an iPhone or Blackberry).

A lot of early adopters have complained some about the privacy issue here, and indeed it can be an issue. Largely, the specifics of where a person is is controlled by the user. For instance, a check in could be as specific as sending a message “@ 6490 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia, MD” or as generic as “@ Woodlawn, MD”. I use this tactic, for instance, when I check in. I will not give away exact location when I’m at home for privacy and protection reasons. However, when I’m out and about, I will almost always check in with an exact location.

In addition to these privacy options, users have the ability to set their “timeline” as public or private, similar to Twitter. By checking a “Trust User X” box when accepting friendship requests, you can designate with granularity who you want to see your posts, locations, etc.

Brightkite still has a long way to go. Some hurdles that need to be addressed are “threading” of conversations. Pownce does this well. Additionally, it’s a little difficult to respond to users.

I’d encourage a mirroring of the Twitter API. In other words “D user message” should send a private message to the user. “follow user” should send a friend request to the user being followed. “track terms” should give me the ability to see whenever anyone, regardless of friend status, mentions my tracked terms or phrases.

In addition, I’m concerned about the fact that the service is built on Rails. Twitter is the poster child for a bad Rails app, and history shows that, optimized to the extreme, Rails still doesn’t scale well.

Brightkite does provide the ability to cross post to Twitter and gives the user options for what, if anything, actually gets crossposted. However, the biggest complaint I hear from Twitter users is the Brightkite URL appended to every crossposted message. This is bad form, and subtracts from the same 140 character limitation that Twitter enforces.

Largely, I think Brightkite could be a killer app. It does everything that Twitter does well and expands on it by taking some of the better features from other services. But Brightkite is not really about being a “me too” service as much as it is about solving the problem of location. I see the possibility of a mashup service, or a partnership, with activity based companies like WhyGoSolo (no inside knowledge of whether these two are actually seeing this as well).

As a bonus, and if you’ve read this far, I have 10 Brightkite invites to give away for the first 10 commenters requesting one.

Leah Culver Photo courtesy of Tantek, Used under Creative Commons