Smack Might Be the Future of Social Apps, But I’m Not Cool Enough

Xconomy Boston — 

I’ve got a confession to make: I don’t get Snapchat.

I consider myself a generally tech-savvy person. I own a smartphone, I know my way around your average software program or mobile app, and I’m giddily hoping Santa delivers me an Amazon Echo Dot on Dec. 25.

But even though I’m a 27-year-old tech journalist, when it comes to Snapchat, I sound more like an old codger: What’s the point? Wouldn’t you rather capture those moments for posterity, not let them disappear into the ether? (Side rant: face swapping is super creepy, and superimposing doggie ears and a snout on your face is dumb.)

Still, 150 million global users—many of them younger than me—can’t be wrong, right?

So, the first takeaway: I’m lame.

The bigger lesson? The digital generation gap has shifted such that people less than a decade older than teenagers have trouble relating to the latest consumer technologies, particularly in social media. And the most popular technologies can catch on more quickly these days, thanks in no small part to young people who can barely remember a world without smartphones and social networks.

“That pace of change is only going to continue to trend upwards,” argues Giuseppe Stuto, the 26-year-old co-founder and CEO of Smack, a Techstars Boston alum that creates software products aimed at connecting people, primarily young millennials.

Stuto thinks the next big things in social networking are live video broadcasts and group video chats. In October, his three-year-old Boston-based startup released Smack Live, an iOS app that lets up to four users engage in a live video chat that gets broadcast online. Anyone viewing on the app can also interact with the hosts via text messages that show up as a running feed on the broadcast’s screen.

Like Snapchat, my first reaction was puzzlement: I get the appeal of video chatting with a group of my friends, but why would I want to broadcast our personal conversations to the world? And with an endless array of digital entertainment options at people’s fingertips, who would want to watch us talk?

Teenagers and people in their early 20s, apparently.

I tested the app Tuesday night with my friends Dave Wilson, who lives near Miami, and Joseph Lichterman, who, like me, lives in the Boston area. The three of us are Detroit Lions fans raised in Michigan, and our broadcast was entitled “Lions talk.” But our conversation ended up covering a lot of ground besides pro football: the commercial prospects for the Smack Live app, the evolution of social media, cyberbullying, and more.

I initiated the video feed and then accepted my friends’ requests to join the broadcast. We held our phones in our hands, so people could see our faces and a little bit of the wall or room behind us. As the chat’s host, my face took up most of the screen, with my friends visible in two smaller boxes on the upper right hand side.

I was impressed with Smack Live’s tech. The app never dropped the broadcast, and we didn’t notice any lag time—things I can’t say for Skype, the popular online video product owned by Microsoft. The Smack Live video feeds of my friends were a little choppy at times, but not distractingly so. The only glitch I noticed was frequent duplicate text messages from viewers.

More importantly, I had fun. After I got over the initial weirdness of complete strangers watching us talk and chiming in via text message, it did feel good to connect with new people, even if only through brief, superficial conversations about sports and the weather.

Some users got bored and tuned out, perhaps moving on to a different video feed on the app. But we maintained around five or six viewers at a time throughout most of our nearly hour-long broadcast, and we had 25 viewers in total. (It was past 9 p.m. on a school night, after all.)

I also racked up 353 heart emojis. During broadcasts, viewers can press a heart emoji icon on the screen to signal they’re enjoying the conversation, and those emojis accumulate like points on a user’s profile. Consider it a sign of Smack Live social currency, along with the number of followers one has on the app.

Screen shots from our "Lions talk" broadcast on Smack Live.

Screen shots from our “Lions talk” broadcast on Smack Live.

Stuto wouldn’t share how many users Smack Live has, but he says some of the early broadcasts have drawn more than 400 viewers.

He says young people are using Smack Live to share relationship advice, talk sports, debate politics, complain about school—basically, anything you might overhear at a high school cafeteria.

For those in front of the camera, broadcasting to their peers “makes them feel popular,” Stuto says. And for viewers, “maybe they’re just lonely and want to hang out with people,” he says.

I watched portions of three Smack Live broadcasts to get a feel for the community, and it was a mixed bag. One conversation was a microcosm of … Next Page »

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