For the last week or so, I’ve been testing Yobongo, a new app that creates ad-hoc chat rooms based on your location and interests. Launched by former Justin.tv employees Caleb Elston and David Kasper, the service’s iPhone app, which is still in private beta testing, is already being hailed by some as having the potential to be this year’s breakout hit at SXSW next month. After testing Yobongo, I’m happy to say that it does indeed have the potential to follow in Twitter’s footsteps and take SXSW by storm this year.
What does Yobongo do? At its most basic level, the app allows you to chat with people nearby. Yobongo’s algorithms automatically arrange users into separate groups based on where they are. If you are at a busy conference, for example, the radius gets smaller and you will be grouped with people who are probably at the same conference. If fewer users are around, the radius might expand to cover a whole city. To use the service, you can either sign in with a Facebook account or sign up for a Yobongo account.
There is more to Yobongo’s algorithms than just location, though. The app, as co-founder Caleb Elston told ReadWriteWeb last month, also “takes into account all of the users who are in the app and where they are in relation to each other. When a new user opens the app, we determine which people to put them with based on various heuristics.” According to Elson, even though location is a major feature of the app, the team thinks that “the organizing principle should be around people, not GPS coordinates.”
The team clearly put a lot of thought into the apps’ design, though, which is clean and gets out of your way to keep the focus on the chat. Also, the simple fact that you don’t have to hunt down which room you want to be in and who you want to talk to makes getting started incredibly easy. You can also send private messages to anybody in your current chat room. A list of these private messages remains available even the algorithm puts you into another room later on.
Yobongo stresses that it wants its users to use their real identities on Yobongo and that it will police the service to ensure that its users upload legitimate photos and names.
How well that will work in practice still remains to be seen, as the private beta doesn’t have enough users yet to make location-based grouping useful. If the app delivers on its promise, though, it will become a fun tool to meet new people at conferences like SXSW, for example (and create new semi-private back channels during these events). I could easily see how this concept could catch on outside of the tech world as well.