In Search of a Local Twitter, Circle Discovers the Problem of Proximity

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mainst_mapIt’s been a tough year for hyperlocal content. Everyblock shut its doors. Sacramento Press was sold for parts. The Daily Voice, the well-funded media network in the Northeast, filed for bankruptcy amid controversy. Meanwhile, AOL’s Tim Armstrong — maybe the most ardent proponent of the hyperlocal opportunity — has more or less admitted defeat with Patch, cutting off investment as the company works to starve the hyperlocal network into profitability.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom. While the content-driven models struggle for survival, local networking services saw a quiet resurgence in 2013. There’s of course the phenomena of local dating apps like Tinder. And NextDoor, the neighborhood social network, closed a massive $60 million series A round of funding in May, showing that there’s still faith within the venture capital community in local markets. Now, Andreessen Horowitz-backed Circle thinks it can find a second life as a localized version of Twitter, helping people message and interact with others in the area.

The app allows users to share content with users nearby, using algorithms to surface posts based on proximity on relevancy to each user. A small portion of the content — around 10% — is sourced from Twitter, but the bulk of the posts come from the service’s 10 million users. Today, the company is rolling out new functionality that allows users to tag content with specific categories, and follow topic feeds such as news, sports, events, and nightlife. The company is also adding photo sharing to to the service.

Evan Reas, the company’s founder, pitches the service as “Twitter for Main Street” a social network in which the user’s audience dynamically adapts as they move throughout the world.

“We consider it more challenging than Twitter or Facebook, because whenever your location changes we have to change all of the users that are part your network,” Reas told me in an interview. “In any location in the world we’re trying to use our algorithms to find out what’s the most important piece of content for that user in that location, making the technical back-end pretty challenging and complex algorithm to figure that out.”

But the challenge in scaling a local product often is not technology — it’s culture. Whether it’s Yelp, Angie’s List or NextDoor, the successful companies that have built large local communities have figured out a way compel people to join and generate content, seeding users who evangelize and create a culture around the service. Circle’s current user base is not a graveyard, but the content in New York, for instance, still lacks the coherent intent that makes a product sticky. But that ambiguity is intentional, says Reas.

“You don’t want to make the use case too specific in the beginning,” says Reas. “When people first signed up to use Twitter, X percent signed up to follow Ashton Kutcher, Y percent signed up to see friends update, and Z percent signed up to follow tech evangelists. The key is to make it really easy to create and consumer content, and that’s what the smartphone allows.”

Like Yelp, Circle is turning to its most active users to help grow the service. Reas says the company has enlisted over 10,000 of these power users as volunteer “city ambassadors” to evangelize the service and accelerate adoption in their respective markets. But without an organizing unit — whether that’s a restaurant to review, a bar to check-in to, or neighborhood to join, the content produced by these evangelists loses its value the moment it moves out of the feed.

Here it seems like Circle is misinterpreting the way that people interact with their physical surroundings. Like a number of others in the local space, the company fails to recognize that the the organizing unit of geography isn’t proximity — it’s place. It’s the cities, schools, neighborhoods, businesses, parks, gardens and thousands of other institutions in which we invest our time and money. That’s why Foursquare caught on and Highlight did not. It’s why geo-fencing still produces mediocre results, but geo-conquesting — where marketers target competitors’ stores — has exploded.

The smart money will invest in technology that helps improve the experience of communicating with people around these places. Otherwise, it’s just Twitter, nearby.

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.