Serendipity, Guaranteed

New tech doesn't leave chance encounters to chance.

By  |  Friday, June 3, 2011 at 11:16 am

Serendipity is wonderful, but it doesn’t happen often. For every enriching coincidence – meeting someone who becomes a lifelong friend or lifelong partner, finding that fantastic hidden restaurant – we miss how many? Dozens, maybe hundreds of other lucky opportunities?

Now several tech startups are trying to increase the odds of connection.

How? By combining intimate knowledge of your comings and goings with understanding of your likes and dislikes – then connecting you with likeminded people and perfect places.

What do they ask in return? For most, an opportunity to push hyper-specific ads or discount offers.

Living in the City

It’s no surprise that New York – densely packed with adventurous souls and endless options – breeds companies trying to connect people and places. “It is about the end experience of being at that bar with your friends and having a good time,” said Dorrie Monglick, one of the young entrepreneurs who debuted at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference on the Hudson River last week.

The app Monglick described, SpotOn (currently iPhone-only), was developed at an NYU entrepreneurship class last spring. It works by sucking in location checkins from Foursquare to see where you’ve been (Facebook is coming later). You can rate these venues by clicking up to four petals on a flower (in place of star ratings). Knowing what you like, SpotOn can offer deals, a la Groupon, but tailored to you. It can also take a cut on purchases of event tickets or restaurant reservations, for example.

Your friends see those ratings, and you see theirs. “These are my friends,” said Monglick. “These are not Yelp reviewers that I don’t care about.”

In the future, she said, SpotOn will also simplify group outings – if everyone has the app or at least an active checkin lifestyle. Knowing places each person likes, SpotOn can find those that they have in common, or that are at least likely to please.

What to do?

San Francisco startup Weotta (think “we should”) is entirely for coordinating outings.

After talking to “hundreds of friends and friends of friends,” said co-founder Forrest Wernick, “from their 20s to their 60s, men, women, single, married,” they found two questions common to outings.

The first, “What’s my mood?”, could for example be classy or causal. The second, “Who’s coming with me?” could be a date or a family, both of which I tried for New York City.

For a classy date, it recommended (among others) a singer named Keren Ann at the Bowery Ballroom. I don’t know her, but the clip they sent me to on LastFM was nice. They also recommended two great places for dinner and drinks – except both are actually restaurants.

One of the causal family plans was the Children’s Museum of the Arts, plus lunch and ice cream – except the lunch spot is actually a sweet shop. So not perfect, but not terrible for a service that just started.

For now, all this happens on a Web site, though an app is coming. According to Weotta’s surveys, most people make plans while sitting at work.

To find good venues, Weotta polls review sites like Zagat and OpenTable. According to the company, it can actually “read” the reviews to pick up nuances. To find venues especially for you, it looks at Facebook data such as age, gender and interests. They hope all that info will help in providing discounts and other offers that are likely to please.

Be my friend?

A mobile app called Sonar promises to find new friends for these activities.

Like the others, Sonar mines info posted to social networks, including Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter – looking at both concrete facts, like where you go and who your friends are, as well as analyzing what you say about any topic. Later, said founder Brett Martin, it could pull such info as music tastes from Pandora, food tastes from Foodspotting, and the events selected on ticketing site Eventbrite.

Combine all that with location data, and you could know that next to you is a friend of a friend on Facebook, a history buff, a foodie or anything else that may jibe with your life and personality.

One good thing about Sonar, Martin says, is that other people don’t have to use it in order to be found. It doesn’t rely on what they post to Sonar, but what they post publicly to any of several online networks.

So you could walk up to someone and excitedly introduce yourself, saying you live in the same neighborhood or eat at the same restaurant. And you’ll scare the bejeezus out of them as a likely stalker.

Perhaps better to keep it on the downlow and pretend you just happened to meet them. Even if technology can ensure that serendipity is no longer mere chance, you might want to act as if it were.

[Sean Captain is a strategist for consumer insights firm Iconoculture.]

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