How do you keep track of so many people? A growing number of startups is here to help.
Thanks to the geo-location feature built into Apple (AAPL) and Android smartphones, services such as Banjo and Glassmap can tell when someone in your networks -- or who simply shares your interests -- is nearby.
Another new company, San Francisco-based Ark, offers a "social search engine" to help you find people no matter what social networks they belong to.
"The whole idea is, anywhere you are in the world, you should be able to understand what's going on around you," said Banjo founder Damien Patton. "You and your friends are fragmented across so many different networks."
Patton found that out the hard way in 2009, when he was on a business trip and realized after the fact that he and a former Navy buddy had been passing through the same airport at the same time. He said Banjo, which launched last summer and is based in Redwood City, can troll feeds from any network -- Foursquare check-ins, shared photographs on Instagram, Twitter tweets, etc.
"It's one of my top three favorites I can't live without," gushed Shannon Vogel, a social media consultant in Denver. She uses Banjo to see which of her customers are at the same trade shows she attends, and on the weekends, she checks the service to find out which friends are in the neighborhood.
Established social networks like Facebook and tech giants such as Apple and Google also have added location features to help people track down friends in real-time.
Still, critics point out that women in particular may be uncomfortable with apps that readily tell people where to find them.
Privacy concerns helped scuttle the rapid rise earlier this spring of another geo-social startup called Highlight, which hit the top 25 in Apple's App Store after its March debut but sank after a lukewarm reception at the industry trade show SXSW.
Interestingly, when Facebook last month acquired a similar startup, it chose Glancee, which lets you find other people based on distance, common interests and mutual friends -- but which doesn't map your precise locale, unlike Highlight and Glassmap.
Glassmap co-founder Geoffrey Woo, who along with two fellow Stanford engineering students dropped out to start the company, understands the concern and said his product lets users control which friends can see their locations. "Some of these apps will have problems going mainstream, because chances are slim someone wants random strangers to approach them at a family dinner," he said.
Though Glassmap was the target of a scathing blog by author Robert Scoble, who felt it doesn't do enough to warn users that their activities may be shared with Facebook friends, Woo said traffic has been growing 30 percent a month since its February launch. (He won't disclose exact numbers, but it's likely far below Banjo's market-leading 1.5 million.)
Glassmap users seem especially to like the fact that, because it doesn't constantly update users' locations, the app doesn't drain cell phone battery life, which was another issue to dog Highlight.
Highlight CEO Paul Davison, for the record, said his company has "dedicated significant engineering resources" to lessen the hit on phone batteries."We've had terrific feedback in the last few months," he added. As for privacy concerns, Davison said Highlight gives users control over how much to share — and, he acknowledged, the company's policies, like geo-social etiquette itself, are "still evolving."
Like Glassmap, Ark is backed by Mountain View incubator Y Combinator and super-angel Ron Conway. Both startups have turned down acquisition feelers from Facebook. But the two take radically different approaches to helping people track their social networks.
Ark was co-founded by Patrick Riley, who'd earned his Ph.D. spurs by developing a search engine to index everything said on broadcast television. His latest project hopes to solve the illogic of "being unable to find a friend's Facebook page when you know it's there, but you can find it on Google."
The startup has indexed more than 1 billion social network profiles, which are searchable by a person's name, school, current city, birthday, employer or favorite band, among a host of categories.
"I like that it's a one-stop shop," said Lauren Prociv, a Virginia Tech student who was one of Ark's first users. "Do you know how hard it is to find someone's email when you have to look in four places?"
She also appreciates that, like Banjo, Ark doesn't display information the user hasn't made public.
Still, Chris Silva, an industry analyst with Altimeter Group, thinks the rapid growth of social-mobile startups is outpacing the number of people who actually want such services.
"My big issue with these apps is, the actual utility is quite low," he said. "Highlight does a great job of alerting me to potentially interesting people, but I've got 750 contacts on LinkedIn." That could lead to a lot of dead-end suggestions to meet people based on tenuous connections, he said.
One geo-social app Silva does speak highly of is Sonar, which lets you know more about the people with whom you're sharing a particular store or restaurant and ranks them based on how many friends you have in common. Other competitors include Glomper, Placeme and Kismet.
But overall, he thinks such startups must deliver better results before earning user trust. "We need to become more sophisticated," he said, "with who gets to scan our social barcode."
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
Here are some of the "geo-social" startups that use mobile technology to help people find others in their social networks.
Banjo (Redwood City): Culls Twitter tweets, Foursquare check-ins and other social-media messages to let users find nearby friends and people with similar interests.
Glassmap (Mountain View): Always-on connection tracks your cellphone's movements and alerts you when Facebook friends and other people of interest are nearby.
Glomper (Australia): Designed to help you find out what friends and people nearby are up to tonight through check-ins and Facebook posts.
Highlight (Menlo Park): Shows you the name and profile of anybody standing near you who also has the app installed. Also alerts you when friends are nearby.
Kismet (San Francisco): Founded by ex-Googlers, startup lets mobile users meet new people through their existing social graphs.
Placeme (Palo Alto): "Ambient sensing and location platform" remembers where you've gone and suggests things to do.
Sonar (New York): Mobile app that connects you to friends and others nearby, based on your existing social networks, with messaging tools to let you broadcast updates.
Source: Mercury News reporting