When Facebook opened itself up to everyone several months ago, no one was sure what the appeal for non-students would be. Facebook needed a killerapp to lure those people with money but not a lot of time, and Facebook itself was unsure what that killerapp would be.
But Facebook was clever, and a month ago they released a platform that encourages other people to figure it out. It was clever for two reasons. First, to paraphrase Bill Joy, most smart people in the world are not on Facebook's payroll. Second, software and by extension Internet services reflect the worldview model of the people creating that software; allowing others to build on Facebook effectively represents other worldviews.
The most popular apps on Facebook to emerge in the first month of its platform reflect the most popular values in America, such as social status (Top Friends), media consumption (iLike, Video, Movies, Flixster), mysticism (Fortune Cookie, Horoscopes), and superficial bonding (Graffiti, X Me, SuperPoke, Free Gifts).
It's that last value -- superficial bonding -- that is most disappointing. MySpace has always been a place to "friend" many people you'd never want to meet in real life, but from its earnest beginnings Facebook aspired to use online tools to help people connect offline -- in the real world -- to build more meaningful relationships. What these superficial bonding apps lack, despite being fun, is a substantial connection to the real world that is offline.
This saddens me, because I'm fond of a saying the inventor of the World Wide Web uses in his talks. Tim Berners-Lee likes to quote Robert Cailliau in declaring that there's
"No such thing as a virtual beer."
What he means, of course, is that throughout the threads of human history, people have built more meaningful relationships while consuming liquids in each others' presence. To drink with someone is to bond with her or him; to do it regularly deepens that connection. From the watering pond five thousand years ago to the water cooler today, humans bond fluidly. There's another famous saying that humans are water's way of getting from one place to another, but I digress.
Maybe it's that the liquid lubricates the vocal chords enough to chatter more effortlessly. In any case, there really is something profound and hardwired in our wetware, that eye contact, body language, and back-and-forth talking actually makes participants feel closer to each other.
Relationships deepen via conversations that happen one drink at a time.
Of course, somewhere between 5000 years ago and today, water became too boring to bond over, so people developed conversations with... flavor. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate, juices, soda... and alcohol. Libations and spirits have the additional benefit of reducing inhibitions for those among us who are introverted by nature. This is why the social lubrication that alcohol provides encourages Sir Berners-Lee to still declare, in 2007, that there's no such thing as a virtual beer.
Or is there?
What if a virtual beer could double as an offer to get together to have an actual beer?
If the virtual beer were sweet enough looking, and the application for sending it was good-natured and fun, then the recipient could treat it either as an actual offer to get together in real life, or s/he could see it as just an ephemeral expression of "I think you're cool" if s/he was not actually interested in meeting offline. With the pressure of rejection removed from the situation, a sender can make offers to deepen friendships without trepidation.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that people could really use a tool for sending online drinks, to help them offer to connect with friends offline without the fear of embarrassment that comes from rejection.
Such a tool, instead of building superficial relationships, would help people to build more meaningful relationships with their friends.
And yet, none of the top ten Facebook platform apps as of the last hour of June 2007 have booze!
Note that I'm using the term "booze" playfully to connote all manner of liquids. Plenty of people have bonded without alcohol, and I think that's great. I do find it amazing that Starbuck's has managed to resist offering booze for decades, but I digress again.
When we started Renkoo more than two years ago, my co-founder Joyce Park was fond of saying that we were building a service that would, in her words, let people get their drink on by helping them arrange with friends when and where to get together in real life. "Coffee", "Drinks", and "Meeting" quickly became three of the most popular get-togethers that friends were using Renkoo to coordinate.
Journalists and investors regularly looked at the application Renkoo is building and saw an invitation service, and wrote that we were concocting an "Evite killer". We weren't; instead, we were competing with the 30-plus-email-threads that would happen every time we tried to coordinate a group of friends getting together for lunch... or a drink!
Joyce and I are both 30somethings with very little free time. She thinks email is boring and antiquated, and I get hundreds of (non-spam) emails from people every day. Plus, let's face it, email is no fun.
Unless you could include virtual drinks with your email that people could collect and use as a springboard for potentially getting together for real-life drinks.
The playfully-named Booze Mail (and yes, you can send coffee and other non-booze drinks)
Like email, you can customize the message to start or continue an interaction, and Booze Mails are sent to a recipient's email inbox by default.
Unlike email, you can turn off the deliver-to-email option. In fact, you can receive communications on your Facebook page if you install the Booze Mail app, so you don't need to use the email part at all. Also, every Booze Mail comes with a flavorful icon reflecting the taste of the sender, and recipients can have fun collecting the whole set!
In the 24 hours since we released the product, a thousand people have downloaded Booze Mail and more than 6000 Booze Mails have been sent. Most Booze Mails so far are single sender and single receiver, although there have been several people who "bought a round of drinks " for a few friends at once. And we're thinking through ways to make future communications more interesting.
When Facebook opened itself up to everyone several months ago, no one was sure what the appeal for non-students would be. Among those first thousand downloads of email were some people who signed up for Facebook accounts specifically so they could use Booze Mail. Yeah, I know that doesn't move the needle for Facebook, and it's anecdotal evidence at best, but it still made me smile when these users wrote to me that Booze Mail was the "Best Facebook App Ever". Thank you, everyone! Keep sending Booze Mails; we'll make more.
Renkoo's mission is to provide fun, useful services that help people get together in real life. We will keep improving both Renkoo's "classic" service and Booze Mail to better serve that mission. We truly believe that what separates people from computers are the services that help separate people from their computers. ;)