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What becomes of a failed app: It tries to become the next Snapchat

Because you can never have too many photo sharing applications.

Nicole Lee , @nicole
03.11.16 in Mobile
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A few days ago, a new app called Shorts arrived in the app store. The app lets you share your camera roll with anyone who's interested -- it's okay, you get to choose which photos and videos you want shared -- with the idea that your friends and family will get a peek into your everyday life, and vice versa. Creator Paul Davison likened it to a lifestream, where the mundane becomes entertainment, where oversharing is encouraged, where the meaning of "TMI" is pushed to the bleeding edge. "It's the most personal and intimate thing we've ever created," he said.

Davison is also the CEO and founder of Highlight, an app that made a big splash at SXSW Interactive in 2012. It's a location-based people-discovery app, and it came to prominence at a time when apps of this sort were all the rage. (Others in the space included Glancee, Sonar, Banjo and Kismet. Haven't heard of these apps? You can see why they didn't last.) Three years since its heyday in Austin, Texas, the app has fallen by the wayside as adoption numbers dipped. Highlight isn't dead just yet, but Davison and co's efforts are now fully focused on Shorts instead. Seeing as it launched just a few days shy of this year's SXSW Interactive -- perhaps with ambitions to be the next hot new app at the event -- that's not too surprising.

It's a tale that's all too common in the roller-coaster world of Silicon Valley. Just last week, Meerkat announced it would be pivoting away from live-streaming and would be refocusing on being a video social network instead. Lest we forget, Meerkat was the hottest app of last year's SXSW Interactive. It quickly caught on fire during the annual Austin tech fest where there was no shortage of cool events to be streamed and shared. Then celebrities like Jimmy Fallon and Madonna started using it, and it seemed like the live-streaming floodgates had opened.

And then Periscope happened. Twitter's patronage helped Periscope surpass Meerkat by leaps and bounds. It also didn't help matters that Periscope's UI was just, well, better. Later in 2015, Facebook got in on the live-streaming act too with Facebook Live, which made it even simpler for folks to start broadcasting. With Twitter and Facebook looming, Meerkat just didn't stand a chance. But as a Skype-like group chat service? Well, maybe. It'll still be a tough road ahead, regardless.

Apps live and die on the fleeting whim of the public. As a result, the constant evolution and flow of new apps is a necessary phenomenon. They get bought out, they get shut down or they figure out an alternative. Remember: Burbn became Instagram, and Twitter was a side project by the creators of Odeo. Similarly, Shorts is a spin-off too. Indeed, Davison tells me that the inspiration behind Shorts came from Highlight in the first place.

"We started to realize the important role photos played in the product," he said. When you tap on a person's profile in Highlight, you can see a few photos of them and request to be their friend. The problem, Davison said, is that people don't really update their profile pictures too often. Plus they didn't really provide too many clues as to who they were as people.

"We thought: Wouldn't it be interesting, when you saw someone nearby, you could learn more about them by flipping through the latest photos in their camera roll?" said Davidson. "It's a really provocative concept, right? Because it's such a private space. But what richer source of data than that? What better way to learn about someone than to see their life through their eyes and what they're capturing?"

It was such a new and disruptive idea that Davidson knew it wouldn't fit into Highlight; after all, that's not what Highlight users signed up for when they joined the service. So they rolled it out into a standalone app. The initial prototype was something called Roll, and it was pretty frictionless. "You could see everything! It was crazy," said Davison. "I saw my friend on vacation take a photo of his boarding pass, his car to see where he parked it, what he was cooking. It was a really fascinating thing."

The problem was it was too scary; you didn't want to accidentally share something you'd regret your friend seeing. So with Shorts, they refined it. It runs in the background, and when you launch it, the app checks to see if you have any new photos or videos in your camera roll. If there are, it opens right to them, where you can then swipe up to share, or swipe down to keep them to yourself. The downside, as far as I see, is that you have to do so with each individual image -- there's no way to mass edit here -- so the approval process could be pretty tedious if you're the type to take lots of photos.

The constant evolution and flow of new apps is a necessary phenomenon.

Davison tells me that early tests showed people really took to it. There are photos on Shorts that you'd never see on Instagram or Facebook, he said. They're less posed, more natural and much more spontaneous. It's the same sort of feel that you'd get on Snapchat, except with Shorts, those photos stick around. "People started taking a lot more photos," said Davison. "The act of simply taking a photo becomes social. It becomes more fun." He also said that by letting your friends share more intimate moments, you get to know them better. "The ability to let them into your world a little bit... really changes relationships."

If that weren't boundary-crossing enough, Shorts is also designed a little like Highlight in that you can enable location to find other people around you who are using the same app. Tap on the person's profile in Shorts, and you're able to see the last 24 photos they published. This, Davison says, is potentially useful at parties or events. "It's enough to get a sense of whether you want to add someone as a friend, but not so many that people worry about putting too much out there."

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Davison took pains to tell me that they've built the app with the necessary privacy controls; you only share what you want to share. Still, I found the whole thing a little unsettling. I take care to share only certain things with certain audiences; the idea of sharing everything with any number of people just seems like it's too much. Davison did acknowledge that Shorts pushes boundaries a little, but he says that's a natural thing with most social apps. "Before LinkedIn, it was weird to put your resume online ... before Facebook, we didn't really put baby photos online. These things just evolve."

Perhaps. Or perhaps, like Meerkat, it might need to pivot into something else.

Raised in the tropics of Malaysia, Nicole Lee arrived in the United States in search of love, happiness, and ubiquitous broadband. That last one is still a dream, but two out of three isn't bad. Her love for words and technology reached a fever pitch in San Francisco, where she learned you could make a living writing about gadgets, video games, and the Internet. Truly, a dream come true. Other interests include baseball, coffee, cooking, and chasing after her precocious little cat.
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