The Self Sustaining Serendipity Engine?

I don’t quite get Dopplr. Yet.

Maybe I’m missing something, maybe I’m looking too hard. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Or perhaps what I’m looking for (I don’t know what it is) is yet to be built.

First, let’s say this. Dopplr seems to be doing lots right. It is getting really good press and there’s no shortage of buzz around it. And, for sure, the team seem to have done much right. I liked the way they scaled gradually, using the law of cultural supply and demand to create some interest in Dopplr as it emerged from private beta to ‘corporate beta’, to ensure that it scaled as a platform and that each tweak and development worked. And it is an elegant thing. The UI and the copy is nice (although I’m not sure I get why people are waxing so lyrical about it). The Dopplr blog keeps the faithful in the know as the venture progresses. The Facebook app gives succour to those for whom FB is ‘the platform’ – the thing that made walled gardens respectable again. It syncs up with Flickr. And with iCal.

So there is much to be praised, admired, respected and probably copied. But still I have to say I’m not sure I get it yet. I can’t see what it’s adding to the sum total of my life experiences. I don’t see how it will make money and I don’t see how it is immunised against boredom. Let’s look at the buzz bit first.

There is no doubt that Dopplr is very much of the now. It is Web 2.0-ey and it plugs into meatspace / the real world of people/atoms. As a recent piece in The Economist pointed out, the meshing of web and world has never been more evident.

With Web 2.0 buzz is almost everything. Without critical mass there is no value, at two levels. One, if there is no buzz, there is no one there and if no one (friends, family or friends of friends etc) is there then there is little value in ‘me’ being there. Second, if there is no buzz then I won’t visit something – be it a website, or pay attention to it (in this case emails and alerts that something with some buzz entails. But when the buzz has burnt out, what’s left? The online remains of your identity festering on an unvisited piece of the web. Another site for which you can’t quite recall the password and email combination you used to register in the first place. An exodus to another place – witness the mass migration from Myspace to Facebook this year. What will be 2008’s Facebook?

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Is Dopplr going to be impacted by this passage from buzz to bore? I suspect it will. Perhaps the team have something to counter it. A trickle of enhancements (here is today’s) or partnerships, perhaps. But will these really sustain it in the long term?

As to another form of sustenance, less often considered in these days of irrational exuberance for all things 2.0, what’s the business model here? There are top rank investors in Dopplr but I can’t yet see any indication of revenue streams but they must be somewhere ahead on the road map (Google took a famously long time to work out how to monetise their search and the rest is history). Or is it a build and sell strategy, with the team waiting for Expedia to come knocking, tie ins with Upcoming.org, Meetup.com or a JV with Yotel for two Dopplr members who realise they’re in the same airport, airside, and want to share a night together? Perhaps I’m not being imaginative enough. Or just plain cynical…but I can’t immediately see how a serendipity engine for frequent travellers makes money in the long term.

Aside from the value to investors, what about the value to me? I’ll admit I’m not travelling as much lately as I have been, but I have been diligently updating my trips (it would be nice if the Amex travel tool at work did it for me) and I have obediently installed the FB app. I’m telling people where I’m going and when I’m back home. I’ve got a few friends, colleagues and other associates in my network. Then what – where’s the payback, what should I be expecting? Perhaps I’ve not got enough friends – maybe you need a whole lot more to find, as if by magic, that your time-space coordinates coincide (is there a Dopplr numbers, like the Dunbar150?). Perhaps it’s because I rely on email or phone to interrogate those I know in advance of a trip who might be in town at the same time as me. Maybe I don’t add enough spare time into my schedules.

So, as you see, I have the sneaking suspicion I missing something. Not getting the point. This feeling is compounded by the fact that Dopplr is getting such praise. As I’ve said, there is much to admire and commend. But it’s not offering a rich enough experience to me, it’s still just one more app – one more network to manage, build and then, potentially, to let atrophy. (Jyri spoke to this a month or so ago rather more elegantly than I). It doesn’t link into enough aspects of travel and mobility, or the way I travel as my working likfe is currently configure. People praise the light touch of it all – the mute function etc – but maybe it is so light touch to be of mere passing interest to me and others.

Then again maybe it’s me that’s the problem not Dopplr. I hope it’s the former not the latter. I don’t know Matt and team well but I hope it work out as well for the team in 08 as it has in 07.