SXSW 2014 officially kicks off tomorrow and just like last year, it looks like ambient-aware apps are among the hottest things making their way to the event.
Last year, Speeker, Zamp and Tinder all debuted at SXSW, taking a cue from Highlight which garnered a lot of attention from attendees the previous year. This year, a new ambient-aware app has made its way to Austin and it’s offering something fresh for people looking to make new friends.
Banter is touted as the world’s first anonymous chat network that connects people through conversations. The app launched recently on iOS and Android, and requires no personal information to use the service, which means you can chat with anyone anonymously.
The service is similar to mIRC, which was quite popular in the 90s to early 2000s, but for mobile, so you can chat with people either based on similar interests or your location, anonymously. You can create your own public or private chat rooms, join chat rooms, chat with people near you, and you can even keep track of multiple chats at any given time. Banter features a wide range of topics, the ability to send private messages, add full screen photos, and also organize chats and interactions via your profile.
Banter also makes it easy to jump from one chat room to another by simply tapping on the room the use is currently in. A module will appear which will allow them browse similar topics, change channels, or jump to another room.
There’s a reason Banter seems like a conceptual throwback to the early days of chat. The mobile app’s co-founder Andrew Busey reached fame with the creation of iChat, the underlying framework for the first web-based chat service that’s also likely the first chat tool you ever used. Now that group messaging has revived interest in chat tools for a mobilized world, Busey hopes to leave his mark with yet another startup.
“If you look at the chat since the early days of the Web, it has been one of the few constants that is underwriting the role of the Internet, fostering dialogue and the open exchange of ideas in modern society,” says Andrew Busey, CEO and co-founder of Banter. “Mobile messaging apps today don’t serve that purpose, and they are not true chat experiences. It’s important that you can be whoever you want in chat. There is a huge need and opportunity around chat, and we believe Banter offers the best mobile chat experience.”
When you launch Banter, the service will suggest chat rooms that you can follow based on your interests or location. Chats are organized chronologically, which means the most recent messages are at the bottom, and the older ones are at the top.
Chatting anonymously makes it easier for people to express themselves, people can judge you but they don’t really know who you are, so it doesn’t matter what they (or you) say. Plus, with everything on the Internet always asking for you personal information, it’s a breath of fresh air to use a service that doesn’t care who you really are.
“Since 2004 certain Social Networks have convinced us that everything we do online should be shared publicly, but the Web used to be a place to share your thoughts freely and openly. The fact that it was essentially anonymous made the connection even more authentic. Banter brings back the authenticity of those chats,” says Tony Chen, COO and co-founder.
There’s a number of “anonymous” forums already available for the web, including Secret and Whisper. But in Banter’s attempt to be a true chat app for mobile, it will also work more intelligently. Banter will keep chat rooms lively but manageable by monitoring activity to determine the best points for scaling rooms up or down. For example, if one chat room discussing a live sports game gets too crowded, Banter may offer to split the room according to location, essentially grouping users by team.
“We spent a lot of time on the back end figuring how to scale rooms up and down,” Busey explains. “If they’re empty, rooms aren’t that interesting. Crowded, they’re overloaded with information. Banter will start with broad vertical rooms, which will then break down into specific topics or locations – Banter will say via pop up message, ‘this room is getting really chatty. do you want to join this other room we set up?'”
But for a startup, this intelligent chat room management isn’t going to be an automated process just yet. “We haven’t learned all the things for [automation] yet, but we have contextual hierarchy we think is a good starting point,” says Busey. “In the near term we’ll be spending a ton of time just watching that until we learn what the right breakpoints are to split things up and do things automatically. Early we’ll be doing a lot of this manually. We don’t want to automate something until we know exactly how it will work.”
Fortunately Banter’s founders have experience scaling and automating user-driven commands for mobile applications thanks to their work at Zynga. Busey tells me that his team’s work in the gaming industry provided a useful set of guidelines for observing user behavior in order to modify application features and capabilities, especially when it comes to in-app communication (i.e. chat).
“Fortunately many of us have worked in gaming, where you also watch how people play, and change features from there. We’ll be watching rooms for number of users and velocity,” Busey concludes.