Where HotPotato Fits (and why an acquisition should be about more than talent)

The rumor mill is swirling that Facebook is about to buy HotPotato, and that the acquisition will be all about talent. That’d be a shame, because although it has yet to pick up steam, HotPotato fills a killer space in the marketplace of social interaction. Here’s how I see a few small parts of “social” evolving and why HotPotato’s concept will be an important part of that.

In person interaction is going to be augmented, but never replaced by, “social networking” services. This is why Meetup, Foursquare, Facebook Events, and other services that encourage in-person interaction have taken off and now contribute value to our daily lives. (it’s also why Evite survives) These services don’t replace interactions with friends, but instead leverage our knowledge that, as a species, we like to congregate.

But we can’t always interact in person, because modern travel (1950s onward) has encouraged us to move farther and farther away from the place we were born. My high school classmates are a good examples. We have a past in common, and probably have some current interests in common as well, but we’ve scattered all over the world. Other times, we can be geographically close to our network, but prefer to interact from a distance. For example, I can’t possibly fit all of my friends into a tiny NYC apartment when I watch Mad Men, and having a party each week is impractical.

With that in mind, how can we interact beyond “status updates” and random comments on each others’ photos? After all, we still have interests in common and a history together. That’s where HotPotato fits in. Take the commonalities we’ve entered into Facebook, figure out the connections, and let us interact around those connections and “events” that can exist in spaces other that our physical vicinity. It’s what Facebook promises to do, but hasn’t delivered on.

Facebook would probably tell you they do that today via Fan pages, but those pages don’t even come close to their potential as tools for social action and interaction. I tend to think that’s because the brands that control those pages wouldn’t want one-to-one or collective interaction among their fans (Rushkoff shout out!), but you can draw your own conclusions.

The power of HotPotato is to connect you into a group with people doing/watching/listening to/experiencing the same thing you are, even when you’re physically not in the same place, and giving you the freedom to interact with them. Think the Heatpocalypse NYC venue and subsequent Foursquare swarm, which was inappropriate for Foursquare, but perfectly appropriate for HotPotato.

A great, but maybe silly, example are viewers of So You Think You Can Dance. I’d never watched the show until this season, and somehow I’m hooked. Other than my roommates, I don’t know many people who watch, although the show is wildly popular. It’s broadcast live every Wednesday and Thursday evening, which is a perfect reason to use HotPotato as a backchannel to reconnect with friends over our favorite performances and dancers of the night, even we’re not all in the same room. There are thousands more examples of all different sorts, but I think that illustrates the sort of deeper social interaction that HotPotato enables and is absent from every other non-physical social network.

If only it got a bit more traction, and/or were integrated into a high-traffic social network, it’d be a killer product. Let’s hope Facebook sees that too, and isn’t just looking to acquire HotPotato’s (admittedly excellent) product development skills.

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