In preparation for our short onstage discussion at CM Summit next week, I recently hopped on the phone with Color founder and CEO Bill Nguyen. Color, ostensibly a social-photo app, is backed by big money and saddled with huge expectations. It launched with great fanfare in March. I wrote glowingly of its potential here. I got a fair amount of sh*t for being too rosy in my estimation of the service’s potential. By April, Color had been written off as a failed effort by much of the blogosphere, and folks moved on to the next shiny object.
None of this seems to bother Nguyen, who’s been around the block a few times more than your average startup bear. He sees a wave rising in the distance, and he’s building Color to ride it. Whether or not others see the wave is not particularly interesting to him. As far as he’s concerned, it’s coming. Folks will get on board when the time is right.
So what is the wave? It’s a pivot in the fundamental organizing principle of how social networks work. He wants to move social past the friend network. Nguyen is certain that Facebook, for all its power, is stuck in a limited model – a poorly instrumented friend graph that you set up once, then run forever. I’ve called this the “instrumentation problem” of Facebook – it simply does not allow the nuance of true social interaction.
To Nguyen’s mind, the next wave of social will be driven by proximity. By that, he means by people who are near other people. If you’ve ever seen that famous video of a festival flash dance, you know how quickly human beings can create social groups. Color is meant to be an app that understands this essential human nature, “appify it”, and add value to it in various ways. His first choice was photos, but that’s really just a proxy for any number of things folks might want to share and relate to as a group (and as members of that group even when not together). Over time, these shared social group objects become intermingled with physical locations, and all sorts of goodness ensues.
However, if you’re going to make an essentially social service, as Color is, you can’t ignore Facebook. Color 1.0 did just that. I expect the next version will not. Facebook is the oxygen in today’s social web. Unless you plan on beating Facebook head to head, it’s best to beat it by joining it.
Nguyen’s goals for Color are very, very big, and getting there will require a lot of work, a lot of capital, and a lot of assumptions that will have to prove out over time. One of them is that Facebook won’t add Color-like features to its service. But while Nguyen told me adding proximity features to Facebook should be “mission critical,” he doesn’t see the social networking giant focusing on it in the near term. He’s probably right.
So why have Color and Nguyen at a conference about digital marketing? Because I see one of our jobs at FM as pushing all of us to think about how the world of human relationships might look three to five years out. Remember, five years ago, Facebook was a curiosity. It pays to pay attention to very smart folks building tools they don’t expect will be fully scaled till the year 2015 or so. Nguyen is one of those folks.
Oh, and at scale, Color would be one hell of a marketing channel. Bill’s got a few thoughts about that as well.
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