When I was a college student, one of my favorite activities was people listening. People listening is a lot like people watching, but instead of observing the things they do and the clothes they wear, you listen to the conversations they have. I should clarify, I only people listened to conversations being held in public places by people who were strangers to me; it was never my intention to eavesdrop or spy. I was simply being entertained, and sometimes enlightened, by the type and content of conversations going on around me.
One day as I opened my Dell netbook, I realized that there were public conversations going on near me online. The first iPhone had come out a couple of years earlier, and location based apps like Foursquare were starting to pop up all over the place. My next thought, naturally, was “How can I expand people listening to the online world?”
I wanted to be able to see, in a single place, all of the web content that was being created near me. That would include tweets, Facebook posts, blog posts, local news, etc. When I first thought about this idea, I just wanted to be entertained by what people around me were talking about, but then I realized there were much more useful applications of this idea. You could quickly see what was happening and being talked about in your area. The local zeitgeist at a glance. Maybe there is a big event going on, maybe it’s election day, maybe there was a fire downtown last night. This web-based people-listening application (which I called “Near Hear”—clever, right?) would let you know not only the important topics in your area, but what was being said about them.
Imagine if you were traveling through Calgary at the beginning of July. You might see all the people wearing cowboy attire and think nothing more of it than, “these Calgarians sure enjoy their rural heritage.” Or you could check Near Hear and realize that “the greatest outdoor show on Earth” was happening right then and there (I’ve been and it really is great).
I lost interest in pursuing this idea for a few reasons. Perhaps the biggest one was that life got busy. I graduated, became a dad, and got my first job. But those things don’t have anything to do with the idea itself. I think the biggest problem with this idea is that it is a feature, not a product. I think it would have a hard time standing on its own. Then there is the noise problem - in places like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Chicago, there would be so much content that finding anything useful might be difficult. In a place like Kanab, Utah, there would be so little content that no one would care to use the product. I’m not sure what the population density sweet spot would be, nor if it even exists.
Another problem is that the service would be nothing more than an aggregator, and not a platform in itself. Content generation would have to happen on other services. Who knows how long those other services would allow you to keep aggregating their content. Finally, the biggest weakness I can think of is that I don’t know that anyone would want to use it. I’m not even convinced that I would want to use it anymore. I already spend plenty of time online. I don’t need an excuse to spend more.