Pete Cashmore predicts "ambient social networking" -- and its inherent privacy issues -- will be a hot topic at SXSW this month.

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Cashmore: Breakout trend at SXSW this month may be "ambient social networking"

Apps would automatically share info about you with nearby people in your networks

Privacy is becoming an issue as more apps allow people to broadcast their location

The social nature of photo-sharing app Instagram also may make it a favorite at SXSW

CNN  — 

It’s just over a week until one of the biggest geek gatherings of the year, South By Southwest Interactive, kicks off in Austin, Texas.

SXSW is where fledgling tech companies sink or swim. Twitter and Foursquare caught on in part thanks to massive buzz at SXSW, while thousands of other new companies dreamed the “Southby” dream but went nowhere.

So which new technologies might we expect to see breaking out at SXSW 2012?

Applications set to go mainstream

Pete Cashmore is the founder and CEO of

The iPad 3, which will be announced by Apple two days before SXSW Interactive kicks off, will be a big topic in Austin. Developers at the festival will no doubt be rushing to update their applications to work with what is expected to be a higher resolution screen on the device.

A handful of emerging companies also will continue to gain momentum: The mobile journal Path has achieved some success with the early adopter crowd after its latest update, while the social nature of photo-sharing app Instagram is bound to make it a favorite at SXSW.

Pinterest, the fast-growing darling of the online-scrapbooking set, also will be in Austin.

New startups

My bet for the breakout trend at this year’s SXSW is “ambient social networking.” While the last crop of mobile apps involved “checking in” to venues to find friends, many smartphones are now able to continually discover your location and broadcast it.

Once you log in with Facebook, Foursquare and other existing social networks, new mobile applications can alert you when a friend, or even a friend of a friend, is in the vicinity. Some even tell you when people nearby share your interests.

Which app names might you be hearing if this trend takes off?

Perhaps Sonar, which analyzes your Foursquare, Facebook and Twitter networks to see if any friends – or friends of friends – are nearby. Or Glancee, which alerts you when people with similar interests are, say, in the bar next door. alerts you about friends you didn’t know were nearby, while lets you see when your Facebook contacts are around. Tech enthusiast Robert Scoble predicts will be “the hot app at SXSW this year.”


The potential problem should be obvious: Privacy. This new generation of apps broadcasts your location at all times to friends – and in many cases to people you don’t even know. The physical distance at which alerts are sent varies, but some app developers propose that being in the same city as a contact would be enough to trigger a message.

And unlike the previous generations of applications that required you to check in to a venue, these apps are persistent unless you pause them or turn them off. The potential for both hilarity and calamity is clear.

So the real question is: How comfortable are early adopters with ambient social networking? And if they enjoy the experience, will mainstream users catch on fast – or will privacy concerns scare them away?

At SXSW 2012, we hope to find out.