When Barcodes Become Social Networks

Originally published in MediaPost's Social Media Insider

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I can't wait to tell you about this new social network I just joined. The technology's cutting-edge, and you have to pay to get in. For me, it cost $1.29, involved a trip to the grocery store, and included a 7.25-ounce box of macaroni and cheese with my purchase.

It didn't have to be a box of macaroni. It could have been a carton of ice cream, a book, or the bottle of Magic Hat beer I'm drinking as I write this. I'll show how it works, using the last example:

1) I opened the fridge and grabbed a beer, though anything with a standard barcode would work just as well.

2) I picked up my iPhone and opened the free Stickybits application that I downloaded earlier. It's also available on Android.

3) I used the app to scan the barcode on the beer bottle.

4) The app brought up a 12-second video clip that a Stickybits user shot, showing that very brand of beer. There's another clip by someone named Jefferson Burruss that shows someone drinking the beer. Erin Carney said in a note, "This is delicious!!" The scans came from Burlington, Vt., Watertown Mass., and Austin, Texas.

5) I took a picture of the bottle and uploaded it. My note and location joined the others.

Now I'm connected in some strange and fascinating way with these fellow consumers of a product I'm currently enjoying. I can leave my thoughts for anyone else who scans the barcode in the future. I can track the product as it's virtually passed on from one person to the next. Want to buy the world a Coke? Now the world can scan it and send their thanks.

This isn't what I'd call natural consumer behavior – scanning barcodes and leaving some form of content in return. Yet there's something I love about Stickybits that's a break from the more utilitarian purposes that Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare have come to fill. It also diverges from some of these functional barcode scanning applications that are focused on product information or couponing. Why not just connect with someone over a beer, literally?

It's possible to get even more creative with the stickers you can buy from Stickybits, or the barcodes you can print for free from their site. My colleague chronicled one such example on 360i's blog that took place at a bar (the location is a coincidence; we're not all lushes). When Mae went to Jimmy's Corner in Manhattan, she saw a Stickybit sticker on the wall, scanned it, and saw someone's photo taken from her seat. It was an asynchronous moment of time travel, connecting her to those who came before her.

People are already experimenting with Stickybits in use cases such as scavenger hunts and business cards. Soon enough, brands will get to take control of their own bits and share their own messages with consumers. Right now, it's all about having fun, and with any luck it will largely stay that way.

Facebook and its predecessors showed how you can connect with friends, and Facebook's setting the standard for connecting with websites. Foursquare and its peers established how you can connect with locations. Various augmented reality apps on mobile devices are starting to create ways to connect you with anything you can see through your phone's viewfinder. Now Stickybits is building connections and content around barcodes. It's like an inverted peephole — instead of people tracking products, the products track people.

It may not be what you'd expect to do with a barcode, or a product, or a sticker on the wall at a bar. But it's one more sign of how connections are everywhere, between everything, often just waiting to be formed.

One thought on “When Barcodes Become Social Networks

  1. Great article. Thx for your time the other day. Looking forward to catching up again soon.

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