Banjo wants to take you places with its new location-based update

For Damien Patton, the founder of social discovery app Banjo, location is key. But the former NASCAR mechanic believes that location-based mobile experiences expands beyond a user’s immediate surroundings and all the social activity nearby.

Now, with the latest version of Banjo available Thursday, the app is emphasizing the ability to visit distant places and experience those locations vicariously through your friends and their social connections. Instead of just focusing on what’s around, Banjo is trying to take people to new locations and give them a view on the ground of what’s happening.

“With this, we’re thinking about how we could emotionally connect you to things you actually give a damn about,” Patton said. “This kind of technology is a springboard to make thing possible that haven’t been possible before.”

Banjo was one of the many location-based people discovery apps at SXSW in Austin this year, telling you when your friends are nearby. The app, along with others like Highlight, capitalized on the person’s FOMO, or fear of missing out. Banjo has gained decent traction since its July 2011 launch (it now has more than 3 million downloads, up from 1.5 million in May), and in its initial version it notified you when friends were nearby, gave you a map of activity happening in your area, and let you view activities from other social networks.

My colleague Ryan Kim wrote in May about the company’s decision to launch on iOS, Android, and the web, instead of just iPhone, and to only broadcast location-based information that users were publicly sharing. He wrote that Banjo’s decision to pull in data from other social sites alleviated the “empty room” phenomena that many new social networks face:

He said Banjo has caught on with users because it first allows users to see other people they follow or are friends with on a variety of social platforms, not just users of Facebook but also Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Instagram, Vimeo and Google. Users can get alerts when their friends are nearby. Banjo allows users to view other people around them based on their public check-ins, tweets and activities. That has made the app useful right from the start, instead of plopping someone into a lonely first-time experience. And users don’t have to give away their location just to see what’s going on around them.

The update to Banjo will continue those features, emphasizing the friends-of-friends connections. So if a friend of your Facebook friend posts something in Paris, you can see how you and that person are connected, a la LinkedIn connections. And users can search by places on a new app homepage (which looks very much like the Instagram photo maps, but with social activity of your friends in those places instead of photos.)

The map feature is well-designed, and capitalizes on the FOMO impulse, for people who want to see what their friends are doing elsewhere and experience it second-hand. However, for the plenty of people who don’t frequently wish they were elsewhere, and are uncomfortable sharing location-based activity, it still seems unclear what Banjo adds to the equation, aside from aggregating and organizing all your friends’ social network activity in one place. But Patton argues that it’s not about aggregating, but rather creating a database of social activity that could be used for a variety of purposes.

“You have to look through the prism of the future,” he said.

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