Will this new “interest-network” take off in 2010?
Gravity (formerly Blue Rover Labs) is a start-up helmed by three former MySpace executives. Their aim is to reinvent forums by applying their proprietary analytics engine on conversations and monetize them via highly targeted advertising. Their “conversation engine”, as they refer to it, tracks and predicts shared interest sets among a broad spectrum of users.
One end-result is their “Interest Graph”, which Gravity says it will build and refine as more people participate. This graph will essentially map the relationship between people and their topics of interest, and serve as a tool in predicting patterns of behavior. Basically, the theory is that if Gravity’s data mining and mapping approach succeeds, users will interact with people of like interest sets and advertisers will be in a better position to target niche audiences and serve them better.
OK, that’s Gravity in 135 words. And that’s just about all anyone except Gravity knows so far. The technology behind their analytics approach isn’t being discussed publicly, but it’s pretty clear that users will have to be quite forthcoming about their diverse interest sets for this strategy to work. Early adopters will hop on-board, but it’s the next wave of users that will likely determine whether Gravity…um…lifts off.
Early on, Gravity has chosen to justify its existence by framing the existing forum model as old and staid. Not a surprising approach, given that it’s a start-up trying to spin interest-data on a social networking sites into advertising gold. (Note that Facebook has yet to do this, and they’ve got a massive data set to work from, but that’s another topic.) And, yes, forums are not real-time, difficult to monetize, and have been around in web-form since the mid-1990s. But there is a simple reason they’re still around — they work for the people who used them. Successful forums thrive because community is fostered through a tried-and-true process. Users’ “interests” are supported by a community structure, not the other way around.
This last point is something Gravity needs to keep in mind. Assuming their analytics engine works, Gravity will become meaningful only as far as the people who participate can bring a sense of community to interest-based networking. Otherwise, users may become their own interest “islands”, enjoying the benefits of getting targeted information from other users — and even from advertisers — but not engaged.
Also, predictive algorithms don’t account for the bizarre, anomalous things that are gloriously human and connect people to each other more than any shared interest can. Forums are filled with absurd, tangential moments. It’s like their secret sauce of randomness that keeps people engaged. That said, I’m glad that Gravity has drawn attention to forums. But like many others before them that have declared the death of forums, I am pretty sure they are here to stay. In the meantime, I’m watching my inbox to see if I’ve been selected to participate in Gravity’s beta program. Stay tuned!
You can watch an exclusive video of Gravity at Techcrunch.