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Kelly says his main goal is to provide a platform on which communities and conversations among people with similar interests can quickly form, disperse, and re-form. “You could think about it like it’s a personal newsletter, where different people’s conversations and media are constantly showing up,” he says. “You can see the things your friends are consuming, and the focus is on the rich experiences with music, video, pictures, and other artifacts of the digital lifestyle.”

An experimental version of Wallop’s system has been online since 2003, when Kelly and colleagues in the Social Computing Group* at Microsoft Research decided they needed a sandbox where they could study how people share information online. The system, which included media-sharing features and a unique interface for visualizing one’s social network and the connections within it, eventually attracted some 200,000 users. Now Microsoft has shared the intellectual property behind that prototype in the form of a minority equity investment in Wallop, which plans to open up a completely redesigned version of the Wallop service this summer.

So how will Wallop make money? Jacob and Kelly aren’t saying yet, but they claim they won’t be selling ads on Wallop pages or charging users a subscription fee. They also say that Wallop won’t be a typical “walled garden,” where the company’s own programmers dictate the service’s look, feel, and functions.

One of the most important functions of any social-networking system is simply to help the user present the best possible face to the online world. “Increasingly, people’s first impression is now of your online persona rather than your offline persona,” says Jacob. And Wallop is betting that Internet users searching for better ways to represent themselves online will opt for the services that offer the richest combination of publishing options, design flair, multimedia features, and customizability.

“A lot of us thought that [cyberpunk sci-fi author] Neal Stephenson’s view of the world was the right view – that cyberspace was going to be completely different from the real world, and you’re going to be ten feet tall, and all that stuff,” says Jacob. But as it turns out, he says, people don’t want to be someone else when they’re online. “Now a whole generation has come along and said, ‘Wait a second – my real life and my online life are actually the same thing.”

* Correction, May 5, 2006: A previous version of this story stated that the Social Computing group at Microsoft Research is “now defunct.” It is not. The author regrets the error.

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