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New Social Networking Technology Packs a Wallop

A spinout company built around a Microsoft Research project hopes to redefine how people interact online.

Microsoft was a latecomer to the Internet in the mid-1990s – but its Internet Explorer Web browser went on to control more than 90 percent of the browser market. Now, in the newly hot area of online social networking and profile-building, led by companies like MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook, Microsoft seems to be missing the boat once again (unless one counts its bland MSN Spaces blog service). But could Microsoft technology once again come from behind and vanquish the competition?

Possibly – but it wouldn’t be under Microsoft’s own aegis. A San Francisco startup called Wallop, which emerged from stealth mode on April 25, is using technology originally developed at Microsoft’s research laboratory in Redmond, WA, to build an online social space that promises to redefine the notion of social networking, by focusing it on conversations and media tidbits, such as songs and photos, rather than on members and their profiles.

“On Friendster and MySpace, collecting more profiles is really the only thing to do, and you define yourself by how many friends you have,” says Karl Jacob, Wallop’s CEO. “That’s not a very good parallel to the real world, where what’s important is our special relationships with friends and family, and where we have conversations about stuff.” Part of the point of Wallop is to make it easy to share digital versions of that “stuff” – photos, videos, songs, or text musings – with clusters of interested friends.

Wallop’s programmers are designing the system to combine elements of social networking, blogging, and media-sharing sites such as Flickr, but in a way that doesn’t precisely mirror any of those services. The original Wallop team at Microsoft Research – led by principal inventor Sean Uberoi Kelly, who is the new startup’s chief technology officer – seem to have stumbled on a truth that’s eluded other builders of social networking sites: most people don’t go online simply to socialize. Instead, they want to find information and build relationships that will make their offline lives richer, and to help others do the same.

That’s what Wallop is tailored to facilitate. Judging from a preview provided by Jacob and Kelly last week at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, Wallop will attempt to bring together, in one place, the tools one needs to find groups of friends, publish and share creations and experiences with those friends, and track what one’s closest friends in the network are sharing.

At first glance, Wallop resembles a fancy Windows or Macintosh desktop – an attractive and customizable onscreen backdrop for personal photographs, blog entries, and conversational threads, all manipulated using an elegant user interface driven by Flash animation technology.

But much more is going on under the hood. For example, there’s a graphical feature, which Jacob and Kelly are tentatively calling the “radar,” that puts the user in the center and depicts the strength of his or her relationships with other members in terms of their distance from that center. (The strength is continuously updated according to a number of factors, including the frequency of communication and whether the other person has identified the user as a friend.) Another feature interwoven with the radar updates specified groups of friends whenever a user posts new material. Simply dragging-and-dropping a video or photo file to a cluster of contacts on the radar, for example, will automatically inform just those friends about the new file.

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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