Thursday, September 12, 2013

Introducing Blahgua, a new social sharing network

Many years ago, while working for the Human Interface Group at Apple Computer, a colleague of mine Harry Chesley created a piece of software called "Rumor monger".  Rumor monger ran on the Apple corporate LAN and was a used for spreading anonymous rumors from computer to computer.  Rumor monger quickly became incredibly popular.  It was the first time I encountered the idea of something "going viral."  A big part of the addiction was that in these pre-WWW days, you KNEW that every rumor on that network was coming from another Apple employee.  The rumors quickly went from jokes to serious product complaints to which VP was sleeping around with which secretary, and it was eventually cleansed from the network completely.  

Harry went on to invent things like Shockwave for Macromedia and managed the Social Computing Group at Microsoft Research, where our paths crossed again.  In SCG we spent a lot of time studying people's online behavior and watched the comings (and goings) of various sites like Myspace,  Friendster, Facebook, Google circles, and the like.  All the sites struggled with the issue of how to get good content in front of an audience, how to let creators of content use their real-world qualifications to endorse their content, and how to do all of this (and make money) without compromising the privacy and personal identity of their users.  

Amazingly, 20 years later, these issues remain further from being solved than ever.  Facebook, Twitter, and Google are collecting information like crazy, and not surprisingly it turns out that it is going not only in aggregated form to advertisers but also to the NSA.  It isn't something that can be solved with privacy policies.  As the Arab Spring protesters found out, large companies can always be compelled to turn over their records.

So last year I made a decision to try to do something myself.  I left Microsoft and connected with another old friend from the Apple days - Ruben Kleiman, the guy you probably best know from his work on the Netflix classifier.  We set out to create a new type of social content sharing network.  One that would have the advantages of viral amplification in an anonymous system, while still including reputation to stop spamming and other bad behavior and allowing viewers to make trust decisions about online content.

The result, one year later, is "Blahgua":

Blahgua (pronounced “Blah-Gwah”, a play on the Chinese word for gossip) is a social sharing network like twitter or instagram or Reddit, but with some important differences. 

The first is that blahgua does not rely on friends or followers to get good content.  Instead we use real-time categorization, recommendation, and viral propagation algorithms to distribute an ever-changing stream of interesting content to each user.  When you create content in blahgua, it is sent to a small number of random users.  If those users like it, it is automatically spread to more.  The result is that interesting content is quickly amplified across the network while spam and other boring content dies out.  This is fed back into your reputation, increasing or decreasing your initial audience the next time you post.

The second big difference is that blahgua does not rely on personal identity.  We don’t need your email address, or even your IP address* to operate .  Instead of using personal information for credibility, blahgua has the notion of badges.  A badge is a fact about yourself that you verify outside of blahgua.  For instance – you could get a badge that shows you are an Apple employee (or to be more accurate, that you can respond to a email address).    You can then bring that badge to blahgua and use that in your posts.  Everyone will know that your post was made by an Apple employee, but no one can determine which employee it was.  And when I say “no one”, I don’t mean that we have some encryption technology that becomes irrelevant when the NSA shows up with a search warrant.  I mean the information simply does not exist because we never collect it in the first place.  The badge issuers communicate with blahgua through a zero-knowledge protocol, so blahgua can’t identify you in the world and the badge service can’t identify you in blahgua.   

Badging is really great because it is simple and direct.  No one knows that you are an Apple employee unless you specifically add that badge to your post.  And if you want to say you are an Apple employee on one post and a WalMart shopper on the other, you never have to worry the information is going to be cross-leaked.  Almost any external fact can be badged, from whether you are a friend of Facebook to whether you ate at a restaurant to whether you are a member of a fraternity.  

a user can have any number of badges

Blahgua has some other cool features.  One is that we surface all of the analytics back into the app, so you can easily see how many people are viewing, opening, or commenting on your content or anyone else's.  The hope is that this will let you understand how you are connecting with your audience (as a creator) or who else is in the audience (as a viewer).  It is also our way of making sure you know everything about blahgua that blahgua knows about you.

blahgua exposes detailed statistics

We also support structured communications, so you can do things like make predictions (that expire) or create polls that users can respond to.  We will continue to expand the set of speech acts we support.

have fun with structured communications, like polls

We have a lot of plans for the future.  We are still in early beta, but please give it a try and tell me what you think.  We don't have native apps yet, and there are some UI issues and occasional perf concerns.  Sometimes things don't work at all.  No doubt there is a lot of work ahead, and like any start-up we know there will be hard times and some pivots required.  But we think it is new and different and serves a need that the other networks are not addressing.

Any comments, please let me know.  And watch this space for more details!


- davevr