Making sense of opinions: Celeb-backed State takes a stab at the modern forum
New opinion network State has $14 million in funding and an all-star lineup of founders and advisors that includes Worldwide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, new age doctor and author Deepak Chopra, Lady Gaga’s manager Troy Carter, and the team behind Jawbone, maker of bluetooth headsets.
That’s a lot of celebrity mindpower and capital being poured into what is essentially a digital platform for saying whether or not something sucks.
The idea behind State, says co-founder and chairman Alexander Asseily, is to democratize online discussion. Truly, this time. While Twitter has given everyone a voice, says Asseily, in most cases those voices are ignored, lost in the great wash of noise that is the kaleidoscopic clusterfuck of millions driblets of inania being broadcast simultaneously.
Or, are Asseily puts it: “Twitter hasn’t invested as much as it wanted to in the idea that everyone’s voice should be counted.”
So, where Twitter lists and hashtags have failed, Asseily hopes that State can prevail. Here is a platform, he proffers, where everyone’s voice counts, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.
This is usually the point in a post where a writer will say, “The way XXX works is simple.” But you can’t quite say that about State. It takes a bit of getting used to.
After signing on, you’re invited to weigh in on topics that matter to you. You can find them by searching, or by clicking on one of the sections, such as “Entertainment,” “Politics & Government,” or “Tech.” The top half of the webpage is given over to grid view of hot topics (“Timeless albums,” for example) and trending discussions (“Google Glass”). The bottom half of the page shows discussion threads, sorted by “Latest” or “Most Interesting.”
To have your say, you click into one of these discussions and add a comment, or simply click on “Agree” or “Disagree.” With each action, you’re prompted by a list of potential adjective tags to add to your thoughts. The adjectives on offer include “overstated,” “powerful,” “inspiring,” and so on.
While the design is GooglePlus-level pretty, the real engineering work done on State comes into play in its semantic analysis. State’s algorithms scour everyone’s opinions and comments and then groups them together into blocks of content that help bring order to the noise. Those blocks are then tailored to your interests, and organized by topic. It’s like a combination of Twitter’s “Discover” feature and Quora, but amped up a couple of notches. Through a “Snapshot” option, it also gives you a nifty overview of what people think about particular topics. According to the people of State, for instance, Facebook is now most commonly associated with adjectives “Declining,” “Vile,” and “Spammy.”
State's users aren't thrilled by Facebook
The semantic analysis also means that your opinion is taken into account even if it is not always surfaced as a comment. “In State you’re not necessarily looking to get quoted,” Asseily says. “Your opinion actually has an impact even though someone may not discover it.”
At the moment, State is a website that people visit (apps are coming later), but the company will make these blocks of content transportable and embeddable. For instance, a news website may publish a State module alongside a story to add context. In that way, State can serve as a de facto comments system that is more representative of global discussion than the remarks left in a thread below a story by whoever happened to stop by and was moved to add their five cents’ worth.
The company plans to make money by opening up an API on which developers can build applications that leverage opinions. It sees potential for opinions and recommendations to be linked to transactions, in a similar way to how Upworthy helps drive donations to particular causes that are relevant to the content it distributes. If you read a module about endangered dolphins, for example, you might be directed to a dolphin-saving charity recommended by someone in the discussion. These opinion-based recommendations will be the main source of revenue, rather than conventional advertising, which Asseily thinks compromises the user experience too much.
There are reasons to be highly skeptical about State’s prospects for success, let alone survival. Its first problem is that it is stepping into a saturated market. There is already a plenitude of platforms available for opinionating and sharing content, and there has been since the dawn of the Internet. In a sense, State is just a well-designed forum with sophisticated sorting tech. It will likely struggle to convince people that instead of Twitter or Facebook or Reddit they should instead turn to this new difficult-to-grasp platform. And that will be key, because without scale, State is a dead duck with pretty plumage. Its semantic analysis relies on mass numbers of opinions being poured into the system – without enough of that data, the patterns it discerns aren’t statistically significant and are therefore useless.
Just as important is that State has to convince people that such a service needs to exist in the first place. Part of what is powerful about Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit is that they facilitate discussions and sharing of stories. State distills those impulses down to the registration of opinions – equivalent to mere votes in a giant poll. While its goal is to make more voices count, it may ultimately discover that users find the experience unsatisfying. Being heard is not just about being able to vote on a particular piece of content – it’s also about shared experiences and meaningful expression of emotion. Offering a selection of tags is not enough to fill those needs, and the comments feature doesn’t do anything that can’t also be done on Reddit or Twitter.
That means that the burden for State falls on its portability and its organizational prowess, both of which have potential, but both of which are also unproven when it comes to consumer demand. So far, people seem content with Twitter and Reddit's "good enough" approach to organizing online discussion. It'll take a hell of a sales job to persuade them that they need an upgrade.
[Image Credit: marsmet551 on Flickr]