Even if he never achieves anything world-changing again — which he is certainly hoping to do — Jonathan Abrams will always be remembered as the guy who founded Friendster, the very first web-based “social network.” Launched in 2002, a year before MySpace and two years before Facebook, the site became a superstar among digital early adopters but lost its way and was overtaken by its younger competitors. Now Abrams is hoping to reverse that chain of events with a new startup called Nuzzel, a socially driven news-filtering service he launched on Thursday. But while Friendster suffered from (among other things) being too early to the social party, Abrams’ new venture could suffer from the exact opposite problem: the social-news market is so saturated it may be difficult for Nuzzel to get much traction.
Before he started Friendster in 2002, Abrams had a couple of earlier startups that were also early to their respective markets, including a social-bookmarking service called Hotlinks, which the Canadian-born entrepreneur started after working for Netscape in the late 1990s — but it launched five years before Delicious became the hot social-bookmarking tool, and it eventually perished in the dot-com crash. Abrams then launched an event-planning site similar to Evite called Socializr, but it too failed to get much traction and was eventually sold in 2010.
Trying to solve the social-information overload problem
At that point, Abrams had moved on to running a San Francisco nightclub called Slide and also an office-sharing and entertainment space called Founder’s Den — but he says he was always interested in trying to solve the emerging problem of information overload that comes with social networks like Twitter, which he had begun using as his main source of news:
“I started shifting my news consumption away from RSS and places like MyYahoo and started using Twitter more and more, but I found even if I checked it a couple of times a day I felt like I was missing so much stuff. I needed some tool that could help me manage everything.”
Instead of checking out one of the other services that were trying to provide filters and recommendation services, such as Zite or Summify, Abrams — a programmer who got his start working for Canada’s famous Bell Northern Research labs — decided to just put together his own, and what became Nuzzel was born. Users log in with their Twitter and/or Facebook profiles and the system’s algorithms go through a user’s activity streams and pull out the news articles that have been shared or recommended by the most number of followers. The service also uses these semantic signals to generate recommended content that hasn’t been explicitly shared by anyone in a user’s social graph.
In my initial use of the service, it came up with some good recommendations and some popular articles, and the site is well-designed and moves quickly — both of which are impressive, considering Abrams has no employees whatsoever, and put the entire site together himself. Users can filter the articles by time or by the number of friends who have shared them, and each post or article or piece of content comes with related tweets below it, any of which can be retweeted or interacted with. The most obvious use case for Nuzzel is the one that the tagline at the top of the service’s home page describes: “News You May Have Missed” — in other words, a catch-up tool for those who don’t have time to read everything.
The market for social-news filters is super-saturated
Abrams is right that this is a market that needs serving, but the challenge is that there are plenty of others already doing so: there are “personalized newspaper” services like Paper.li, apps like News360, Pulse or Zite, and even a service from the grandpa of social recommendations: namely, Digg, which was acquired by New York-based incubator Betaworks and merged with its News.me news-filtering app. Twitter has a stake in this particular game as well, after acquiring Summify, and there are newer dedicated filtering services like Nova Spivack’s Bottlenose and a startup called Prismatic.
The Friendster founder says that he doesn’t want to take the route that some others have taken by trying to make the system too complicated — he says that he isn’t interested in “having it become some kind of PhD thesis in machine learning,” but simply wants to solve a problem for users in as simple a way as possible. And he says he hasn’t tried many of his competitors, apart from News.me (which he says he liked in many ways). “I’m just really focused on my vision, which I think is a little different,” he said, adding that he is hoping to raise some seed financing so he can hire some staff.
The problem for Nuzzel, however, is that while Abrams may think his vision is a little different, the service itself looks very similar to about half a dozen other apps and services that do fundamentally the same thing, and in some cases have had months or even years to develop a following. That’s going to be a difficult thing to overcome, even for the founder of the world’s first social network.