Why Gravity, a New Startup, Can't Defy Gravity

Earlier this evening I watched a video and read an article about Gravity, a Los Angeles-based startup co-founded by three former MySpace executives including MySpace’s onetime chief operating officer, Amit Kapur. The other two co-founders are Steve Pearman (chief product officer) and Jim Benedetto (chief technology officer).

The company, which launched a beta version of its service, is essentially trying to re-invent the concept of conversations (aka message boards and e-groups) using a brand-new approach and then data mine these conversations for interest analytics and essentially sell advertising or market against these interest pockets. Gravity describes itself as a “conversation engine.”

And while I have not played around with the service, and looking at it from a very surface level, one can see that it has its work cut out for it. There are some questions about the potential and viability of this startup.

To be clear, I have no comments on Gravity’s technology — the company seem to have some kind of a secret sauce which it hasn’t really talked about. No point commenting about its user experience — the company is still hoarding their beta invite. My questions are simply confined to the obvious challenges it faces.

Now, no one disagrees with the logic behind the company: message boards and e-groups simply suck and it’s hard to monetize conversations trapped inside them. If one could solve this quandary, they could somehow make money. Gravity claims to have done this and has topped it off with some spiffy-looking graphical analytical tools. And that’s the end of the good news.

Typically I get very excited about companies (and startups) that are doing interesting things with large data sets, but in this case I’m skeptical. When I read the post, what I saw was a lot of spin garnished with a lot of fancy words — many of them, for example, Interest Graph. “Hate when a company coins a new term (Interest Graph) 2 describe existing concept – ah marketing” is how someone put it on Twitter. Gravity’s spiel is sentiment analysis and perhaps that’s why it was able to get a rumored $10 million, reportedly from the likes of Redpoint Ventures, an erstwhile investor in MySpace.

Now if you buy the spin, you still have to keep in mind that mining unstructured data for near real-time sentiment analysis — essentially what Gravity is claiming to do — is not an easy task. Let’s just assume that it does get the technology part right — and why not? Benedetto is totally legit and well known in big data circles. The question is, how are they going to get this service deployed and get massive traction?

Gravity executives tell Mike Arrington that the company is going to “allow people to create conversation around topics” and “the service will be available on the Gravity web site as well as via widgets and an API.” In other words, they are going to try and build a brand-new consumer brand around conversations.

At the same time, the company has to scale up its operations to a level where it has a large amount of data sets to mine and thus reveal enough “interest” spots for them to become useful and be used for diverse purposes such as advertising. It’s an arduous task. Ask Facebook, which is still struggling to build an “engagement-” and “sentiment-based” advertising engine despite having massive data sets, including personal information. Mining data is a complex computing problem that needs big computing resources, but that’s a topic for another day.

From the way I see it, building a rocket ship in one’s basement is perhaps easier. The conversations have moved away from message boards and groups to more real-time mediums such as Twitter and Facebook. It would be difficult for Gravtiy to change people’s behavior.

Sooner or later the company will send me a beta invite, but until then I’m relegating it to a pile labeled “hype,” for you will hear a lot about Gravity. But as philosopher (and humorist) Dave Barry once said, “Gravity is a contributing factor in nearly 73 percent of all accidents involving falling objects.”

Photo by SolidState via Flickr.