Marshall Kirkpatrick’s Little Bird wants to be your new “robot librarian”

Throughout Marshall Kirkpatrick’s career as a journalist — first as a writer at TechCrunch, then as an editor at ReadWriteWeb — his preferred method of finding stories and sources was not “shoe leather down in the Valley,” but data. With his year-old startup, which launches in private beta today and gets a new name, Little Bird (it was formerly called Plexus Engine), Kirkpatrick hopes to automate discovery and vetting of experts and influencers so that journalists, marketers and PR reps can find reputable sources more easily.

The Portland-based company, which is being demoed at PIE [Portland Incubator Experiment] Demo Day this morning, is also announcing a $1 million angel funding round today. Mark Cuban’s Radical Investments led the round, with participation from Howard Lindzon’s Social Leverage Group, Hubspot cofounder Dharmesh Shah and former Twitter engineer Blaine Cook. MetaFilter founder Matt Haughey, Accel’s Jonathan Siegel, Blogads’ Henry Copeland and social media expert Jay Baer also invested.

Little Bird determines which people are most influential on any given topic based on their personal connections, rather than on the content they create. “Unlike almost every other service out there, we are not doing content analysis for discovery of influencers,” Kirkpatrick told me. “We are looking at the specialists that other specialists are paying attention to…I think of it almost as a robot librarian. Whatever topic I’m interested in, I have the ability to snap my fingers and say, ‘Bring me the world’s most trusted neuroscientist.'”

Little Bird’s algorithm works by crawling the social graph of Twitter accounts and reducing them down to the “most trusted specialists” on a topic. (So you won’t necessarily be finding the world’s most trusted neuroscientist, but you might be finding the most trusted neuroscientist who’s also active on Twitter.) “The only way to climb up the ranks is to win the respect of your peers,” Kirkpatrick said. Though Little Bird is only crawling Twitter and blogs for now, the company plans to add LinkedIn (s LNKD) and Google+ (s GOOG) accounts soon. “We have reason to believe there are some serious professionals out there using Google+,” Kirkpatrick said, but “nobody knows who they are now.”

While Little Bird sounds somewhat similar to Klout, Kirkpatrick stressed that it’s “almost the opposite of a black box” in that it’s designed to be transparent and rational. He also says it’s a better discovery tool. “If you’ve already got someone in mind, Klout can tell you what their general popularity across the web is. But if you need to do discovery and what you’re really looking for is influence among other specialists, that’s something we provide better than Klout or anybody else.” Even so, he said, Klout data could eventually be added to Little Bird’s algorithm: “Sorting by Klout score would be an interesting way to display the data we’ve discovered.”

Along with person discovery, Little Bird offers various content discovery options. A “hot content” tab shows the links being shared the most around a given subject. “It’s like Techmeme for any topic,” Kirkpatrick said. A “top blogs” feature ranks blogs based on the number of inbound links, and a custom search engine lets users search inside “a whitelist of trusted domain experts” rather than across the web at large. Finally, if you’re in the mood for navel-gazing — and of course you are — “scorecard” lets you compare any Twitter account to other influencers on a topic.

So how well does it work?

I tested Little Bird and had pretty good results. I tried searching for two topics, “book publishing” and “ebooks,” figuring that I’d be most familiar with the results and would be able to gauge how good they were. My search for “book publishing” mostly turned up publisher accounts (for Simon & Schuster and Sterling, for instance) rather than individuals. Kirkpatrick admits that “in some sectors, companies do dominate,” but users can filter their results to show only individuals. When I did that, my results were much better.

My search for “ebooks” turned up a mixture of people I know and would actually consider influential, but also a number of marketing, company or promotional accounts that people probably primarily follow in order to get freebies. There were also many users speaking in foreign languages (though you can confine your search to a geographic area).

My search for “hot content” around ebooks revealed basically useless results: Two separate tweets about Catalonian independence (from the same user), two duplicate tweets from an editor and one tweet about Mitt Romney’s education policy.

These results may improve when Little Bird starts pulling in sources beyond Twitter. And the service also might be better for broader topics. A search for “broadband” pulled up our own Stacey Higginbotham, while “journalism” found people like Clay Shirky and Tim O’Reilly.

What it costs

Today you can view a few reports for free. Then Little Bird is rolling out free previews and subscription access in waves to individuals, small businesses and large businesses, with general availability expected in the next year. Individual accounts are $50 a month, and business accounts range from $250 for companies with three or fewer employees to $1,000 a month for companies with 26 to 500 employees (larger companies can get in touch for custom pricing). “It’s a little less expensive than [social media monitoring tool] Radian6 and more expensive than Meltwater,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a lot less expensive than hiring a consultant or agency to go out and do this research.”