The world is becoming a smaller place, yet even with communications and social media technologies you can still feel cut off from the experiences, fears and desires of those living in far-flung places.
Härnu, a six-month-old Seattle startup led by former employees of aQuantive, DS-IQ and StartupRocket, are looking to bring people closer together through a new social networking platform that connects people from Syria to Sweden to Singapore.
“We want to connect the entire world in conversation,” says co-founder Brent Turner, the former Microsoft and aQuantive veteran who is leading the charge on partnerships and monetization strategies. “There are many social networks and communities out there that help you aggregate people that you know, but none that help you meet and form relationships with people that you don’t know.”
Of course, there’s one big bottleneck: Language. Not everyone speaks the same one, so creating a place where anyone can communicate is no easy task. Yet, Turner notes that translation technologies — such as Google Translate — have reached “reasonable point” in their evolution where people can effectively communicate online even if they don’t know how to speak Spanish or Farsi.
To some degree, Härnu is a combination of Facebook, Wikipedia and Quora — all on a global map. Users choose where to post their messages — say Manchester, Cairo or Tel Aviv — and then wait for responses from those corners of the world. Users also can simply peruse topics, checking out what’s been posted by other members of the community on the map.
Building a social network for people you don’t know may seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, many people feel as if they don’t have time to manage their existing social networks of family, friends and co-workers. Turner admits that it is one of the bigger challenges they face as a young startup.
“That’s a concern, and it is one of the things that has kept others from entering the space,” he says. “We know it is going to be hard.”
But Turner — along with founders Jason Gowans (former DS-IQ); Paul Dixon (former aQuantive); and Will Little (StartupRocket CEO) — also are emboldened by the larger mission of raising awareness and connecting people in a respectful way.
Rather than highlighting divides, Turner says that they hope Härnu becomes a place where people will “discover their common grounds” and discuss topics with empathy and compassion.
Those aren’t words usually associated with online comment threads or discussion boards. But Turner said even with thousands of messages posted to Härnu since the soft launch in August, none have risen to the level where they’ve needed to be removed.
“We’ve had thousands of posts, and haven’t had really a single one that is really out of line,” said Turner, pointing specifically to a respectful dialogue on the site from a user in Israel and one in Indonesia over Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Of course, as a social network gets bigger, that problem escalates. Turner said they plan to figure out that issue as they go along, but he does note that users can report spam or complain about users. Since people sign in with Twitter or Facebook credentials and identify their location, he said it lends itself to a more civil dialogue.
But it’s also not just about text. One section of the site allows users to peruse and share music clips from various parts of the world, skipping the politics and religion debates and just jamming out to sounds of DJ Siru in France or Vitor Becca in Brazil.
Is there a business model here?
Turner says they are kicking around a few concepts and have been approached by potential partners, but they’ve not yet begun to build that out at the moment.
“Right now, we are in user acquisition mode and trying to make sure that we have our basic use cases nailed,” says Turner, adding that the startup is self-funded.
“Most people that we tell about Härnu say: “Why isn’t anyone doing that?” It is, of course, possible to meet and connect with people based on shared interest on other social networks; we believe we are the only group building a community where building such connections is actually the point of the platform,” he said.
Here’s an overview of how Harnu works: