Update: Moved this post from my personal blog to here since I’m going to redo my old blog.
So a friend of mine over at Street Side Soap Box pointed me to a BusinessWeek article about a stealth startup named The Backplane. It’s founded by Troy Carter and backed by big names such as Matthew Michelsen, Eric Schmidt, and Lady Gaga (owns a 20% share)5. Based on the whois registration, Backplane seems to have been created around March 3, 2010 so a bit more than a year of work has gone into this platform. Of course everyone is going to ask, what the heck is The Backplane? As a stealth start whose landing page only has a single contact email, we will need to use a lot of investigative research to put together some sort of image about what The Backplane is.
Bloomberg BusinessWeek Profile4
Tomorrow Ventures Portfolio6
From the very sparse information gathered from those sources, we can conclude that The Backplane is:
- In the Computer Games industry.1
- Is a company that operates a community platform for influencers focused on creating technology around deep fan interaction and exclusive content.4
- Their platform will blend technology and entertainment and plans to provide a venue for online communities by combining brands’ various social media presences into one platform.5
- And is current hiring hackers (trendy way of saying programmers).
No job description though so email your resume to them if you want to take a shot in the dark (Updated) Found a job description here and seems like they are building their platform using Python on GAE (big indicator that they want to position themselves for a Google buy out at some point): firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org,3
Well that doesn’t tell us much so I guess it’s time to use quotes from various sources to try and figure out what they plan on doing. First up is the BusinessWeek article:
The group subsequently founded the Backplane, an online platform that allows fans to build all-encompassing e-communities. … is in talks with Eminem, Justin Bieber, and the National Football League. Its most important client, however, remains Gaga. Littlemonsters.com uses the Backplane technology to create a Gaga universe for her 38 million Facebook fans and 10 million Twitter followers—replete with e-mail addresses and calendars. “The goal is for everyone to start their own interactive community,” says Michelsen. “If you’re a Girl Scout mom, you could have your own Backplane with 12 other moms.” Though the Gaga model seems a bit more promising.
Ok cool, sounds like the platform is a go on Lady Gaga’s site. Let’s go there (http://www.littlemonsters.com/) and see what happens. Two options for registering, Facebook or Name+Email, and this is what you see after registering:
Yay, I get to be one of the first! But when?
Well I guess the platform is NOT up and running (at least for users). So let’s see what else people are saying.
The Backplane’s Facebook Page > Sign up now at littlemonsters.com and you will be included in the beta! (Ok, that answers the question of why nothing is up yet.)
WSJ Blog > The Backplane Inc. aims to create a platform combining calendar, email and social networking functions to allow groups ranging from Girl Scout troops to celebrity fan clubs to communicate seamlessly.
TechCrunch > … blend technology and entertainment and plans to provide a venue for online communities by combining brands’ various social media presences into one platform. … Gaga is an advisor as well as an investor, and apparently has incorporated elements from her music videos and tours to add “authenticity” to the site’s design. Backplane will launch this month…
Lady Gaga forum > BRAND NEW OFFICIAL LITTLE MONSTER COMMUNITY
Lady Gaga’s Facebook Page > Calling all Geeks! Lady Gaga needs your help to build our new home, LittleMonsters.com! We need your computer programming skills: 1) Scaling for millions 2) Creating rich interactive experiences; 3) Managing an ocean of videos, songs, posts. If you have the skills & want to help build Gaga’s new online destination sign up at littlemonsters.com, then email our web development team at email@example.com
Once you combine what TechCrunch and the WSJ wrote, you get a fairly good idea of their core goal, and it’s definitely a bold and lofty one. Instead of competing with social networks to be the “best” social network, they are going to try and compete by integrating all of the social networks into one. Now there are lots of possible problems with this:
- There is no guarantee that the main social network platforms won’t fuck around with them by deprecating APIs or just changing how the APIs work. Twitter I believe has started doing #1 to take control of the 3rd party Twitter app ecosystem. Meanwhile, Facebook is well known for being guilty of #2 and it isn’t even for a malicious reason. Their company policy is to push changes all the time and fast so things tend to break willy nilly in their API. You’d think this wouldn’t be a major problem if they can just fix things quickly. However, if The Backplane becomes huge, then every breakage that leads to say 30 min of Facebook integration not working every week or month or so is going to affect a ton of people in a very bad way.
- I sure as hell hope that they aren’t related to this: https://sites.google.com/site/backplanespec/ since this project seems to be using a widget approach and is a shitty way of integrating the services. Since they mentioned the other functionality (calendar, email, etc.), there is a chance this is how they will work. Seriously doubt it though since they are a stealth startup and wouldn’t put info like this up on the web. This is most likely just a huge coincidence.
- The calendar part of it may be tricky to implement and I can see them rolling their own for better/tighter integration with whatever services they provide. This is a fairly loaded market with everyone using something different to scratch their particular itch. If they can’t make this as useful as existing solutions (Google Calendar, Outlook, etc.), then people might completely ignore this feature. Email also faces this same problem. (The plus side: I can envision them being bought out and used as Google’s way to finally get into the social arena [successfully] and being used as another vector for pushing Google Apps.)
All of the released information sounds fluffy and nice but isn’t terribly interesting. We still don’t know exactly what they plan on doing or how they are going to do it. So I’m going to make a few conjectures from the tiny bit of info that is actually out there and try to come up with the feature set that I predict they will tout.
- Seamlessly integrate all of the major social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) into a single website. That way you can post updates and see updates from your friend without having to go to different websites. I call this the Yahoo! model except Yahoo! went the route of trying to manage (and create content for) all possible news media in a single platform instead of integrating with existing sources.
- Provide an e-commerce platform for selling products. Since different Backplane communities will still be tied together via the Backplane platform, you’d end up with a giant official mall of products. Hello Amazon competitor and good bye Ebay stores.
- Provide or integrate basic user apps such as:
- calendars – Probably will be used to do something like show Lady Gaga’s upcoming events and what you will be participating in if you buy a concert ticket.
- email – Used to email you updates or send “exclusive” events but really is going to be their method of competing with Facebook’s messaging/email system. I’ll bet that this is going to start out as simple email integrating with Gmail, Hotmail, etc. and then expand into something more similar to Facebook’s message system and try to compete with them. This is because Facebook’s message system will keep people on Facebook since APIs will not be good enough to integrate with that feature and for Backplane to get people to stay on their site, they will need to make Facebook’s messaging feature obsolete at some point.
And then there are other apps they can implement. I assume some of the more obvious ones to implement would be:
- chat – Not just site only chat like GChat or Facebook’s chat system, but something like Meebo where it integrates multiple chat platforms into one that can be used via the website. They’ll take it one step further and integrate it with the social networks and their own social network system (see #4 below).
- profiles – Like all social networks, privacy be damned. People like to say, “I am ___!” because most people are narcissistic and think random people will care about who they are. In reality, this is just more information for advertisers to use for better targeted ads. The general populace won’t care (Remember Diaspora?) and will want to fill out a profile (or if Backplane is smart, allow them to import their profile from somewhere else).
- Create their own social network system that is centered around/customized for the community the website is built for. They’ll just rename the basic core tech into something more relevant for that community. For example:
- A notification system that sends maybe texts messages or provides and RSS feed update can be called “New Events” for Lady Gaga’s updates. Meanwhile for the NFL, you can have multiple different feeds that do the same thing but are for more specific stuff like “Injury Reports”, “Breaking News”, etc.
- Something similar to a forum for community discussions. However, if they are smart they will go a very different route. Forums are nice but they aren’t “cool” and are basically the historic precursor to more specialized social networks. Instead they will try to put some sort of spin on it to attract users. I don’t know what they have in mind but it has to be able to somehow differ what already exists (it should be obvious how each of these adapted the generic forum idea into their goals):
- Twitter is user-centric. People follow other people and the platform is all about YOU. It evolved into a community system via hashtags (Twitter was not the ones to introduce this feature, it was someone in the community that made it up and got it to spread).
- Facebook is group-centric. Using Facebook is all about being part of one or more groups. Your basic social circle of friends is the most common group. You can join or create other groups that focus on causes, brand loyalty (advertisers drool for this), political movements, etc. But what it all boils down to is creating your online presence, making it public, and forming a group where your “voice” (i.e., the wall) can be heard.
- Reddit, Digg, Metafilter, and Hacker News (ycombinator) are discussion centric. There is so much noise with everyone talking on the site for a given topic that you are effectively anonymous. Very rarely will people remember your account name unless you consistently post or discuss things and get rated highly. The create a self-sustaining discussion community by centering their sites around users submitting links to interesting articles and providing a voting mechanism for pushing the most interesting topics (and discussion comments) to the top.
- Yelp is opinion-centric. The social aspect of their site is centered around people voicing their opinions (about restaurants in this case) and hoping to be heard. This is done by rating and/or reviews.
- Meetup.com is event-centric. Their whole site is based on creating events and providing the tools to invite and organize the event. Although all of the socializing is done outside of the website, these users turn into return customers and will continue using the site because of how it enables them to create a community in the real world. This is good because it is partially self-advertising as people will mention meetup.com as how a given event was setup.
- Youtube.com is content-centric. They build a community where people upload content in order to create a following. Everyone has the idea that they can be famous if given some outlet for their creativity and Youtube ends up being one of the best platforms for pursuing this goal. I doubt that this is going to be their primary way of creating a community as content will be a separate part of this site (see #6 below).
- In a similar vein to the above, it would be smart of them if they incorporated a way for people to interact with the head honcho of the community (Lady Gaga herself, NFL players and coaches, etc.). I assume this has to be one of their main features to draw in potential clients since the goal of the client is to create a community around his/her/their identity. So there has to be a mechanism that allows for people to feel like using this site makes their voices heard more (praises, complaints, desires, etc.). Otherwise, there will be very little differentiating this site from non-official sites like Facebook, Twitter, ESPN, etc. I will laugh in their faces if they don’t manage to use the biggest advantage they have which is being the official website of ____.
- A platform for the “media” part of social media. As mentioned by Lady Gaga herself, this site will feature loads of content like videos, pictures, music, and, if the LinkedIn profile is correct, games as well (hello Zygna competitor). A smart company will learn from the existing social media ecosystem and realize that there should be official content (uploaded by the site owners) and user generated content. The experience should be centered around fostering community participation as the creativity of users can only help you attract new fans. Of course, they may not allow user uploaded content for fear of running into the whole Youtube vs Viacom problem. Dealing with DMCA requests will only add to their startup costs.
- Their final feature is to somehow allow all of these various Backplane websites to communicate with each other seamlessly. That way people can search, find, and join other communities easily. How will they do this? Well for joining, it should be easy since if one profile on one Backplane site would be shared and used on all other Backplane sites. This can be achieved through a few different methods:
- This can be done by sharing a single account management system between all Backplane sites. Would require some sort of central Backplane server.
- Or you can go the OpenID route. Example: the StackExchange sites allows profiles to be easily shared between all the different StackExchange sites.
- But in Backplane’s case, they are clearly trying to leverage Facebook logins to create a ubiquitous account system and will probably try to use this to import user profiles as well.
As for integrating the various communities for easy searching? I have no idea how they will do it, but I assume they’ve analyzed the Facebook model of groups have a good idea of how to do it better. Perhaps making the core Backplane site into something like Backplane CommunityTM (Putting the TM there for kicks. No idea if it’s actually trademarked.). Once this is in place, I bet this is what they are hoping will eventually replace all of those other social media websites and make them #1.
In my opinion, their goal is to take the opposite route that all of the current social media sites used in creating a social media platform. Instead of building a community and using the community to draw in big companies (Musicians, Sports Leagues, Retail Companies, etc.), they are building a platform around these big companies and using that (that = the company + the super-easy-to-use platform) to build a community. This is good for Backplane since there is a clear monetization model to sell to investors. If they are really smart, they can reduce the reliance on advertising and focus on making the platform attractive to users instead of trying to find ways to “sell the users” (aka: the Facebook model) to make money.
Of course, this will only work if they manage to use their celebrity power (Lady Gaga) to spread the platform quickly once it is released. If they don’t get enough buy in from other major entities, this will never overtake the current social media juggernauts (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) before they counter with some new awe inspiring feature. The stealth startup + media hype strategy will only give you a tiny buffer of time before everyone else responds.