For all the differences among them, the juggernauts of social media rely on a common business model: create free services, then sell ads against users’ information. In a dramatic departure, a new social network plans to give its users a 50 percent commission—or even let them sell their own ads and keep all the revenue.
Chime.in is built around users’ interests—think photography, politics, or travel—as opposed to friends, professional contacts, or news. The site’s founders hope that by creating pages around those interests, the users will attract people with similar affinities, an attractive combination for targeted advertising.
“Because social is going to be so powerful, I feel that the people who are creating the engaging social content should have some stake,” says Bill Gross, the serial entrepreneur who is the CEO of both Idealab, a startup incubator, and Ubermedia, a social media developer that launched Chime.in. “Right now that’s sort of a heresy—but I almost like it that people think it’s heresy. It gives me more of a lead.”
Gross is no stranger to creating disruptive business models. The pay-per-click concept for advertising in search listings was born in 1998 at his startup Goto.com, a search engine that was later renamed Overture and sold to Yahoo in 2003 for $1.6 billion. “It took five years [to go from calling Overture] heresy to ‘We want to own it,’ ” Gross recalls.
Chime.in launched last month in beta; the site will officially launch at the end of this year, with the advertising model kicking into gear in 2012.
In terms of technology, Chime.in is a highly derivative platform. It most resembles Facebook, with a string of posts and comments beneath them. Like Twitter, the content is public by default, and users can follow anyone (no friending required), but posts can be longer: 2,000 characters. Users can vote on content, much as they do on Digg.
But the emphasis is on users’ interests; after joining already existing groups or creating their own, users can sort content by those interests. Chime.in says the site is now home to 5,000 interest-based groups that have so far shared more than 25 million “chimes.”
In a sense, Chime.in is offering a social-networking version of Web-publishing platforms like WordPress, with full social features like reposting and comment threads. And each post or “chime”—often with a photo or video—fits nicely on a smart-phone screen. The overall idea is that this technology—as well as a promise of at least 50 percent of all ad revenue—will prod people to add and develop state-of-the-art content that other people find trustworthy. With time spent on social networks rising and search engines falling, “more and more people will make decisions based on social cues from people they trust, than from something they found on a search engine,” Gross says.
The ads would appear on a person’s personal profile page, or on a community page created by an individual, brand, or celebrity. Whoever created the page would get 50 percent of the revenue from any advertising Chime.in placed there. Other Chime.in users, most likely companies, could also place ads themselves on their own pages, and collect 100 percent. Gross estimates that some successful pages eventually could bring in thousands of dollars in ad revenue. The site already has gotten several entertainment companies to set up their own Chime.in pages, including E! Entertainment, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios, and Bravo.
The site is not without glitches. I created two accounts: one through Facebook (which let Chime.in search my Facebook profile information) and another directly through Chime.in. Each time it offered me a rather strange, seemingly random collection of 11 interests from which to initially choose: Apple, autos, blogworld, blogging, celebrity chefs & restaurants, comic books & superheroes, Google, marketing & advertising, macro photography, and music discovery.
I chose “music discovery” and “autos,” but I landed in the “macro photo” group. Still, this meant I got to meet my first follower: Kayla Connelly, of Moosic, Pennsylvania, a prodigious Chimer and macro photographer. I followed her, too, and was soon enjoying her intimate portraits of vodka labels, grilled-cheese sandwiches, and snow-dusted angel statues. I also learned she likes Coldplay. Her post of a white Christmas-tree light was captioned with this purloined lyric: “Lights will guide you home and ignite your bones, and I will try to fix you.”
I wondered why Connelly was Chiming. Finding no way to e-mail her directly within Chime.in, I posted a comment under one of her photos (of paint pots) and disclosed my journalistic purpose. I asked her why she would bother with Chime.in; we already have Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Digg, and many others. “Immediately addicted!” she replied. “So much easier to connect with knowledgeable users with similar interests and get feedback.”
Poking around the site, I saw groups working on crowdsourced efforts. One such group is writing a work of fiction. It’s called “The Great Story.” Here’s one of the latest passages: “Chapter 32: Suddenly, I feel a sharp pain in both the right side of my head and in my left triceps. Everything is spinning and my vision is blurry. The pain in my head greatly intensifies before …”
Within a few minutes of my chat with Connelly, I heard from Chime.in’s PR team. It turns out that Chime.in has community managers who do “human curation” of the content, to bring out the higher-quality material. One such manager—who I later learned was Joy Hepp, an “expert on Mexican travel with five Frommer’s titles under her belt”—had alerted the authorities to my inquiry.
That curated setup has some advantages, but the long-term success of Chime.in will likely depend on users eventually being able to create and manage high-quality, spam-free content without such assistance.