Plinky: The Cure for Blank Slate Syndrome

2/20/09Follow @wroush

If you feel it’s time to share something online but can’t think of anything to say, it might be a sign that you’re dull. If you try too hard to craft a bon mot for your blog or some table talk for your Twitter stream, in other words, you might just be inflicting your insipidness on the rest of us.

Or it could mean that you just need a little inspiration.

The folks at Lafayette, CA-based Plinky, a Web startup led by ex-Googler Jason Shellen, have chosen the latter, more charitable interpretation. On January 22, they went public with an online “content encouragement” service designed to supply the dusty nuclei for little snowflakes of confession, insight, or humor.

Every day, Plinky supplies a “prompt”—a provocative question or challenge—and then helps users craft multimedia-enhanced answers that are posted both on the Plinky site and on the social-media services of the user’s choosing. (Currently, Plinky can send posts to Blogger, Facebook, LiveJournal, Tumblr, Twitter, TypePad, WordPress, and Xanga.) The prompt for February 16, for example, was “Name a book that changed your mind or opened your eyes.” The question elicited as many different answers as there were answerers, from Naked Lunch, the 1959 novel by William S. Burroughs, to Harold and the Purple Crayon, the classic children’s book by Crockett Johnson; Plinky illustrated the answers with a picture of each book’s cover, grabbed from Amazon.com.

Other prompts lead to answers that might contain Google maps, Flickr photos, or Amazon CD covers. The service is designed, in other words, to take advantage of the Web 2.0-style open interfaces that allow data such as product thumbnails to be shared and repackaged across many sites. It also encourages conversation, by allowing people to subscribe to and comment upon other users’ answers—the same way they might on Facebook or Twitter, but with a prefabricated topic. “People want to connect through content,” Shellen told me by phone last week. (Our full interview appears below.)

The Plinky Question InterfaceShellen was famous even before he joined Google for being part of the team at San Francisco-based Pyra Labs that built Blogger, the first popular blogging platform. (Another Pyra/Google alum, Evan Williams, went on to co-found Twitter.) So it’s no surprise that Shellen’s seven-employee startup has pulled in seed money from big-name investors like Waltham, MA-based Polaris Venture Partners. In fact, Polaris general partner Sim Simeonov, who first tipped me off about Plinky, is the company’s interim chief technology officer.

Shellen says the company will go after more venture money soon. And it’s safe to say that the Plinky you see right now will evolve over time. For one thing, the company hasn’t rolled out any services, beyond the occasional advertisement, that it can actually charge money for. And Shellen says users are already clamoring for more frequent and more varied prompts—it wouldn’t be too hard to generate prompts  just for sports fans or political junkies, for example.

I’ve been playing around with Plinky for a few days; you can see my collected answers here and at my personal blog. I’m not one of those people has a shortage of things to say, so I’m probably not at the center of Plinky’s targeted user base. But even so, I find the tool far more inviting than Twitter or Facebook, and I’m sure it’s already becoming a hotspot for many interesting online conversations that wouldn’t happen otherwise. As Shellen and his developers find more ways to integrate Plinky with existing publishing platforms, it will doubtless become even more useful. Personally, I think I would be more likely to use Plinky regularly if I could view and answer each day’s Plinky prompt directly from my Tumblr or WordPress dashboard, from my desktop Twitter client (Twhirl), or from an app on my iPhone.

Some of those capabilities may be on the way—but to hear Shellen tell it, the company is even more excited about finding ways to mine the information that users share over Plinky. As the user base grows, the answers could coalesce into a vast, ongoing consumer survey that supplements review sites like Yelp or Angie’s List. Looking for a good place to meet an old friend for a drink? Just check out the answers to yesterday’s prompt.

Here’s the (edited) text of my interview with Shellen.

Wade Roush: How did the idea for Plinky come about?

Jason ShellenJason Shellen: When I left Google I had a bunch of ideas percolating. Initially I thought I was going to take the approach of something like IdeaLab—raise a little money and get an incubator going, since the amount of money needed to start a company these days is so much smaller. But as is usual with these things, one idea captivated me. It was this idea that you could encourage people to create content in a more directed fashion—that you could end up with a win-win where the content looks better, is easier to create, is a little bit more inspired, and that potentially there would be a business model.

I was on the Blogger team before we sold the company to Google, in a business development and product strategy role. We really struggled with how to make the tool understandable to people, because at the time people didn’t even know what blogging was. Once we had the resources at Google to explain really well what blogging was, people started signing up in droves. But many of them were no longer blogging—they were doing something else like sharing stories, posting photographs. They weren’t blogging for blogging’s sake—they had very directed activities in mind. But there were still enough people signing up every day and then facing this big white text box and realizing they didn’t know what they were going to write. That really got me thinking.

You can look at any of the blogging or social networking services and they’ll tell you that the abandon rate is pretty high. You need some reason to contribute. I really felt like the tools needed some attention again. Blogging software is great, but maybe there can be something that other services can add as a layer, making use of all the great APIs [application programming interfaces] out there—not trying to start another Blogger or WordPress. But we do see that with things like Tumblr and Twitter and a lot of Facebook applications, people do want to connect through content, and they want to be inspired and challenged in new and different ways.

WR: So how would you describe what Plinky does, at its core?

JS: The core of it is the prompts—that spark that drives you to create. But just as important is the fact that you’re not confronted with a big white text area. For instance, today’s prompt is “Share the longest road trip you’ve ever taken.” Now, the standalone prompt idea has been tried before. Six Apart has a question of the day, for example. But we decided to take a novel approach and … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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