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 use a lot of the open APIs out there to bring in additional content. So in this case, we ask you what was the starting point of your road trip and what was the end point, and we create a great-looking Google map for you. Then we prompt you around that, and ask why you were going on that trip. That gentle encouragement makes all the difference.

WR: It sounds like coming up with the daily prompts—which is currently the job of your brother Grant Shellen—is a lot more involved than just sitting down and coming up with a list of random questions, one for each day. You need to pick questions that lend themselves to this multimedia enhancement.

JS: Yeah, the idea was always that the interface can change on a daily basis. It’s difficult—it’s a lot of plates to keep spinning all at once. But we’ve come up with a templatized system behind the scenes to help with that. Today’s prompt fits roughly into our mapping interface. Maybe tomorrow’s will be an offshoot of our image template.

The other part that makes this interesting is that when you look at the individual prompts themselves, people can post their answers to their blogs or to Facebook or Twitter. And we have an aggregated “Most Popular” view, an algorithm that looks at how many times an answer has been viewed, commented, or favorited. We are focusing quite a bit right now on making those aggregate pages more fun, something that would keep you contributing.

WR: Right now, you have to go to Plinky.com to enter your answer to a prompt. But given your focus on integration with other Web services, can you envision having Plinky widgets that would let you write answers directly from your blog or from Twitter or wherever?

JS: Absolutely—we have most of that spec’d out. The idea all along was to make sure this is a portable interface. If you just look at the card-and-stack metaphor we use on the site, you can see it’s something that could easily be placed into a gadget or a widget. The other day, we did release a Google Gadget that people can drop onto their Google home page. But for right now, it’s just delivering the daily prompt. The user still needs to come to Plinky to respond.

WR: How do you think you’ll be able to make money with Plinky?

JS: Obviously, we are a seed stage company, and we have some plans around the business model. You can see that we’re experimenting with some ads on the sight right now. It’s a fairly high-engagement site, and we find that people stay on the site and want to read friends’ answers, so advertising has always been a piece of the business model. But we have a couple of other things we’re not quite ready to talk about that we think should be interesting for businesses and advertisers.

WR: Tell me about your relationship with Polaris Ventures and Sim Simeonov. How did that come about?

JS: When I left Google, as I mentioned, I had a couple of different ideas percolating, and I was pointed to Mike Hirshland at Polaris as somebody who was good to sit down with. I told him about a few ideas, and he said they sounded like good ideas but that they didn’t sound fully baked. And he said “You know who might be interested—Sim, who happens to be in town and I’m sure he’d love to grab dinner with you.” So we sat down over a beer. Sim thinks in business models, and he’s incredibly smart, and we hit it off.

Over the course of the next few weeks and months we met a few more times. I briefly jumped into another company, but decided that was not for me and that I should really pursue my own path. And by about March or April of 2008 I gave him a call and said, “Are you still thinking about this?” and he said, “Absolutely.” So we started putting together the business plan. Obviously, Sim is at Polaris, and he knows the process, he knows what VCs are looking for, and we pitched a few folks inside Polaris and we got a deal done with them. They put in $1.3 million, and we took another $300,000 from angels and other folks. They seem to be big believers in giving people the ability to create. They’ve been a fun company to be involved with.

WR: $1.6 million is on the low end of things for an initial investment round. Do you envision going out for more money at some point?

JS: It is on the lower end of things, but this was only for the seed stage. The things we had hoped to prove by this spring are falling into place nicely, and we absolutely will be going out for another round of funding soon.

WR: Plinky is similar in some ways to Twitter or the status update field on Facebook. Of course, the prompt on those services is always the same: “What are you doing right now?”—whereas your prompt changes every day. But how else are you different?

JS: Early on in the press, we were characterized as “yet another microblogging service.” So some people thought that was what we are. But as my brother Grant is fond of saying, we are only a microblogging service if you don’t like to write very much. There are people who will respond to a prompt like “Defend your vice” and they’ll just say, “Smoking. Never going to quit.” But there are just as many if not more people who are religious about getting to Plinky every day and starting their day with it and writing hundreds of words.

The other thing is that I was interested to see how the lightweight social model [the ability to follow other users and see their answers to daily prompts] would work, and it turns out that people have taken really well to that. Even during the private preview with about 150 friends and testers back in November, we had users saying they were learning things about their friends they didn’t know. We had one prompt that asked “What was your first job?” and one team member said “Wow, I didn’t know that was my wife’s first job.” That, for me, hit the nail on the head—it was exactly what we wanted to see happening, people learning things about other users and finding it compelling. That’s where we differ from a service like Twitter.

WR: I wonder whether, for some people, the idea of responding to a different prompt every single day that might be fatiguing. It could be like getting too many invitations on Facebook to join this or that group or fill out this or that chain letter, to the point where you just tune it out.

JS: Actually, one of the things that has surprised me is that there are a number of people every day saying “give me the next prompt.” We seeded the system with something like six prompts on the first day we went public, and there were people who were immediately asking for more. So there are lots of completists who really like this daily inspiration and want to do it even more. But I’d say to those people who might find it numbing that they don’t need to do it every day. Wait for one you like and then contribute. As Plinky becomes more prevalent, it will be more fun to contribute when you see your friends contributing. Maybe you’ll get groups of poeple arguing about whose road trip was better.

WR: What do you expect Plinky to look like a year from now?

JS: There is a real hope that as we drive a lot of engagement with users, the answer pages will become a valuable tool—something where, even if someone was not in the mood to answer a prompt, they would find compelling. Things like “58 percent of Plinky users recommend this jazz album for a rainy day.” Mining the data, in other words. The other thing is that as we evolve as a service, there’s no reason that we’re limited to the current set of prompts. We could classify them differently, or we could send out multiple prompts every day. You might be more likely to answer a sports prompt, or an “esoteric questions” prompt. We should be addressing our users’ needs. The other thing we hope to do fairly soon is start playing around even more with the interface. We’re planning to try some fairly radical things.

WR: Where does the name “Plinky” come from? Does it mean something, or is it one of those catchy but meaningless Web 2.0 names like Django or Joomla or Squidoo?

JS: When you turn on a fluourescent light, it makes a “plink” sound. We talk about it as a way to describe the moment of inspiration. But it also just has a nice sound. We’re going to win some horrible award for it, I’m sure. But I think it works pretty well to describe what we’re doing.

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Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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