Kullect Reinvents Blogging for the Smartphone Era

4/13/12Follow @wroush

Blogs are coming up on their 15th birthday—the term “weblog” was coined in December 1997, according to Wired (though it wasn’t shortened to “blog” until 1999). What’s interesting is how little the form has changed in that time. A typical blog is still just a collection of text-based essays or articles and comments written on a computer and posted to the Web in reverse chronological order.

What if you were reinventing the blog from scratch—what tools would you want to build to serve the same basic sharing impulse? You probably wouldn’t limit people to creating posts just on their desktops or laptops. In fact, you would want to encourage them to publish primarily from the devices they have with them all the time, their smartphones or tablets.

And it wouldn’t be just about text. You’d want to make it easy for people to publish photos, videos, map locations, and other media. You might not even restrict people to having a single blog—you’d want them to be able to create as many online collections as they want. And you’d probably want to make collaboration easier, so that many people could publish to the same collection.

In other words, you might build Kullect.

The Kullect home screen shows nearby and featured "kullections"

The creation of two former UCLA computer science grad students, Kullect looks at first glance like YAMPSA—Yet Another Mobile Photo Sharing App. And in a week dominated by the flabbergasting news of Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of Instagram, it’s hard not to be a little jaded about the huge wave of mobile/social app developers hoping to follow in Instagram founder Kevin Systrom’s footsteps. It all feels like a repeat of the frothy days of 2004, when a zillion social networks like Tribe.net, LiveJournal, Orkut, LinkedIn, Spoke, MySpace, Friendster, and Everyone’s Connected were competing for our attention. (Most of these, of course, would soon be obliterated by Facebook, which was then in its infancy.)

But Kullect stands out in some interesting ways. I’ve spent some time recently with creators Sasank Reddy and Jeff Mascia, both before and after they won the prize for best startup at last week’s O’Reilly Media’s Where 2012 conference in San Francisco. Their app is very young—it debuted on Valentine’s Day—and only about 1,000 people are using it so far, according to Reddy. I have no idea whether it will become the next Instagram. (If I had perfect instincts about these things, I’d quit journalism and become a venture capitalist.) But I think it has promise, and I’m particularly intrigued by the way Reddy and Mascia have transcended simple media sharing, through design choices that make Kullect into something more like a tool for storytelling.

How is storytelling different from media sharing? Open up any of today’s top mobile media-sharing networks on your smartphone—like Instagram or Picplz for photos, Klip for videos, or Path for group sharing—and what you see is a random stream of disconnected items, stretching infinitely from today into last week, last month, and last year. Each individual item in a stream may represent somebody’s special moment or act of curation, but there are no mechanisms within these platforms for ordering things or imposing a theme. No pattern emerges. It’s just one damn thing after another.

Which is a little too much like real life, if you ask me. What’s missing is a sense of context. I’d get a lot more out these apps if I understood why people share the things they do, or how they fit into a larger story. That’s the whole point of Kullect.

As the name suggests, the app is all about building collections. (The company calls them “kullections,” but I’m going to be a spelling stalwart on that one.) As with other media sharing apps, Kullect lets you follow other users, and there’s an activity stream showing who is doing what, but the real action takes place in the collections. They’re like extended, multimedia blog posts.

Seemingly small design choices can make a big difference in the way a community uses a social application, and in the case of Kullect, Sasank and Mascia deliberately chose to make users think more about why they’re contributing content. In Kullect, you can’t create a post—which can consist of a photo, a 10-second video, a place (sort of like a check-in), or a written thought of up to 250 characters—without assigning it to a new or existing collection.

You can have as many collections as you want, and a collection can have any theme you want—I’ve seen Kullect users posting pictures from trips they’re taking, lists of their favorite bars or clubs, and varieties of roses in their gardens. But whatever the theme, a collection amounts to a kind of story about what you’re doing or what you’re passionate about.

In effect, you’re showing people a slice of your mind, rather than just a slice of time. “Instead of being this stream of consciousness, it’s better for things to be a little organized, so there’s more context associated with a post,” says Reddy. “By naming a collection, you give people much more insight into why you’re doing it.”

Reddy himself has a collection called “Everyday SF” that includes sights, sounds, and people he’s encountered around San Francisco. (He’s a recent transplant from Los Angeles, so it’s all new to him.) “Every time I find something where I think ‘this really represents San Francisco,’ I put it in there,” he says. This collection may be a long, unfinished story, but it’s still a story. Other stories can be much shorter: yesterday, for example, I attended a conference on technology and journalism at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, and while I was there I created this small collection of photos and quotes.

The story behind Kullect explains a lot about the choices Reddy and Mascia made. They met at UCLA when they were both part of Mani Srivastava and Deborah Estrin’s research group studying wireless sensor networks. (Coincidentally, that’s an area several of us here at Xconomy have been following for a long time. Xconomy Boston editor Greg Huang wrote, and I edited, a Technology Review feature about the UCLA research back in 2003.) Mascia left UCLA after finishing his master’s degree and started a mobile app development studio, while Reddy went on to complete his PhD. After Reddy finished in 2010, the pair moved to San Francisco to try building a company around the idea of participatory sensor networks.

“Everybody has an awesome sensing device in their pocket now—it’s their phone,” says Reddy. “We were thinking about the applications of that, things relating to crowdsourcing or civic engagement. Could you use these sensors to do things like find all the trash or graffiti in your neighborhood?”

In the first iteration of Kullect, there were collections, but they were all collaborative. Explains Reddy, “Someone could create a query, such as ‘I’d like to know where all the broken parking meters in San Francisco are,’ and ask for input. The problem we thought we were trying to solve was creating a structured way for people to collect information collaboratively.”

But it turned out that Kullect’s alpha testers weren’t using the tool that way. They liked making collections, but they didn’t necessarily want them to be collaborative. “It was emotionally upsetting—you’d do something cool and then it would get cluttered up with someone else’s stuff,” says Mascia. “The technology was fine, but it didn’t work with what people were doing, which was more about self-expression and putting out your view of the world.”

So in the spirit of attentive entrepreneurs, Mascia and Reddy pivoted to meet their users, rebuilding Kullect so that it felt less like a utility and more like a creative tool. They kept the collaboration feature (you can invite other people to contribute to a collection you’ve started) but they made sure users would feel a sense of authorship. They gave up on their first, Gigwalk-like business model—charging business customers for access to a human sensor network—-and started building an “interest graph,” a network of users defined by their passions. The idea, eventually, is to start selling advertisements or promotions that match up with users’ interests or location.

What I like about Kullect, aside from the collections concept, is that it’s a true creation tool. Most of the stuff people post to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Tumblr is recycled from somewhere else. “Curation” is the high-sounding buzzword for this, but in its lowest form it’s really just copying. Kullect, though, is about actual creation. You’re the one making the photos and videos and writing the thoughts, and you’re the one deciding how to organize them into stories. It’s a lot like the early days of blogging, except that Kullect lets the creation happen out in the world, on the device you have with you.

Kullect is available for the iPhone and Android phones. Try it and let me know what you think. Meanwhile, here are a couple of videos of Reddy talking about the app.

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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