Proust.com Debuts with Site Concentrated on Family Social Networking

7/19/11Follow @jpruth

With an eye for bringing family and intimate friends together, New York’s Proust.com is unveiling its new website today, in a bid to take its online social scrapbook from beta to center stage. While other types of social networks encourage users to amass large and sometimes unwieldy lists of followers and friends, Proust is aiming for highly personal groups, says cofounder Tom Cortese. But Proust will have to find the right balance of popularity with the public and closeness among its users to make its mark in this competitive field.

Proust is named for French writer Marcel Proust, who’s best known for his seven-volume novel “In Search of Lost Time.” The site seeks to conserve its users’ time partly by laying out its information in a storybook format rather than a flow of status updates found on social sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Proust users write personal accounts of important times in their lives such as road trips, engagements, and weddings. They can upload photos and videos to accompany the stories that they can choose to share with other family members and friends using the site. The website creates a personal timeline for each user that displays significant dates. “We wanted to create one snapshot of your life that you could see from birth until today,” Cortese says.

Proust (the company) was born in February 2010, at the blessing of its parent, Internet company IAC (Nasdaq: IACI), which owns a bevy of subsidiaries including online dating sites Match.com and OkCupid, video sharing website Vimeo, and comparison shopping site Pronto. Operating within IAC’s headquarters in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, Cortese says, lets Proust collaborate with fellow subsidiaries such as Vimeo, whose expertise was leveraged to help include video sharing on his site.

Half of Proust’s staff of eight split their time with IAC-owned subsidiaries Pronto and Gifts.com. Aside from Cortese and co-founder Jason Fotinatos, Proust has two more full-time employees. Cortese says he wants to hire two senior developers.

New talent may help Proust take on competition from already-established rival Ancestry.com for the family-oriented social market. While Ancestry.com is ostensibly known for helping users discover their lineage, the company also operates MyFamily.com which lets family members connect online to share current stories, photos, and video together. “I believe the people using Ancestry.com are the same people who would want to use Proust,” Cortese says.

He also hopes users will be attracted to features planned to be released in the fall that will let Proust users order hardcopy prints of their stories or create PDF documents they can print at home. The cost of the hardcover and soft cover books that are ordered through Proust will be determined by page count. The print-at-home option will be free through the remainder of 2011 but will cost 99 cents thereafter, Cortese says.

In order to fill the pages of each user’s story, Proust poses questions about various stages of life. “If you open up a journal and try to start writing about yourself you might stare at a blank piece of paper for quite some time,” Cortese says.

Users are asked by the website to describe foods that stir childhood memories, important journeys they have taken, and foolish things they have done. “We have an algorithm that helps pick the right questions to put in front of you,” Cortese says. The algorithm uses information that includes age, gender, previously answered questions, as well as information made public on their Facebook account such as marital status.

Tom Cortese previously worked for IAC's Pronto.com

Cortese is already sharing is own life experiences on his site with family and close friends. He was raised in New Jersey, and graduated in 2002 from George Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Immediately after college, he worked in Washington, DC for Ashoka, a nonprofit that provides stipends to entrepreneurs who try to solve local social issues, and built a Web-based tool to help connect the entrepreneurs to collaborate.

In 2004, he became a professional services manager at E-Angel, also in Washington DC, helping small business and nonprofits use the web to communicate with their clients and members. In 2006, Cortese joined Revolution Health Group, then a startup supported by AOL co-founder Steve Case, which offers health care coverage to employers and individuals. Cortese joined IAC’s Pronto in 2008 in New York and was senior director of product  for the company before he co-founded Proust.

Cortese says he sees a demand for niche social networks that do not always share information with the broad public. He believes Proust can serve users looking for a social network tailored for family and very close friends comparable to the way LinkedIn is geared for professional connections. “I solicit and give recommendations on [LinkedIn],” he says. “I’d feel funny posting my résumé on Facebook. It’s just not the place.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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