The Fridge: Private Mini-Facebooks that Put Social Networking in Context
This is the seventh in a series of profiles of companies funded this summer by Mountain View, CA-based startup incubator Y Combinator.
Facebook is so dominant in the social-networking sphere that it’s easy to forget that there is any other model for socializing online. The reigning ethos in Facebook’s one-size-fits-all environment is that everyone should be happy to share his or her latest photos or status updates or location check-ins with everyone else. Of course, you’re welcome to spend time deciphering the site’s privacy settings—but if that’s important to you, then you must have something to hide. Or so Facebook makes its users feel.
Austin Chang and Alex Chung, the co-founders of The Fridge, have a different picture in mind. To them, people should be able to congregate online in the same ways they often do in the real world—in groups that are private, relatively small, short-lived, and focused on some common interest or event.
“What Facebook did—and by no means are we going up against them—is they taught everyone how to socialize online,” says Chang. “But now it’s become the White Pages of the Internet. What they used to have, and have lost, is the specific context of the college group from TheFacebook—the meaningful relationships. In real life, you don’t share your baby pictures with 7,000 ‘friends.'”
The Fridge, at www.frid.ge, is a site where anyone can quickly set up what Chang calls a “lightweight, single-serving social network.” Today, he and Chung plan to roll out a simplified user interface for the site, which first went public in July, just a few weeks before the startup completed the summer term at Y Combinator.
Already, The Fridge has almost 10,000 users, according to Chang, and is growing at a rate of 30 percent per week. Supporting the venture is a group of prominent Bay Area angel investors such as Keith Rabois, Naval Ravikant, and Jeremy Stoppelman, who collectively put about $500,000 in seed funding into the company in late August. The startup is still in fundraising mode, with Polaris Venture Partners as the most recent addition.
Chang hopes The Fridge will eventually become the first place users turn to organize private online groups attached to real-world events or activities. A couple-to-be, for example, could invite wedding guests to a private Fridge community, where they could share logistical information before the wedding and photos, videos, and reminiscences afterwards. Or a group of friends could use the site to plan a bachelor’s party or a ski or scuba vacation. Once the wedding, the party, or the trip is over, the community could disperse, or hang around—nothing is public and nobody has to “friend” anyone else, so there’s no ongoing commitment.
Facebook’s main missing ingredient—which Chang hopes The Fridge can supply—isn’t privacy so much as context. The philosophy Chang shared with me in a recent interview echoes observations published by Paul Adams, a senior user-experience researcher at Google, which is believed to be preparing its own social networking offering, Google Me. In a presentation posted earlier this summer, Adams argued that existing online networks like Facebook “don’t match the social networks we already have offline”; they treat all social connections as if they were permanent, and of equal strength. And they certainly don’t account for groups that may form loose but goal-oriented—or strong but temporary—ties around specific events or causes.
“No one has really cracked the nut of group dynamics,” says Chang. “The way we’re approaching it is, you have your best friends. You have your family. Those are permanent. But for all of these other social events, which are like ‘pop-up’ social networks, that is an excuse to create a Fridge group—a temporary thing that serves as a launching pad.”
Though Chang could easily be mistaken for a college student, he says he’s “a little bit older than the rest of the Y Combinator folks.” He first got interested in social networks at the Parsons School for Design in New York, where he matriculated in 2002 after a post-college, dot-com-era spin at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Sapient. “I was really interested in how birds flock and bees swarm and people form flash mobs—emergence, collective intelligence, and all that stuff,” Chang recounts. “What better way to study it than to build a casual MMO [massively multiplayer online game] as a thesis project.”
The game was called Popularity High, with game mechanics that mimicked all the teasing, gossiping, flirting, and bathroom-wall rumor-mongering that make high school such a joy. Chang formed a company around the game in 2004. Popularity High quickly came to the attention of MTV, which bought the game and hired Chang.
After helping MTV launch its online gaming group, Chang moved on to help with other MTV properties, including The Hills, a reality show following several Los Angeles pseudo-celebrities. “We created this real-time game called BackChannel, which was like a water-cooler experience right during the show, where the funniest, wittiest, or snarkiest comments would bubble up,” says Chang. “The glue, the context in this case, was The Hills. It was a great commercial success—we got incremental ad buys from the sponsors that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”
Chang left MTV in 2009. “It was a great experience, moving from gaming all the way up to the entertainment division, but a lot of people were doing their own startups, and I wanted to give it a shot,” he says. “I knew that for these emergent behaviors, Facebook and e-mail don’t cut it. So I wanted to figure out the new pattern that mimics what people do in real life. That’s how The Fridge was born.”
Well, almost; Chang’s co-founder Alex Chung has a parallel story. He’d worked with Seattle billionaire Paul Allen in the R&D arm of Vulcan Ventures; the two first met when Chung was leading product development for MTVmusic.com. Chung later went on to work on a General Electric joint venture developing TV-over-Internet technology. But since 2000, he’d also been tinkering on the side with early iterations of The Fridge, using it to communicate with his expanding group of friends. That interest in social networking, together with Chung’s engineering skills, came in handy when he and Chang decided to further develop The Fridge and apply to Y Combinator together this spring.
Y Combinator was “the perfect partner” for a social networking project, Chang says. “Not only do Paul Graham and his team have experience on the funding side and the product side and the customer-acquisition side, but there are all the other YC companies, all the fresh faces, the 22- or 25-year-old, super brilliant people,” he says. “Being able to pick their brains about how people would use something like this has been a perfect first experience.”
The Fridge will be bi-coastal from here on out, with Chung based in New York and Chang spending much of his time in San Francisco. He says a lot of the work over the past few months has gone into streamlining and removing features from The Fridge rather than adding them. “We had Facebook Connect in there [the interface that lets users register for a site using their Facebook identity and credentials] but we took that out, because only 1 percent of people were ever clicking on that. They were worried that if they used it, it would mean that everything was all of a sudden shared.” (It didn’t mean that, but there was no need to confuse people, Chang says.) “And we used to have a dashboard showing users all their groups, but most people will only have one or two ongoing groups,” he says. “We just want it to be super simple, and easier to use than Facebook.”
Like many other Y Combinator startups—even those, like mobile communications startup Bump, that have been out of the program far longer—Chang says The Fridge is focused on bringing in users rather than revenues. “The initial niche market is early adopters,” he says. “We’re starting to test some strategies in the gaming market, for gamers who want to plan raids and guilds. Then there are fraternities and sororities doing rush, social committees, fundraisers, charities, the music scene—people love following the latest indie rock bands. Anything that’s cyclical, recurring, and either event-based or interest-based are the things we’re tapping.”
Eventually, as the startup gains more users and learns more about their behavior, it could offer what Chang called “relevant and contextual experiences”—i.e., targeted advertisements. “If it’s a gaming audience, maybe you offer them early invites to your closed beta. For travel groups, maybe it’s discount offers for trips to Greece. For sites that are all about photos of parties, maybe it’s printing.” The site might even sell virtual goods—Chang thinks users might buy each other “Fridge Magnets” as gifts.
Overall, he says he’s reacting against his experience at MTV, where “everything is based on traditional advertising.” He says he wants to make sure that on The Fridge, “the ads don’t feel like ads, and the direct monetization opportunities don’t feel out of context.”
So, how much room is there, in the Facebook Age, for a social networking site that’s heavier on privacy than on sharing? And that’s more about context than about connecting for connecting’s sake? Chang acknowledges that in some ways, The Fridge is going against the grain. Groups that are private and invitation-only, after all, don’t grow at viral rates.
“Private stuff grows like this,” says Chang, placing his hand at a shallow upward angle, “and public stuff grows like this,” angling his hand straight up. “We think we are going to be in between. Facebook has already taught you how to socialize online. This is a way you can do it that mimics real life.”