The co-founder of fitness tracking device maker Jawbone wants to take on Twitter with the long-awaited launch of a new “global opinion network”, State.
State, which emerges from private testing on Thursday, has been many years in the making. Alex Asseily, who is still Jawbone’s chairman, and his brother Mark have been developing State since 2011, soon after Alex returned to London following 17 years in San Francisco. They had originally hoped to launch it in 2012 but the delay partly reflects the daunting scale of Mr Asseily’s vision.
“The starting goal was: Can we organise the world’s opinions?” he says.
“The idea was to create a communications platform to allow anyone anywhere to express an opinion quickly. And the opinions would come together and be aggregated, and in essence reveal what the world is thinking.”
Both State and Twitter share an ambition to become the world’s virtual “town square”. But Mr Asseily believes that people are not sharing their opinions enough online at the moment because they don’t have the incentive to do so.
“98 per cent of people never get heard,” he says. “The asymmetrical information-sharing network offline has transferred online. Most people want the dignity of having their opinions heard and counted.”
Rather than Twitter’s broadcast-style model that gives greater volume to those with the most followers, State’s atomic unit is the opinion itself. “It’s a network architected around semantic objects,” Mr Asseily says.
If that sounds a little like the vision of a “semantic web”, it may not surprise you to learn that web pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee is on State’s advisory board. Other advisors and backers include billionaire industrialist Len Blavatnik, Atomico and Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom, entertainment mogul Troy Carter and open-data advocate Sir Nigel Shadbolt.
There are more than 10,000 words or phrases in State’s lexicon, all associated and understood for their various colloquial or contextual meanings.
When stating an opinion, the system suggests some common responses, or you can enter your own – as long as it’s one of those existing terms. If your opinion is not already in the network, you can suggest it be added but you have to think of another way to say it in meantime.
After submitting an opinion on the matter of the day – whether that’s Ukrainian protests or Flappy Bird – the app returns a chart of where you stand on the matter relative to others, and a visualisation of the most popular sentiments. The idea is to give immediate feedback, even if another user does not respond directly, which they can do through comments or a “well said” button.
To provoke debate, the app’s equivalent of a news feed is a list of hot topics and conversations, based in part on what you have previously stated. You can see a “snapshot” of opinions on these or add your own. An activity feed shows friends from Facebook or, yes, Twitter who join the service, people “tuning in” to you (aka following your opinions) and responses to your statements.
Mr Asseily says he’s used the State “snapshot” for State itself to improve the system, for instance by making it simpler. I still think it could be easier to approach: after an hour’s briefing with him I understood the purpose of the service but I wonder if others will instantly grasp what it is and why they should join.
A day before its public launch, views on State, about State, ranged from “addictive”, “thought-provoking” and “intriguing” to “difficult”, “confusing” and “pointless”.
Key to overcoming those concerns will be the insights that State can produce. Mr Asseily shows a collection of early responses that show people have “real issues” about Google Glass’s privacy – no surprise there. More unexpected insights reveal that both socialists and capitalists share similar fears about cronyism, for instance, and that 25 per cent of people opining on Edward Snowden supported his whistleblowing but also thought the NSA’s Prism surveillance programme he revealed was justified.
“We are the simplest place to get your opinions heard and see where you stand relative to everyone else,” says Mr Asseily. “You connect to the world through what you think, not who you know. You don’t need followers to get heard.”
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