Visualizing the scope of what we share from around the Web is a challenge, but given the popularity of tactile devices like iPhones and iPads it seems a valuable one to undertake. Interacting with website content is becoming more and more expected, and developers are taking note. Pearltrees, a startup we wrote about to announce its $6.7 million in funding early this year, just may be at the forefront of haptically curating information, and the company says it has the metrics to prove it.
We caught up with Pearltrees yesterday when the company celebrated the app’s 1.0 milestone. Pearltrees explains that 1.0 signifies the cohesiveness of its product across its three supported platforms: Web, iPhone, and iPad. It also marks, in some respects, the true launch of the site, despite having officially having launched in 2008. Oliver Starr, chief evangelist for Pearltrees, explains to me that Pearltrees started out as a Web app, but was developed for devices like iPhone in mind. The Web app was just an intermediary platform, since at the time Apple’s mobile wouldn’t be able to support the tech required to develop Pearltrees for the iPhone. In fact, the iPhone app wasn’t launched until July of this year.
Pearltrees was founded on the principles that Tim Burners-Lee, the godfather and founder of the Web, had in mind when developing what we know as the Internet. First, anyone should be able to view any piece of information published on the Web — the leading thought of Web 1.0. The second is that anybody should be able to publish any piece of information, which happened with the rise of blogging, wikis, and Twitter. Finally, and most importantly, the third criterion was that anyone could organize collections of this information.
Pearltrees visually aggregates bookmarks of websites, photos, and anything found online into visual “pearls.” Collectively the pearls make up a tree of information, clearly where the app gets its name. Users can save their latest interests from around the Web individually, but multiple users sharing the same interest can collaboratively curate a single pearl as well. It sort of feels like a visual, graphic Wikipedia without the user-contributed text. For instance, one of Starr’s favorite pearls has over 150 members and curates TED Talks. As he took me through it, the pearl was admittedly expertly curated and there didn’t appear to be any irrelevant information to be found.
The moderation of community pearls is left up to the devices of its members. Despite this, Starr tells me he’s only had to administratively ban approximately fifty accounts, including spam bots. It’s an astoundingly small number considering the 700,000 active users, two million unique visitors per month, and about 30 million pearls. And Starr knows a thing or about community moderation. “Being a veteran of moderating tech comments, I can tell you that’s not the norm.” Starr was Michael Arrington’s first employee at TechCrunch and responsible not only for creating “MobileCrunch,” but also worked as the tech blog’s first community moderator.
Pearltrees has access to unprecendented information about its users through its interest graph, called TreeRank. It can group pearls into similar interests and display them to you. Should you search for “Wolves,” the app would then display all pearls relevant to your search query. But since the algorithm scrapes your interests, it knows exactly what Pearltrees’ users interests are and similar things you’d want to see. It’s a powerful feature that, and one you’d think a marketer’s dream.
Despite this goldmine of user information, the company refuses to sell out. “We’ve kept true to the spirit of the company and the product, which is that we wouldn’t leverage what our users do through marketing,” says Starr.
Instead, Pearltrees is taking the more difficult and less traveled route to making money by selling services. Luckily, the for-pay feature was one requested by the users. Now users can pay $4.99 per month or $49.99 for one year to make pearls private. But this model serves a dual purpose: It implicitly improves Pearltrees’ platform as a repository of valuable curated content. Putting a price on something will increase its value, and while that can be difficult to prove, it’s been done before — sites like Quora, Wikipedia, and even Evernote have showed us this.
By default all pearls are public, so anyone can see your pearls. With Pearltrees’ mantra to be host to a library of valuable content, Starr explains that the pearls that users want to hide are typically content that Pearltrees wants you to pay to hide anyway. If it’s a pearl containing embarrassing content or even something not worth sharing, then it’s likely not content that would be helpful to other users should they find that pearl. So users should help pay for the hosting costs if it’s not going to contribute to the benefit of Pearltrees as a whole.
It’s a big bet, but one that the site is confident it can take. Pearltrees 1.0 is available now via the Web and for iOS devices.