Ze Frank, the performer and humorist who once won a Webby for his personal website, is a guy who is plainly awed at the oddity of human beings on the Internet. He says the blue-and-white sterility of our popular social networks--Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare--is threatening to choke out the messy, weird home-made kitsch once typified by MySpace pages and message boards. That kitsch has value, Frank claims, and he has a new startup he says may help restore it.
"Messy is a perfect word," he says of the MySpace era. "There was a wonderful moment in design back in 2005 where the ability to build a website became more common," he says, "and people began creating websites simply for wonder."
Back then, many of us glibly thumbed our noses at the half-broken, day-glo themes people built on MySpace. But these days, our Facebook profiles are looking a little less like personal pages and more like RSS readers.
Frank's new startup Star.me, which is venture-backed and partnered with Microsoft for its HTML5 development, is a loosely organized Web game that lets people exchange virtual goods for free. Stars, actually. Similar to the kind you got in fourth grade for spelling, say, "barbecue" correctly.
Where Do New Stars Go? (Aw!)
What makes stars sort of ingenious is that they are apropos of nothing but your present sentiment toward another person. You don't have to accumulate some kind of "points" to earn or send a star; you don't have to check in somewhere; you don't have to buy something. If you think your friend is cool, or funny, or badass or whatever, you can award them one of many outlandish, graphically rich stars using only their email address, Facebook name or Twitter handle. (If you haven't signed up, your stars accumulate on an open page until you claim it by verifying one of those accounts.)
"Virtual goods right now are far too transient," says Frank. "They're like greeting cards. They just get thrown away." But Frank expects his stars to be "somewhere in between" transience and permanence--like real-life goods, some of which are treasured, others of which get lost.
The "joy" of the site, says Frank, is that when your stars accumulate for a while, "the important stuff is going to inevitably surface." By the "important stuff," he means the "why" that sits between you and your friend. Why are you friends? What do you like about each other? Frank says Facebook has done a good job establishing connections between users and the people, brands and artists they like, but that a friend request or "Like" button doesn't say anything about why that connection exists.
Frank, who defines Star.me as "light playspace," says that underneath the fantastical HTML5 graphics is actually "large scale system about identity, relationships and the stuff we appreciate about each other." Naturally, he adds, it's going to be messy.
What About "Progress"?
It's tempting to think of Frank as a throwback, but the more of his TED talks you watch, the more you realize his timing might be extremely adept: after all, other smart startups here at SXSW, like Scvngr, The Go Game, and Christopher Poole's Canvas are also thinking about the purity of fun on a very high level. "It's a great time to be visually extravagant and wondrous on the web," he says, because social networks like Facebook are so heavy-handed about how profiles look. "Star.me works because we need it now."
The site is still in limited beta, but invites may proliferate after the company releases new HTML5 games and customizable stars next week. (The company's partnership with Microsoft involved optimizing the site for the company's HTML5-championing Internet Explorer 9.) Frank says the site caters to people who are "radically addicted to this kind of stuff," meaning perhaps both virtual goods and good old fashioned silliness. ("I was a sticker collector," he admits.)
If you think of Facebook as some kind of infrastructure, virtual goods like stars might be a way to dress up the social graph and make it feel like more than a series of nodes on a network. "The MySpace era pointed to something that wasn't recognized at the time," Frank says. "At first we all say the mess of it, but that's what you get when you empower people to make things. They end up making these wonderful, if misguided, creations."
Despite his earnest enthusiasm for bringing good vibes to the Web, Frank's alliance with Microsoft and his mastery of game mechanics point to a viable business waiting in the wings. He bristles at the idea that the site is just for fun, and indicated to Fast Company that there might indeed be a way for Star.me to monetize these virtual trinkets down the road. For more color than you've seen all winter, check out Frank's personal Star.me profile, or go to Star.me to sign up for a beta invitation.
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