Shaker Is Your Friendly Neighborhood Bar—Online

Israeli entrepreneurs create a "Cheers" for the Internet.

Remember how a lot of people once dismissed Twitter? "Why do I want to read about what my friend is making for dinner?" they asked. Same with Facebook: "Why would I want to read status updates?" 

Shaker, a site that's launching in the U.S. today, may provoke the same kind of initial reaction. A lot of people are going to take one look and write it off as nothing more than a Second Life redux. 

But it's not. It's got more to it than that. And it's possible that the startup, which has the backing not only of top VCs in the U.S. and Israel but also top figures in the entertainment world, will, like Twitter and Facebook, eventually find its groove and become a core part of the social media mix. Shaker says it's working with Live Nation and BandPage to create a series of artist events in the coming weeks. The company says that bands and artists have shown the most interest in using Shaker, to connect with fans, and Lady Gaga manager Troy Carter and Justin Bieber manager Scooter Braun have both invested in the company.

The app creates "physical spaces" online, like the bar in the image above, where people can socialize, via avatars, hanging out with both people they know and ones they don't. (And, yes, this is where we, too, initially roll our eyes and grumble, "Fer crying out loud, if I want to hang out with people, I'm going to go to a real bar and hang out with real people." But bear with us.)

"I believe deeply in this vision of building serendipity to connect people."

Cofounder and CEO Yonatan Maor says he got the idea after hanging out in a bar in Tel Aviv. He'd gone there to hear music but ended up running into someone he only vaguely knew. They spent the evening chatting, and by the end of the night, each had made a new friend.

"It wasn't something incredible," Maor tells Fast Company. "Those things happen all the time. But those kinds of natural experiences never happen online."

The goal, then, is to build a mechanism, on top of the social and interest graphs that Facebook has created, that offer people the same kind of opportunity to socialize and "bump into" people they might enjoy bumping into and getting to know in the real world.

"There hasn't been a lot of innovation in terms of connecting people randomly who would not [otherwise] be connected," Menlo Ventures partner Shervin Pishevar, who has invested in Shaker, tells Fast Company. "I believe deeply in this vision of building serendipity to connect people."

Shaker opens today tomorrow with a virtual bar, called Club 53 (named after the number of the building where the Israeli founders all lived in Tel Aviv). The bar will be open to all comers, and folks can go there to socialize starting this Friday evening at 7:53 PT.

But in the long run, the goal is to create different kinds of venues. So, for example, they might create a bar where a band could launch a record or simply hang out with their fans. In February, the NBA, in a test run of the system, created an arena where fans could hang out. Maor also talks about one day creating stores, parties, and community meetups. In January, Shaker even created an online space for a virtual Arab-Israeli peace conference.

In all these instances, however, Shaker's overall goal remains the same: to create the conditions that allow like-minded souls to connect.

Once inside a venue, you can hang out (read, "chat") with both people you know and those you don't. Facebook friends are outlined in blue, and friends of friends are outlined in yellow. 

Unlike in Second Life, you can't dress up your avatar, much less parade around as a purple bear. Men get the male avatar, and women get the female one. And you can't create spaces of your own. The goal isn't to allow you to wander around a fantasy world. It's simply to serve as a catalyst for real-time interactions between real people.

For that reason, you also can't hide your identity. Your Facebook profile photo appears above your avatar, and if people click on you, they can see details pulled from your profile, to see what you two might have in common (see image below).

"Those kinds of details break the ice and are a basis for interactions," Gad Maor, Yonatan's brother and a Shaker cofounder, tells Fast Company.

Shaker also works hard to ensure that the venues are filled with people who genuinely might have something in common. As a venue fills up, Shaker splits it into multiple instances. A proprietary algorithm automatically drops users into the instance that includes the people with whom they're likely to have the most in common. So, for example, if you go to Club 53 tomorrow, there will probably be a number of instances running at once, and the system will send you to the one where it thinks you'll have the most fun.

Yonatan Maor says the algorithm is the piece the Shaker team has been focusing on most over the last year. When the company first started piloting Shaker in Israel, they didn't have algorithms to curate which people should end up in each instance. "When we had people that were not connected, it didn't work," Maor says. "We would see the same amount of people [coming to the venue as come today], but the session time was about a fourth."

The algorithm seems to have changed that. During the half hour the Maor brothers took Fast Company on a tour of the Israeli version of Shaker, Gad Maor said at least 60 different conversations took place among users.

If the algorithm does, indeed, work as promised, it's easy to see how this might become a new, organic way for people to socialize. Just as Facebook, for example, has allowed us to stay better in touch with friends who'd drifted away, because it gave us a lightweight way to touch base with them every now and then, Shaker gives us a lightweight way to have the kinds of interactions that now take several hours' worth of commitment when we do them in the real world (as when you head out to the neighborhood bar). And just as we've become used on Twitter to chitchatting and becoming friends with people we've never actually met in the real world but with whom we have common interests, it's possible that Shaker could become a similar venue for creating connections with like-minded people.

It's true that the older you are, the more likely you're first going to have to get over the idea that hanging out in some kind of animated online bar seems, well, sort of cheesy. But then, online dating seemed kind of goofy at first blush, too.

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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