Here's the strange logic that powers your garden-variety, location-based social app: You like running. I like running. You're at a bar. I'm at the same bar. Thus, you and I should have tons to talk about and be best friends. But how much does our mutual affinity for the same brands of energy gels and beers say about how likely we'd be to make a meaningful connection?
"That’s not really how relationships work in real life," says Seattle-based entrepreneur Jason Gowans. "Just because someone else is a runner doesn’t mean I’m going to suddenly start talking to them."
So Gowans and three colleagues created Härnu, a platform that uses a map-based interface to encourage users to start real-time conversations with people anywhere in the world by harnessing Google Translate to allow you to chat with anyone in any language. (The name comes from contracting the Swedish words for "here" and "now.") The automated translation isn't perfect, but Gowans says its purpose is just to keep the conversation going, and for that goal he says it works very well.
When you sign into Härnu using a Facebook, Twitter, or Google account, you can write a short bio to let other users know what you want to talk about, whether that's local food or political movements. If you have a question for people from a particular country, you can write a message on Härnu and specify where on the world map you want your question to go. When people in that country log into Härnu, they'll see your message as a pin on the map and can choose to respond.
Gowans says he felt awkwardly forced into the interactions prompted by social-local apps such as Highlight, At The Pool, and Sonar. ("If I see someone at the bar, I'll just go talk to them," he says. "It’s not like, 'Hang on, I can’t talk to you right now because I’ve got to look you up on my app.'") He was also frustrated by the "birds-of-a-feather" culture on Facebook, where you generally seek people you already know, who often share your opinions and viewpoints and circulate a lot of the same information.
Härnu, of course, is not the first to attempt to break down language barriers that can inhibit people from connecting. Multilingual social network Xiha Life also uses Google Translate, but it's more about users creating and sharing content from their own blogs or homepages than about an exchange of ideas. Facebook offers a translation service powered by Bing. And Twitter has hundreds of thousands of human volunteers connected to its Translation Center.
But Gowans says he sees Harnu's potential as a social search engine as much as it is a social network.
"I think the notion that people are going to start to play a role in the results you get when you search for something is out there right now," he says, referencing Bing's double-down on social and Google's Search Plus Your World. "You could argue what we’ve built with Härnu is an extension of social search."
Härnu launched in public beta in August, and has attracted signups across more than 80 countries. Though Gowans didn't share how many users Härnu has, it's safe to say the network hasn't experienced massive scaling problems yet. For now, users can employ Twitter-like hashtags to organize conversation, and Härnu engages a sorting algorithm that controls which content gets served up when.
It's also experimenting with two apps, one for news and one for music, that provide filtered ways to find content on the platform. Click on the news tab, select a country, and you'll get a host of stories breaking that day, powered by Global Voices and Google News. An integration with SoundCloud's API lets you discover new music by country. Gowans says more apps are in the works, as well as a forthcoming mobile app.
"A lot of viewpoints come from a place of ignorance, when you don't necessarily really know much about anything and your only source of information is what your local press or media is telling you," he says. "We’ve just created something that we hope is going to create some empathy for other people and other cultures around the world."
[Image: Flickr user greencandy8888]