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The News According To Nuzzel

Jonathan Abrams has a solution to social-networking information overload. And it’s incredibly simple.

The News According To Nuzzel
Jonathan Abrams (standing) meets with some of the Founders Den entrepreneurs who beta-tested Nuzzel [Photo: Brant Ward, San Francisco Chronicle, Corbis, courtesy of Nuzzel]

If you want to find news articles worth reading, you could do a lot worse than to simply check out what your friends share on Twitter and Facebook. That isn’t exactly a revelation. It’s closer to a self-evident statement of fact.

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Trouble is, finding those recommendations can be surprisingly tough. They’re there in your social feeds, but submerged in a surging sea of selfies, jokes, personal reflections, viral lists, cat videos, and various other things which have nothing to do with current events. Blink, and something worthwhile may pass you by.

Clever use of technology, of course, might be able to help people discover articles on their social networks which are likely to pique their interest. It could be that a proprietary algorithm or a machine-learning breakthrough is called for–or at least a uniquely elegant user interface.

Or maybe the solution is obvious: Just get rid of everything else that isn’t a recommendation of an article by a friend, and then put the most popular links at the top.

In other words, do what Nuzzel does.

The app from a startup of the same name, created by veteran entrepreneur Jonathan Abrams, isn’t yet a breakout hit, even among web-savvy types. But its approach is resonating with some pretty influential people, such as GigaOm founder, venture capitalist, and Fast Company columnist Om Malik, who recently rhapsodized that Nuzzel “has made my life just better.”

If Nuzzel has a secret sauce, it’s that it has no secret sauce. All it does is show articles shared by your friends, sorted by popularity. The interface is utilitarian at best. But as it turns out, it’s a powerful way to put worthwhile reading material right in front of you, where you can’t miss it. The experience feels both personalized and serendipitous, and distinctly different from those of the bevy of mobile news apps which bring more technology and resources to the challenge, such as Circa, Inside, and Yahoo News Digest.

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Nuzzel’s iPhone app

By filtering the din of Facebook and Twitter down to a manageable list of articles which people cared enough about to share, Nuzzel appeals to folks for whom the sheer volume of material on social networks is intimidating. But it also caters to digitally intrepid types who fret that they might fall behind no matter how voracious their consumption of social feeds.

“For years I have wanted a DVR for Twitter for when I am away,” says venture capitalist Chris Sacca, who was a Nuzzel addict before he became an investor in it, via his firm Lowercase Capital. “What did I miss? What’s the news today? What are the people I care about all talking about? No one does real-time better than Twitter. But, if I am offline for a few hours and then log back in, I am always curious what I missed.”

Nuzzel is that DVR. And despite the fact that it hasn’t even arrived on Android phones yet–it’s currently an iPhone app and a website–it can be consumed in a variety of ways, making it an unexpectedly rich experience.

“There are people who primarily use Nuzzel on the web,” explains Abrams. “There are some people who primarily think of it as an email digest they get every morning. There are some people who use it primarily as an iPhone app that they click on, that’s on their home screen. And there are some people who primarily think of us as something that sends them push notifications on their device.”

Starting Small

Abrams isn’t disclosing how many users Nuzzel has signed up since it left private beta in March and launched its iPhone app in May, except to acknowledge that the number remains “small.” The company is is concentrating on ramping up its membership base rather than figuring out how to make money. Once it’s ready to cash in, it’s not hard to envision marketers paying to target Nuzzel users with sponsored content inserted in their feeds, much as companies already do on Facebook and Twitter.

What Nuzzel has accomplished so far, it’s done without needing huge sums of cash: The company, like the app, is stripped-down and simple. Though it has well-known backers such as Andreessen Horowitz, Charles River Ventures, and 500 Startups, it’s raised a modest $3.4 million to date, in two rounds of seed funding. It only recently hired its fifth team member, and is run out of Founders Den, a coworking space which Abrams cofounded around the corner from the San Francisco Giants’ home at AT&T Park, in the startup-dense SOMA neighborhood.

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Nuzzel’s low profile and willingness to grow at a measured pace makes for a striking contrast with Abrams’s best known past entrepreneurial effort, Friendster, which he started in 2002. That site got famous fast and helped popularize the concept of social networking. But what it’s best known for is fizzling out, as MySpace, and then Facebook, took off. (Its current incarnation, a Malaysian-owned gaming portal, shares little with the original Friendster except the name.)

Abrams “is a fellow who, like me, launched a social media company at slightly the wrong time,” says Jay Adelson, the cofounder of Digg–the pioneering sharing community which, like Friendster, created a splash and then failed to live up to expectations. However, thinking of Abrams only as someone who didn’t turn out to be Mark Zuckerberg is a pretty shallow assessment of the man.

A Dream Deferred

“Some entrepreneurs want to become rich or famous,” says Adelson, who runs his office out of Founders Den and is an advisor to Nuzzel. Abrams, however, “isn’t one of those guys. He gets impatient waiting for something, and so he finally creates it himself.”

In the case of Nuzzel, Abrams has been pondering the problem of social sharing for a long time–since the late 1990s, when he founded a startup called HotLinks, after spending time as an engineer at browser pioneer Netscape.

HotLinks was among the last search sites built before it was clear that Google and its PageRank algorithm would dominate web search. It let its members bookmark their favorite sites, and then collected those bookmarks into a Yahoo-like directory of the entire web. It bore some resemblance to the later and better-known service Del.icio.us. And like Nuzzel, it leveraged the wisdom of crowds to identify worthwhile content.

“The vision of HotLinks was that people should share cool links with other people,” Abrams says. “That you’re looking for stuff, I’m looking for stuff. That if we found cool stuff on the web, we could somehow share it.”

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Back in 1999, however, turning that vision into reality was far harder than it is in 2014. Nuzzel sits atop social networks built by others and leverages their existing features and vast membership bases. HotLinks would only have had a shot at success if it had been able to build and sustain all that on its own. Instead, it was one of countless startups which got washed away when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. “We were obviously way too early,” says Abrams.

Like Nuzzel, Abrams’s Web 1.0 startup HotLinks was about sharing cool links

Flash forward more than a decade–past Friendster and past Socializr, the latter being an event planning service which Abrams founded and then sold to a rival called Punchbowl.

A few years ago, he found that he was getting more and more of his news from links his friends shared on Twitter and Facebook. But he also felt increasingly daunted by the sheer quantity of items, and worried that he might fail to see something good if he didn’t monitor his feeds obsessively. In short, he craved a less noisy approach to news.

“It seemed like a very obvious idea,” Abrams says. “I actually thought, okay, this is going to be built. I thought Digg was going to do it, and there was a company called Summify that Twitter bought, and there was other stuff out there…So initially, I had the idea but didn’t actually work on it.”

Eventually, he took matters into his own hands by putting together a prototype and sharing it some of the entrepreneurs at Founders Den, He wasn’t startled when they said nice things about it–“Everybody will check out their friend’s product once”–but a couple of weeks later, they were still using it. That seemed like a promising sign.

News, Not Noise

What Abrams had prototyped was the first rough draft of Nuzzel. He says that the name he chose for his creation has no deep meaning other than being a variation on the word “Nuzzle.” Even if the similarity to the words “news” and “nozzle” is coincidental, it’s evocative. Nuzzel is a nozzle for news–a far more efficient alternative to gulping information directly from the firehoses that are Facebook and Twitter.

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Unlike Yahoo News Digest–an app which delivers tidy packages of news twice a day–Nuzzel doesn’t artificially constrain the material it gives you. If you want, you can gorge on your friends’ content, and then move on to read stories recommended by friends of friends. But it does help busy people get get in, get informed, and then get out.

“If 17 of my friends share something, something big has happened,” says Nuzzel COO Kent Lindstrom, who is, like Abrams, a Friendster alumnus. “If five people shared it, that’s cool. Once something gets down to the twos or the ones, I’ve seen the most important news of the day.”

“It just sounds too simple to work. Sorting the news by what your friends share most–that doesn’t sound like a big deal. It turns out it works profoundly well.”

If you tire of reading your friends’ links on Nuzzel, you can read ones from friends of friends

Which brings up an unavoidable question: If the idea that makes Nuzzel work is so straightforward, does it run the risk of being rendered superfluous by something comparable from a major social network?

After all, if Twitter and Facebook chose to mimic the concept, they could roll it out immediately to hundreds of millions of people. And there’s plenty of evidence that both companies are intensely interested in the news and their role in spreading it.

When the World Cup was going on, for instance, Twitter even reworked its homepage around it, and turned country codes into custom “hashflags.” Facebook, meanwhile, sticks “Trending” links to news stories in prime real estate in the upper right-hand corner of your homepage. It also launched Paper, an iPhone app which is–among other things–a sort of news magazine reimagined for the smartphone era.

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Abrams, not surprisingly, maintains that Nuzzel wouldn’t be a cakewalk to clone. “There’s a million boring little details underneath that make Nuzzel work properly,” he says, “The kind of boring details that browsers and search engines have, that users should be completely oblivious to.”

Facebook’s “Trending” news links bear superficial resemblance to Nuzzel

Facebook’s “Trending” links may prove his point. Though superficially similar to Nuzzel, they appear to be based on what teeming masses of Facebook users are discussing, not what your friends are sharing, so they feel like impersonal information overload. And the news sources in the Paper app–based on content deals with major media brands such as NBC News, the New York Times, and MarketWatch–have none of the serendipity that comes from mining your friends’ feeds for recommendations the way Nuzzel does.

Twitter and Facebook could still implement more Nuzzel-esque features. But in the end, news will never be the only thing that’s important to the major social networks, or even the most important thing. That’s an advantage for a specialist such as Abrams’s app.

“The challenge for Twitter and Facebook is that they need to serve many masters and thus they need to be more generic in nature,” says Om Malik. “More importantly, the two companies won’t likely work with each other, so there is a room for [an] independent.”

The Friends of Others

Assuming that Nuzzel is around for the long haul, there are some obvious ways that Abrams and his team can expand on the concept in ways that will keep current users engaged and make it alluring to a bigger audience than its current small-but-dedicated fan base of early adopters.

Yves Béhar’s Nuzzel feed

For one thing, it doesn’t have to be solely about your friends’ news recommendations. Browsing the links shared by another person’s friends is also an effective organizing principle for news. “Being able to look at someone else’s Nuzzel is actually a pretty big idea,” says COO Lindstrom.

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That’s already how I use the app. My friends’ feeds are often full of articles I’ve already found on my own–which makes sense, since an awful lot of them are tech journalists, Silicon Valley folk, or people with backgrounds otherwise similar to mine. But Nuzzel also lets me browse the feeds of people who I don’t know, such as design god Yves Béhar, one of the app’s “Featured Feeds.” (Others include entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, TechCrunch coeditor Alexia Tsotsis, and Parts Unknown CNN host Anthony Bourdain, among others.)

It’s important to note that it doesn’t matter whether Béhar is sharing stuff himself, or whether he actively uses Nuzzel. As long as he has a critical mass of friends who share items on his social networks, he’ll have an interesting Nuzzel feed. And he does.

Perhaps more intriguingly, the company is also experimenting with curating themed lists of links shared by groups of people with something in common. In June, for instance, VentureBeat‘s Tom Cheredar reported on a feed which Nuzzel had created based on articles shared by the top 1,000 investors on angel funding site AngelList. If you’re interested in tech startups, it makes for good, insider-y reading.

There’s no reason why the company couldn’t do something similar with a thousand athletes, or a thousand scientists, or a thousand people in the TV industry, or all of the above–all based on what those people are sharing on Facebook and Twitter, regardless of whether they joined Nuzzel themselves. Topic-based recommendations would make Nuzzel feel even more like a modernized version of what Abrams had tried to build with HotLinks, and would give you something which the big social networks do not.

Nuzzel’s mascot, a hedgehog, was chosen in a contest held to find a symbol akin to Twitter’s birdie

Abrams didn’t lay out Nuzzel’s exact strategy for me, but did tell me that aggregation of this general sort will be part of its future. “The possibilities,” he says, “are probably endless.”

As Nuzzel does get more ambitious, preserving the attributes which make it inviting in the first place will be essential. “You don’t want to take it in too many directions,” says Jay Adelson. “You want to tweak the user interface, make it nicer over time, add the ability to find and share those filters or lenses or whatever you want to call them. There’s a lot of temptation to go crazy. But I think they’ll grow their user base without having to do that.”

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Abrams is keenly aware that it would be possible to screw up his brainchild by overcomplicating it with new features. “It’s about editing,” he says. “A lot of it is what you take out. A big part of Nuzzel is what Nuzzel doesn’t do, doesn’t have, doesn’t try to be.” Which means that for this company–even more than the average promising startup–the key to long-term success will lie in doing more without overdoing it.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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