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At INcubes Demo Day, Tech's Devils and Angels
“When you hear gossip, you don't usually know where it comes from. And teens and kids do it anyway. So we introduced a fun way to do it.”

Since its arrival into our lives, the web has been a place for us to realize long-held desires. What we want, however, tends to range from the positively angelic to the downright dastardly, especially online — a fact on clear display at the INcubes Demo Day this week.

The event was the final step of a three-month curriculum at INcubes. One of Toronto’s newest and arguably more exciting startup incubators, INcubes took six fledgling companies and provided them with the space, networking, legal support and even funding to build viable businesses. The intensive program–which was broken down into product-development, business model creation and investor pitches–culminated in Demo Day, in which the companies presented their visions to a room at the ROM full of investors.

And if the web is a sphere for the range of human wants from the superego to the id, then startup Gossipz is definitely aiming at the latter. Put simply, Gossipz is a way to gossip anonymously about friends both on and off Facebook. Understandably, it’s a controversial idea, and one that represents the old adage that if there’s a way to make money off it, someone will eventually do it.

Founded by Anton Belov, Mark Gelman and Anatoly Dobrovinsky, Gossipz stemmed from Gelman’s interaction with his teenage niece. As the team relates, the idea for the service came from her simple question as to why she couldn’t gossip anonymously on Facebook. After looking at social question and answer site Formspring–which saw its userbase rise exponentially after introducing an anonymous option–they decided to build a Facebook app.

In its current form, users can post anonymous gossip within the app, tease with a header like an email subject line, and up-and-down vote others’ gossip. The entire thing functions anonymously, but still functions through being attached to a Facebook account. That means you never specifically know who says what, but you know about whom something is being said. 

When asked why the app was built, Dobrovinsky offers a pragmatic explanation.

“People love to know the secrets of others,” he says. “When you hear gossip, you don’t usually know where it comes from. And teens and kids do it anyway. So we introduced a fun way to do it.”

In response to the obvious questions about cyberbullying and harassment, Gossipz suggests it has moderation tools to prevent the use of certain words, and that repeat offenders will be kicked off the service. But beyond the obvious irony that an anonymous gossip service can only safely exist within the real name structure of Facebook, it’s also hard to see how the service will be used for anything but cyberbullying. It seems it’s not too cliché to point out that this is dark side of a free market in which business use cases take priority over social ones.

But if Gossipz represents the more sinister side of tech, then startup 2.5 tries something a bit different. Long in development, 2.5 aims in some sense to be the evolution of the search engine: something that will contextualize and make sense of large amounts of text data, and then present that in a visually interesting way.

Co-founder Jeff Walter uses the example of wheatgrass, in which a huge amount of raw material is juiced to produce just 2.5 eponymous pounds of wheatgrass juice, a concentrated superfood that contains all the best of that which it came from. 2.5 looks to do the same for any set of unstructured text, whether that’s tweets, chatlogs, emails or any similar mass of data. Put it through their “juicer” software engine and get what the team calls a “thematic signature” at the end, a representation of data that helps make sense of it, whether that’s a visualisation, a paragraph of condensed text

It’s high-level stuff, and not easily-articulated. Essentially, though, it looks to one-up a typical Google search. On a typical search engine, you look for a piece of information and take in results one search at a time, piecing things  together yourself. With 2.5, the goal is that you search for something you’re interested in — say voting habits in Toronto or 19th century literary trends — and you can get a condensed, semantically useful snapshot of all that information in one summarized nugget.

Alas, it’s all a bit too theoretical at the moment, as the pitch by the team remained a little unclear as to what the actual product is, whether a piece of downloadable software, a website or something else. Nonetheless, it’s promising idea that reflects an increasing push to use the web to solve the problem of information overload rather than add to it.

But then, useful things are often difficult to explain at first, especially if what they offer is new. The flipside, however, is Gossipz: an idea easily explained, understood and implemented–and insidious for that very reason.


Navneet Alang is a tech critic at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @navalang.

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