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Uniiverse Wants to Use the Web to Fight the Web
The virtual life is so 2011. How a Toronto startup wants to kickstart a real life sharing economy.

Of all the many creative ways to market a new online service, bashing the internet would rank among the strangest. But Uniiverse, a new “collaborative living” platform, did just that, with a video that trotted out many of the complaints of modern living from information glut to technology-induced alienation.

It is, to be frank, a little weird. But the idea behind the Toronto-based Uniiverse is to provide a solution to these problems by using the web to help connect people in the physical realm. Relying on what has become known as the “sharing economy,” the site is essentially a platform that lets people find others who want to participate in similar activities or offer services. The twist is that unlike a service like Craigslist, Uniiverse has been built in a way to establish trust and conduct financial transactions directly through the site.

Service creators Craig Follett, Ben Raffi and Adam Meghji saw an opportunity where people’s modern needs weren’t being catered. Follett and Raffi both participate in specialized sporting activities, and wondered what they could do to find others they could trust who were into similar things.

“What if we were to build something that would allow us to find people we wanted to interact with over these passions we have?” says Follett. “Then we thought ‘what if we extended it beyond these niches to help encourage people to interact in real life?’”

Say a person wants to find others who are into karaoke or wants to learn how to cook Texan food, they can turn to Uniiverse. Similarly, if you know how to teach piano or can offer a ride out to Montreal in exchange for gas money, the site lets you do that too.

It’s the kind of service inextricably linked to both a lifestyle and a moment in history. Follett’s rhetoric about the sharing economy is markedly different from the ideology that underpins most new start-ups.

“Previous decades have been about hyper-consumption and ‘I,’ the individual, and materialism,” he says. “But today, younger generations value experiences more than things. There’s a shift toward shared ownership. It’s more of a collaborative concept.”

If it sounds utopian, then at least it’s refreshingly so. While conducting transactions, like paying for language lessons, is certainly part of the service, there is no restriction on offering things and services for free. In one sense, it’s obviously an attempt to “unlock hidden assets” for a new economy; in another, it’s a platform that, in theory at least, wants to counteract modern alienation.

Of course, accepting a cooking lesson from a complete stranger isn’t always a wise idea. So Uniiverse is also trying to build in a system of trust in which you can see how users have been rated in the past, whether they are friends with your friends and whether they have engaged in interactions with those you know. It’s an attempt to take some of the sketchiness out of responding to a Craigslist ad and replacing it with a social graph.

The site doesn’t have huge numbers yet, and is focusing on the quantity of postings rather than traffic. Right now Uniiverse has about 200 listings in Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco and Boston, which are the four launch markets. There are a scattering of services elsewhere around the world that have sprung up mainly through the coverage the site has gotten on sites like Techcrunch and The Next Web.

Ideally, the founders would like to see themselves become the Craigslist of collaborative living, so that when people need a way to find a cycling partner or start a coffee hour for entrepreneurs who are parents, they turn to Uniiverse. It’s certainly an interesting idea, in no small part because its emphasis is on leveraging the web to improve our physical lives, using tech to deflect some of the downsides of tech. In a way, Uniiverse is an attempt to turn what scholars call the weak ties of online connections into the strong ties of in-person socializing.

Uniiverse has currently raised $750K of seed capital and will be looking to expand to other North American cities soon. To do so effectively, the team will have to find a way to incorporate themselves into the public consciousness and, moreover, get people comfortable with the idea of using the web to interact with strangers. The trust system is a start, but it only really works when it gains critical mass and an overlap between social networks starts to occur. With an approach as pleasantly different as Uniiverse’s, though, one almost hopes they can, just to see what might happen.


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

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