Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Katango Takes an Algorithmic Approach to the Google Circles Problem

It’s not just Google that’s been thinking about easing the awkwardness of social interactions with your work, school, social, family and other types of contacts online. A new start-up called Katango promises to automatically detect natural groupings of people on networks like Facebook.

Like Google Circles, the management interface for the new Google+ initiative, Katango is a tool for individual users to better understand and segment their own contacts, rather than a group creation tool where everyone opts into participating.

“We wondered why there wasn’t any automatic in social, why with all this technology we were still doing everything manually,” explained Katango co-founder Mike Munie, one of the two recently graduated Stanford artificial intelligence Ph.D.s who constitute the founding team of the company along with their advisor Yoav Shoham. (A guest lecturer in one of Shoham’s classes, Kleiner Perkins’ Bing Gordon, became their lead investor.)

The neat part of Katango is that after you feed it your Facebook credentials, the site spits out some very smart groupings of your friends. For me, there were groups for people I went to high school with, people I play Ultimate Frisbee with, people I know from Silicon Valley (actually, in all three cases, there were multiple groups for each of these categories).

Katango doesn’t indicate why you know these people — it’s up to you to slap on a title like “high school” — but it detects similarities due to factors like users’ locations, schools and friends of friends who are also friends (which is kind of nifty, really).

However, the downsides of Katango might be showstoppers: Its premise is quite geeky, and (for now, at least) it functions as an iPhone app riding on top of users’ interactions with social networks. So a potential user would open the Katango app and choose a group to publish a Facebook status message, rather than going to Facebook. That status message would then appear on Facebook with the appropriate privacy settings.

On the plus side, Katango works across multiple platforms, so that same status message could be sent as an email to people who don’t use Facebook. And the company plans to add LinkedIn and Twitter as well as other mobile platforms.

Still, Katango has some pretty cool technology — as well as heavyweight backing, in the form of $5 million from Kleiner Perkins’ sFund, behind its smart founders from Stanford — so perhaps they’ll find a way to get that technology to people.

Here’s another way to put it: “The neat thing about being an algorithmic company is we’re data-agnostic,” said Yee Lee, a former PayPal and Slide executive who is now Katango’s VP of product.


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— Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”