Mike Isaac

Recent Posts by Mike Isaac

With Spindle, Ex-Microsoft Engineers Rethink the Social Discovery App

There’s a running dialogue that has bubbled up with the rise of Facebook and Twitter over the past decade: Googling the indexable, global Web isn’t the end-all for information anymore. The Social Web can serve us data just as pertinent, if not more so. It’s a race for relevance, they say, and social is gaining ground fast.

Within every divide like this, of course, there is middle ground. Bubbled up between these two camps comes Spindle, a start-up that aims for the best of both these worlds: To make social content more discoverable — and not just from your friends.

Spindle pitches itself as “tacit search” tech, an engine to sift through the torrent of data that streams through the social Web on a minute-by-minute basis. Rather than focus on what our friends may be opining on, Spindle wants to take that social data and make it actionable, something we can use, visit or interact with.

To do that, Spindle has to position itself in the physical world. That part is easy — it’s an app that lives on your smartphone. Open it while you’re on the street, and it’ll serve up information on local shops, businesses and points of interest.

Of course this draws an immediate corollary to Foursquare’s most recent discovery model iteration. But Spindle has the leg up here, CEO and co-founder Pat Kinsel tells me. Unlike Foursquare, where businesses have to create their own venues to be seen, Spindle makes use of Facebook and Twitter public APIs, sucking in all the data and updates that come from a business’ Page or Twitter account. And with the billion-plus sources of data that make up the Facebook/Twitter corpus, that’s a hell of a lot of input.

The nine-man Spindle team spent the past two years of their lives working on how to structure all of that data to make it useful. Spindle’s search system takes into account your location and other factors — like time of day, types of businesses nearby, and actual keywords found inside of business’ status updates — to show you places you may want to visit.

Example: I’m walking down Market Street and suddenly realize I’m thirsty. It’s noon, and the nearby Bisou Bistro updated its Facebook page with a status saying “Stop by from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a free glass of Merlot with lunch!” Spindle recognizes that I’m in that relevant window of time, and Bisou Bistro will show up on my list (and assuming I’m a day-drinking wino, I’ll quickly hop on the deal).

“It’s not just about what’s near me,” Kinsel tells me. “It’s about what’s happening near me. What’s going on, what’s relevant to me as it occurs. That’s much harder to do than just surfacing nearby locations.”

With echoes of Larry Page’s search tech, Spindle works on a ranking system, assigning values to different pieces of Twitter and Facebook content based on those aforementioned variables (time, location, etc.). The better a certain place of interest scores, the higher in the ranks it will show up. Top-ranked content will push the place of interest to the top of the Spindle feed. But again, that feed is ever changing, depending on where I am and what’s going on.

And the team’s pedigree proves they know search. Along with Spindle co-founders Simon Yun and Alex Lambert, Kinsel worked at Microsoft’s FUSE Labs on the first iteration of Bing Social, a search function built into Microsoft’s Bing search engine, surfacing real-time data from Facebook and Twitter along with other search results. (It’s like Google’s “Search Plus Your World,” but for Microsoft.)

Though obviously impressive, the team still takes issue with this version of social search. It’s incorporating social data into an existing search paradigm — sticking content on the “ten blue links” results page, as he puts it. Spindle is his first attempt to reinvent social search in the context of discovery. “Structure reinvented Web search,” Kinsel says, speaking of his ranking system. “Now we’re bringing that to social search.”

This structure speaks to the very essence of the app’s name. As you may know, a spindle is used in spinning and weaving thread into textiles, collecting disparate threads together to produce a unified yarn. That’s exactly the philosophy of Kinsel’s app: “We ingest data from lots of different sources, spooling them into the structured search system,” Kinsel tells me. “Ultimately, it produces a better thread on the other side.”

Today’s launch is just a beginning. Right now the app will soft launch in Boston and San Francisco so Kinsel and the team can do a first round of testing and garner user feedback. The team will flesh the app out more fully in the coming months, adding more verticals to the categories that already exist (right now there are six, with obvious inclusions like “food and drink, shopping and nightlife,” among others).

But even beyond verticals, there’s much more room to grow. What if Spindle could work on better personalizing results based on your activity on Facebook and Twitter? Or what if Spindle took into account what other people on Facebook and Twitter — besides the businesses themselves — were saying about a particular place of interest, weighing that into the relevance of your search results? Spindle could grow into a personalized search engine, learning over time what sorts of things you’d like to visit with every new status update you make. In essence, Spindle could grow into actual discovery, rather than just an electronic version of a Fodor’s guidebook like so many other discovery apps seem to be.

It’s pie-in-the-sky thinking, yes. But if you want to re-imagine what social search can be, these are the types of considerations you need to take into account. Kinsel, of course, won’t confirm or deny these aspirations, opting for a simpler, more modest response:

“We’re working on it.”


Latest Video

View all videos »

Search »

I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik