Technologizer

Wavii: The World Reorganized to Look like Facebook

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Before the dawn of Facebook, the notion of organizing information into never-ending feeds of terse status updates would have sounded like gobbledegook. But Facebook proves that when it comes to keeping track of your friends’ activities, it works — or at least gives you a new way to see your world.

So what if someone imposed a Facebook-like structure on the messy, repetitive unmanageable tangle of news and info that makes up the rest of the web? What if everything was made up of feeds of terse status updates?

That’s the big idea behind Wavii, a low-profile Seattle startup that tech watchers have been curious about for a while now. The site is finally going public, and it’s fascinating.

Like a search engine, Wavii crawls the web and analyzes the information it finds. But rather than simply creating a full-text index, it attempts to understand the concepts it comes across. It knows about people, companies, products and other entities, and knows about many of the things they do, such as introducing, acquiring, selling, criticizing, marrying and breaking up.

As the service identifies nuggets of news — it deals in fact rather than opinion — it strips them down to their bare essentials, de-dupes them and creates status updates (sometimes with illustrations) that link back to the original sources.

A few random examples, quoted verbatim:

  • Tom Hanks is in talks to play Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks”.
  • Kevin Systrom will make $400 million as a result of Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram.
  • Apple has internally seeded a prototype next-generation iPhone with the iPhone 4S design.
  • Lady Gaga has been named in TIME’s 100 Most Influential Fashion Icons list.
  • Vladimir Putin congratulated athletes at Russia’s paralympic biathlon championship.

In some cases the updates are rather complex:

  • Bobby Valentine has made his decision on the Boston Red Sox rotation to start the season, but he won’t share it until Sunday as he said he still has not spoken to all of the people involved about their roles.
  • Toyota has subpoenaed emails and other communication between one of its most vocal critics and three news outlets, looking for anything related to sudden acceleration lawsuits filed against the company.
Wavii for iPPhone

Wavii

Wavii packs all of the updates it creates into a service, available on the web and in an iPhone app, that feels a lot like Facebook, with hints of Twitter and Path. You follow topics (and can also follow real Wavii users). You can comment on updates and click icons to express Like, Anger, Surprise and other emotions. Your home page is a Facebook-like newsfeed that includes the newest status updates for everything you follow.

So how well does it work? It’s slick and addictively browsable, like Facebook itself. Most of the updates make perfect sense, and there’s very little duplication. In general, it’s a fun way to find out stuff about topics you care about.

I did notice, however, that Wavii’s knowledge of the world isn’t quite as vast as it seems at first. It may know who Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine is, but it doesn’t know who Tim Lincecum, Bubba Watson, Roger Federer and Venus Williams are. (They might still show up in a story, but you can’t follow them.)

And occasionally, the whole idea breaks down: Wavii either misunderstands what it found on the web or fails to summarize it clearly. For instance, early entries about Best Buy are cryptic, or, in the case of one saying that the company was acquired by Google (!), downright wrong:

Wavii

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

I didn’t see as many oddities with more recent items; maybe Wavii is getting smarter as it goes along.

While Wavii’s technology isn’t perfect, it’s still remarkable, especially for a brand new site. The site isn’t going to render more conventional news aggregators such as Google News obsolete: like Facebook, it’s more of a rushing river of undifferentiated news items than a snapshot of what matters most. We know from Facebook and Twitter that the rushing-river approach can be hugely appealing — and I’m looking forward to seeing where Wavii goes with it.

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