Neil Young, the co-founder and CEO of a startup called N3twork, isn’t unreservedly in love with the web. He says that it isn’t organized in a way that maps to the human brain, is too hard to search and isn’t designed for modern devices. He also isn’t afraid of big challenges: His company aims to fix everything that’s wrong with the web with a new app for the iPhone and iPad that’s neatly organized by topic and populated with content shared by real people. He calls the concept the “Internet of Interests.”
N3twork (you’ve already surmised that the “3″ is pronounced like an “E”) is launching today in a sort of semi-closed beta. Anyone can download it from the App Store and peruse a generic feed of content that members are posting. But in order to fully participate, you’ll need to apply for an invite, which the company says it’ll fulfill as swiftly as possible. Young — formerly of mobile game developer Ngmoco, and not the Neil Young who’s currently working on a music player — recently previewed the app for me and provided me with an early-access version.
I haven’t seen anything else that’s based on exactly the same idea as N3twork, but aspects of it remind me of a number of other services. It feels a little like a more group-oriented Pinterest, or a Twitter in which hashtags are mandatory. Because it’s topic-driven, you might use it for stuff you’d otherwise do in Facebook‘s Groups or as a Flipboard magazine. It also made me think of two defunct services: Clipboard and Chime.in.
The app is built around subject-specific channels with hashtags for names: #CARS, #INTERIORDESIGN, #FUNNY, #GREATOUTDOORS, #LEICA and anything else a member decides to create. Every channel is collaborative, since anyone can contribute to it. Each post can consist of up to three items: photos, videos and/or links to web pages, all of which you can grab using a built-in web browser. And there are Facebook-like options for commenting on items, liking them and reposting them.
I tried the iPad version of the app, which is slick, highly visual and addictively browsable in the way the best content-oriented apps are. There’s even a neat mode that lets you beam a slideshow-like view of a feed to a TV equipped with an Apple TV box.
Certain aspects of N3twork, in its current form, don’t feel fully baked. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to see the full names of other members or even brief Twitter-style profiles, or to pull up a list of the channels they follow. (That gives it a slightly impersonal feel.) I also don’t understand why you can only assign a post to a single channel as you’re creating it. After it’s up, you can repost it to others.
Young may think that web search is imperfect, but the current form of N3twork barely has a search feature at all — it finds only channels by their name and any assigned keywords, not individual items. That means that the odds are pretty high that things you’d like will go undiscovered; the app, for now, is really about serendipitous exploration rather than research.
N3twork’s biggest challenge is the same once faced by any new app or service that aims to serve, essentially, as a container for content created and curated by its members: It needs to find a quorum of wildly enthusiastic users who’ll fill it up with great stuff. When I checked it out, there was just a trickle of content. For instance, nobody had contributed to #TECHNEWS in more than two weeks. #SANFRANCISCO had a grand total of two items; #NEWYORK, #BOSTON and #CHICAGO didn’t exist. #JFK had plenty of material, but nobody had bothered to create #OBAMA.
Until an app is fully open to the public, it’s hard to predict whether such a quorum will form itself. (Chime.in, which I was excited about, never went anywhere and died in less than two years.) Still, it’s not too early to say that N3twork has potential. It wouldn’t have to be a better Internet than the Internet to attract a crowd and make a name for itself.