Seattleite Jason Gowans has been all over the map. And he’s made a crucial insight during his travels: it’s true that the biggest online social networks like Facebook and Twitter have made the world more inter-connected. But much of that networking centers around reinforcing existing connections – for example your friends, family, and co-workers.
As Gowans explained to me, true global social networking should encourage us to initiate friendships with new people in new places. It should mean that a mom in California can link up with, say, a mom in Kazakhstan and ping her with questions and ideas. Or vice versa.
So Gowans and his team have built and just released Härnu (an amalgam of “here” and “now” in Swedish). One tech writer called it “brilliant” “map-based social networking.” After signing up, you’ll be greeted with a world map marked with lots of pushpins. Each pin is a question that someone has tagged to a particular place.
This morning, I logged in and echoed another user’s question about the recent election in Venezuela – tagged of course, with Venezuela on the map. In a screenshot below, a Canadian visiting France has asked about sightseeing, and someone from Hong Kong replied with their advice.
Pretty neat, if you ask me.
Härnu’s founder answered a few of our questions about the site and what inspired him to create it.
Globalist: What’s Härnu all about? What is it?
Jason Gowans: It may sound naïve or clichéd but we literally want to connect the world. The whole world. So far, technology has helped us map our existing social networks – friends, family, work-mates etc. But no-one has succeeded yet in helping people transcend these homophilic barriers in a massive and meaningful way – not even Facebook.
When we can get moms from Middle America talking to moms in the Middle East about everyday things like raising kids and healthy meals for the family we’ll know we’ve built a product that’s changing the world.
To do that, you need a platform that people will trust, that eases the friction around language differences, and presents the experience in a highly visual way that encourages cross-cultural discovery and communication.
It’s obviously an ambitious undertaking, but the technology is there and getting better all the time to make this dream a reality.
Who should use Härnu and why?
Our goal is for everyone to use Härnu – not just the activist community or iPhone-carrying early-adopters for example. Just as Wikipedia has become an indispensible resource for knowledge, Härnu will become an indispensible resource for perspective.
What inspired you to create Härnu?
As a group, we’ve all worked in tech a long time helping to build companies that changed their industry whether it was online advertising, business intelligence, or online search, and I think we were all at a point in our careers where we were looking to tackle something that can have a profound effect on society – something that can achieve more than just commercial success.
We all recognized early on that Härnu is a once in a lifetime chance to take everything we’ve learned and apply those skills towards solving arguably the biggest challenge in digital communication today – to connect us with everyone in the world in an authentic and direct way, and not simply replicate our existing echo chambers.
Besides the inspiration of the project itself, there are also a number of trends that suggest now is the right time to address this challenge:
- The evolution of social media – Now that our existing networks have been exhaustively mapped mostly by Facebook, the attention is now focused on connecting us with people we don’t know. Most of that attention is on hyper-local with so-called ambient or elastic networking apps where the thinking is that I might be inclined to connect with people like me in my local bar etc. However, a lot less attention has been focused on what we call distal networking – the opportunity to connect with people NOT like you anywhere in the world. One is focused on localized advertising opportunities and the other is focused on social change.
- Developing nations coming online – With 2 billion Internet users globally, the next 2 billion are coming from developing nations. There’s a whole new age of discovery about to unfold – this time it’s digital and it’s about making these discoveries and explorations of cultures accessible to everyone – not just well-heeled travelers.
- Discovery is social – With more than 900 million people on Facebook, we now discover new content such as news, music, photos, events etc. through our friends on Facebook and those we follow on Twitter. You’re also seeing this trend reflected in how Google and Bing have evolved their products to return search results not just from their algorithms but also from your friends on Facebook or Google+. Härnu extends that to connect you with people besides your friends.
Introduce yourself. Who are you and what brought you to Seattle?
I grew up in Dundee, Scotland and while attending university there and in Normandy, France, I was lucky enough to be offered a track scholarship at a small university in Louisiana. After three years there, I graduated and moved to Sweden for a couple of years. Then, in early ’99 I moved to Seattle for work, and I’ve been here since, working in the tech industry the whole time.
Would you call yourself a Globalist?
Definitely. Having lived in a number of countries, I’ve had a chance to experience multiple cultures and perspectives, and I think it’s made me much more aware of the world around me. Nothing can trump that real-world experience but we think that with Härnu we can help create an entire generation of globalists.
This post was produced in partnership with The Seattle Globalist.