The Lives Of Others: Civo Gives Strangers A Friendly Place For “Visual Conversation”

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Civo is a beautiful new social discovery app that breaks users out of their social or geographic networks without forcing them to leave their comfort zones. It went live last week and is available for free in the iOS App Store (an Android version is in the works).

Founder Wei Shu, former director of corporate development at Renren (often referred to as “the Facebook of China”), describes the experience as a “visual conversation” with partners around the world. Users paired with one another can browse photos, upload their own images in response or leave brief private messages. No personal information (except for your gender) is divulged to partners unless you want to share it.

Civo launched in private beta mode three months ago and now boasts about 5,000 users, with more coming on board after it was recommended by Apple’s China App Store this week. The app originally launched as C2 in April 2011 for iOS and Android, and accumulated 100,000 users within four months through organic growth. At that point, Shu and co-founder Jun Yu decided to develop a more sophisticated version.

While working at Renren, Shu began to visualize a platform that would allow users to safely peek into the lives of strangers.

“I was a designer before and all my friends are kind of arty, but if I want to get to know someone like an engineer or scientist, it’s harder,” says Shu, who quit her Renren position last June to concentrate full-time on developing Civo. “I thought if I could get random chances to meet people throughout the world, that would be great.”

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While other social discovery apps link people based on shared interests, friends or location, Civo’s algorithm seeks to maximize the geographical distance between partners. Civo currently has users from about 40 countries (most are currently based in China, the U.S. and Italy).

After I downloaded the app last weekend, it immediately connected me with a partner in Sweden. Over the past few days, I’ve been paired up with seven users based in California, China, Japan and the UK. Getting a Civo notification when someone uploads a new photo or I am matched with a new person is a bright spot on a gloomy, rainy Taipei day (especially if they are located somewhere sunnier).

Shu emphasizes the measures Civo takes to safeguard privacy. I turned location services off because I didn’t want my apartment pinpointed on the app’s map, but (as with any social discovery platform) I was also initially concerned about getting paired with random perverts who just want to flash me photos of their genitalia. Shu reassured me, however, that Civo’s content control team immediately deletes users who upload inappropriate photos.
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Most of my partners use the app to show off photos of their everyday lives, and it’s impossible to tell anything about a person beyond what they share in their snaps: a new watercolor, a Christmas ornament, or the steeple of a village church somewhere in England. Your photos are only accessible to current partners unless you disconnect with them. You can communicate more with a partner through private messages and comments, gradually revealing more personal information if you want. There are different levels that can be reached the more engaged you are with your Civo partners, and each unlocks new privileges, including the option to choose partners based on their gender and geographic distance from you.

Shu says Civo has just closed pre-Series A funding, and while they can’t disclose investors until next month, about $1 million has been raised so far. Civo plans to monetize by launching channels for real-time content that can be used by celebrities or companies looking for a marketing outlet.