How do you meet new people in today’s digital age, without over-exposing yourself the creeps, trolls and spammers? The answer, perhaps, is build a social service on top of Facebook, leveraging your network, your friends of friends and shared interests to form connections with people you don’t know. That’s what the new startup Speeksy is doing. The service is virtualizing the experience of going out to a bar or nightclub by offering an online venue where users can interact, message each other and video chat, while bonding over their shared music playlists.
The startup is similar in spirt to TechCrunch Disrupt winner Shaker, the Facebook app that turns your Facebook profile into a walking avatar, similar to what you would find in a game like The Sims or Second Life. However, unlike Shaker, there are no avatars or virtual worlds involved here.
Instead, when you sign in to Speeksy (a play on the word “Speakeasy,” a nod to the startup’s virtual bar experience), you’re presented with a list of “venues” and people with similar interests to you. The venues can best be thought of as something like Turntable.fm rooms – there’s live music, a playlist, and fellow music lovers. The music, however, comes from SoundCloud and the point of the room is not necessarily to enjoy or discover new music (you can even turn it off), but to meet other people. The music just serves as a tool to facilitate those interactions. Any user can add to the playlist and people can give “props” to tracks they like. It’s like an ice-breaker for the modern age.
Speeksy offers a number of features that allow users to get to know each other, but the main one involves leveraging Facebook profile data. Users are listed as 1st, 2nd or 3rd degree connections based on whether you’re friends, have mutual friends, or have no friends in common, respectively. Speeksy also matches you up with those who share your interests, again, based on Facebook profile data. And you can search and filter this list by a number of things, like location, gender, and various personal traits, like whether someone smokes or not.
Ah, yes. That’s right – at its heart, Speeksy is a new-fangled dating service, built on top of Facebook profiles. But just don’t call it online dating, pleads co-founder Barry Cassidy, a former Adobe engineer who previously worked on Adobe Connect.
“We’re going for the people who are alienated by the social stigma of online dating,” he says. “Even today, something that gets identified as online dating turns off 85% of singles – it’s essentially a dating agency. It’s analogous to going to an office and saying, ‘I’ve really failed in the social environments that I go to, so I’d like to get put into a database to try and get matched with somebody.'”
(Burn! For what it’s worth, I know many happy marriages among friends that arose from online dating, but I agree – it’s not for everyone.)
The other problems with meeting people online, explains Cassidy, involve unwanted attention from undesirables and the static nature of online dating courtship, involving emails that lead to phone calls that lead to real-world meetings. “90% of the time, there’s absolutely no chemistry,” he says. “We wanted to create an environment where people could talk to each other in real-time and see those things that people get attracted to.”
The service offers tons of tools for virtualized flirting, without being overly creepy about it. When you view another’s profile on the service, you can click buttons like “make eye contact,” “send over a drink,” etc. Alternatives to the Facebook “poke,” essentially. You can also click on another user’s interests to add it to your own, e.g., “oh, you like “The Office,” so do I!” It’s a conversation starter. Plus, you can start a text-based chat, or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, move into a one-on-one video chat.
The virtual venues can hold up to 50 people, all with webcams a-blazing. However, due to technological constraints, you don’t see the webcam view until you hover your cursor over a user’s profile card in the venue’s lists of participants. You can also view a user’s full profile in order to see their live cam feed.
As for keeping out the creepers, the site “gamifies” social interactions, offering rewards for good behavior (engagement, participation) while doling out warning labels to naughty users who get blocked by others on the site. In other words, if you misbehave, act rude or crude, you’ll strike out and be ignored, just like in real life.
The startup, founded in early 2011, has raised $60,000 in seed funding from its founders and angel investors, Gerad Cassidy and Michael Dwyer, CTO Exigen Insurance Solutions. Speeksy’s other co-founder is Tom Tsatsos, who formerly ran his own web agency that build apps and sites for clients.
The site is launching into private beta today, so you’ll need an invite to get in. There are a couple of thousand of invites for TechCrunch readers tucked away behind this link. In testing, the “beta” label definitely applied – there were bugs, odd design choices, and frankly, the overall experience could use a bit of polish.
Aren’t you worried about Airtime?, we asked Cassidy.
“I definitely had nervous moments when I heard more about what they’re doing, especially the fact that they’re bringing in social graph information,” he says. “But the more I think about it, I think it’s actually be good for us. There may not be just one winner in this space.”