The business of over-sharingNovember 28, 2011: 11:22 AM ET
People are sharing more on social media about the minutia of their daily lives. Now, two startups are hoping to tap into that for business' benefit. But will users go for it?
By Daniel Roberts, reporter
FORTUNE -- Chances are pretty good that last weekend you expressed some Thanksgiving wishes to friends using social media. But how much did you share? A simple "happy holiday" status update is one thing, but did you tweet a picture of the turkey? Did you reveal what cheesy movie you watched as you lounged on the couch in full-bellied bliss? What about the outfit you wore to dinner?
People are getting increasingly open about which details of their personal lives they are willing to share on social media. That's nothing new. But two startups, Identified and RNKD (pronounced "Ranked") are hoping to reward people for sharing even more -- and help businesses in the process. Both launched earlier this month.
In the case of Identified, the reward is intangible; call it bragging rights. The site assigns users a score meant to represent how appealing they are to prospective employers. The more information users post, the more precise the score. If that sounds like a formula for petty, pompous competition, co-founder Brendan Wallace says that it is indeed. "It's a fame game," says Wallace, a Stanford Business School grad who himself has the kind of record that ranks very well on his site: he went to Princeton, worked at Goldman Sachs (GS) and is a CEO before age 30.
Wallace envisions Identified as an alternative to LinkedIn (LNKD). He argues that Facebook, not LinkedIn, is the biggest online professional network. Identified gets the vast majority of its information from Facebook, merely by pulling public information. In fact, unless your Facebook page is completely private, you may already have an Identified profile and ranking -- even if you haven't signed up for the service. Wallace points out, "You wouldn't believe how many people still have their profiles set to be completely public, and what info they have up there."
On Identified, though, Wallace says people are choosing to share additional information that represents them as a job applicant: extremely personal details such as the subject of their college thesis, their GPA, SAT scores and even summer programs they've attended. But Anil Dash, a social media authority and managing director at Activate, says it's not a huge surprise people would share so much. "Separate from the Web, norms about sharing are very cultural and local," he says. "As a New Yorker, I'll talk freely at a party about what I pay for rent, but in the rest of the country that probably seems very strange. The fact that the word 'over-sharing' even exists shows how our culture looks at sharing: that only a certain amount is appropriate."
Identified's appeal to businesses is obvious: a database with the ability to search by specific criteria, such as if a law firm wanted to look only at Yale alums. PepsiCo (PEP) and Conde Nast are among the major companies that have already signed on with Identified. Unsurprisingly, the site has had big interest from VCs "because we have information no one else has," says Wallace. It's gotten $5.5 million in funding so far and has some 100,000 monthly active users. Eventually Identified plans to create and disseminate analytics-driven reports, on topics such as women in the workplace.
RNKD aims for something similar, pairing consumers with corporations based on sharing of information. Created by Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn, RNKD expects users to upload photos of their clothing and tag them with detailed information. By doing so, they can earn Foursquare-like badges for certain allegiances like having the best sneaker collection or being the third-most loyal to Nike (NKE). "If you share what you already own, it's the best indicator of what you like," says Swinmurn, who after leaving Zappos in 2006 stayed in apparel, creating the clothing line Dethrone. His notion is that RNKD could appeal to both buyers and sellers of clothing, because consumers will want the special deals that he hopes brands will offer, and brands will love the learning opportunity. For example, J.Crew (GPS) could find out which brand is second-most popular among its customers.
He knows the risks. "We could find out that no one will ever share what's in their closet," he says. "But I think they will." Certainly fashion-forward shoppers that already do share their wardrobe will have no qualms. Carly Heitlinger, a Georgetown University senior, runs a blog called The College Prepster that she says gets nearly 150,000 visitors per month. She posts a photo every morning of her outfit and says that's nothing unusual in today's fashion scene: "If you asked me a month ago, I would have told you an idea like [RNKD] never would have worked. But it's an industry evolving on a minute-by-minute basis. Now someone can upload a photo on a personal blog and in five minutes it could be highly popular."
Each company has foreseeable issues. With Identified, the ranking system is bound to be criticized: someone who went to a state school and worked at a lesser-known company is often a better fit for a job than the sparkling Harvard grad. For RNKD, the onus is on participating brands: if the rewards they offer to their most loyal consumers aren't very good, the impetus to share photos is gone. What's more, similar ideas have failed. Blippy, an app that connected to users' credit cards to share info on their purchases, grabbed headlines only to end up going nowhere.
Both businesses face a larger challenge: Will enough people be willing to share everything from academic awards to the brand of boxers they wear? The corporations that end up involved with these sites hope so. And if the very concept of over-sharing continues to fade away, both startups could stand to gain a lot.