Gravity Launches Public Beta: Former MySpace Execs’ Take on Forums

Gravity, a site aimed at fostering online conversations among people with common interests, became available to the public today. The company, founded by a trio of former MySpace (s nws) executives and funded by Redpoint Ventures and August Capital, has built an easy-on-the-eyes, snappy forum platform. It promised in an interview in December with TechCrunch that the back end is a dynamic “interest graph” with deep analytics about people’s participation. Om, for one, thinks the company is just hoping to latch onto general tech industry excitement about big data. As for me, I’ve been checking out the site over the last couple weeks, so I can comment a bit about what’s available to users.

First of all, Gravity is organized around the gimmick of “worlds” (broad topics) that you can “orbit” (follow), while being hosted by a cartoon dinosaur named Amir. There’s some organization into categories but most everything is a chronological thread. You can navigate using a live-updated thread of things you’ve subscribed to, or use an index or search to find new topics. Users, who don’t have to use their real names, are rewarded for participation with badges.

So far, I haven’t found many deep conversations or enough breadth of topics to fit the topics for which I’ve searched. Many threads consist of people posting personal stories or pictures; one entertaining one was “awkward celebrity encounters.” The real-time alerts about conversations and people you’re following seem to be a big booster of discussion. I posted in a thread about the Vietnamese noodle soup pho, and got three replies within a few minutes. Nothing profound, but at least people appreciated my contribution.

Gravity for me is an interesting contrast to Quora, the Q&A site from former Facebook employees, which is also set up around common interests and discussion threads. That site, in keeping with its pedigree, requires real-name participation (though it allows anonymity on a per-contribution basis) and seeks a high level of discourse, with users hastily correcting each other for contributions that aren’t seen as productive. Quora’s founders say their ultimate aim is to create “canonical consensus” on a wide variety of topics.

It’s all very serious and schoolmarmish, but I really like it, because users hold themselves to a high standard of participation. So far, I prefer Quora to Gravity, mostly because the small private-beta community consists of people with good knowledge of topics I’m really interested in — like tech startups — who put time and thought into crafting contributions. For many of them, it’s a new sort of blogging platform. The reason I go back to Quora almost every day is because the conversations are great. I’m not sure that’s what the company intended when it set out to build a Q&A platform, but it’s a great by-product.

Gravity, on the other hand, could be great, but only if it grows to the point that it features well-threaded, organized and searchable conversations on an extremely wide variety of topics. And it strikes me that even more useful would be the ability to mine the web’s existing treasure troves of forums, communities and groups — all of which have terrible interfaces but contain tons of great knowledge. I know it might be more appealing and manageable to create a new “interest graph” platform from scratch, but people have been interested in stuff online for a long time.