Why Gravity’s Interest Graph Effort is Un-Interesting

Earlier this week, Gravity, a Los Angeles-based startup, launched a new service called Twinterest and outlined its intent to help personalize the web through what it calls an “interest graph.” This isn’t the first time the start-up — which has garnered $10 million in funding from the likes of Redpoint Capital and August Capital — has sought the limelight by making bold (and woolly) claims.

The company, which was started by Amit Kapur, Steve Pearman and Jim Benedetto — all former Myspace (s nws) executives — came out of stealth in December 2009. Gravity initially wanted to reinvent the concept of conversations then data-mine these conversations to build interest analytics, and eventually build a business against these analytics. Suffice to say, I wasn’t a fan of the service, and took a dim view of its prospects. When it launched earlier this year in beta, the service was indeed a letdown.

Since then, the company has come up with a new strategy, and is now using Twitter feeds to build the Interest Graph, which it says it will then use to help personalize the web. Sometime in the future, Gravity CEO and co-founder Amit Kapur says, he wants to give publishers the ability to personalize content for each one of their readers.

One of the key building blocks for this “interest graph” is a new offering from Gravity called Twinterest. It’s a service that taps into the Twitter fire hose and hopes to map my interests and essentially connect them to some of the folks I might know. I tried it out and got some surprising results. For instance, the service says I have 476 interests including Country Music, Bernie Madoff, Appalachian State University, Debarge, Soviet Union and Anakin Skywalker.

Those “interests” are just straight up wrong. The rest of my “interests” remind me of a phrase we used to use often when growing up: Looking London, Going Tokyo.  What’s even funnier is that the service suggests that I should friend Rapleaf on Twitter (ironic, considering some of my writings about that San Francisco-based company). Gravity wants us to help fine-tune this “interest” data, so it can personalize the web in the future, but the Twinterest results so far make quite an un-interesting graph.

The inaccuracies in the interests displayed by Twinterest are symptomatic of some of the problems associated with natural-language processing services, which try to extrapolate my interest level in topics from proper nouns mentioned in tweets. I remember tweeting that I was listening to Debarge on the radio and feeling nostalgic. That doesn’t mean I’m interested in them.

Many services that propose to make sense of the Twitter feed and draw inferences have to deal with a whole can of worms. For starters, any service that proposes to build an interest graph or some sort of ranking, needs to do the following:

  • Analyze the content shared by a user.
  • Analyze the content of a user’s tweets.
  • Analyze what others a user follows as a potential signal of interest.
  • Analyze who follows a user to get a sense of authority of the user on that interest.

Gravity (and other services similar to them) have to figure our ways to do the aforementioned four things at scale, then build a taste graph for every single Twitter user. That’s not easy, nor cheap. One assumes Gravity has been able to do that — and have put some of their venture dollars to good use. But then as more data points are added to the mix, say Facebook, the complexity (and costs) of Gravity’s Interest Graph is only going to go up.

I think the challenge with services that use Twitter to draw inferences about me is that they only have an incomplete picture of me. My Twitter identity is very tech-centric. It ignores some of my real-world interests, and frankly, I don’t care to share a few things with the rest of the planet. In other words, Twitter can’t really help mirror the real me.

That said, it’s simple enough to build a content-discovery system based on the interest graph, and predictably, that’s why the company is building a news discovery service, The Orbit. I don’t think it’s really a very valuable service – i.e., it’s a terrible business idea. The idea of an interest graph is something that was initially championed by Hunch, which instead of doing natural-language processing, decided to start with a combination of machine learning and statistical learning.

Eventually someone will figure out a way to mine the web and build a personalized web experience. Gravity seems pretty far from it. This is something the guys who own the data – Facebook, Twitter, Google – will likely do.

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Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Luis Markovic