Top10 wants listophiles to go recommendation crazy

johncusack-highfidelityOne of the unending qualities of the human being is the obsession with making lists. We care passionately about the rank our sports teams achieve, even if it means nothing. We chatter about magazine power lists as if they have an impact on reality.

The writer Nick Hornby even elevated the top 10 list to an almost religious level in his book High Fidelity, which essentially chronicles a middle-aged man’s internal struggle between his drive to make lists and his desire to make love.

Now British startup hopes it can harness our nerdiest tendencies for fun and profit with a list-making service that has just gone live.

“We think when people are trying to discover and find new products, they want to see what other people have recommended,” said co-founder Tom Leathes when I spoke to him earlier. “Top tens are already ingrained in popular culture, so we’re starting with lists of things people are passionate about.”

The site has a simple premise: Users organize things into lists, which are then made public and shared with other users. Here, for example, is my list of top 10 pizza toppings and my top 10 technology blogs.

If enough users create lists that are similar to each other, the site can aggregated the rankings and provide a top 10 across all users. In the future, it plans to add filters so that users can see (for example) what their friends’ top songs are right now, or what other people in their city think are the best restaurants. It’s effectively taking the model used by review sites and loading it up with a heavy dose of human psychology.

Overall, it’s simple and intuitive, and pretty fun — for a while at least. The way you construct lists on the fly, adding images and text, reminds me a bit of Nextstop, a travel website that was bought by Facebook last year.

Fun is only part of it, though. Leathes doesn’t shy away from what his real objective is: to profit from recommending products to people.

“We want it to be about social recommendations,” he explained. “People love to talk about music, films, restaurants and so on. The challenging thing is that we want to monetize it in a way that’s seamless — so that it’s an end-to-end thing where you can recommend something, discover something and then go and buy it.”

The founding team — including Leathes and his co-founders Harry Jones and Alex Buttle — already have a good track record, building and selling three startups in the last few years. Their last, a broadband comparison site (also called Top10;¬†they clearly kept the name as part of the deal), hit more than $10 million in revenues before it was sold to larger rival uSwitch earlier this year.

But while they have lots of experience as a team building web services, Top10 is their first foray into the social arena. So can it work?

Leathes admitted to me that the team deliberately reached out to investors with a good track record in the social web so that they could get help where they needed it. Those include Accel, Founder Collective and Bill Gross’s IdeaLab, who collectively saw fit to give the company a $3.5 million Series A round.

So can they do it? The site certainly has a neat gimmick to draw people in, but until we see how many people sign up, it’s too early to say.

The real problem may be that Top10’s success lies outside of its control.

The social recommendations business is turning into a very crowded market. You have companies in all sorts of areas: generalists like Hunch and specialists such as GetGlue. And then there are trendy new startups like Berlin’s Amen, which has a different spin on list-making — you simply praise what you love or hate — but does it for much the same reason.

As if that wasn’t enough, beyond all of these startups there is also another little site that’s proven very successful at mining sentiment data for advertisers and retailers. You may have heard of it.

In fact, Facebook’s ability to gather data from its gazillion users and push new features out en masse could prove the biggest threat to any company trying to claw some market share in this space. Numbers released today by e-commerce site The Find suggest the “Like” button — which reports suggest is set to expand in scope this week — is a powerful tool for making retailers more successful.

If the numbers are true, then the danger for all these social recommendation sites must be straightforward: Facebook could flip the switch and take out huge segment of the social recommendation business with a single, well-targeted strike.