Bill Gross Q&A: Can Chime solve the web’s relevance problem?

UberMedia CEO Bill Gross — who is launching his new content-based social network,, today at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco — wants to make it perfectly clear that he isn’t out to kill Twitter or Facebook or Google+ (s goog), as some people (including us) have suggested. The serial entrepreneur said in an interview on Monday that he is an avid user of all three services. So then why start at all? Gross says that despite their various strengths, all three existing networks still have a major “signal-to-noise” problem that his new service can help solve, and that it will help content creators monetize their content at the same time. What follows is an edited version of our interview.

Mathew Ingram: Bill, what was the impetus for you creating Chime, and what problem are you trying to solve?

Gross: I am a huge fan of social media — I think it is the connective tissue for everybody to share information across the planet, and it’s very disruptive for publishing in particular. But existing social networks have two problems: relevance and monetization. There’s a signal-to-noise problem, and there’s no way to monetize that attention unless you send them to your website. What we’ve created is a new interest-based network — I don’t think it competes with existing social networks.

Ingram: Can you tell us a bit more about how it works?

Gross: The fundamental unit of conversation in this new network is called a “chime,” and it is 250 characters and an image. You can also tag it with interests or topics, and we also do semantic tagging if you don’t want to add tags. We also have an API that allows developers to extend the range of things that can be included in a chime, so you can run an auction inside a chime — you can actually do e-commerce right within the platform, so if you have two tickets for the game you can sell them right there. We are opening up those abilities to developers, which I think will be a big driver of monetization.

Ingram: You mentioned the signal-to-noise problem. How does Chime handle that?

Gross: You can see what we call a “chime-line” on your page, which you can sort by time or by the number of “likes” or the number of comments. That way, the good stuff rises to the top. One of the problems with Twitter is that there is no way for me to filter my tweetstream by the most thoughtful or the most interesting, so that’s what we are trying to do with Chime. You can also follow people — but instead of just following everything, you can do what we call a “selective follow,” and choose just the topics you want to follow in their stream. So with Robert Scoble, I might want to follow his tech posts but not the ones about his day at the beach, so I can choose to do that.

Ingram: But don’t existing networks like Facebook and Google+ let you sort and filter too?

Gross: I have about 400 people I connect with on Facebook, mostly people I work with and friends, and I have about the same number on Twitter, which I use mostly as a news source, and there’s a need for that — it’s real-time and text only. So where do I go for information about solar energy? I’m not going to go to my Facebook friends, because they don’t really know that much about it. And if I search in Twitter all I will get is things related to a hashtag and some of it is going to be spam, etc. But with Chime I can make a solar-energy community and invite people to talk about that, and it still has all the social-media tools connected to it that I’m used to.

Ingram: Doesn’t Google+ Circles allow you to filter content and followers to achieve that?

Gross: I’m an avid Google+ user, and I know that we’re not going to be able to compete with Google — we’re not trying to do that. We want to focus more on niches of interest. When it comes to Circles, that filters the outbound content, so you can choose who to send things to, but it doesn’t really let you filter the inbound content — so you can’t go and just look at a subset of the content that comes from a person, the way you can with Chime.

Ingram: What about using Twitter lists to get the kind of content you want?

Gross: Look at my Twitter feed — I have carefully curated a group of about 400 people that I am interested in, but I still put up with some stuff that I don’t care about in their streams. It would be more efficient if I could filter out some of that, and also listen to others who I don’t know who have thoughts on a specific topic. And as you follow more and more people, whether on Twitter or Google+, that signal-to-noise problem just gets worse. When Google+ first opened up it was great, but now there are so many people using it — it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not as good.

Ingram: And where does the monetization aspect of Chime come in?

Gross: We allow anyone — individuals, celebrities, brands — to create a rich-media page and monetize that themselves. So if someone wants to sell ads on their page, the real estate adjacent to that content is his, and 100 percent of the revenue from those ad sales goes to him. If he wants us to sell the ads for him, then it’s a 50-percent revenue share. In almost every other form of publishing there is the ability to monetize the content, and we are bringing that ability to social media. Some of our partners like E Online are very excited about that, because they get all the engagement that they don’t get on their websites.

Ingram: Why is monetization of content so important to Chime?

Gross: I think the only way we are going to have good communities is if someone puts work into them — and the only way someone is going to do that is either because it’s a labor of love or because there is an economic incentive. So we are trying to help give them that. And if people create great communities then that will draw people to the network.

Ingram: There are already so many giant social networks — aren’t you asking a lot to get people to use Chime as well?

Gross: I think we are going to take time away not from Facebook or Google+ but from inefficient web browsing — the 10 minutes I spend looking around for information about solar energy and don’t find anything, that’s what we are trying to replace. If I do a search and look at the results, it’s the 10 sites that did SEO the hardest to try and get higher in Google’s results. The difference is in my system if someone wants to set up a community about that topic, they have all the social tools to spread the word about their content instead of just doing SEO. In some ways, it’s like the old chat rooms or CompuServe, but updated for mobile and social sharing. But I really think we are creating a new beast.