Seth Sternberg, CEO of distributed social platform Meebo, is betting that the Internet of the future will be way more like a cell phone than a landline phone: mobile, constantly present, and integrated into everyday routine.
As web users spend more time on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter from which they navigate to a range of pages from mainstream sites to niche destinations, the future of content discovery seems open-ended.
"There's kind of an open switch question right now: a lot of social sites are destinations and they take the user away from content," said Sternberg. "You're going there only to be social and that looks like a telephone, and it's a landline phone. You go home, pick up the phone and you're stuck at home and all you're doing is talking to your phone. Cell phones let you be in context and let you talk to friends. Will the web go to the cell phone model or stay what it is today? We're betting on the cellphone model."
Sternberg is describing the battle for the distributed web--an Internet where users either discover sites as subdomains of larger sites, or as separate, unique URLs they uncover via shared content, such as tweets.
One key to opening up the web is redefining what it means to be social online. Facebook has introduced a framework that socializing online means interacting with your friends--reading their links, posting on their walls, and otherwise bringing real-world social connections online. But Sternberg believes social interactions should encompass a far broader range of activities.
"We've miscategorized social for a while as friend interaction. That's Facebook, they own that--they own 'friends,'" said Sternberg. "Meebo is social but it's social in the expanded definition. It's the interaction of people."
Meebo is interested in building a social Internet composed of people that are not your friends, and may never be your friends, but who share the same interests as you, and who can help you find new material.
"There's a meme right now that social on the web is basically your friends, but if you can take the idea that your friends and you are not into your interests at all and if you can find other people with like interests based on what you're doing, we can make it really easy to explore your interests based on other people and what they're doing around the web," said Sternberg.
The Meebo bar, a non-scrolling product sites can install directly onto their page, is the company's way of letting websites build social communities directly on their homepages. The bar allows users to share pieces of the content from the site on Twitter, Facebook and various chat platforms by dragging the article to the bar. It's an added layer of social interaction that becomes a landing place for such interaction on the original site, rather than directing people from Facebook or Twitter to the site.
Soon, the company will add a feature to the bar that lets users check-in to the sites they visit (the feature is already available in their mobile app). Much like Foursquare lets users check-in to physical locations, Meebo will let them keep tabs on their favorite sites, and use that information to find other people who have matching interests to find more sites they might like.
"It's basically what Amazon does, or Pandora. They don't use your friends, they use people with the same interests," said Sternberg. "Interest-based social in the real world hasn't happened in a major way on the web."
A user on TV Guide's website (which already utilizes the Meebo bar) can go, check-in to the site, and see that 41 other people have also checked in. Those people share at least one interest with this user--TV--so he could click through to their profile to see where else they've been, and perhaps discover a new site he's never seen, but seems to be of interest. And once users check into a site, Meebo will let them automatically check-in each time they visit, so that a meaningful data set accumulates representing your actual web behaviors. Those who check-in to particular sites the most will get VIP status there--a way for sites to see which visitors really, really like them.
Meebo's betting that the definition of social is set to expand, but as a six-year-old veteran of the tech sphere (nearly qualification for senior citizenship), the company is also always looking for the next wave of innovation to transform the web. Once a platform that let people access instant chat clients on their proprietary page, Meebo has become a very different animal.
"The Internet totally reinvents itself every two to four years," said Sternberg. "When we started Meebo, the Internet was not organized around people. It's clearly organized around people now. Companies that are constantly innovating thrive. Companies that stop, the moment they stop, they start dying."
Check out some images of Meebo's check-in below: