How Crimson Hexagon Translates the Blogosphere’s Babel Into Wisdom

File this under “Only in Cambridge.” Before my interview last week with the founders of Crimson Hexagon, a startup using statistical methods to comb the blogosphere for the latest opinion on brand-name products, I had assumed that the company’s name came from its affiliation with Harvard, where its technical founder, Gary King, is a professor of government. Nope—turns out it’s an allusion to a single line in a short story in Spanish by the late avant-garde Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.

The “Hexágono Carmesí” in Borges’ 1941 story “La Biblioteca de Babel” (“The Library of Babel”) is the hidden central chamber in an infinite library; it’s the room containing the single magical book that serves as a perfect compendium and guide to all the other books. The room is supposed to be a metaphor for the company’s search algorithm, which is magical in its own way. As King explains it, it’s able to gather precise summaries of the blogosphere’s sentiment on given products or personalities, but without actually having to understand or accurately classify each mention of said entities.

Or maybe the Borges allusion is just a diversionary tactic. Harvard, after all, is notoriously jealous of its own brand identity. “If we said it was crimson because of Harvard they wouldn’t want us to use it,” jokes Candace Fleming, Crimson Hexagon’s CEO.

I talked last Friday with Fleming and King, who have been working behind the scenes to launch the angel-funded company since 2007 and had their official coming-out on October 14. While a number of other publications have taken note of the startup, I wanted to know what makes King’s algorithm tick, and how the company plans to make it pay.

King’s algorithm, called ReadMe, mines the deep vein of public opinion represented by blogs (about 1.5 million of which are updated at least once a week, according to Technorati). This is a different, and much more focused, variety of opinion than what classical public-opinion polls can get at, the company argues. “Polls are very good for certain purposes, but essentially they are pop quizzes about subjects the respondents may not know anything about,” says King, who directs Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. “But if you’re interested in what digital camera to buy, you want the opinion of your Uncle Max, who spent a lot of time figuring it out. The opinion of ‘the American public’ is not interesting to you.”

Crimson Hexagon report viewBrand-monitoring agencies have long been aware that the blogosphere is a treasure trove of consumer opinion, and there are a number of Web-analytics companies (including some here in Boston, like the Cymfony and Compete divisions of TNS Media Intelligence) that purport to automate the process of distilling that opinion. But for the most part, these companies’ tools for measuring blog-based sentiment are clumsy, inexact, and labor-intensive, King and Fleming say.

“With current online brand monitoring solutions, you can find out how many people are talking about your product, and how many people are saying positive and negative things,” says Fleming. “But it’s a little bit like going to the doctor, and having the doctor say ‘You’re sick,’ but then he doesn’t tell you what’s wrong. It can be frustrating.”

Crimson Hexagon’s technology lets the company go several layers deeper, according to Fleming, who walked me through a quick example using the Apple iPhone—a product Crimson Hexagon was asked to study by a client (not Apple). “We can tell you not only how many people are saying positive things about the iPhone, but we can tell you that 30 percent are saying that they love the third-party apps, and 15 percent are complaining that … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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