News, Social Networking Meet in Prismatic’s “Interest Network”

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a thumbs-up within Prismatic’s iPhone Apps topic. An article called “Stop Coddling Your Dog—He’s 99.9% Wolf” appeared because it was trending upward in the Dogs topic. An article on Keith Rabois of Khosla Ventures was there because Cross, whom I follow on Prismatic, had commented on it.

Which brings us to the new social features on Prismatic. Cross and Haghighi want Prismatic to grow into a community, where people show up for the conversation as much as the content. The actual stories on Prismatic appear with big type and big pictures (which makes reading easy), and at the bottom of each story, there’s a button that lets you start a discussion. Every comment can also be broadcast as a tweet or a Facebook update, drawing others back into the app, and if people comment later, you’ll be notified. When you comment on something, you’re also creating a post about the article on your personal Prismatic page, which others can then browse. It’s a little like reblogging something in Tumblr. “Human beings naturally want to interact and share stuff, it’s just not always easy to do,” Cross says. “We are trying to make it easy.”

Where is all this going—and why is an “interest network” inherently more exciting than a 2010-vintage news reader? To Cross, it’s because what Prismatic is really facilitating is discovery. And there’s nothing stopping the company from helping people to discover stuff other than news articles. “First we shared news. Then we added photos. Next will be videos, apps, games, and products,” he says. “Basically, we will go through all these different content types, and do discovery for all of them. Some of them are transactable, and for the ones that are transactable, that is our revenue.”

To understand what Cross means by “transactable,” just think of a song on iTunes or a book on Amazon; if you come across it on Prismatic and then buy it, the company will get a cut. And affiliate commissions are just the beginning—one can imagine the app evolving into a giant social catalog of digital and physical objects. “If we are fortunate enough to be able to build a company of 100 people or 1,000 people, we think there is a huge opportunity here for creating totally different products from where we started,” Cross enthuses.

Of course, as with the first iteration of any new product, there’s a lot of work left to do on the current version of Prismatic. In my testing, I noticed several annoying problems. One is that the app is sporadic about showing which publication originally published each article, or who wrote it. (This lack of attributions and bylines is particularly troublesome to a journalist like me; if you come across one of my own articles in Prismatic, I darn well want you know where it came from.) Another issue is that stories seem to load very slowly—you get the headline and the first couple of paragraphs right away, but there’s a tiresome “buffering” wait if you want the rest. Cross says the startup is already working to fix these problems in future releases.

Unlike other makers of news readers, Cross never speaks of Prismatic as a Flipboard killer. “I would say Flipboard has kind of won already in this tablet-reader category,” he says. “But the bigger message is that that whole category is not very interesting. The problem we are trying to solve is not the same problem as Flipboard’s. It’s more of a second-generation problem—that social networks haven’t done a good job of covering all of our interests.” If Prismatic can get a few tens of millions of people to sign on to its new vision, it may have a shot at becoming the app that yet another generation of developers is dismissing three years from now.

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