Betting that Brizzly will be huge, ex-Googlers are working on things


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Thing Labs in their San Francisco office. Chris Wetherell, middle left, and Jason Shellen, middle right. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times

The mad scientists at Thing Labs have a very impressive track record.


On the sixth floor of a trendy building in San Francisco’s recently renovated Mint Plaza, four former Google employees -- scratch that: five former Googlers, with today’s addition of FriendFeed’s (now Facebook’s) Ben Darnell -- and a few others are working on things. Some very interesting things.

Founder Jason Shellen is purposely fuzzy with his description of ongoing projects. Whereas Google famously has ’20% time,’ a policy that lets engineers spend one-fifth of their day working on anything they want, Shellen says his workers get ‘100% time.’

For the last five months, the majority of that time has been spent building Brizzly, a Web application that combines your Twitter and Facebook profiles into a single interface.

After gaining some viral interest through its invitation-only sign-up system -- a strategy that has worked exceedingly well for Gmail and now Google Wave -- Brizzly is unlocking its doors today. Anyone can sign up and plug in their social network credentials.

But Brizzly remains in beta despite having tens of thousands of users. The product is ahead of most desktop apps in its stability and interface but is not yet a replacement for Facebook because you can’t fully browse friends’ profiles, view events or upload pictures. And the app currently lacks some newer Twitter features like geolocation, which is available in only a few programs anyway, and standardized retweet, a project originally spearheaded by Thing Labs’ vice president of technology, Chris Wetherell.

So why should you care? There’s plenty of websites and apps for accessing Twitter. TweetDeck and Seesmic, like Brizzly, can pull in Facebook as well. And while Brizzly is stuffed with potential even now in such an early stage, Shellen’s track record hints that there’s much more to come.

The Brizzly founder has a sharp eye for business. He was at Blogger at the beginning of the decade, helping to sell Twitter Chief Executive Evan Williams’ company to Google.

At Google, Shellen steered development of the Atom format, now one of two Web-standard news feed technologies. He also championed the purchases of photo software Picasa, location-based social network Dodgeball (the precursor to Foursquare) and FeedBurner. He also urged Google to acquire Flickr, a photo-sharing site that was snapped up by Yahoo and remains its most-hyped property.

Joining Shellen from Blogger is Wetherell, who built Google Reader, a Web-based news feed app that almost instantly dominated the market. Reader lets you subscribe to your favorite news sites and blogs, aggregate those feeds into folders and sort through it all in a sort of e-mail inbox.

‘Google Reader addressed the question, ‘How do I keep up with all of it?’’ Shellen said during an interview at his San Francisco office. ‘But now your friends are your filters.’

Wetherell joined Thing Labs in June after a few months of leading projects at Twitter and before that, working on Barack Obama‘s presidential campaign.

Seriously, these guys can’t stop betting on the winning horses.

Wetherell, left, and Shellen, right. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times

They’re hoping that the prize steed in the race to aggregate social networking profiles is a bear -- that is Brizzly’s mascot, Phineas T. Brizzly (not joking).

There’s a lot of Reader in Brizzly. When a tweet contains a link to a picture or video, the app displays the media inline so that users don’t have to go to a separate page to view them.

Part of the reason Reader is so successful is that it’s more than just news feeds. It watches users’ habits -- how often they click certain news items, what time of the day or week they read certain feeds, which items they e-mail or share with friends, how they scroll down the list. It uses that information to help users find relevant stuff in their mess of data and from news sources they’re not subscribed to.

‘Twitter has a great opportunity to do this,’ Wetherell said. And if it doesn’t do it quickly, Brizzly will. Usage info could help users rake through the endless stream of tweets and find others with similar interests.

‘You find out a lot about somebody, and you can give that back to them as value,’ Wetherell said.

As was Reader’s sort-of mission statement, Shellen says Brizzly is about ‘information and making more out of it.’ The app was one of the first to provide a brief explanation in its list of trending topics, the most-talked about keywords across Twitter. Recently, Twitter implemented a similar feature.

The Brizzly team is looking more closely at making sense of network-wide trends going forward. It has an open API that allows any developer to implement its Wiki-style explanatory system. And it may soon offer location- or topic-specific trends.

Shellen has several other experiments brewing in the laboratory. Plinky is one, which asks users to come back every day to answer a simple question.

But Brizzly is the company’s main thing right now. And it’s something worth watching.

-- Mark Milian