Appsurd: In Silicon Valley, It's Hard to Make a Joke
With Explosion of Internet Ideas, Lots Get Taken Seriously; TacoCopter Test Flight
SAN FRANCISCO—Last fall, digital designer Alex Cornell had an idea for a spoof on Silicon Valley. While goofing off at work, he made a video to promote an imaginary iPhone app he called Jotly that lets people assign grades to anything they can photograph: tree leaves, messy desks, ice cubes, whatever.
The thought was: "Let's think of the most ridiculous possible app that no one would ever consider a real thing, and make that," says Mr. Cornell.
Silicon Valley took his joke seriously. (click below to read more)
By December, Mr. Cornell's employer, start-up Firespotter Labs of Pleasanton, Calif., had created Jotly, a real rate-everything app that attracted tens of thousands of users. By that time, Jotly had at least two legitimate venture-backed competitors, one of them named Oink.
The roller coaster initial public offering of Facebook Inc. has Wall Street worrying about a fizzle in the start-up froth. But in Silicon Valley, it is getting tough to tell the difference between a joke and the next big thing.
Attention-seeking programmers gamely work the Internet's hype machine to find believers. The website WhoDat.biz, calling itself "the Facebook of websites," launched in March with a flurry of media coverage about how it offered an innovative way to see who created any website. The Washington Post reported that the site was the long-awaited Internet project of rapper Kanye West. In its first two days, WhoDat attracted over 100,000 hits, according to the site's creators.
Turns out WhoDat was a parody from New York design firm OKFocus, which removed the reference to Mr. West after hearing from his lawyers.
"People wanted to believe in the fantasy that it was real," says OKFocus co-founder Jonathan Vingiano.
A Post spokeswoman declined to comment; the reporter who wrote about it later updated her post to say she "should have been smarter" and "should have assumed that Kanye West would be, too." A spokesman for Mr. West declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the creators of TacoCopter, a service for delivering tacos with drone-like miniature helicopters, would love to have their idea taken so seriously.
After the project's website got noticed in March, comedian Stephen Colbert and others treated it as a farce, and tech-news site Wired.com called it "completely fake." (A Wired spokesman declined to comment.) Federal regulations prohibit commercial use of such devices.
But the creators say that they fully intend to launch the venture once the law changes, and one of them recently held a test flight overseas with the help of some fans. (The test aircraft crashed seconds after the taco was placed on board.)
"There's a viable business model, because people need things delivered, whether it's tacos or burgers or beers," says co-creator Dustin Boyer. "And flying is always faster than driving."
There is a formula to making a tech company sound credible, say start-up whiz kids and comics alike. Key buzzwords of today's Internet froth include "social," "local" and "mobile," a trio that Valleyites have dubbed "SoLoMo."
Those seeking inspiration for the perfect pitch—or prank—might look at Itsthisforthat.com, which generates often absurd capsule descriptions of Internet start-ups by mashing up existing business concepts and buzzwords.
The site, which according to its creators has attracted more than 100,000 unique visitors, asks "Wait, what does your start-up do?" and follows with an ever-rotating set of descriptions such as "So, basically, it's like a Google Analytics for Laundromats," or, "like a news recommender for beer," or, "like an Airbnb for restrooms," a reference to the room-rental exchange for tourists.
Eric Kerr, a 23-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, says he helped create Itsthisforthat to show how many weird ideas are possible on the Internet. "Even if it sounds silly from the beginning, nobody knows what will work and what won't work," he says. "The best approach is to try it and see what happens."
Indeed, an "Airbnb for restrooms" is already on the drawing board. The idea behind "community loo," or Cloo, is to let urbanites market their bathrooms to nearby smartphone users in need, the company's website says.
"We admit it would make for a great hoax, but we're the real deal," says Hillary Young, one of Cloo's founders. Ms. Young said the start-up lost its lead programmer and is on the hunt for a new one.
iPoo, a social-networking app that connects people sitting on toilets, sounds like a joke, but it exists. More than 200,000 people have paid $1 apiece to download iPoo since it launched two years ago, say the app's creators, enough to help put one of them through Harvard Business School. And tens of thousands use it every day, they say.
"In hindsight it was a great idea, but we weren't expecting it to be anything more than a joke amongst ourselves," says Amit Khanna, a 30-year-old accountant in Toronto. He says one of his fellow iPoo co-creators is ashamed to be associated with it.
When Mr. Cornell crafted Jotly as a joke, he says, he tried well-known start-up tricks to make it convincing, like using the color blue and giving it a name ending in "ly."
Other important elements, he says, included assuming everybody wants to share everything they do with everyone, and having "no clear purpose."
He was surprised at the positive response to the idea. "One of our programmers said it would be fun to make, so we decided to crush it out," he says.
Competing app Oink was discontinued after Google bought its programming team earlier this year. A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on behalf of Oink's creators.
Mr. Cornell and his firm maintain Jotly as a side project alongside their main product, Nosh, a "meal discovery" app that lets people rate individual restaurant dishes.
Jotly 2.0 is in the works, riffing off a Silicon Valley fixation on simple user interfaces. The new version is so "frictionless," he says, it works on its own.
"Instead of you using the app to rate things," he says, "the app will rate you doing things."