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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

October 20, 2012 at 8:00 PM

Harnu puts ‘World Wide’ back on Web

Jason Gowans is co-founder of Seattle based (GREG GILBERT/SEATTLE TIMES)

The Web was always supposed to be global. But is it global to you?

“[Tim Berners-Lee] told me about his proposed system called the ‘World Wide Web,’ ” entrepreneur Ian Ritchie said of the Web’s inventor. “And I thought, well, that’s got a pretentious name.”

There was a lot of excitement about connecting people around the world when I first used the Internet in 1994 to research the Lillehammer Winter Olympics for French class, of all things. But the only friend I made overseas that decade was my English pen pal, Helen — and with trusty old pen and paper.

Today, more than 2 billion people are online. But the money and interest and excitement in Web development is all about local, and most of the connections we make on sites like Facebook and Twitter are, by far, with people we already know.

But four guys in Seattle want to prove that “Hello, world!” is not an exaggeration.

Their site is called Harnu — from the Swedish words for “here” and “now” — and it has what sounds like a redundant, recycled mission: to connect the world. The point being, of course, that it’s not really that connected.

At least, not the way it could be.

“We knew from the beginning this is going to be really hard,” co-founder Jason Gowans, 39, said in his Scottish accent over a bowl of pho in Seattle’s International District.

He’s right. Online habits are hard to break, and the challenges the bootstrapped startup faces as it looks to grow its small seed user base are nothing short of daunting.

Looking over the site, I was struck by how it made the complex task of connecting the world in a meaningful way seem actually, finally, easy.

Here’s how it works. You go to the site and see a big global map stuck with pins. Clicking on a pin or a country brings up questions and comments users have left about events or customs in that region. Signing in lets you pin one on yourself.

Don’t know the language? No problem. The site uses Google Translate to get everyone’s message across mostly intact. Users from that country or elsewhere can then log in, see the new questions and respond.

Harnu’s technology is neither new nor beautiful, and more features are needed to make these conversations as sticky as a Facebook thread. What makes it stick out among the crowd of late-stage social media is its almost childlike simplicity. Forget your politics or relationship status or where you’re going to dinner. The main catalyst for engagement isn’t what you’re like, but where you’re from.

For people curious about how others see the world, that’s enough to get started.

“If the minute you read an article on Syria, you use Harnu to hear about it from a Syrian, that’s cool,” Gowans said. “That’ll change the world.”

I’ve wanted to travel to Greece since grade school, but every time I bring it up, someone points to its troubled economy and says I should wait. I asked the question on Harnu and got a response, finally, from a Greek. Essentially: Come on down.

Users from more than 80 countries have already signed on to the service, which launched quietly this summer. That’s thanks to some light recruitment in international blogging communities like Global Voices, which supplies the site’s mapped news feed.

Gowans estimates that Harnu will work well early on if at least 10 active users check in on new comments per country. To him, the ideal result of global interaction — empathy — can happen only when you connect one-on-one.

That idea resonates with Sarah Stuteville, co-founder of international news site Seattle Globalist, on whose advisory group I serve. Her worldwide travels have gotten her a lot of Facebook friends from abroad. So when news breaks on things like the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow or the shooting of the 14-year-old activist in Pakistan, she hears it not just from news sources, but from people living near the story.

“Suddenly I feel more deeply connected (and implicated) in what’s happening,” she told me via email.

Bigger sites are thinking along the same lines. Twitter is recruiting a volunteer army of translators and Facebook just launched a lucrative suite of features to let businesses and organizations have different pages for different parts of the world where multilingual chatter can be read by anyone.

Though Harnu includes global news and music, the team hopes it will be a resource not as much for information as for perspective. That vision counts on the idea that despite our much exploited attraction to the familiar, we are interested in connecting with people we don’t know who are not like us.

Seattle is not a bad place to start. We’ve got the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, countless cross-cultural nonprofits and an educated population with an international bent. A quarter of King County residents speak a language other than English at home.

Gowans put it best on his blog:

“The question is, will Americans be an integral part of this new Age of Discovery, or will we be content to spend our time checking in to the local coffee shop, getting on the free wi-fi, checking our friends’ latest status, and liking Walmart?”

It’s a big world out there. Let’s not forget it.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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