Feb 20 2014, 8:47pm CST | by Forbes
Years ago I worked at a major tech publication right about the time things like Facebook and Myspace were becoming popular. Consequently my colleagues and I received emails nearly daily that all shared one phrase that we all rued. We hated – and still hate – the term, “not just another social network”, because every time another social network was launched the phrase used it to try to explicate just how “special” it was. The words cut us. There was a “not just another social network” dedicated to Toyota Prius owners; one for yo-yo enthusiasts; and even one for those who collect World War I era dummy firearms. Few social networks, then, made us take note, and fewer still do today. Those scars run deep.
But then I made friends with a charming social network called Crushee. It was awhile ago and it was in a closed private beta. I was asked to take a look and share my opinions with the small cabal in charge of the site. It was cute, but obviously still growing. The most important thing, however, was that it operated in a totally different way than the big social networks, like Facebook.
Crushee isn’t about keeping in touch with the awesome people in your life; Crushee is about meeting and gathering new awesome people into your life. Going in, I had only one or two people I’d be able to say I “knew” on Crushee. Now I’m best friends with everyone there.
It may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. I’m helping one member I met on there book her first rock show in Seattle when she tours this summer. I’m putting up another for a couple days while they road trip through the West coast. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve helped with their websites or other tech projects just because they’re fellow “Crushees”.
These aren’t people I know in real life, these are people I met and befriend and fell in love with on a website. And the love, let me tell you, is real, man.
It helps that, for the most part, the Crushee’s membership are indeed a hip set. Musicians, alternative models, artists, and designers are the norm. The people tend to be young and attractive, dress exceptionally stylishly, and there are more than enough tattoos to go around. And, amazingly, the creep factor is low. (The site is designed that way, more on how that’s achieved below.)
It’s also generated its own customs and traditions that seem to have appeared via the collective will of the participants. On any given day you can see the merits of different types of pizza being debated via animated gifs of cats. Again, that’s not hyperbole, that’s just how it works.
Crushee was founded by Annaliese Nielsen, whose previous web successful major web venture is GodsGirls, a website for independent and alt glamou models, many of whom call Crushee a second home.
I talked with Nielsen about her vision for Crushee, how it came to be, and why it’s so special.
So who’s behind Crushee?
There are currently zero people on staff. This is a completely bootstrapped start up. We are self-funded and working on this thing on our nights and weekends. We’re a team of three founders: Atom Smith, Brent Akamine and myself. We did give a little equity to a friend to help us navigate our legals and financials with a little more literacy, but otherwise it’s just us.
Is Crushee a dating site?
Crushee isn’t a dating site. Brent and I met in 2009. I think and we talked about building a niche dating product at the time. We prototyped it with some capital that a friend kicked in. It was basically like Tinder [an alt dating app], but on the web. It had a feed that was a very basic shoutbox [similar to “Facebook’s “wall”] sort of utility. The idea was that people could use this shoutbox to make a post to grab a user’s attention and get some extra eyeballs on their profile.
During that prototype, we let some people onto the site to test it out. They were all using the shout box to talk to each other. Everyone used the “crush” utility very freely regardless of any actual potential romantic interest in each other. it became obvious pretty quickly that we would need to move in another direction if we wanted to address a real need as opposed to this need that we had hypothesized the existence of.
We found out that people just wanted to talk to each other regardless of whether they knew each other. And then people were making friends. It was neat!
So you changed from a dating app to a more “friendly” thing.
Yes, but then we had to stop working on it. We ran out of money, and we didn’t have an engineer on our team. Brent had interesting offers from other startups. I just started working Internet marketing stuff for some local projects in addition to GodsGirls. We left Crushee on a server somewhere and moved on. The time wasn’t right.
But then if we flash forward to sometime in mid- or late-2011, I’m newly single and signing up for an actual dating website. I’m browsing the site and I type “ruby on rails” into the search box for reasons that I can’t explain. That’s how I found Atom. His profile was hilarious. We start messaging and become actual Internet friends. He’s a disgusting monster but we both like to cook and have a similar sense of humor.
I had been thinking about it a lot, as people were still playing around with the stagnant prototype and never stopped asking us if we were going to pick it back up. So I show him Crushee and he’s very interested. I get in touch with Brent and he is still interested. We all started working on it again almost right away. It was all kind of serendipitous and magical.
So now that it’s built, how exactly does it work?
So you’re on Crushee and you see a picture or a post from a person that you think is cool or interesting or attractive or nice. Great! Now you press a little button on their profile to “crush” them.
Now that nice/interesting/attractive/funny person will get a notification to let them know that they have a “secret admirer”. It doesn’t come out and tell a user exactly who crushed them. It basically says “A user with the name A*******e N has crushed you!” And then they get to try to figure out whom it is, and that’s the fun.
If that person that you crushed should happen to also find you neat then they might “crush” you, at which time you and the entire community will get a notification saying that these two users have formed a mutual crush. When two people are in a “mutual crush”, they can private message each other and things like that, so they can exchange phone numbers or sweet nothings in private or just, like, celebrate your cute new friendship in front of everyone. That’s what typically happens, anyway.
Is there anything at all in the DNA of Crushee that comes from the social aspects of your previous project, GodsGirls?
In about 2009 I was following Gary Vaynerchuk on Twitter and watching his wine videos and being pretty enamored by his enthusiasm. I actually managed to get him on the phone one day. We chatted for a while about GodsGirls and about peoples’ motivation to join the site. It was very, “people join this because they have a crush on one or two of the girls,” and parts of Crushee grew out of that
How would you say that Crushee is different from sites like Facebook?
Facebook is for keeping in touch with people that you know. Nothing about it lends itself to enthusiastically connecting with strangers. We are told how many mutual friends we have with each person who adds us to their network, our parents are featured on our profiles, and we’re connected with our former classmates. It values pre-existing real-life connections and it socializes you with those people. Crushee does none of that.
If Facebook is your family or high school reunion then Crushee is a house party that you stumble into on a whim. There might be a couple people there that you know; you might mostly use it to talk to them. Or you might go just to chat up someone new. You might spend the whole night talking to one person in the corner and falling a little in love with them. Or there might be one annoying guy who is too loud.
Facebook is all of your old friends, while Crushee is all of your new friends.
Let’s talk about that creep at the party. So far everyone is fun and awesome, how do you plan on keeping the creeps and inevitable trolls out? How do you police that?
We don’t police the weirdos. Instead the community is itself self-policing. If there is one guy at the house party who is being a jerk then the good sense of the party will prevail and a couple of level people will tell him to tone it down. That happens on Crushee.
In addition, nobody gets through the door to membership if you’re an obvious [jerk]. Nobody can post on Crushee or crush on anyone or generally be a part of anything until the community has vetted them. That’s how we keep out the trolls and creeps.
Can you explain a bit on how that vetting works?
Being [a jerk] gets someone nowhere on Crushee. It’s very humanistic; People use actual names, not screennames; the user pictures are large. When someone’s on Crushee they are themselves and the whole world is looking at them. So it doesn’t pay to be a jerk.
When a user joins Crushee they are presented with a registration process, which they must fully completed. Once their profile is complete with information about themselves and pictures they are put into a queue of sorts. The existing, previously vetted users review the queue and press “yes” on people they are in favor of, “meh” on people they aren’t sure of, and “no” on people they’re against. Once a user has a a certain approval rating from the rest of the Crushees, then their profile goes live and they are enthusiastically welcomed into their new Internet home.
It seems that there’s an implicit trust that any Crushee is a good person that other Crushees can feel safe around. Do you fear that will change with the site being open now?
No, I don’t think that will change. The site has been open to the public for over a month now and is growing fast, but the very friendly community culture has not shifted. People have remained on pretty open terms with each other. I don’t believe that people on the Internet are historically that freaked out by strangers; I think if anything that that would be a Facebook-bred thing.
As it gains in momentum and popularity, how are you set to scale up? And are you afraid that there might be a point when there are so many users that the “open posting” format could become unusable?
Atom is upgrading our server as I am speaking to you, actually. We’re leasing cloud space for now, so we’re OK no matter what.
And we aren’t worried about it becoming unusable. We have a few contingency plans should it become very noisy and we will scale appropriately. We have ideas to change the front end as well as the back end if needed, but as I said earlier we aren’t in the habit of trying to make predictions. We like to scale based on the actual needs of our users at the time.
Will we be getting a mobile app version?
A mobile app is definitely coming. Making that pivot from the Web as opposed to going straight to a mobile-only strategy was an important part of our initial process, but we also obviously know we are hurting for a native app. And it’s coming soon, I swear.
In your mind is Crushee a success yet? If not, what would make it one?
I don’t think there will be one single line that we cross at which we declare that this has definitely been a success. I think we are all feeling extremely enthusiastic and happy about our progress so far, and we have done a lot with very little money and very limited time spent. We have watched people travel from Hong Kong to NYC and from London to LA to hang out with their new friends. One of my close friends from LA married an Australian girl that he met on Crushee at the beginning of our beta test! Those friendships and relationships forming feel like large successes to us.
When we opened the site up to the public on Christmas Eve last year we felt triumphant. Every time I review our usage stats I feel like we are winning. There will always be a lot of “success” moments.
What’s next for you after Crushee?
I might try to get some sleep.
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