Saturday, May 17, 2008 | Last summer, the local CBS affiliate television station, News 8, aired a story about a website called BumFinder.com. The website solicited users who would spot people who appeared to be homeless and plug in their location coordinates using a Google Map. The station interviewed San Diego’s most famous homeless advocate, Father Joe Carroll, who was filmed as he accessed the site and expressed outrage at its existence. In the television spot, the creator of the site remained anonymous, but responded in e-mails with the insistence that the site was only to help community residents stay safe and secure.
The site has since been taken down by its creator, 27-year-old San Diego native Brant Walker. It wasn’t his first — and wouldn’t be his last — brush with controversy online. A graduate of San Diego’s Platt College with a web design multimedia degree, Walker’s first business was a website called FakeYourSpace.com, which sold counterfeit friends, using stock photos of models, to MySpace users looking to juice up their online posses.
Walker’s latest venture seems a mixture of those two. It’s an online forum called RottenNeighbor.com, and it allows residents of a neighborhood to complain about the noise, dogs, midnight habits or lawn-mowing antics of the folks next door. Launched last summer, the site was first based entirely out of Walker’s UTC apartment until a portion was purchased by Attenunit, a venture capital firm, and most of the work moved to Austin, Texas.
Walker still makes part of his living with the site, but his day job is viral and internet marketing, delivering movie clips to cell phones. He answered some questions about his controversy-sparking online schemes via e-mail this week with voiceofsandiego.org.
Let’s focus on RottenNeighbor.com. Where’d the idea come from?
I got the idea to create RottenNeighbor when I first moved into my new apartment in La Jolla. I immediately noticed a rotten smell coming from the neighbors directly across the hall. It smelled like garbage, but quickly learned that it was their cooking. During the summer when it would get hot, they would open up their door and windows to air their apartment out, only to have the smell come right over to our apartment. We have tried talking to them, and to the apartment manager, but there is nothing we can do about it. If it was a noise issue, that would be different.
Buying or renting a home will be one of the most important decisions you make in you life, why not be able to find out what your neighbors are like before you move in. You can rate and review everything else on the internet, and I thought if a site like RottenNeighbor had existed before I moved in, I could have possibly moved into a different apartment.
What happens on the site? Who do you think are your typical users? What happens if someone complains about me and it’s not rooted in fact — how do you decide whether to take something down?
The site is used by home owners and renters who are looking at moving into a new home. Users can rate and review their neighbors before and after they move so future home buyers and renters can locate their dream neighborhood. The site is 100% user contributed, so no real moderating is done on our part. If it was, then we could be held liable in the court of law for any slander or libel. We are protected by a law passed in 1996 called the Communications Decency Act, which allows websites such as RottenNeighbor to operate. We are simply a host for the information and can not be held liable for any third party content.
We use a moderating system similar to that of Craigslist. Users have the opportunity to flag certain posting which they may think are inappropriate or not factual. Once a posting reaches a certain number of flaggings, it is removed. We have a formula for this which I unfortunately can’t reveal. If some postings are in clear violation of our terms and our moderating system fails, we may have to go in and moderate it. For example: If a user wants to try to cheat our profanity filter with words like sh1t where they are substituting letters for numbers to try to trick the system.
On a web traffic tracker, it appears your users come predominantly from the United States, but there’s a large contingent from Germany — more than one-quarter of your users. Do you know any reason why the site has taken off in Germany?
This is a great question. To be honest with you, I don’t know why it has become so popular in Germany. Perhaps Germans have more built up anger for their neighbors than in other parts of the world? I’m kidding….. I actually hadn’t realized that it was so high in Germany.
You seem to use social networking tools to enable users to be anti-social — to complain about their neighbors from behind their computer screens and to avoid the interpersonal confrontation. A blogger called you an anti-social networker. Does that moniker fit?
I can tell you that in the specific case you are talking about, the blogger was upset because he fell victim to my viral marketing. As far as me being an anti-social networker, I would say that I use social networking for many different purposes. They include work, relationships, dating, music, movies etc…. Sometimes however, I like to tap into the dark side of Social Networking. That is when it truly gets fun. In regards to RottenNeighbor though, it is a real estate tool designed to help users locate good and bad neighbors before they move. =)
This site isn’t your first shot at a mashup (a type of online information aggregator) — you had the bumfinder.com site that garnered some attention last summer and some intense criticism from Father Joe Carroll. I noticed that site doesn’t seem to be operational anymore. What did you learn from that site that you’ve applied to RottenNeighbor.com?
BumFinder.com was a great experiment I conducted into how I could leverage the media to spread my ideas through the internet. It was also my first experiment into using Google Maps, which I believe ultimately paved the way for RottenNeighbor. Of course Father Joe Carroll criticized it…. that is his job. I was shocked to see that they went straight to him for the interview to tell you the truth. Then again, I feel like he was missing the whole point of the site which was to make people safer while they are in big cities such as San Diego. If you moved into one of these new high rise condos downtown, would you want your children playing around outside in you knew the street was full of homeless right out in front on your home? The idea was never intended to be a business, more of an experiment. It was actually too controversial for me even, so I pulled the plug.
And what about the first successful site you launched, FakeYourSpace.com? That’s no longer up either, is it? What was the motivation for that site?
FakeYourSpace (also bought by [venture capitalists]) was going to be the next big thing. I had already sold several thousand “Fake Friends” for a dollar a piece, when I received cease and desist letters from Fox Legal (Fox owns MySpace) demanding we shut it down. Apparently they weren’t too happy with the idea of being able to buy popularity. I got the idea for FakeYourSpace.com while browsing through users MySpace profiles and thinking of ways how I could help the less popular users get better looking friends.
Are there other sites you’ve launched that I haven’t mentioned?
Yes, but I don’t really talk about them. =) Meaning, I would rather remain anonymous for some sites. You never know what kind of people might take something the wrong way. I have already experienced this to some degree with the three sites you have mentioned.
You call yourself an entrepreneur/search engine marketer. How do you get the word out about your ventures, and how do you explain the large volume of media attention you’ve received for all three of these?
So many ideas have already been done, that it is difficult to actually think of something that is completely new and original . This process seems to come a bit easier to me than most people. I spend a large amount of time looking for these new ideas, and actually end up finding them when I least expect to. Many of them come from my everyday experiences. This is where the hard part comes in. I am full of ideas. Some of them so large that I don’t even know where to begin. Getting the idea out of my head and onto the internet requires time, money, people, and much more. Then the viral marketing comes into play. This is the fun part. I will not reveal my techniques, but let’s just say that I am using methods that other marketers aren’t. I think that those techniques have greatly contributed to the success of all of my sites.
What’s next for you?
I will continue to come up with ideas and create sites that change the way the internet is used, and what it is being used for. Sometimes I like to think of the internet as a giant open canvas where I can create things people have never even dreamed of.