Cambridge, MA, March 15, 2014—Noh Hao, at 25 the social media’s youngest—and first female—multibillionaire, explains her meteoric success in an exclusive interview with Martha Bayles.
"Meet me at the Harvard square Peet's!" The suggestion evokes a legend. Only three years ago, Hao was sipping chai in that same Peet's when she got the idea for Bod-E, the ultra-hot social networking site that recently topped Google, Facebook, and Twitter in user volume and revenue. On Monday Bod-E rocked global markets by gaining access to China, using the same sales pitch that had helped it penetrate Burma (Myanmar), North Korea, Belarus, and the military dictatorships of Egypt, Iran, and the Persian Gulf Republic. According to SeeNoEvil.com, the essence of that pitch is: Bod-E means stability.
Breathless from dodging traffic, Hao arrives and settles into her favorite corner. Asked to describe her Eureka moment, she says,
I was sitting right here, reading Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, when I was struck by the line: "Today, our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control." Glancing up from my Kindle, I realized that wi-fi cafés speak to the same dream. In that crowded space, no one was talking, except for an older couple in the corner. People were alone, engrossed in their laptops, smart phones, and tablets. Yet they seemed content, even happy. I wondered: if our online lives are so satisfying, why do we bother to cram into Peet's and Starbuck's? Why don't we just stay home?
Hao majored in math and cello at Harvard, so while her intellect tackled the problem, her ears attuned themselves to the atmosphere in Peet's. The answer, when it came, was embarrassingly obvious. Human beings crave the physical presence of other human beings. "When Twitter first took off," she explains, "no one could figure out why it was so addictive." By one measure, more than 40% of all Tweets were "pointless babble"—or, in the words of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, "short bursts of inconsequential information." Over time, it became clear that what mattered were not the individual Tweets (micro-messages of 140 characters or less) but the constant flow. "It was comforting," says Hao. "Like being surrounded by the people you care about."
In Peet's, one is surrounded by strangers. And it is definitely not the custom to strike up conversations. But the strangers serve a purpose: they produce a steady stream of bodily noises—breathing, digestion, rustlings, bustlings, sub-vocal burblings—that, combined with the flow of micro-messages on one's screen, create the tranquil mental state described variously as "co-presence," "peripheral awareness," and "ambient intimacy." "Think of a cave," says Hao.
For thousands of years, caves were the only safe place for humans. And the best times were when nobody was hungry or fighting; everybody was just hanging out, full of food and warmed by the fire, watching the shadows on the wall. Nobody felt lonely, but nobody felt hassled, either. That's the state re-created by Bod-E.
Bod-E's chief innovation was to introduce a radically different data stream that, rather than compete with the glut of online text, images, video, and music, simply flows underneath it. "Advertisers talk about ‘top-of-the-mind awareness,'" explains Hao,
but Bod-E provides bottom-of-the-mind connectedness. A continuous non-verbal, non-visual flow of sound between us and our friends, evoking the feeling of being together in the same physical space. It's better than Peet's, because the sounds are produced by bodies we care about.
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To join Bod-E, the user subscribes online, then buys a ChipKit consisting of six tiny transmitters and two receptors, all attachable to jewelry or embeddable in the skin. The transmitters, typically placed at the neck, chest, and abdomen, pick up the user's bodily noises, called Emits, and combine them into the Outflo stream. The receptors, located in or around the user's ears, import the Inflo stream—a blend of Emits received from the user's ComZon (short for "comfort zone"), a select group of individuals similar to Facebook Friends. There are several different Inflo settings, depending on user preference. For example, the PHW setting, popular with the young male demographic, allows users to enjoy the sound of their friends breaking wind.
Asked for the secret of Bod-E's success, Hao smiles: "Timing. When we introduced the prototype in the fall of 2012, people went crazy, because it was seen as the cure for everything that was wrong with the social media, from the Other People Problem to the User Overload Problem."
Regarding the first, Hao recalls,
The Other People Problem didn't exist in the days of the old-fashioned land-line telephone. You could avoid calls by not picking up, or by telling callers you'd been out. Then came the answering machine and caller ID, which made it harder to cook up excuses. The last straw was the cell phone. Suddenly you were at the mercy of everybody, from parents to bosses to old flames, who felt like calling and making inappropriate demands. To escape, people began forgetting to charge their cell phones or just plain losing them. Email, instant messaging, and texting came as a relief, because they let you control the process, shaping your outgoing messages and filtering your incoming ones.
Facebook and Twitter proved even more popular, because in addition to insulating the user from the annoying tug of friends' and family's demands, they catered to the user's own craving for attention. The one-to-one message gave way to the one-to-many broadcast, as users devoted lavish amounts of time to updating an ever-increasing flow of personal micro-messages. On the receiving end, the unintended consequence of all this attention-getting behavior was the User Overload Problem, as the incoming flow became a tsunami.
Despite a popular film about Facebook and headlines congratulating Twitter for its role in the Middle East revolts, a backlash began to form in 2011. "Twitter hate is the new black," quipped one prominent blogger. Experts like Turkle confirmed what the public already suspected: social media were distorting social life, not to mention family life. Horror stories abounded: the teenager who starved to death in her room, obsessing over which headband to wear in her Facebook profile photo; the father who ran over his toddler while scrolling through his BlackBerry; the priest who was caught sending text messages while administering the last rites. In early 2012 Oprah announced she was going off Twitter, and other celebrities followed suit. This movement, dubbed Cut the Connection, made headlines for a while, but as Hao notes, "Most non-celebrities couldn't do it. The human need for attention is just too strong."
Clearly, the Other People Problem and the User Overload Problem were intertwined. Bod-E solved them both with a single brilliant invention: the Emot, a type of Emit that expresses the kinds of emotion—need, pain, disappointment, sorrow—that make us seek the comfort of others. When asked about the ensuing controversy, Hao laughs. "It was insane. Some blogger at Wired freaked out and began posting flaming denunciations of me for giving women a new way to whine to men. It was so sexist. Thousands of users cancelled before we could get the word out that the Emot doesn't require a response, the response is automated."
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The automated emot response was the brainchild of Hao's techie boyfriend, Yuri Ality. "When we introduced the Emot," Hao recalls,
we assumed users would want to produce their own comfort sounds—you know, coos, clucks, and "there-theres" [a rare violation of Bod-E's non-verbal rule]. But we got a lot of complaints. Some people wanted all the Emots filtered out of their Inflo. Others liked the idea of sending comfort sounds but found it a hassle to produce them in the middle of their busy day. So Yuri tweaked the receptors to respond to each incoming Emot by uploading a comfort sound from the user's own archive and adding it to the user's Outflo. We weren't sure how people would react, because the system doesn't flag the individual origin of each Emot and comfort sound. But people loved it, because the principle is really beautiful: the amount of pain circulating in a given ComZon is always matched by the equivalent amount of sympathy.
The Emot system remains controversial, but as Hao remarks,
Today most of the critics are older family members and non-adaptors who cling to the notion that every cry for help deserves a real-time, personal response. Many of these individuals still use the telephone, which means they are accustomed to an intolerably high level of emotional expression conveyed by spoken language. When their calls are not returned, or increasingly, when their targets no longer own telephones, these people occasionally resort to Emots. But the automated response doesn't satisfy them. Back when we had Baby Boomers in our focus groups, one grey-haired gentleman complained, "When my wife died, I wanted to talk to our son."
Needless to say, Bod-E is not designed for the elderly consumer. Or for the type of foreign activist who made Facebook and Twitter famous in 2011. Most of those people have either disappeared or accepted lucrative posts in their countries' new military dictatorships. The remnant who still agitate for democracy have little use for Bod-E, with its focus on non-verbal, non-visual communication. To Hao, this poses a marketing challenge. To idealistic Americans, the most effective approach is to depict bodily noises as the universal language. "No Translation Needed," reads one popular ad. But to attract young consumers in the world's growing number of anti-democratic regimes, requires a different approach.
Here Hao credits her first big investor and now friend, Solon Tentakles, CEO of the Octopus Group.
It was Sol who figured out what was going on in the overseas youth market. The elation is gone. The democracy movements are dead, and people are back to being cynical, doing whatever it takes to survive. But there's also a huge nostalgia for the spirit of Tahrir Square. So we put together an ad campaign that focuses on the purely physical side of what happened, the excitement of being together with all those other people. We tracked a compilation Bod-E stream over "Sout Al Horeya," the song by Egyptian pop star Amir Eid that became a sort of anthem. The title means "I'm not turning around," which obviously taps into the nostalgia. Or maybe it speaks to the fantasy that the movement made a difference. Either way, our subscription rate shot up.
Hao would not discuss the company's approach to China. And asked about the percentage of profit that would go to the PRC government, she demurred. But on the basic fact of Bod-E's acceptability to repressive regimes, she concedes no moral ground. "After the counter-revolutions of 2011-12, all Western social media were banned in China, Egypt, Iran, and the Persian Gulf Republic," she points out. "But all those companies—Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest—were so desperate to get back in, they knuckled under and signed Charter 2013," the Beijing-sponsored document that openly rejects the American definition of freedom and democracy, and states that each nation has the right to define these ideals according to its own unique civilizational characteristics. "Say what you will about Bod-E," Hao exclaims, "we never signed that document!"
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It's impossible to predict the future, but one thing is certain. The same apolitical content that makes Bod-E acceptable to police states also makes it useless to them. Amid the giddy atmosphere surrounding the Facebook and Twitter revolutions of 2011, a few voices sounded a more somber note. One such was Evgeny Morozov, the Belarusian-American author of The Net Delusion, a book chronicling how state security services from Central Europe to North Korea use social media to gather information about dissidents. Since then, it has become all too evident that such information can also be used to crush democracy movements.
In America, Morozov's message resonates mainly with cyber-libertarians concerned about having their privacy violated by advertisers—as in the case of Facebook selling user data to marketers. This may sound trivial by comparison, but it must have looked pretty serious to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg in August 2012, when the company's Palo Alto headquarters was the target of a massive pro-privacy "nude-in" that, according to the Wall Street Journal, started the exodus of advertisers that led to the company's near collapse.
In both foreign and domestic markets, Bod-E refuses, for obvious reasons, to include ads in its content stream. Instead, it earns all its revenue from its website, a decision based on the Facebook experience. In 2011 it became clear that Facebook users were ignoring the ads on the right of every page, being much more interested in the personal information elsewhere. Indeed, the only ads people watched were the ones they had to watch in order to access videos posted by friends. By the same token, users were found to spend much more time editing their own profiles than visiting the pages of others.
"We put all this together," says Hao,
under a concept we borrowed from Freud: "the narcissism of small differences." We call it "the vanity of small differences," and use it to remind ourselves that human beings are primarily concerned with their self-presentation, even when it's just a mix of bodily noises that, from an objective standpoint, sounds no different from a million other people's. Our users spend hours fiddling with their Outflo settings, and we charge them by the minute. We also make them watch a commercial every time they access their account. If only Zuckerberg had figured that out, he'd still be wearing his shirt!
How will the vanity of small differences play out in the vast new markets that Bod-E is now poised to enter? Hao's tone is upbeat. "You can't use Bod-E to organize a protest march," she concedes. "But by helping the world's young people to focus on themselves more than others, we will, I think, be teaching them something essential about the American way of life. Let me give you an example." Blushing slightly, she divulges a big secret, one that may alter forever the way people judge the political relevance of Bod-E.
The most popular Inflo setting is OHH, which selects for the panting and moaning sounds of women having orgasms. This surprised us, because we expected people to turn off their transmitters when having sex. But they don't. Especially younger users—they seem to have no problem sharing this unique dimension of their personality. Anyway, we didn't see the significance of OHH, apart from the obvious marketing angle, till we got a call from the new Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Stefani Germanotta.
Blushing again, Hao confides that Germanotta "sounded so serious and scholarly, we never would have guessed we were speaking to the former Lady Gaga!"
What did the under secretary want?
Well, here's the amazing part. She wanted to know if there was some way we could create a compilation OHH stream that could be beamed directly into the ears of every young person on the planet. That would require full global penetration, which suits us, of course. But it's not just a question of self-interest. We'd also be doing something for America. The Under Secretary says this would give a huge boost to the State Department's new Erotic Liberation Agenda, a public-private partnership that pinpoints the erotic oppression of Muslim girls, women, and LGBT individuals. We're meeting with her next week, and if things work out, who knows? The next revolution could belong to Bod-E!