BERLIN -- What do you get when a designer Wellesley graduate, an original Twitter engineer, and the founder of a Nokia acquisition launch a start-up in Berlin?
A bold social web experiment. Amen.
It all started when graphic designer Caitlin Winner, entrepreneur Felix Petersen, and programmer Florian Weber began tossing around ideas about lists: people love them, but hate making them. So how to generate them organically? By February 2011, the trio was ready to realize an idea.
Today the team describes their social service Amen as the best and worst of life: users get to duke it out over any number of topics, limited only by the grammatical structure of their statements and the use of superlatives. There are no gray areas here:
"Fight Club is the best movie of 1999"
"R2D2 is the best movie robot ever / not C-3PO"
Users can submit their own statements, give an "Amen", or dispute statements with a "Hell no" and their own opinion. The result is potentially invaluable data - namely lists of 'bests' and 'worsts' - which gradually accumulate and update over time to reveal social trends.
"If something in the news happens with Donald Trump, we want to be able to see everything that's been said about him," Pennsylvania native Winner explained. "We can see that his data object is really popular today. Along this line there is a lot of potential to expose trending topics and lists."
Amen's industrious and well-connected founding team has received plenty of attention from the European press - thanks not least to high-profile investors such as Ashton Kutcher and Madonna manager Guy Oseary. Adding fuel to the fire is Weber's history as one of the founding engineers of Twitter and a globally-respected early-adopter of the Ruby On Rails web app framework. Winner and Petersen are also veterans of the international tech scene.
But a sort of backlash has developed among German media, with some expressing doubt about fledgling Amen's potential:
"Will Amen live up to the hype? Probably not," Der Spiegel's Felix Knoke writes. "Amen is an interesting tool for fishing for opinions on the web - but it is not attractive enough to pool those opinions. Amen is a good idea, but it still cannot answer the most important question for potential users: 'What's in it for me?' One thing is clear: the hype is putting pressure on the founders."
Winner disagrees, saying she missed a lot of the German coverage of Amen and its celebrity investors - and doesn't seem worried about similar skepticism on the other side of the Atlantic.
"Ashton's portfolio has 40 plus companies, so it's actually not big news in the US that he's investing," she said. "Ashton was very enthusiastic, his head is definitely on straight, he provides good feedback and of course there is the marketing 'umph' that comes with that kind of personality."
Still, Amen's full potential could remain unclear until a critical user mass begins to unlock the full scope of possibilities for the service. Winner says the team is already preparing for potential challenges to growth in the U.S. - a common global "proof point" for social web ventures.
"It's going to take more effort to get off the ground," Winner says, regarding the company's geographical removal from the U.S..
"We're all very well connected there. We may need to have a presence there, someone who's doing PR, going to meet-ups and banging the drum. But we don't think it's a disadvantage that isn't balanced out by advantages."
As for the question of what's in it for users, Winner reiterates the power of what is perhaps Amen's most striking differentiator compared to other social services - the facilitation of dissent.
"It's a little bit dark-webby," Winner said. "It's not all PC happy-land, which is cool."
"We're not just liking, loving stuff or 'hearting' stuff. Theres also the flip side: 'Hell no, you're wrong!' An unlike button of sorts."