It is late on a Friday morning, and Jonathan Gheller is sitting before a wall-size whiteboard in a second-floor meeting room overlooking Palo Alto's leafy University Avenue. I've come here to ask him about his new startup, Storylane. But instead, hands in motion for emphasis, Gheller is asking me questions.
We chat for a few minutes before I manage to ask something about him. "Me?" he asks, leaning back in his chair.
To understand why Gheller, a Caracas transplant, would be so intrigued by the person sitting opposite him is to get a glimpse into Storylane, a social media site he has built around people telling stories about themselves and their experiences.
"Can we create a platform to share ideas of what we care about?" he asked himself when starting down this lane.
"Intellectually, I am fascinated with why people do what they do," says Gheller, who has two master's degrees, one in philosophy.
"It's almost like my own social science lab," he adds.
Two of his basic questions: "Who are we and how do we learn about each other?"
His answer is that everyone does what Gheller and I are doing this morning: telling each other stories.
Just in case one of us thinks we have nothing relevant to say, we keep the conversation going by asking questions, assuring the other that we are paying attention. Storylane takes a similar approach.
Gheller has seeded the site with story prompts: "What would you tell your 13-year-old self?" was the question that kicked off Storylane at its Oct. 22 launch.
The idea is that, once a user tells a story, a follower will ask that user to tell another story, such as: "Was there a crucial political event that shaped your life?"
Now he hooks up people with people, using algorithms designed to match those who share interests or have had similar experiences. He also tries to push users beyond their comfort zones by pairing them with others who have philosophies or political viewpoints diametrically opposed to theirs. In many social media platforms, you "friend" those who, like you, believe in evolution, or are fiscally conservative, for example. "You are closing lanes," says Gheller. "We want to open lanes."
Still, he is careful to acknowledge the value of Facebook and Twitter. But Storylane, he says, helps people go beyond status updates about walking their dog or eating a double-double cheeseburger at In & Out Burger. "We do other things. We talk to each other, we share experiences," he says. "I want you to connect."
I joined Storylane several days before meeting with Gheller, who won't say how many early adopters the site has attracted. He does say he is "happy" with the initial numbers.
As soon as I signed up, I found myself approaching the site more slowly than the frenetic-paced Twitter. The boxes give me more space to write in. I can also add photographs and audio, to complement my text. After picking some topics to follow, I wrote a brief two paragraphs about myself. Within a day or two, a follower asked me to tell a story about the cross-country bicycle trip I had mentioned. I did not respond. Then, a day or two later, Gheller asked me via Storylane to tell a story about something I know now that I did not know when I was 18.
At first I found the question is a bit simplistic, even hokey, so I ignored it. But as the days passed, I found myself thinking back to my 18-year-old self. I had struggled to get to that age for various reasons, but luckily I had managed to do what no one in my family had done before: attend college. I surprised myself by writing a quite personal account on Storylane. I told of the professor who became my life-changing mentor. The story also posted on both Facebook and Twitter, because I had linked Storylane to those accounts, and more than 30 people read it -- not bad for a first encounter with a social media site.
Gheller says that, whether one's writing is personal or "über-rational," the site's "visual cues" encourage a reflective nature and put less pressure on a user to write quickly. Also, the site provides no room for comments, so the content does not degrade into less-thoughtful snippets or snide remarks. (Still, in one story, a user asks his followers to vote on whether he is still in love with his girlfriend.) Users can respond to stories from others by clicking on icons such as "Wow!" "Inspiring!" and "Want!" But who can resist the story "Why I quit my job to travel around the world"? I read it and find the writer took a trip to Siberia, which I have been dreaming of for years.
Gheller is still trying to figure out an expanded commenting system. The site's treasure trove of stories, he hopes, will draw brand-name organizations to tell their own stories -- and pay to do so. Already, you can find a "Panera cares" story on the site. Gheller hopes to make an announcement soon about funding for the company, which now has six employees.
When I finally wrote a story about how I almost gave up my planned bicycle trip across America not long after starting it, a user clicked the icon "Been There." That's exactly the kind of interaction Gheller hopes for. When you tell a story, he says, others may not have had the same exact experience, but they relate to something about it. "Are you the only woman who has gone through this? No."
In researching the story I told about my mentor, Arnold C. Brackman, I found a blogger who also counted the former Christian Science Monitor journalist as a mentor. I immediately contacted him through LinkedIn.
There I was, opening up a lane.
Deborah Petersen is the Social Media Editor at the Bay Area News Group. Contact her at email@example.com, www.facebook.com/deb, twitter.com/DeboraPetersen, http://deborahpetersen.wordpress.com and now at http://www.storylane.com/deborahpetersen