Two weeks ago saw the launch of a new social networking site — Menshn — that sought to change the way conversations work online.
At the time, the site's co-founder, British Member of Parliament Louise Mensch, told TechCrunch's UK editor Mike Butcher that she had decided to found the site in a bid to create a better system for debate than Twitter. The self-described "obsessive user of social media" (she currently has over 60,000 Twitter followers herself) was sick of the off-topic tweets she saw, and wanted a better way to follow the topics she wanted than the chaos of hashtags. On June 20 the site went live in the United States, with a room devoted to American politics. It launched in the UK a few days later. The site was described as a "Twitter-killer" due to its 180 character limit.
When the site opened in the US, it attracted little attention this side of the Atlantic — perhaps understandably, given that the site lacked the backing of a tech-heavyweight, and startup launches are a dime-a-dozen. However in the UK, Menshn faced an avalanche of press. While the major newspapers covered it straight, there was a notable element of snark to some articles, and — predictably — the hashtag #menshn on Twitter soon became full of criticism for the site.
To fully understand the site's critics, it's probably best to put Louise Mensch in context. The 41-year-old Conservative only became a member of parliament in 2010, after a career in the music industry and a number of successful "chick lit" books published under her maiden name, Louise Bagshawe.
Despite her relatively short time in office, Mensch may be one of the most high-profile politicians in the UK right now. She played a notable role in the phone hacking scandal, after accusing CNN host Piers Morgan of phone hacking while under parliamentary privilege (Morgan later forced her to backtrack on the allegations). She also had a widely publicized spat with a tabloid reporter attempting to "smear" her with allegations she publicly took cocaine while working in the music industry.
Mensch is younger and more media-savvy than most of her parliamentary peers, and that in itself is controversial. To some, this seems to show a big ego, but to others, she's a victim of the UK's gray, male-dominated orthodoxy. Mensch seems to understand this split — in an interview with British GQ earlier this year, she complained that it was wrong to “trivialize a woman politician based on her appearance,” and argued that her parliamentary career had been held back by her being a woman. The article was titled "Iron Maiden" and featured a glamorous photoshoot of her wearing a leather dress.
(At the time of writing, Mensch is being criticized on Twitter for using an appearance on the BBC's Question Time to publicize the site).
Business Insider reached out to Mensch on Tuesday and she admitted her fame in the UK had probably been a "hindrance" for the site, and explained that was the reason the site launched in the United States first. "It's a website that we wanted to perform on its merit and we didn't want to bring the political baggage," she said via phone.
The site's co-founder, Luke Bozier (a political communications guru somewhat notorious for ditching opposition Labour party to join the Conservatives), also admits that Mensch's profile is a mixed blessing.
"[Her name] helped in that it literally sent attention just on the banner of the site. We've been lucky because most dot-coms start and it takes months and months to get the coverage we've had," Bozier said.
"The press interest was great at the beginning because we were able to leverage that in order to get the word out. It's hard to the extent that people will sit and point at it and say why should an MP be doing stuff like this or say she shouldn't be doing something like this and that can become the source of mockery for the brand," Bozier added.
Security problems found after the site's UK launch haven't helped either. Within hours of going live in the UK last month, one programmer was warning users away due to security issues, while another developer created a code to give himself free "Menshn" points. This week, blogger Paul Gregg found more security holes and copyright infringement — and at the time of writing, an altered version of the site featuring an enormous kitten is currently doing the rounds.
Given that the site was coded by Bozier himself, and even now has only four members of staff, such flaws are understandable — if still worrying. Bozier and Mensch say they are now working with critics of the site to fix such flaws, though Bozier believes some of the criticism was unfair.
"Some of the reaction was a bit intertwined with 'how dare Louise Mensch create a social network,' it wasn't all dispassionate and technical reasoning, but there were things that were broken and needed fixing," he said. "[The site] is solid," he said, before adding the caveat, "Well, it's as solid as any other website."
Mensch describes the site's first two weeks as "the most incredible ride," and Bozier says that there have been 15,000 posts and 5,000 registered users on the site. The site has changed in the first two weeks, with users now allowed to create rooms whenever they want — and the site is looking less and less like a Twitter-killer and more like a real-time forum.
"We've created a micro-forum," Bozier says, adding that Twitter dominates the micro-blogging world and this was a new movement in the relatively stagnant world of forums. Mensch says that some of the most popular rooms are the libertarian room, the digital law room, and the hobby room.
The next step, Bozier says, is pushing the site in the US. The site's user-base is currently around 70 percent British, and Bozier is hoping a press push in the United States could open the site up to more users. Mensch is clearly excited about this project, and is planning a live Q&A with Jimmy Wale, the Wikipedia founder ("a rockstar moment for us"), and said that she would love to see Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos on the site.
The hope is that the more focused discussion will give the site a boost during the US election. "Right now it is the most boring general election the US has ever seen," she said. "But I have faith that when Romney picks the vice president it will pick up."
Mensch says the team is now working on fixing bugs and getting the mobile site up and running, and will soon be looking for venture capital. Whether Mensch's profile will be a help or hindrance then is anyone's guess, but Mensch seems keen to move the focus away from herself (she quickly corrected me when I accidentally described the site as "Menschn" in an email).
"I don't mean anything in the US," she said. "Menshn is a play on the word mention, and in the US that's how it'll be perceived. Like Tumblr or Flickr. People in the UK thought that I'd named it after myself."
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