Affairs, Snared

A Portland tech start-up “traps” hot news stories.

By Shane Danaher April 27, 2012 Published in the May 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Michael Novak

IN THIS AGE of Google alerts, Twitter hashtags, and manicured blog reading lists, you may not feel you need another way to track your obsessions. One start-up bets that, in fact, you do.

Trapit, a yearling company split between Portland and Palo Alto, California, calls itself a “discovery engine.” A user designates a topic; Trapit churns out links to recent articles. The site tracks the user’s reaction: whether the reader shares particular pieces on social media, how long she or he reads a given story. The site then refines the next search on the same subject. Each topical “trap” becomes a better (or, if you’re being cynical, narrower) reflection of one specific reader.

“Trapit is about what’s important to you,” says cofounder Henry Nothhaft Jr. “You don’t have to follow any websites or people. You just indicate your interests.”

Some critics are ambivalent: British newspaper the Independent dismissed Trapit as “filters … filtering a bunch of filters.” But the start-up is attracting admirers. In December, Trapit landed $6.2 million in venture funding, largely from a Hong Kong–based firm. Last month, it was a finalist for the South by Southwest Interactive Festival’s coveted Accelerator award for innovative web technologies. One commentator called Trapit’s ability to integrate with voguish photo-sharing site Pinterest “brilliant.”

Trapit boasts intriguing DNA. The site’s software stems from the same artificial-intelligence technology that powers Siri, the “personal assistant” built into Apple’s newest iPhones. Siri can learn users’ favorite restaurants. Trapit applies the same programming to tracking (and shaping) users’ reading interests.

As of early spring, Trapit employed 11 in its Portland office, with plans to hire. The company divides its forces between Palo Alto and Portland to tap both Silicon Valley and our abundance of talented programmers. “Not to put down Silicon Valley,” says Nothhaft, “but Portland really speaks to me.”

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