New social network aims to help its users break down language barriers

A Palestinian girl tries to punch an Israeli soldier. Picture: AP
A Palestinian girl tries to punch an Israeli soldier. Picture: AP
Share this article
Have your say

A SCOTTISH entrepreneur who launched a website allowing people of different nationalities to talk to each other is hoping that his business can revolutionise social media after being adopted by users in more than 100 countries.

Jason Gowans gave up his high-flying job at a Seattle technology company earlier this year to launch the radical alternative to Facebook and Twitter, called Harnu.

Gowans, who moved from his native Dundee to the US in the 1990s thanks to an athletics scholarship from an American university, said he was disappointed by the way social media sites encouraged users to interact mostly with members of their own social circle.

“They tend to reinforce our existing networks,” he said. “On Facebook you are posting content that most people who will read it will agree with.”

He wanted something that allowed him to connect with the wider world, making the most of the internet’s global reach and its more than two billion users. So, together with three associates, he set about designing a site that would allow a more random approach to finding friends online.

The most immediate problem was the language barrier, but Harnu uses Google Translate so that all messages are displayed in a user’s own language, almost instantly.

Gowans was also motivated by what he perceived as a decline in the quality and availability of foreign news, especially in the US. With momentous events happening around the world, he wanted to connect with people in affected areas and ask how they felt.

He said news of an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas being exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners last year “crystallised” his vision.

“It was such an amazing and unusual event, and I felt there was no real way of finding out more about it. What better than to give people the chance to talk to ordinary Israelis and Palestinians? People are learning less about the world and we want to encourage them to learn more.”

Harnu allows people to post a message to an entire country – asking for points of view about events or more specific information – or can be used to seek out experts on a subject. Each user registers a “unique genius” or subject they wish to comment on. People in 103 countries have signed up to the free service.

Conceived late last year, an initial test site was up and running in April, and the full version was launched in August. “That’s the nature of technology over here,” Gowans said. “Things change quickly and you have to be fast.”

A lot of companies build up “market by market”, but the nature of Harnu meant it had to be launched in many countries simultaneously, adding to the challenges. So far it has been funded by the four owners, who are the only staff, but they are now looking at ways to bring in revenue.

Gowans thinks Harnu could mirror the rise of Facebook. “I see a time when a housewife in Edinburgh has a friend in Cairo and they are chatting over the internet about raising their kids,” he said.

However, he will have to work hard to make sure they are chatting on Harnu. The big players are eyeing multilingual communication options – Face­book has launched a system to allow business users to display their page in local languages, and Twitter is recruiting volunteer translators.