New App Uses ‘Avatars’ to Personalize Social Networking

With the new iPhone app Hmmm, users can create multiple profiles, each only visible to a select group of friends or family members.

hmmm pic New App Uses Avatars to Personalize Social Networking

Ms. Patchirajan. (Photo: Twitter)

You just got your boyfriend’s face tattooed on your stomach, and you really want to post a photo of the beautiful artistic creation on Facebook. Problem is, you’re friends with your grandmother, who may not approve of such creative genius. You could put your grandmother on Limited Profile. But Facebook’s privacy settings are confusing, and you’re lazy. Or you could download the new app Hmmm.

Hmmm allows you divide your close friends and family members under different avatar names. You start with a default public avatar and choose a profile picture and cover photo. Under the original avatar, you can create any number of individualized avatars with different nicknames, profile pictures and cover photos. Once you have invited and added friends to your account, you organize your friends under the personalized avatars, deciding who will have access to various updates. “The context is defined right there,” said Archana Patchirajan, Hmmm co-founder and CEO. Your friends “know exactly who’s talking to them,” whether its the promiscuous, party-animal side or the daddy’s girl side to your personality.

Each “avatar” is really a page, similar to a Facebook profile, that includes your profile picture and cover photo for the avatar as well as your status updates. Updates can include your current activity, your emotion, music you are listening to, your location, who you are with or a personal message.

You can put Grammy under your family avatar “Coochie Poo,” named after the embarrassing childhood nickname you could never really shake, and post the tattoo pic under the “Crazy Gurl” avatar reserved for your high school BFFs. Since posts under a certain avatar are only visible to those select friends you organize into that group, your problem is solved.

“People can use this as a tool to express themselves,”  Ms. Patchirajan said. It allows your friends to know your answers to questions such as, “What are the things that thrill me? What are the things that make me go, ‘wow’? What are the things that I’m confident about? What are the things I’m upset about?” she said. Whether or not your friends want to know that much about you is a different question entirely.

Ms. Patchirajan, a graduate of PSF College of Technology in India, is no novice to the app world. She also co-founded MyCityWay, an app that allows users to do everything from buying movie tickets to checking local traffic feeds. From her office in New York City, she has been working on Hmmm for the three months prior to its March 23 launch and currently manages the eight-person team that works on the app, which now has logged over 500,000 interactions.

Let’s be honest. Hmmm is virtually Facebook’s “Limited Profile” feature or Google+ circles, on steroids. (Though it does pleasantly feed its users narcissistic desires by allowing you to use a different picture for each of your profiles. Now you don’t have to select just one profile picture!)

There are a few perks. Hmmm features an “inbuilt inference engine,” a slightly stalker-ish mechanism that monitors your interactions and then groups together related updates. For example, the app would organize all your updates about “visiting mom” together, so you can helpfully note that you often feel anxious and sick around that same time. “It gives you a clear picture of when you were here, whom you were with, what you were doing here, how you were feeling, when you were here,” Ms. Patchirajan said. She said this feature allows you to better depict the story of your life, whereas on Facebook’s Timeline you can really only share statuses, photos and videos.

She also points out that the app helps clear up all the “noise” you experience on your Facebook newsfeed. Between people posting cat videos and opinions on every topic under the sun, “there’s no real way to actually get the information that we want from people,” she said. With Hmmm, it’s like cutting your friend list down by 500 people. You can intimately interact with your close friends, and just use Facebook on the side to monitor your ex-boyfriend’s profile and watch those cat videos that you secretly adore. Hmmm will help “put an end to the information overload,” she said.

So is Ms. Patchirajan still going to use Facebook? “Maybe not,” she said, noting that since launching the app, she has been using Mark Zuckerberg’s brainchild less and less. Notably, however, you can connect your Hmmm account with your Facebook account. You can log into the app via your Facebook account, invite your Facebook friends to Hmmm, and publish Hmmm updates from your default public avatar to your Facebook wall.

The app has around 12,500 current users, but Ms. Patchirajan said she expects it to reach over half a million users in the next couple of months. It is currently available for iPhone users and will become accessible to Android users next week. The company is also looking to expand to the Windows and BlackBerry app stores.

All in all, the app’s not too shabby, despite having a name that’s horribly awkward to say out loud. Ms. Patchirajan came up with the chunky moniker after realizing she used the phrase “hmmm” a lot in emails, adding that “it means different things” each time she uses it. Sometimes it could be used to ask a question, other times she would write “hmmm” to indicate pensiveness. “Hmmm” is a diverse phrase, one that can be adapted to different emotions just as the app adapts to each of your different personalities with different friend groups, she said.

In the end, Hmmm is kind of like managing 50 different Facebooks, with multiple Walls and Newsfeeds to worry about. Imagine how much time you could waste, how much more organized stalking you could accomplish. So will I be using the app? Hmmm … we’ll see.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this post said Ms. Patchirajan founded MyCityWay; she is a co-founder. Betabeat regrets the error.