Techies gather for a lunch to save the world

The Lunch for Good series drew Bay Area online mavens with talks about how to use the Internet for humankind

The 43rd floor of the Spear Tower in downtown San Francisco is empty. Possibly because of the slumping economy, there's just a big, open office space with unfinished white walls overlooking a million-dollar view. It was an appropriate setting for Lunch for Good, an event on Wednesday that brought together nearly 100 people deep in the Bay Area's social-networking industry to talk about a futuristic question: how online social networks can help humans find common ground.

Someday this swanky piece of real estate, with a view of the city's historic waterfront below and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance, may become the headquarters of some bold company that runs with one of the ideas generated by Wednesday's lunch.

Pondering the fate of humankind and inventing lucrative online businesses are the twin pillars of San Francisco's tech scene, which helps to explain why the heads of Lunch.com, the event's main sponsor, flew up from Los Angeles to hold the event in the Bay Area.

Lunch.com is a social-networking site focused on helping people share views on an endless variety of subjects and meeting people with common interests whom they otherwise couldn't have found.

Members can start with point ratings and 140-character reviews of movies, restaurants and other things and gradually build up to sharing lengthy opinions and top 10 lists, or they can jump right in to the fray, said Melissa Cunningham, vice president of brand marketing at Lunch.com.

Wednesday's lunch was the last in a series of three, all held in the Bay Area, which began in September. The idea for the events came about over lunch (naturally) as Lunch.com founder J.R. Johnson, Social Media Club founder Chris Heuer and SF New Tech event organizer Myles Weissleder talked about the possibilities and shortcomings of online social networking.

The Social Media Club and SF New Tech co-sponsored the series. The lunches drew growing crowds after the first event, which attracted about 50 people, Cunningham said.

At each of the three lunches, Lunch.com posed one question and asked each table of guests to discuss it while they ate. At the end of that time, each table sent one diner up to present the answers that table had come up with.

The first, in September, pondered how to foster more responsible participation in online communities. At the October lunch, participants were asked, "How can online contribution evolve to encourage more critical thought?" The series closed on Wednesday with the question, "How can online contribution evolve to enable people to find common ground with one another?"

It's worth noting that the answers to those questions could be pretty valuable to Lunch.com's own business. The company wants to create a space where users feel comfortable sharing views with people who are different from them, and come back often for more thoughtful and valuable opinions. But to hear founder J.R. Johnson tell it, Lunch.com wants to find the key to world peace.

"If you're able to find some commonality with somebody else, it allows you to understand that person a little better ... before you pass judgment on what their point of view is. It helps to remove this us-versus-them mentality," Johnson said in his opening remarks. "It's just hard to do," Johnson said.

He gave the example of two people from different backgrounds who both like Cherry Coke and the 1990s sitcom "Seinfeld." Lunch.com's Similarity Network is a system that exposes those commonalities by analyzing every rating or review that each member has submitted on the site.

"If this happens enough times, and people believe this and see this enough, they're now going to look at a roomful of strangers, like I'm looking at right now, and they're not going to see a bunch of people who are different from them. They're going to know that they're somehow connected to these people," Johnson said.

Before the wait staff got to see some of the Bay Area's top technology and marketing professionals spontaneously hold hands in a circle and sing "Kum-ba-ya," Johnson and Heuer set them to their task of overcoming the barriers to Internet-inspired brotherhood.

Later, as the representatives of each table got up to present the results of their small-group discussions, some thought-provoking ideas came out.

One was a space on the Internet that would exist for only a limited period of time. That would force people to commit to that space and work on something while it's available, as well as lower their inhibitions.

"Get people in the same room and let them make silly comments that will disappear from Google," said Stuart Schmukler, chief technology officer of BreathResearch.com, a site being developed as an information resource about breathing-related health.

"Don't know how to do that," he added, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Another table proposed software that could glean information about someone's interests and opinions from the stream of their online activity.

The software could then intervene in a contentious online conversation about politics to tell the participants that they both like the same sports team. Along the same lines, another speaker suggested having a mediator, either human or automated, to step in if online discussion of a contentious topic became too heated.

Some participants even pushed back against the notion that finding common ground is all good. Competition among political views has helped make the U.S. what it is, said Vinnie Lauria, co-founder of Lefora.com, a online forum hosting company in San Francisco. "Sometimes that polarity helps progress," Lauria said.

A day later, several participants thought the roughly two-hour lunch had generated good ideas, even if it might not change the world.

Andre Kvitka, a freelance technologist, found his first Lunch for Good thought-provoking but both arrived and left a skeptic.

"I am still not convinced that social media tools are mature enough to make a huge change on the grand scale," Kvitka said in an e-mail interview Thursday.

However, any good idea that circulates among tech movers and shakers might make a difference.

"It could have that small, little butterfly effect" in which the wind from a butterfly's wings supposedly can ultimately influence major events, Lefora.com's Lauria said.

For Lunch.com's Johnson, online harmony is less an immediate project than a lifelong dream. He recalled growing up during the Cold War and entering an essay contest on the subject of peace. In his essay, he invented a board game that would teach players all around the world about people of other nations.

The better they understood each other, the less likely they would be to kill each other, he proposed. "This is a concept that a child could understand," Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson is already looking ahead to the possibility of more Lunch for Good series, possibly in other cities. But Lefora's Lauria, a transplant from New York, isn't sure how a more fast-paced city would react.

"An event like this, I don't think could fly in a place like New York," Lauria said.

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