Facelessbook: the Next Frontier?

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about the Experience Project, a social networking startup launched by 28-year-old Armen Berjikly last year when his friend — let’s call him Dave — was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Understandably, the last thing Dave wanted was to advertise the development online to his former classmates and colleagues. At the same time, he craved a place to share his story and gather as much data about the disease — both medical and anecdotal — as possible. Dave basically wanted the anti-Facebook, a place where he could adjust to his new life with multiple sclerosis anonymously.

Berjikly’s early answer was a site called ThisisMS.com, but as Berjikly told the San Francisco Chronicle last week, he soon discovered the most compelling thing about the site’s platform was the fearlessness it engendered, so he opened it up to anyone wanting to share his or her first-person account, about anything.

Experience Project isn’t disclosing user numbers yet, but Berjikly says that more than a million “true personal stories” have been posted. Surprisingly, some of the stories, which tend toward the dark and rambling, look like rich terrain for targeted advertising. I twice clicked one grouping of stories under the wretched title “I Want to Be Understood By Just One Person.” I was expecting ads for Prozac or Match.com, and what I saw came close. The first ad served was about the University of Phoenix’s Bachelor of Science in psychology program. When I refreshed the page, up popped a Table for Six ad for “fun and attractive Bay Area singles!”

Experience Project isn’t profitable yet, but investors are already paying attention. It raised $3 million from D.E. Shaw Group, Baseline Ventures, and Maples Investments earlier this year. Meanwhile, digital media investors like principal Tim Chang of Norwest Venture Partners say they’re looking to mine the same faceless territory, which is growing — particularly in the so-called wellness space. Other startups hoping to bank on the hypersensitivity of its users include LA-based DailyStrength, a social network where people anonymously discuss everything from their cancer treatments to infidelity; FatSecret, an online diet, nutrition and weight-loss community for overweight people; and Carespace, a New York startup about to launch an online community for caregivers.

Chang says that Norwest is “still looking for the right play,” but considers niche wellness sites a “must-watch” area in digital media right now. “They may never get millions and millions of users, but they’ll potentially engage those users for the lifespan of an interest or condition,” he says.