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The Big Reveal In a world of viral successes, how do you unearth hidden gems?

By Adam Hunter

Anyone can find out who’s popular on the Web—but how do you find Laney Boggs? If you have to ask, “Who?” then you must not remember the hit teen comedy She’s All That, a 1999 Pygmalion adaptation sadly overlooked by the Oscars. A well-liked high school jock, played by an at-his-peak Freddie Prinze Jr., transforms invisible art geek Laney Boggs (Rachel Leigh Cook) into a dazzling beauty, mostly by suggesting she remove her glasses and trade her paint-spattered overalls for a form-fitting red dress. Maybe it’s because I was a bit of a dork in high school, but I identified with Laney’s obvious desire to escape obscurity and be embraced by the in-crowd.

The movie came to mind when I heard about Forgotify, a new website that plays songs that have not had a single listen on the wildly popular music-streaming service Spotify. Creators Lane Jordan, Nate Gagnon, and J Hausmann came up with the idea when they learned that 20 percent of the tracks on Spotify—which adds up to more than 4 million songs—had gone unstreamed. Imagine that: 4 million-plus Laney Boggses out there, sacrificing clean overalls for the sake of their art, only to be ignored in favor of the Justin Biebers and Miley Cyruses and Katy Perrys. Can Forgotify be their Freddie Prinze Jr.?

If the viral successes of “dorks” like Star Wars Kid and Rebecca Black are any indication, it’s not always the real-world superstars who get invited to sit at the cool kids’ table online. But in a world where Google algorithms heavily weigh popularity to decide the most relevant search results, and your Facebook newsfeed is mostly recycled clickbait published by best-of aggregators like Buzzfeed and Reddit, the average Internet user can have trouble finding content that hasn’t already been touted, promoted, and shared to death. And given that today’s social media landscape means there are more content sharers and producers than ever, that’s a problem. There may be a Rachel Leigh Cook hiding among unwatched Netflix movies or YouTube videos, unfollowed Twitter accounts, unread Laney, er, blogs. To everyone who matters, right now they’re vapor, they’re spam, a waste of perfectly good Internet space. But to paraphrase Freddie Prinze Jr. in She’s All That: Give them the right look, the right friends, and bam! In six weeks they’re the prom queen—of the Web.

The Thrill of Discovery

In a sense, we’re all Freddie Prinze Jr. Who doesn’t want to find a hidden gem and make it shine? That desire, as it turns out, was the prime motivation behind Forgotify. “The discovery aspect is what most interested us—the thought of finding a diamond in the rough,” Lane Jordan says. “People want to discover things. Just the notion that ‘I know something you don’t know’ is appealing.”

Forgotify is not the first attempt to provide an online tool for digging through the also-rans. In 2010, Brooklyn writer and artist Colin Fitzpatrick created a Tumblr account, Zero Views, which posted YouTube videos that, when he happened upon them, held the “0 views” distinction. Ironically, Zero Views went viral after being written up by CNN and The Huffington Post and gained thousands of views for the videos Fitzpatrick linked to. In an interview for NPR’s On the Media podcast, he said the site showed “how people commonly try to reach out and share their lives and just fail.” But when exposed to the right audience, these Laney Boggses blossomed. “These kids who had made a music video about their library card … a lot of effort had gone into this, and nobody was watching it. And as soon as I posted it, everybody was reblogging it, and it got tons of notes and likes,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Zero Views method for finding these videos, however, only highlights the problem Web searchers still encounter. On YouTube, there’s no easy way to find videos that have been online for a while but haven’t been watched. Fitzpatrick’s “complicated algorithm” involved typing a dull word or phrase—like “chillin’” or “so tired”—into YouTube’s search box, then sorting by upload date. 

Forgotify proves that such a discovery engine isn’t that difficult to build. “We put this together really fast—from concept to completion in about a month,” Jordan says. J Hausmann, a Web developer, helped him formulate his original idea and solved the technical issues. Gagnon, a copywriter, came up with the name. “We launched on a Wednesday, and after it got picked up by Reddit it kinda blew up,” Jordan says. “Thursday it was on Time.com, and on Friday it was picked up by the BBC.” The initial spike in traffic caused site outages shortly after Forgotify’s late-January launch, but when I tried it the service worked perfectly. I discovered “Jamie,” a song by Canadian ’80s rock band M.T.L. that sounds as if it could be from the She’s All That soundtrack. After listening, I checked out M.T.L.’s album on iTunes. How’d listeners rate it? “We have not received enough ratings to display an average for this album.”

Worth the Bet?

Forgotify is not currently configured to make any money off the service it provides, and it’s too soon to say whether it will uncover a future No. 1 hit. Can it be more than a neat gimmick? “Nothing has climbed up the charts yet that I know of,” Jordan says. “But the potential is certainly there.”

Curated content companies like Birchbox have proved that introducing consumers to even a small sample from an obscure or new brand can lead them to make big purchases. In 2013, Buzzfeed reported that Stila Cosmetics, which pulled out of retail outlets years ago amid flagging sales, sent a sample eye shadow palette to 7 percent of Birchbox’s subscribers and saw 11.2 percent of that group purchase the full-size product—more than 10 times the average conversion rate for the beauty industry. Just as Birchbox takes a cut of sales in return for playing matchmaker, a service like Forgotify could strike deals to receive a small percentage anytime one of its users purchases a song. Alternatively, by getting users to rate or comment on previously unheard, unseen, unwatched content, Forgotify and its ilk can gather reams of useful data on consumer likes and dislikes—and that’s worth dollars to marketers.

Click with the Right Clique

So how about it, entrepreneurs? In what corner of this digital high school we call the Internet will your service help locate a worthy obscurity? While Jordan believes the Forgotify concept is best suited to professionally produced music,  he sees potential for other online media too. “The obscure is what’s cool these days,” he says. “The Internet gives everyone a chance to connect with their own cliques.”

How about joining the AV club with Neverflix, which turns movie buffs and couch potatoes on to rarely- or never-before-streamed movies and series. Using Netflix’s freely available API, the site would randomly screen videos unknown to even the most frequent binge-watcher—such as High Risk, a CBS reality show developed during the writers’ strike of 1988, currently queued by six out of 33 million subscribers. 

Wanna hacky-sack with the hipsters? Give them Invisigram, and highlight those sepia-toned snapshots that have gone unhearted and unhashtagged. You might help connect aspiring Annie Leibovitzes with a legion of online admirers or unearth the next Grumpy Cat. Using Zero Views’ method for finding unnoticed content, I searched #filecabinets on Instagram and discovered a post with only 7 fans—a breathtaking shot of the World’s Tallest Filing Cabinet, an outdoor sculpture in Burlington, Vermont, that I never knew existed.

More of a class clown? Why not collect quips of 140 or fewer characters that haven’t yet earned a retweet with your new site, UnTweeted. Bookworm? Develop Wikineedy, which pulls up rarely accessed Wikipedia entries. 

Not everyone who’s undiscovered deserves to be seen. But if you turn a crowd’s eyes away from the blinding stars and point them toward those treasures in overalls and glasses, you just might help a weary Internet user encounter that special someone he or she has always hoped to find.

Haven’t seen She’s All That? Spoiler alert: Laney Boggs doesn’t end up being prom queen. But Freddie Prinze Jr. falls in love with her anyway.

 

Adam Hunter is a New York City–based editor and writer. Follow him on Twitter @adamhuntr.

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