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A Phonebook for the 21st Century

September 01, 2010
New York Times
by Claire Cain Miller

A start-up called Inflection wants to build a 21st-century version of the phonebook.

Inflection operates Archives.com, a family history site that gathers public records like those for births, deaths, marriages and divorces. Like Ancestry.com, it helps people build their family trees, a topic that is getting a lot more attention lately with genealogy series on PBS and NBC.

On Thursday, it will introduce a second site, PeopleSmart.com, which mines public records as well as social networking profiles to build an online directory of people. Inflection will also announce on Thursday that it raised $30 million from Matrix Partners and Sutter Hill Ventures.

An online phonebook that compiles information from across the Web, including cellphone numbers, e-mail addresses and social networking profiles, is bound to raise privacy red flags.

Inflection’s founders, Brian and Matthew Monahan, are aware of that. “What we think we’re doing is actually providing more security, more privacy and much more comprehensiveness to the category,” Matthew Monahan said.

On PeopleSmart.com, which has worked with ReputationDefender, people can manage their listings or opt out completely. The site does not list sensitive information even if it is public elsewhere, like religion or ethnicity, and does not include answers to the identification questions commonly asked by banks and credit card companies.

It posts only social networking information that is already public and gets it from online social data providers like Rapleaf. Cellphone numbers show up only in reverse phone searches, not on name searches. The e-mail function relays e-mail addresses through the site without revealing the person’s full e-mail address.

Unlike other free sites, like WhitePages.com, PeopleSmart.com is not cluttered with banner ads. Instead, after a seven-day free trial, people must pay either $2.95 a month or $9.95 for 24-hour access. Certain reports, like reverse cellphone look-ups, cost extra.

The family records site, Archives.com, costs $40 a year for complete access to the information. (Ancestry.com costs $155 a year after a free trial.)

Another feature that could come in handy: Inflection will track down nondigitized records, like an old birth certificate or divorce filing, for $20. The company sends people to courthouses to find it, copy it and send it. The average turnaround time is 38 hours, the company says.

Inflection was founded in 2006 by the Monahans, brothers who grew up in an Illinois farm town and started building the site in college, before dropping out to start the company. ComScore and Google both reported that a large percentage of searches are for names, they said, so they decided to build a people search engine.

PeopleSmart also has an e-mail plug-in for Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail that shows social networking information and photos of people you are e-mailing with, similar to what Xobni offers for Outlook.

A Phonebook for the 21st Century

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