Amen or Hell No? Berlin Start-Up Joins Rankings Game

Want to find out who are considered the best 1980s rock bands? Feel strongly about Obama's performance? The new app "Amen," from a Berlin-based start-up, aims to help. Users pass judgement, and the app does the rest.

Kraftwerk is the best band of all time. Amen. Steve Jobs was the best boss. Amen. Amen is the best place to go for strong opinions. Amen.

The new opinion site "Amen" works that easily. For months, speculation abounded over what was behind the catchy name. One thing was known: Actor Ashton Kutcher, who plays an Internet mogul in the TV sitcom "Two and a Half Men," reportedly invested €2 million ($2.7 million) in the Berlin start-up. With that sort of celebrity interest, the expectations were understandably high. But were they met?

The opinion site uses a rigid form page to force the user to give a clear thumbs up or thumbs down verdict on a given issue. So far, users are not even allowed to post links or photos. While some welcome the site's minimalism, others are critical of the rigidity of the "taste police."

Of course, Amen's creators disagree. "Simplicity is our strength," says CEO and co-founder Felix Petersen, who, with his horn-rimmed glasses and moustache, looks so old-fashioned that he is almost hip. "On Facebook, when two users voice an opinion on Angela Merkel, it's very difficult for software to figure out what they mean," says Petersen.

On Amen, on the other hand, the corset is tied so tightly that all statements are clear. Gray areas, nuance and justification are not allowed. And, that says Petersen, is exactly how he wants it.

Part of the Old Guard

The company has its headquarters in a luxury apartment with an ornate, 19th century oven and a view of the square in front of the Berliner Ensemble theater in the center of the German capital . Nine employees are working in the next room, and the German Publishers and Booksellers Association has its offices on the floor below. Petersen's desk consists of a panel placed on a large pool table, which was left there by the previous tenant.

As a man in his mid-30s, Petersen is already part of the old guard in the world of Internet start-ups. He sold his localization service, Plazes, to Nokia three years ago, investing some of the money in "SoundCloud," a Berlin-based music service. His amen carries weight.

"The original idea was that we would compile lists: the best music, the best food, the worst film," says Petersen. "But lists are a lot of work for the user. Usually people can only think of one or two examples. Coming up with more isn't easy."

That, though, is exactly what Amen does, and it does so automatically. Every suggested evaluation can then be re-evaluated by clicking "Amen" -- or by pressing the button marked "Hell no!"  In a recent test prior to his death this week, Steve Jobs received more than 600 amens.

About 20,000 people are trying out the service in an ongoing trial run. When Amen becomes widely available in a few weeks, even Kraftwerk will likely be forced off the charts.

Co-founder Florian Weber arrives an hour later, sporting a three-day beard. Weber isn't just anybody. As a programmer in Hamburg in 2006, he helped develop the short messaging service Twitter. After a while, he became fed up with constantly working night shifts to accommodate the time difference between Berlin and the company's headquarters in San Francisco. Weber was 25 at the time, had almost no work experience and was not granted a work visa for the United States. But that was good for Amen.

'Intelligent Mosaic'

For Petersen, the service is far more than an opinion site. He sees it as a step toward the "semantic Web," an Internet that isn't organized by web addresses but by content. He can imagine Amen later becoming part of an intelligent search engine that would sort websites according to their statements and evaluations. Amen buttons are expected to start appearing on other websites soon.

Originally, the positive and negative rankings had different names. The rechristening of the site to "Amen" was not met with universal approval. One programmer, an atheist, even threatened to quit.

Even before the site is officially open for business, breweries and tourism companies are already trying to make sure that their products will receive as many amens as possible. But Amen advertising isn't a one-way street. It too is evaluated. A discount airline, for example, took a beating during testing, receiving almost 100 "Hell no!" evaluations.

"We see Amen as a sort of word Lego," says Petersen. "The simpler the components, the more surprising the results. The individual statements are banal, but together they form an intelligent mosaic."

But this word lego doesn't just humiliate companies. Users themselves are also fair game. Should someone write, for example, "The worst thing is not having an opinion," the form immediately indicates that the statement has long since been posted and already received 28 amens.

Petersen takes it in stride. "Often our opinions aren't nearly as original as we think they are."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan