In 1999, Adam Hildreth, then 14, and six friends in Leeds, England, started a virtual world for teens called Dubit. The site took off and at one point Dubit needed to employ 50 monitors to keep cyberbullies and other troublemakers in check. Human moderation "was never going to scale," he says.
Hildreth, who dropped out of high school two years later to run Dubit full-time, began developing software to address the problem. The idea became his next company, Crisp Thinking, which he co-founded in 2005 while remaining a shareholder in Dubit. Crisp's software analyzes users' language and actions to identify harassment, spamming, or predators on the lookout for victims. The system reacts in real time to warn or ban people who misbehave—or refer them to human moderators.
Crisp processes 500 million pieces of user-generated content a month for Internet clients, Hildreth says, sorting through comments, chat messages, and blog posts. Most of the analysis is based on word use (Crisp can interpret messages in nine languages), though the software also tracks online behaviors such as friend requests on social sites or patterns of activity in a virtual game. Crisp's filters detect obscene or inappropriate messages even when users break them into multiple lines in attempts to disguise them. The technology also judges users in the context of their past behavior: A new player who types a curse will receive a warning; a repeat offender would be blocked from the site right away, says Hildreth.
Now 26, Hildreth says Crisp has 75 clients, including Electronic Arts and the Cartoon Network, that pay between a few thousand dollars and tens of thousands a month, depending on the number of users. He expects revenue at the 30-employee company to double to $5 million in 2011. Sony Online Entertainment uses Crisp in its fantasy-themed Free Realms game and in Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures, says Brad Wilcox, the company's customer service chief. Crisp provides a layer of monitoring on top of Sony's own chat filters to detect racist or sexual language "that is against the game's code of conduct and has no place in our games," Wilcox says.
Hildreth says the software can also help online game operators police a banned practice called "gold farming," in which players hoard in-game currency, spells, or magic powers and then sell them for real-world profit to players who want to take shortcuts and advance unfairly in an online game.
The next emerging market for Crisp may be corporations marketing on social-network sites such as Facebook and Twitter. They face risks from users bad-mouthing their brands—or harassing other visitors, says Hildreth. "Customer service in a public environment is a risk," he says.
High school dropout turned software millionaire
Cracking down on incivility and predators on the Internet
Demand for his Crisp monitoring software is robust