Willamette University

How to 'Trap' the Internet

For some, the Internet is an obligatory complication, something like the traffic you have to drive through to get to what you really want. For others, it is the most consistent companion over the course of a day.

Hank Nothhaft ’01 and Tommy Ziemer ’02 cater to the latter crowd.

They’ve created Trapit (trap.it), and their mission is to personalize the Internet for any user. Imagine the inverse of the normal Googling process: Instead of casting the net yourself and seeing what comes back, Trapit is supposed to put information — the right information — in front of you before you even ask for it.

It’s one of several predictive tools — a “personalized discovery engine” — designed to give users a dashboard of relevant news, blogs and updates according to a learning algorithm that finds patterns in users’ choices. (Pandora does something similar for music, paying attention to songs people “like” and then selecting others that have similar instrumentation, vocals, etc.) But Trapit has succeeded where others have not, and it was recently given coveted airtime at the renowned South by Southwest (SXSW) technology forum —the field’s world series.

“It’s flattering to be recognized by industry publications, the blogosphere and conferences like SXSW,” Nothhaft says, “if only as an indication that we’re building something that resonates with people on some meaningful level.”

The partnership is also part of the prize. “Working with Tommy is an absolute joy,” Nothhaft says. “We became fast friends at Willamette in 1999, roomed together in the university apartments and worked at another Silicon Valley startup from 2003–06. He was the first person I called when Trapit received its initial funding. The level of trust Tommy and I share is familial.”

The greatest challenge for the future remains personalizing the Internet, a moving target by its nature.

“It’s not a modest ambition,” Nothhaft admits. “Getting the technology to work passably took a year.” There is more work ahead as the company expands into iPad applications and a new set of social features. A paid version of the utility will soon be available to what Nothhaft calls “power users.”

More broadly, Nothhaft and Ziemer are contributing to a conversation that will only grow more interesting with time: how to keep track of all that online stuff.

The Internet, in Stats

Top Google searches on the day this article was written:

1. Cory Booker

2. Ann Romney

3. North Korea Missile Launch

4. Bruins

Data sent to mobile phones per day:

43,339,547 gigabytes
(equivalent to 63.9 trillion 3.5” floppy disks — remember those?)

Most common – incorrect – ways Internet users search for Willamette University:

  • University of Willamette
  • Willamette College

Emails sent per day:

210 billion

New Facebook members per day:


Sources: Google, onlineeducation.net