Three years ago, four Emory students created a social networking prototype in a dorm room. Now, it’s in preparation for total overhaul.
Emory Bubble, the central component of the networking startup Campus Bubble, combines the benefits of LearnLink, Facebook, Google Docs, Blackboard and Office 365 onto a single site geared toward Emory students.

Emory University Technology Services has provided tech assistance, while the University gave Emory Bubble an advance payment to develop their system as a replacement for LearnLink. The Division of Campus Life also allowed the company to integrate Emory’s student login system’s 14,923 users into its network to ensure students can sign in using the same Net ID and password used on LearnLink, said Nir Levy (’13B), the current managing director of the site who launched the site’s first version almost two years ago with Ian McCall (’13C), technical director Pat Shea (’12B) and product director Giovanni Hobbins (’13C).

“Anyone can make a bubble or post campus wide events,” Levy said.

Users can click “explore” to access a list of upcoming campus events, classified advertisements, activities in Atlanta and tech support for users having trouble with the site, among other services.

And users can click on “bubbles” to access an array of exclusive student niches for anything from varsity sports to residence halls to organic chemistry study groups.

After recently releasing the site’s third version, which only supports up to 200 simultaneous users before additional pages fail to load properly, Bubble programmers are polishing off the company’s mobile app and back-end system to accommodate the entire campus population – just in time for LearnLink to phase out.

Like LearnLink – but mixed with Facebook, Blackboard, Google Docs and Office 365 – Emory Bubble takes a “hyper-local approach” to college networking, said BBA Program Director and Senior Associate Dean Andrea Hershatter, who taught each of the four Bubble founders at the Goizueta Business School in a two-year time span.

“As social media expands in scope and breadth, it loses some intimacy and relevance,” Hershatter said.

Emory Bubble, she added, serves “much smaller communities who are bound together by common experiences” and “fills the void created by the migration away from LearnLink.”

The budding business, not yet supported by advertising dollars, “creates a strategic incentive to be user-oriented rather than advertiser-oriented,” she said.

Though not yet operating at maximum capacity, Emory Bubble’s interface was designed with simple aesthetics and easy navigation to initially attract users – not just students but also faculty, sports teams, clubs, sororities, fraternities and entire academic departments, according to Bubble programmer Xavier Fernandes, who completed his Ph.D. in Mathematics at Emory in 2012. He has been working on Emory Bubble’s back-end systems for the past few months.

“We wanted to make something that looked really good, that displayed campus events in real time,” he said. “The current system was built with some considerations, as a prototype. We’re now engineering the back-end system to look the same but on a larger user scale.”

Emory College junior Marissa Gogniat found the site easy to navigate upon exploring the latest version for the first time.

“Emory Bubble is very user-friendly,” Gogniat said. “It’ll help foster a better sense of communication at Emory.”

The site’s initial version launched in October 2011. Version 2, which imported Facebook events with five or more students to the Bubble’s events page, launched about a year later. Construction of Version 3, which allows users to create and post their own events and content, began in January 2013 and is not completely launched. Though the current version of the site serves 208 user-created bubbles and has gained more than 41,000 views since Aug. 23, “it isn’t as stable as we’d like it to be just yet,” Levy said.

“It’s critically important to clarify that Emory Bubble is not fully launched,” Levy said, adding that it performs best in Chrome on desktop.
Students can use their Emory Net IDs to login, he added, but the site will continue to have glitches until programmers succeed in revamping the system.

“What we’re working on now is a sort of Version 3.5,” Levy said. “[Version 3] doesn’t always work for the mobile app – 45 percent of users are successful. The site is different. It’s not like an app you download; it’s part of the Internet.”

Among the startup’s eight employees, three programmers – two in operations and one designer – work full-time at Emory Bubble, fixing glitches on a 48-hour cycle, according to Levy. The time necessary for a system revamp will depend on the company’s ability to recruit more employees.

“We’re in desperate need of new personnel,” Levy said, noting that additional programmers would certainly speed up the progress.
Though the team plans to hire another programmer within the next month, Levy is not sure when the site will be able to fully support an entire campus, let alone other schools.

“We’re holding off on going to other universities,” he said, listing Dartmouth, University of Cincinnati, Morehouse, Herzing and Georgia State as potential clients already communicating with Campus Bubble.

To help speed up progress, Campus Bubble continuously posts internship positions on Eagle Ops for students interested in technology, social media and marketing. Along with gaining the experience of watching a startup take off, these interns and “brand ambassadors” make presentations to Emory departments in an effort to garner more users.

So far, French Club, Black Student Union, Outdoor Emory, Emory Baseball and Arts at Emory are some of the more than 200 bubbles formed.

B-School junior Hirsh Gaikwad started working full-time at Campus Bubble in May after taking a class with Campus Bubble operations director Spencer Barkoff (’13B).

“It was a sort of an ambiguous position – I was working alongside them,” Gaikwad, who now runs Emory Bubble’s Facebook page, said of his summer job. “It’s interesting to see how a startup works – how they built financial documents to pitch to investors, how they’re operating, how they’re running focus groups.”

On top of gaining new employees like Gaikwad, Levy counts campus-wide success at Emory among his goals for the end of 2013.
“We hope to have a reliable system that thousands of students and faculty can use,” Levy said.

Though co-founder McCall is starting a new business, Levy, Barkoff, Shea and Hobbins plan to stay at Campus Bubble for the long haul.
“It’s nice to not have to get boring office jobs right out of college,” Levy said. “I could see myself doing this for a long time.”

– By Lydia O’Neal