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August 27 2012

03:09

Monday Q&A: Josh Miller on Branch, comments as content, and the state of online discourse

Like a lot of tech startups, it’s easier to describe what Branch isn’t than what it is. The newly launched discussion platform — bankrolled in part by Twitter’s co-founders — is not Twitter, because the discussion is linear, longer-form, and invitation-only. It’s not chat, because all are welcome to observe. It’s not a comment platform, such as Disqus, because a Branch conversation is the content, not metadata attached to the content.

Josh MillerJosh Miller, the CEO, often employs the “dinner party” metaphor to describe Branch. A couple of summers ago, he was an intern for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, his home state. He would read Politico every morning on the subway, then he would get to the comments section, and then, without fail, there was raidersfan27 screaming profanities.

“I started to think about…how do I express my opinions in the real world? And it’s around a dinner table, or at a bar over beers with friends, or in a coffee shop,” Miller told me. He created Branch, then called Roundtable, with co-founders Hursh Agrawal and Cemre Gungor. “We started out to kind of replicate the types of intimate, direct conversations we have in the real world,” he said.

The point of Branch is to start a conversation, usually with a question, and then invite people to respond. What’s the best concert you’ve ever seen? How do blogs need to evolve? ‘Giff’ or ‘Jiff’? There’s a generous 750-character limit. Branch does not want you to fuss over spelling or grammar or getting your point just right. There’s no edit button and no delete button. If you make a mistake, just keep going. It’s a little unsettling, but Miller wants to force a little more thoughtfulness in online dialog. (There’s no undo at the dinner table either, I suppose.)

Miller managed to win the attention of Jonah Peretti, an early mentor, and the Twitter co-founders (turned Obvious Corp. investors), Evan Williams and Biz Stone. Somehow Miller landed on one of those “20 innovative startups” lists on Business Insider, he said, and things took off. The company raised $2 million.

Branch also attracted the attention of Gawker czar Nick Denton, who publicly praised Miller and went on to release a new commenting system that bore some similarities to Branch. (“I wish Denton all the best and I hope it works out, but I don’t see us as being direct competitors,” he told me.)

This year, the 21-year-old Miller dropped out of Princeton to focus on Branch full-time. (He would have been a senior this fall.) Here is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Phelps: So you dropped out of Princeton.
Miller: Right. And my mom kills me when I say “drop out.” Yes, I dropped out, took a leave of absence, whatever you want to call it, and one part of this story that gets over looked now, because Ev and Biz and Jason are involved, is that the main reason we did that. Someone said, “You gotta meet this guy, Jonah Peretti.” I was like, “Who’s Jonah Peretti? So I Wikipedia him, and I was like, OH MY GOD, yes please. So we kinda stumbled into Jonah’s office, half-understanding who he was or why he was important and showed him the sketches for this idea that was really just a side project. He said, “I think this is really cool, guys. I don’t know what your plan is, or if this is a startup or what, but if you decide to work on this full-time, I want to help. I don’t need money or equity. I think it’s a cool idea. I like your guys’ enthusiasm and would love to be helpful.”
Phelps: What is Branch? It’s really hard when tech companies release products not to describe them as something for something or a combination of something and something. So how would you describe it?
Miller: We still don’t have a great one-liner, and we like that. I think the best way to explain it or describe it is kind of explain where it came from. I found comment sections very chaotic and unwelcoming and, you know, MySpace Tom was my Justin Hall. I’ve only grown up in an Internet where I knew who I was talking to, so it was weird for me to go to this place where raidersfan27 is yelling profanity. And even when there quality commentaries, it was really hard to kind of follow the discussion because there were usually like 10 going on at once. It was a mess.

I think [social media] are amazing, powerful platforms. But for me to express my opinions, it was this weird notion where you kind of are talking, but not to anyone in particular. It’s like, Here’s my opinion, world. I’m going to stand up and tell it to you, and it’s so great, what do you think? Go comment down there.

And I don’t think any of the people that I’m friends with on Facebook want to talk to me about politics. They don’t want to talk about politics. I mean, once I posted a Daily Show clip and my old college counselor went on a rant about the Tea Party and it was just, like, the most awkward thing ever.

Phelps: Oh, that is awkward.
Miller: There’s so much you get out of sharing your opinion online and in an open way that could be shared and viewed and other people can jump in. But I think there’s also something to be said for knowing exactly who you’re talking to. And you know, part of the thing, too, is that a lot of people think, “Oh, you know, well, comments can be great.” They were great, back in the day. But I felt like the Internet is a different place than it used to be. Some of the old classic blog comment sections did have amazing conversations, but there weren’t that many people on the Internet at the time. The people that knew about a certain blog were kind of self-selected already.

So part of what’s wrong with comments is that what’s valuable about a conversation is the back and forth, and that if you think about the real world — if you sit around a dinner table, once you get to a certain number of people, it fractures off into two separate conversations, because there can only be so many people talking at once.

There’s a need for a platform that’s built around a conversation, because when you think about all the platforms online, they’re all built around monologue. And we just think that online there should be a place where you go to have dialog, to have conversations, and we think that’s complementary.

Phelps: It reinforces that idea that comments themselves, the conversations, are content, not just metadata.
Miller: By no means do I think Branch is perfect and that everyone’s going to adopt it and it’s going to be great. So I’m very active in soliciting feedback from people that have used it. And I was talking to Choire [Sicha] the other day and he said that the reason that he liked using it is that it kind of bridged the gap for him between the reader and the writer.

Because that’s another big thing with me about comment sections, that I feel like a second-class citizen. It’s like, “All right, well, that guy up there is the big man and the hot shot that shares his opinion. And I’m less down here in the dungeon section trying to duke it out with this raiderfan27.”

Phelps: You use this “dinner party” metaphor a lot. I remember you had asked me a while back what I thought about the experience after we used it for a Nieman Lab conversation, and I wrote:

I found myself wishing more than once that I could edit the original question. I kind of hated the way I framed it to begin with and wished I could tweak, especially before the conversation really got going…I posted the original question hastily, perhaps because I am accustomed to a world in which things can be edited. Maybe this product will force me to slow down and consider that I can’t undo. Or maybe it will drive me [expletive] crazy.

Miller: The real places that are built for expression of your opinion or ideas impose this feeling that everything needs to be perfect, because if I’m going to write a blog post I need to make sure my punctuation and grammar is correct, and I’ve covered all my counterarguments, and I’m witty and tell a funny joke, and I do my research.

We want the ethos of Branch to be where you go to take your half-baked ideas, and the point is to be imperfect. The whole ethos is “I don’t know enough alone, so I need help from other people and I want to talk to other people to make my half-baked ideas better.” So, you know, we’re quickly learning that we do want to work with publishers, so we’re going to need to have a way to edit posts. But we want to build in a way that’s more about typos than re-writing stuff.

Phelps: Part of the reason it bothered me was because I started the conversation with the expectation that it would work like other products I’m already familiar with. And maybe next time when my expectations are different, it won’t bother me — and maybe even become somewhat liberating.
Miller: You should go see the language I use in my branches. You know, I screw capitalization every once in a while. I won’t go back and correct that comma that shouldn’t have been there, and, like, my sentences will not be complete. And I’m not doing that on purpose, but I’m purposely not correcting it because I want to demonstrate to everyone that it’s okay. We want you to see kind of the evolution of the conversation and how it got there. That’s what bothers us about the other platforms, that it’s like, “Okay, so here’s this question, and here’s the best answer, because the community voted it up.”
Phelps: Of course, one major way that the “dinner party” metaphor breaks down is that at a dinner party the conversation is not recorded word-for-word, and something someone said 20 minutes ago will never be documented — tomorrow or five years from now.
Miller: I think that a lot of the conversations we have online that are private are just private by default, because that’s the way the systems were originally designed, but if you really think about the stuff you care about, and the stuff you can talk about on a daily basis, most of it doesn’t really need to be private, especially if it’s not actively being promoted. So yes, it’s going to be an awkward concept for some, and it’s not great for every conversation, and we’re okay with that. But I do think there’s a lot to gain by having a lot of these conversations in the open.
Phelps: Let’s switch gears and talk to Josh the business man. What is the business model? Is there a business model?
Miller: When we started Roundtable, at the time we had no money. We did not have any funding, so for the first roundtables I actually went and sold sponsorships for a thousand bucks. We used to boast in our pitch meetings that Branch was profitable from Day 1! When we got to work with the Obvious guys, and we were kind of considering who to take money from, one thing they said is that,”Look, we are lucky enough to be in a situation where we have the finances to allow you to not worry about financing. So we want you first and foremost to build a product that’s going to change the world. That should be your No. 1 goal, not worrying about revenue.” I tell this to potential hires, that I personally, as a CEO and one of the cofounders, would much rather build the next Wikipedia than the next Zynga.

Separately, I think just like in the early days, when we had Samsung and G.E. reach out to us about sponsoring roundtables about the future of energy and the future of smartphones, I think there are really easy sponsorship opportunities with brands. I mean, if you just look at The Economist today, they make, from my understanding, a really good amount of money selling sponsorships to Intel and Exxon and whoever else, because these brands want to be associated with conversations with experts in domains that their companies operate within. I think sponsorship — not necessarily display advertising is one huge opportunity.

One example is: I was in a branch the other night, “What movie should I see this weekend?” And there’s a great pop where if we knew you were talking about movies, or that “Bourne Identity” movie that just came out, we could display showtimes or modules for you to buy tickets. Or, for example, I was just in a branch about “I’m going to Berlin, where should I go in Berlin?” There was a great opportunity where we might display ads or modules for you to book a hostel in Berlin or restaurants in Berlin or whatever else. So in the same way that you go to Google to seek out information or you go to Twitter to seek out information, you’re going to go to Branch to talk about something you need answers to.

August 15 2012

15:42

13 ways of looking at Medium, the new blogging/sharing/discovery platform from @ev and Obvious

[With apologies to Wallace Stevens, the finest poet to ever serve as vice president of the Hartford Livestock Insurance Company.]

I.

Medium is a new online publishing platform from Obvious Corp. It launched yesterday. Obvious is the most recent iteration of the company that created Blogger, Odeo, and Twitter. Blogger was the outfit that, until it was bought up by Google, did the most to enable the early-2000s blogging boom. Odeo was a podcasting service that never really took off — 20 percent ahead of its time, 80 percent outflanked by Apple. Twitter — well, you’ve heard of Twitter.

Ev Williams, the key figure at every stage, tweeted about Medium yesterday in a way that slotted it right into the evolutionary personal-publishing chain he and his colleagues have enabled: Let’s try this again!

II.

Medium has been described as “a cross between Tumblr and Pinterest.” There’s some truth to that, in terms of presentation. Like Tumblr, it relies on artfully constructed templates for its structural power; like Pinterest, it’s designed to be image-heavy. But those surface issues, while interesting, are less consequential than the underlying structure of Medium, which upends much of how we think about personal publishing online.

III.

When the Internet first blossomed, its initial promise to media was the devolution of power from the institution to the individual. Before the web, reaching an audience meant owning a printing press or a broadcast tower. It was resource-intensive, and those resources tended to congeal around companies — organizations that had newsrooms, yes, but also human resource departments, advertising sales staffs, and people to man the phones when your paper was thrown into the bushes (we’re very sorry about that, Mrs. Johnson, we’ll be happy to credit your account).

The web, by reducing potential worldwide access to basic knowledge of [1996: Unix and <table> tags; 1999: how to input FTP credentials; 2005: how to come up with a unique login and password; 2010: how to stay under 140 characters], eliminated, at least in theory, the need for organizations. (Vide Shirky.)

IV.

In theory. In reality, organization still had some enormous advantages. Organizations are sustainable; they outlive the vagaries of human attention. Some individuals flourished in the newly democratic blogosphere. But over time, people got bored, got new jobs, found new interests, or otherwise reached the limits of what people-driven, individual-driven publishing could accomplish for them. The political blogosphere — the cacophony of individual voices on both left and right circa, say, 2004 — evolved toward institutions, toward Politico and TPM and The Blaze and HuffPo and the like.

Personal publishing is like voting. In theory, it’s the very definition of empowerment. In reality, it’s an excellent way for your personal shout to be cancelled out by someone else’s shout.

V.

That was when a few smart people realized that there was a balance to be found between the organization and the individual. The individual sought self-expression and an audience; the organization sought sustainability and cash money. Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So Facebook built a way for people to express themselves (by providing free content) to an audience (through their self-defined network of friends), while selling ads around it all. It’s a pretty good business.

So Twitter (Ev, Jack, and crew) build a way for people to express themselves, in a format that was genius in its limitations and in its old-media model of subscribe-and-follow — again, transformed from institutions to individuals. It’s not as good of a business as Facebook, probably, but it’s still a pretty good business.

So Tumblr, Path, Foursquare, and a gazillion others have tried to pull off the same trick: Serve users by helping them find an outlet for personal expression, then build a business around those users’ collective outputs. It’s publishing-as-platform, and it’s the business model du jour in this unbundled, rebundled world.

VI.

What’s most radical about Medium is that it denies authorship.

Okay, maybe not denies authorship — people’s names are right next to their work, after all. But it degrades authorship, renders it secondary, knocks it off its pedestal.

The shift to blogging created a wave of new individual media stars, but in a sense it just shifted traditional media brands to a new, personal level. Instead of reading The Miami Herald or Newsweek, you read Jason Kottke or John Gruber. So long, U.S. News; hello, Anil Dash. They were brands in the sense that your attraction to their work was tied to authorship — you wanted to see what Lance Arthur or Dean Allen or Josh Marshall or Ezra Klein was going to write next. The value was tied to the work’s origin, its creator.

And while social networks allowed that value to be spread, algorithmically, much wider, the proposition was much the same. You were interested in your Facebook news feed because it was produced by your friends. You were interested in your Twitter stream because you’d clicked “Follow” next to every single person appearing in it.

VII.

Degrading authorship is something the web already does spectacularly well. Work gets chopped and sliced and repurposed. That last animated GIF you saw — do you know who made it? Probably not. That infonugget you saw on Gawker or The Atlantic — did it start there? Probably not. Sites like Buzzfeed are built largely on reshuffling the Internet, rearranging work into streams and slideshows.

It’s been a while since auteur theory made sense as an explanation of the web. And you know what? We’re better for it. In a world of functionally infinite content, relying on authorship doesn’t scale. We need people to mash things up, to point things out, to sample, to remix.

VIII.

Where Medium zags is in structuring its content around what it calls “collections.” Here’s Ev:

Posting on Medium (not yet open to everyone) is elegant and easy, and you can do so without the burden of becoming a blogger or worrying about developing an audience. All posts are organized into “collections,” which are defined by a theme and a template.

The burden of becoming a blogger or worrying about developing an audience. That’s a real issue, right? I’ve talked to lots of journalists who want to have some outlet for their work that doesn’t flow through an assigning editor. But when I suggest starting a blog, The Resistance begins. I don’t know how to start a blog. If I did, it’d be ugly. Or: I’d have to post all the time to keep readers coming back. I don’t want to do that. Starting a blog means, for most, committing to something — to building a media brand, to the caring and feeding of an audience, to doing lots of stuff you don’t want to do. That’s why ease of use — the promise of Facebook, the promise of Twitter, the promise of Tumblr — has been such a wonderful selling point to people who want to create media without hassle. Every single-serving Tumblr, every Twitter account updated sporadically, every Facebook account closed to only a few friends speaks the same message: You can do this, it’s simple, don’t stress, you’ll be fine.

IX.

So Medium is built around collections, not authors. When you click on an author’s byline on a Medium post, it goes to their Twitter feed (Ev synergy!), not to their author archive — which is what you’d expect on just about any other content management system on the Internet. (The fact we call them content management systems alone tells you the structural weight that comes from even the lightest personal publishing systems.) The author is there as a reference point to an identity layer — Twitter — not as an organizing principle.

As Dave Winer noted, Medium does content categorization upside down: “Instead of adding a category to a post, you add a post to a category.” He means collection in Medium-speak, but you get the idea: Topic triumphs over author. Medium doesn’t want you to read something because of who wrote it; Medium wants you to read something because of what it’s about. And because of the implicit promise that Medium = quality.

(This just happens to be promising from a business-model perspective. Who needs silly content contributors asserting authorial privilege when the money starts to flow? Demoting the author privileges the platform, which is nice if you own the platform.)

X.

At one level, Medium is just another publishing platform (join the crowd): You type in a title, some text, maybe a photo if you want, hit “Publish” and out comes a “post,” whatever that means that days, on a unique URL that you can share with your friends. (And let me just say, as a Blogger O.G. from the Class of ’99, that Medium’s posting interface brought back super-pleasant memories of Blogger’s old two-pane interface. Felt like the Clinton years again.)

XI.

Ev writes that a prime objective of Medium is increased quality: “Lots of services have successfully lowered the bar for sharing information, but there’s been less progress toward raising the quality of what’s produced.” That’s probably true: There are orders of magnitude more content published every day than was the case in 1999, when Blogger launched as a Pyra side project. The mass of quality content is much higher too, of course, but it’s surrounded by an even-faster-growing mass of not-so-great (or at least not-so-great-to-you) content.

Medium takes a significant step in that direction by violating perhaps the oldest blogging norm: that content appears in reverse-chronological order, newest stuff up top, flowing forever downward into the archives. Reverse chron has been key to blogging since Peter Merholz made up the word. (Older than that, actually — back to the original “What’s New” page at NCSA in 1993.) For the pleasure centers in the brain that respond to “New!,” reverse chron was a godsend — even if traditional news organizations were never quite comfortable with it, preferring to curate their own homepages through old-fashioned ideas like, you know, editorial judgment.

Medium believes in editorial judgment — but everyone’s an editor. Like the great social aggregators (Digg is dead, long live Digg), Medium relies on user voting to determine what floats to the top of a collection and what gets dugg down the bottom. (A reverse chron view is available, but not the default.) It’ll be interesting to see how that works once Medium is really a working site: Will a high-rated story stick to the top of a collection for weeks, months, or years, forever pushing new stuff down? Will there be any way for someone visiting a collection to see what’s new since she was last there? The tension between what’s good and what’s new is a long-standing one for online media, and privileging either comes with drawbacks — new material never reaching an audience, or good stuff being buried beneath something inconsequential posted 20 minutes later.

Considering Obvious Corp.’s heritage in Blogger and Twitter — both of which privilege reverse chron, Twitter existentially so — it’s interesting to see Ev & Co. thinking that a push for quality might entail a retreat from the valorization of newness.

XII.

There’s been a lot of movement in the past few months toward alternative, “quality” platforms for content on the web. Branch is based on the idea that web comments are shit and that you have to create a separate universe where smart people can have smart conversations. App.net, the just-funded paid Twitter alternative, is attractive to at least some folks because it promises a reboot of the social web without the “cockroaches” — you know, stupid people. Svbtle, an invite-only blogging platform, is aimed only at those who “strive to produce great content. We focus on the writing, the news, and the ideas. Everything else is a distraction.”

This new class of publishing platforms, like Medium, is beautiful — they share a stripped-down aesthetic that evokes the best of the early web (post-<blink> tag, pre-MySpace) modernized with nice typography, lovely textures, and generous white space. (Medium, in particular, seems to be luxuriate in giant FF Tisa, evocative of Jeffrey Zeldman’s huge-type redesign back in May.)

This new class has also been criticized with a variation on the white flight argument — the idea that the privileged flee common spaces and platforms once they stop being solely the realm of an elite and become too popular. (Vide danah boyd. Also vide your favorite indie band, the first time you heard them on the radio.)

For (just) a moment, strip away the political implications of that critique: What each of these sites argues, implicitly, is that the web norms that we’ve evolved over the past decade err toward crassness and ugliness. That advertising — which all these sites lack, and which is proving to be less-than-sufficiently-remunerative for lots of “quality” online media — is an uninvited guest in our reading experiences. That the free-for-all of a comments thread creates broken-windows-style chaos. That the madness of the web might be tamed through better tools and better platforms. That the web’s pressure to Always Keep Posting New Stuff leads to a lot of dumb stuff being posted. It’s a critique of pageview chasing, a critique of linkbait, a critique of content farms, a critique of SEO’d headlines — a yearning for something more authentic, whatever the hell that means.

I think we’d all like to know what that means. And how to get there.

XIII.

Is Medium the route there? I’m skeptical.

I’m unclear who, beyond an initial crowd of try-anything-once types, will want to publish via Medium, as lovely as it is. Or at least I’m unclear on how many of them there are. The space Medium, er, mediates is between two poles. On one side you’ve got people who want to hang out a shingle online and own their work in every possible sense. On the other, you’ve got people who are happy in the friendly confines of Facebook and Twitter, places where they can reach their friends effortlessly and not worry about writing elegant prose. Is there an audience between those two poles that’s big enough to build something lasting? Is this Blogger or Twitter, or is it Odeo?

But even if Medium isn’t a hit, however that gets defined these days, I think Ev & Co. are onto something here. There are seeds of a backlash against the beautiful chaos the web hath wrought, the desire for a flight to quality. There will be new ways beyond ease of use to harness the creative powers of the audience. And there will be new ways to structure content discovery that go beyond branding authorship and recommendation engines. Those trends are real, and whatever happens to Medium, they’ll impact everyone who publishes online.

Blackbird photo by Duncan Brown used under a Creative Commons license.

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