Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

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.

April 26 2012

17:48

Approve This Message: Politics through Awl-colored glasses

The Awl sure likes to build stuff. In about three years, they’ve gone from a single “New York City-based web concern” to a family of six sites. The latest just debuted: Approve This Message, a kind of politics wire with the sensibility of The Awl mothership.

It’s an aggressively, intentionally bare bones effort. At first look, you’re confronted more by what it lacks than what it has: Each story has a photo, a tag, a headline, and a credit line to the original source. That’s it: No summaries, no commentary other than the headlines that read as, well, Awl-esque: “Will Mitt pick a mini-Mitt? I hope so, because getting to say ‘mini-Mitt’ over and over will be the only fun we have,” and “Oh no! Obama has ‘only’ raised $196 million for reelection, how sad.”

Approve This Message is a link machine with a cyborg brain that is part Awl and part Percolate, the same team that developed Felix Salmon’s Counterparties at Reuters. Percolate is like a butcher with an algorithm, serving up lean news by separating the meat from the fat around the web, whether via Twitter, RSS, or elsewhere. (Think of our own heat-seeking Twitter bot, Fuego.) Unlike Counterparties, which was based off a set of existing sources from Salmon, Approve This Message is made from a wholly new set of sources, Percolate cofounder Noah Brier told me over email. As the human element in the Percolate machine, Awl editors Alex Balk and Choire Sicha can add new sources and push stories through to Approve This Message, Brier said.

“In a way what we’re doing is compiling index cards of things people said, things that happened, political posturing, and all of that”

When I talked with Sicha, he said they wanted to create something that could capture all the interesting, “did you read this” kind of stories on politics that happen every day. Approve This Message is designed to be selective and slower, so readers can find stories pegged to the news cycle or timeless work that relates to the election. It’s by no means comprehensive — the simplicity is meant to serve up interesting stories and that’s it. It’s the opposite of what Sicha calls as the “fire hose news blast” of headlines that come from most political sites. Nothing wrong with that approach — there’s an audience for it and the election is one of the biggest stories in the US this year. Still, that torrent can be daunting to even the most interested of readers.

“If you stare into the maw of the election too long you will lose your will to live,” he said.

Sicha said they’re big fans of Counterparties, and after talking with Brier they decided to run with a similar idea, thinking of the site as a scannable record of what’s being said in and around politics. “In a way what we’re doing is compiling index cards of things people said, things that happened, political posturing, and all of that, and if that changes of weeks and months we’ll have our memory file and can make note of that,” he said. The site doesn’t have any ads currently, but there are slots currently taken up by house ads sprinkled among the stories.

Approve This Message is the second new site The Awl has launched this month with the addition of The Billfold, the site dedicated to all things money. (At six main sites, The Awl’s URL count is edging closer to the scope of Gawker Media, where both Sicha and Balk put in their time pre-Awl.) But aside from a kind of wry conversational nature, the look of Approve This Message shares little in common with The Hairpin, Splitsider, or other more blog-like members of the family. As The Awl has grown its associated parts have taken on different forms, perhaps more distinct in structure than other vertical-assemblers like Buzzfeed or Gawker Media. Over in Brian Lam’s end of the universe, The Wirecutter is essentially a list, a repository of product reviews and guidance. Awl Music, the site launched in January, is like a radio station run by Eric Spiegelman with a crew of contributing DJs.

“It’s a tool for people who want to know what the great articles on the election are without all the media noise and hype”

When I asked The Awl’s publisher John Shankman about that over email he said their strategy starts with finding good writers with vision and passion, then finding the right outlet for them. “Wirecutter is a very specific vision that Brian Lam has. Approve This Message is a tool that’s fun and useful and appropriate for who and what The Awl is and our readers are,” he said. “With that said, though, design and how to architecture our information better is something we’re considering a lot.”

Shankman said the value of curating in Approve This Message isn’t just pulling together good stories, but also in presenting them in a clean and accessible way. (As Buzzfeed’s Matt Buchanan put it on Twitter: “when did the awl get all designy? this is nice.”) Approve This Message provides a refreshingly simple experience for readers. The Awl gives its audience the choice to follow Approve This Message on the site, through Twitter or Tumblr. And on those two venues they link directly to the source of the story, not back to their site. “It’s a tool for people who want to know what the great articles on the election are without all the media noise and hype. The election through Awl-colored glasses, if you will,” Shankman said.

Sicha calls Awl Music and Approve This Message more disintermediated than other sites in their network. It’s not that they want out of the blog business, because they love that and will continue to build out new places for writers to showcase their talent. But they also want to toy around with the medium, and Approve This Message is one way of doing that, Sicha said.

“We’re not building traffic here. We’re using a great tool and letting it be free,” he said. “That’s probably the opposite of what we should be doing running a business, but that’s what it is. To do anything else would be untruthful or wrong.”

June 14 2010

15:30

The Awl wants to win on the web with great writing, not SEO tricks

Generally, when you think of a site launch, there’s a pretty standard checklist most people follow. Pick a niche topic that appeals to a big enough audience to merit selling ads. Devise a content strategy, whether its writers or aggregation or both. And, perhaps most important, draw up an audience strategy that factors in SEO, social media, and pageview-driving tricks. (Slideshows!) The Awl, a year-old site about current events and culture in a cheeky-but-not-quite-snarky voice, has taken a slightly different course: Create great content.

The site was founded by two Gawker editorial veterans, Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, and David Cho, who worked on the business side at Radar, where the other two also had a stint. Sicha and Balk produce a stream of about two dozen posts per day (some written by outside contributors, many of them formerly of the Gawker talent stable), and they’ve grown an audience of about 400,000 unique monthly visitors. And in the next few months, they plan to expand by launching two new standalone sites.

I spoke with Cho about his strategy. (I first talked to Sicha, who said “you could kill either one of us [meaning him or Balk] and the site would be fine — but not David.” He warned journalists not to hire one of their own to run the financial side — get a “real” business person.)

Non-strategy as strategy

Cho said the site got off to a rocky start, after early investment money fell through. The trio ultimately launched on their own, embracing the idea of focusing on great writing, and scrapping SEO and pageview-generating maneuvers. The design was, and still is, barebones.

As Sicha put it in an interview with Vanity Fair last year, “I realized that we just don’t really want any stupid people reading it — which sounds mean, but they have plenty of reading material already. I want to disinvite them.” The VF interviewer said The Awl “reminds me of the Gawker of four years or so ago, when it was more targeted to quote-unquote smart people, or Manhattan media people. Before it expanded to cover more of the same old celebrity crap that the rest of the blogs cover and opened the commenter floodgates.”

“I think it’ll be an interesting experiment to see if good content can win,” Cho told me. “I’m much more of the mindset of, ‘Balk and Choire, you should do more stuff like this, because it’s what people want and it’ll get more traffic than this,’ and blah blah blah. And then eventually we do what Choire and Alex want to do, because that’s the way it should be.”

In a sense, the non-strategy is their strategy. The site has a unique aesthetic, creating a strangely cohesive mix of politics, national news, international affairs, and culture stories. (The first written account of “bros icing bros” appeared on The Awl.) [Editor's note: The Internet has informed us that news of the meme predates The Awl's coverage. We regret the error of not being as up to date on the state of bros fieldwork as we should. —Josh] There’s lots of aggregation-plus-comment, but also longer essays by smart writers. The mixture attracts a high-brow, educated, savvy reader and a New York-heavy audience: 25 percent of readers live in New York, with another 10 percent or so in the metro area. Both are potentially attractive audience for advertisers.

A letter from the editor

A good example of the site’s strategy is the recent resurrection of a daily newsletter written by Sicha. “I wanted to keep in touch with those original core, core readers,” Sicha told me, explaining why he decided he needed to recommit to the daily email after a few months off. (The first email back noted it had returned “by popular demand (AKA the demand of our publisher).”) The email reads like a quick note from the editor, not a typical website blast email with a roundup of links. It’s an original piece of content only dedicated readers receive.

In its first week back, the email featured a Trump Soho ad, a New York-specific buy that generated some income for The Awl. Still, Cho is realistic about the promise of the email for now. “From an advertisers perspective, I think right now we’re still very much in a kind of an incubating mode for the newsletter,” Cho told me. He said the Trump ad “sort of fell in [their] lap,” but generally he plans to sell the email ad space as a free bonus if advertisers purchase more ads on the site. (Sicha gleefully described it as “adjacency!”) Right now only about 2,500 people subscribe. They expect more readers to sign on once they make the signup a more prominent feature on the site.

In terms of handling all the negotiating and sales, Cho said they have a variety of deals with outside firms, like Federated Media. “I think we’re getting to a good place with advertising,” Cho said. “It takes time to build momentum and for people to understand what your site is. The growth of the site is very helpful.”

Up next

In the next few months, The Awl will grow into a network of sites. One planned site already has a lead writer and a topic picked out; another has a writer, but no topic yet. Cho expects to work out a topic with the writer that could work for potential advertisers he has lined up. But overall, the plan is the same as it was for The Awl. “Our plan is to rollout more sites with great writers,” Cho told me. “That was always what the site was going to be, to give talented writers a place to talk and write.”

I pressed Cho for details on the new sites to come. The one nugget I got: “We’re not going to launch a poetry site any time soon. We have a poetry section. I know how it does.”

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.

Don't be the product, buy the product!

Schweinderl