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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.