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Aug. 26, 2012, 11:09 p.m.

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

“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.'”

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.

POSTED     Aug. 26, 2012, 11:09 p.m.
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