Designer Julius Tarng talks to founder Josh Miller before the Branch redesign.
The oft-cited "one percent rule" holds that most people on the internet are there to consume content, while a tiny minority is there to create it. That’s what Josh Miller and Hursh Agrawal assumed when they started building Branch, a buzzy new startup backed by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone that aims to civilize online comments. But six weeks after launch, they've redesigned the site to lighten the tone and encourage wider participation.
Branch initially became known in the startup world for hosting intelligent back-and-forth discussions between tech celebrities like Chris Dixon, Mike Arrington, and Dave McClure. The expectation was that these luminaries would attract fans hoping to soak up some wisdom from watching these Socratic debates, which worked — to a point. Once Branch opened up to the public in August and started letting in a thousand new users every night, it became clear that something was off.
"Right before launch, I kind of had this realization that our favorite part of Branch isn’t reading Branches," Miller recalled on a recent visit to Branch’s office in the West Village space owned by startup lab Betaworks. "Yeah, it’s cool when someone like Ev is dropping knowledge on random topics but generally, it’s not a ton of fun to read 30 posts. It’s a lot of text. The best parts are when we’re in Branches ourselves, talking about stuff we care about. And we got that feedback immediately when we launched."
The elite posts were boring and intimidating, but conversations between plebeian users took off
Some of the most active Branches were animated GIFs, lists of links, and lighthearted chatter between ordinary users, Miller said. The elite posts were boring and intimidating, but conversations between plebeian users took off. He clicked the screen over to a conversation started by Branch cofounder Cemre Gungor about the new Bravo reality show "Silicon Valley," which he estimated got 20 responses in the first five minutes. Branch also turned out to be a good medium for collecting travel tips, handling customer service, and has inexplicably attracted a community of Dutch librarians. Whenever Branch suggested high-quality conversations for users to watch, people fired back that they wanted to see conversations they could join.
"People want to talk so bad," Miller said. "Those were the two big learnings. People are going to talk, and it’s not going to be all serious."
The new version of Branch, which debuted today, is designed to make Branches easier, more democratic, and more fun. The red-and-khaki motif remains and the basic premise is the same: users start a Branch with a prompt, then other users request to join the discussion. Responses are limited to 750 characters, and — at least for now — there is no delete button and no way to edit after publishing.
The redesigned Branch encourages participation.
There’s one word at the top of the page, "Talk," centered above a Tumblr-like menu that invites users to start a Branch with text, a link, a photo, or a tweet. Users can embed animated GIFs in their conversations. Branch took inspiration from instant messaging services and added a short contacts list. Sometimes seeing someone’s name is enough to spark a conversation, Miller said.
"Roundtable was like, ‘expert discussion,’ which is so douchey."
A 21-year-old Princeton dropout, Miller is joyful and corny; during a photo session, he pretended to draw on his cofounder’s face with a dry erase marker. It’s hard to believe that Roundtable, the first version of the company that became Branch, was so self-serious. "Roundtable was like, ‘expert discussion,’ which was so douchey and I really regret, and it's just really embarrassing that it ever was that," Miller told The Verge. BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, one of Miller’s mentors, advised him to pitch Branch beyond the NPR set.
That’s part of what makes Branch different from the question-and-answer site Quora, which it’s often compared to. On Quora, users vote on the best answer, which shoots to the top of the page. On Branch, answers to a prompt are listed chronologically. "They’re Q and A. We’re conversation," Miller said. "We’re not interested in the right answer. We’re interested in the conversation."
Branch is still interested in curating conversations between smart people for the world to read, and partnerships with media companies like PBS Frontline help to do that. However, Branch is starting to seem more like the company that introduced Miller to the New York tech scene: Meetup, a site that has had unique and lasting success among mainstream, regular Americans, who use it because they want to talk to other mainstream, regular Americans who share their interests.
Branch is also in line with Medium, the other high-profile startup backed by Obvious Corp, the incubator run by Stone and Williams. Medium is a collaborative publishing tool that hasn’t been released yet, so comparisons are tough to make. However, both companies aim to empower regular people to publish online by providing context and structure.
It’s impossible to predict whether Branch will find a place amid other publishing platforms like Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, although it has collected $2 million in funding from highly-respected investors including Obvious, New York-based Lerer Ventures, and SV Angel. It’s gotten enough of a following that Branch is rationing invites until Ian Ownbey, an engineer freshly poached from Twitter, ensures that the site can handle the load. However, the company has a lot of interesting options when it comes to making money.
Publishers have been interested in Branch since day one
Publishers, which are plagued by the problem of maintaining high-quality comments, have been interested in Branch since day one. Choire Sicha, a former Gawker editor and founder of The Awl, is a big Branch fan. Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, named the threads in Gawker's new commenting system "branches," and cites Miller as one of the most interesting people in tech. Enterprise clients might be interested in using the site to broadcast a conversation between a few top execs, sort of like a semi-public email system that employees could read straight from the source without the danger of it turning into a reply-all party.
Branch is now a nine-person company on the prowl for a new office. Miller and Agrawal also hope to ditch the invite system and open the floodgates to new users sometime this quarter. The company is eager to see how its current set of users — the precise number was the only question Miller declined to answer — will react to the design changes, although Miller promised that more features are in store, and gave us an idea of Branch’s aggressive internal timetable. But regardless of the changes, Miller and the team are sure of one thing: "It’s not going to be a one percent experience."