New York startup Branch has spent the last two years trying to figure out how to make commenting work on the internet. The company’s first product, Branch, was a tastefully designed, yet insular website for talking in small groups about politics, or the latest iPad, or anything else you care about; Potluck, its second product, sought the same goal, albeit in a more casual dress — as a "Reddit with friends" link-sharing site. Branch CEO Josh Miller admits that Branch was perhaps a bit too "highbrow," and Potluck didn’t offer a good mobile experience or enough incentive for users to post links.
Both services became darlings of the startup community, celebrated for their noble goals and A-list backers — Twitter founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone — but neither broke into the mainstream. Today, Miller is debuting a new version of Potluck, built for mobile, and with a more narrow goal meant to attract a far greater number of people. Potluck 2.0 feeds you the news in digestible chunks, and provides a place to chat about it with friends. But is that something its users, let alone the world, has been asking for?
At first glance, the new Potluck looks a lot like dating app Tinder, and that’s by design. Miller hopes that by utilizing Tinder’s unique "cards" interface, he can make reading the news as addictive as swiping through potential mates. When you open the app, you’re presented with a stack of news stories on cards called "snacks." When tapped, each snack unfolds into a quick three-sentence slideshow of the news, which you can swipe through — a strategy also employed by news app Circa. Snacks are curated by Potluck staff, and range from lengthy pieces on Snapchat’s valuation to the latest Banksy artwork in New York.
Inside each snack is a tiny message board for friends and friends of friends to post their thoughts on the topic, just like in the original version of Potluck. Once you’ve left a comment and / or back out to card view, you can either swipe a card to the left to forget about it, or swipe a card to the right to "keep it" and get updates when people reply to your comments.
The new app would feel like a charmingly designed mobile news experience with an added comments section if Potluck didn’t beat you over the head with what it really wants to be: a messaging app. The company calls Potluck 2.0 "a messaging app" and labels the articles you’ve commented on as "Chats." Perhaps the company does so in hopes of being grouped with the buzzy, astronomically popular group of apps amassing hundreds of millions of users around the world. Or perhaps it’s because Potluck believes that there’s a space for messaging apps built around news, and not around people. Instead of seeing a list of friends’ faces in your "Chats" window, you would see the headlines of news stories.
The difference between Potluck and WhatsApp is that overt messaging apps feel urgent, while Potluck still feels bound by the fleeting, fun links you’d ordinarily share with friends over email or post on Facebook. Miller envisions Potluck as a place for people to have more serious conversations, but it’s not necessarily up to him how people use the service. By curating these conversation-starting snacks, however, he hopes to exercise some degree of control over the content people are chatting about — for better or worse.
Miller envisions Potluck as a place for people to have more serious conversations
Ultimately, the deciding factor in Potluck’s success generating conversations will be its effectiveness replacing the usual methods we use to talk about articles we like. Miller says one of the most popular places for discussion is still email, which would be, to many entrepreneurs, proof enough that a better solution can be invented. Potluck’s link-sharing is contextual, of course, which means that instead of seeing a link in your email inbox, you’ll see a photo, article summary, and list of comments with friends’ photos next to them. "You need to create an environment that people think to turn to," says Miller. "People do email because it feels intimate, and because it feels like a safe space — not a place with a share button and tweet button."
Branch and Potluck v1 hoped to construct a similar atmosphere, but on the web, a place decreasingly visited on a computer during leisure hours. "We heard over and over from our friends and users that nobody was really touching their computer after they left work," says Miller. "When they were not working they were touching their iPhones." Potluck 2.0 is an effort at building a perfect solution for conversations on the go, and doing it better than email, and better than the comments sections on your favorite websites, which are often filled with people you don’t know in real life. "People are used to reading this stuff on news sites, but they have no experience hopping down to comments sections because they’ve only known that place as a place for strangers and trolls," says Miller. "If we can replicate reading about Miley Cyrus, but doing so within the context of messaging app with friends' faces, it’s a good combination."
"Content is, in a way, a red herring to get you to talk to people."
So Potluck 2.0 hopes to solve two problems: a lagging mobile experience and a barrier to entry that asked users to submit links. The ironic part about all this is that Potluck 2.0 wrests away the link submission from its users and places it in the hands of its staff, who arguably don’t have much experience curating and summarizing news across an entire world of topics. And isn’t it most often that the link you share with a friend is something more specific — not something chosen for you by a stranger?
Potluck’s methodology might sound a little forced, but the startup claims that there is some solid data behind it. Miller found that most Branch and Potluck users were submitting the same links to the site to talk about with friends. He would tell you that Potluck isn’t about news, though. "It’s about conversations," he says, and news only serves as the conversation starter. "Content is, in a way, a red herring to get you to talk to people," he says. Thus, providing the links, neatly summed up into three slides and a photo, should ostensibly increase the amount of conversations people are having.
Potluck is about conversations, but where are your friends?
Potluck 2.0 works well as a news app delivering bite-sized news to read while you’re waiting in line at Starbucks, and it's fun to use as a way to chat about specific topics with friends, but perhaps Miller and co. need to consider that it isn’t always constraint that breeds the best social platforms. Even if Potluck provides more context than email, it’s yet another small community of people you must invite your friends to. Some of the utility in emailing an article, after all, is that it’s using a medium every member of your friend and family uses — privately. Fortunately, even without your friends, the new Potluck does provide value with the news it delivers.
In its efforts to create a private space for comments, Potluck 2.0 shares the noble goals of Branch’s other products. It also, unfortunately, looks like it will share some of Branch’s other, more insular attributes.