Toward Better Conversations

Today, my friends at Branch announced that their fun and pretty little conversation platform is now open to the world, available for you to bring your friends in and talk about what matters to you. (I’m an advisor, and became one because I liked the product when it was in beta.)

It’s an exciting moment for me, not just because of the usual here’s-our-new-features-check-it-out moment that startups live for (though you should read about all the new features!) Instead, I’m really optimistic about this moment of making a concerted effort to bring back meaningful, heartfelt conversation on the web.

This isn’t a new fixation for me; when I was lamenting the web we lost, one of the fundamental underpinnings of my frustration was that we’ve lost the idea as a culture that positive, affirming web conversations are even possible. Hundreds of millions of people have come to the social web without ever knowing the era of making real human connections through open commenting online.

Making Friends and Influencing People

Why does it matter? Take my life: Most of the people who attended my wedding were people I’d first interacted with through conversations on the web, taking us from strangers to close friends over the course of a relatively short period of time. Most of the doors that have been opened to me happened because some of the folks whose sites or blogs or threads I commented on found my thoughts worthwhile enough to be willing to extend me an opportunity.

Those doors stay closed in the web we have today, where extreme abuse and acts of emotional violence are treated as common or even expected on most web forums. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault. But for those of us who make tools and technology, it’s also our fault in a profound way, making it hard to actively manage your conversation and community toward a positive outcome.

Branch is thinking of this problem from the standpoint of individuals who want to host conversations with a group of their friends all the way up to publishers who want to integrate thoughtful conversations from a set of invited contributors to become part of their offerings.

It’s still early. Ideas like being able to highlight parts of a thread in order to emphasize it for others are still nascent, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll work. But the important part is that someone’s trying. There must be the ambition, the radical belief, that says the ability for the web to connect everyone doesn’t intrinsically require that it be a brutal, unpleasant or even upsetting experience.

So as Branch takes its first tentative steps out into the larger world, I’m rooting for it to succeed, and for it to help inspire many other similar efforts, whether within individual sites or on standalone platforms, to provide a way for others to not just get as much out of the web as I was able to in the past, but to make real connections in a way that we couldn’t have imagined.