Twitter's founders launch two new services. What are they, and do they have a hope?

Medium and Branch could be third (and fourth) time lucky for Stone and Williams.

Ev Williams and Biz Stone, the co-founders of Blogger (now owned by Google) and Twitter, have launched not one, but two follow-up projects, Medium and Branch.

The two men will be staying on as directors of Twitter, which poses a problem for them commercially – how do they use their expertise to carry on the string of hits, without cannibalising their previous business? One of the Twitter's cofounders, Jack Dorsey, decided to abandon the social media sector entirely, instead attacking two monopolies at once with Square, a platform which allows anyone to accept credit card payments with just an iPhone or iPad.

And with their audacious move to launch two start-ups at the same time, Stone and Williams have that problem doubled. Will people really use Twitter, Medium and Branch at the same time? That's the plan.

What are they?

First things first: what exactly are the new platforms? It's always going to be tricky to describe these things until usage patterns have built up around them organically. You inevitably find yourself resorting to analogies with existing services, which can be far from perfect: I remember, in 2007, attempting to describe Twitter to someone as "like Facebook status updates but without the rest of Facebook". Needless to say, I did not convince them to sign up.

Stone and Williams seem to have a firmer idea of what a mature Branch and Medium will look like than they did with Twitter, however. The latter famously was heavily driven by its users, with conventions like hashtags, retweets and @-mentions invented on-the-fly, and then incorporated into the architecture of the site later on. The way people use it today bears little resemblance to the way they did five years ago.

Medium is a very image-centric platform for content grouped around specific themes. The idea is that users create certain "collections", which are grouped around a theme. Sometimes, these collections are closed, but they can be open to extra contributions. Williams explains (on Medium, of course):

Collections give people context and structure to publish their own stories, photos, and ideas. By default, the highest-rated posts show up at the top, helping people get the most out of their time in this world of infinite information.

Together, the contributions of many add up to create compelling and useful experiences. You may be inspired to post one time or several times a day—either way is okay. If you’re more ambitious, you might create a collection of your own.

Collections exist on topics like editorials, things people have made, nostalgic photos and crazy stories, while the site has a voting function which, ideally, ensures that interesting contributions to those collections float to the top.

Although the design is focused around images, and reminiscent of Pinterest in its gridded layout, posts can be all text, and can indeed be quite weighty. In terms of the (small-m) medium, Medium looks to be encouraging a similar approach to Tumblr (although with much more high-brow content, ideally). Lots of images, some text, and a few links out. The idea is that the individual posts become something more when the group as a whole takes over.

Branch is far more about the conversation as a whole. At its heart lies a question and answer format similar to Quora, another Silicon Valley darling. Users start conversations with an opening post, and can then invite others to join in. The chats are readable by anyone, but only invited users can contribute - but, importantly, anyone can click on any post to "branch" it into its own thread.

Topics being discussed at the moment include today's changes to Twitter's platform, TEDx, an offshoot from the popular TED conferences, and Obama's re-election prospects.

It's easier to describe than Medium, but that's partially because it's a far simpler service. It knows what it wants to be, but there's far less chance for users to discover.

How do they work with Twitter?

If it wasn't clear before that these sites need to work with Twitter, rather than against it, the company today announced changes to the way they deal with third-party apps and services which appear to be a precursor to banning many of them from the network entirely.

Branch is most explicit about how it would mesh with Twitter. It sees itself as a way to take those long, unwieldy five- or six-participant conversations off-site to somewhere where arguments can be developed in a bit more length. As seen in this discussion, it even encourages you to embed tweets to begin the chat.

Medium targets itself at a different sector. It still links to Twitter - right now, the only way to sign up for an account is to use your Twitter account, for instance - but there are few explicit connections between the two services. Its target is different, lying somewhere between Tumblr and Pinterest. The most interesting claim the founders make about it is that it will not require massive engagement to get noticed on - which is a problem with both those sites. If everything works as stated, then a first post could become the most "interesting" one on the most-read board. In this, as with its voting mechanic, Matter actually bears more than a passing resemblance to Reddit. Submit cool things, get up-votes, and be read by the crowd, all of which is fragmented over boards which anyone can create.

Reddit, of course, co-exists admirably with Twitter, so there should be no problem there.

When I wrote on Twitter's API changes, I argued that even worse than the ill-thought out rules being strictly applied is if they aren't strictly applied – if, as there are indications, Twitter gives "good" sites an easier ride.

Sadly, Branch just adds to that notion. While the site will doubtless play well with Twitter, it breaks several of the company's design guidelines (soon to become design requirements). Tweets are displayed without retweet, reply, or favourite buttons, names are displayed without the username next to them, and the Twitter logo is not always displayed in the top right corner. Despite this, something tells me it will not have its API access revoked.

Do they have a hope?

The real question, of course, is whether these things can grow beyond the initial hype. Are they filling niches that need to be filled? Can they encourage users to switch from competing services? And will they work as they scale?

Of the two, Branch is the one which has the more obvious chance of success. It is easy to imagine people saying "let's take this to Branch" when a conversation on Twitter gets out of hand, and the integration between the two services makes that something even the least technologically-minded user can do. Obviously the "featured branches" view of the site would gradually fade into the background as it grew, just as you can't get a whole site feed for Twitter anymore, but this is to be expected; as Dalton Cadwell argued, the global feed is useful for avoiding anti-network effects (where a site gets less useful the more people are on it; compare, for example, Yahoo! Answers and Quora) in a growing site, but useless once something reaches critical mass.

Medium is a different beast entirely. Its problem is getting people to use it. Is it a Tumblr replacement? Pinterest? How should you get content into, and out, of it? Is it for ephemeral posts, or will it have a working archive?

Yet if it does work out – if people do start sharing wonderful things, and telling each other "nice work!" (the equivalent of an up-vote, to use the Reddit analogy) – then Medium has a chance of being, not just a useful addendum to other social networks, but a hub in its own right. Reddit has 35 million users, and an incredibly engaged community. Who wouldn't want a piece of that?

 

Medium and Branch.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times