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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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

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