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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Should we protect artificial intelligence from sexual harassment?

Should anything be done to stop people sending sexually explicit messages to their AI personal assistants?

If you ask Apple’s artificially intelligent personal assistant “Siri” whether it is a virgin, it will waste no time in shooting you down. “We were talking about you, not me,” it replies in the clear, sharp tones of Susan Bennett, the woman chosen to voice the genderless computer program.

If you ask Apple’s artificially intelligent personal assistant “Siri” whether it is a virgin, you are probably not very weird. But a recent article in Quartz has detailed the extent to which AI systems – particularly personal assistant bots – are sexually harassed. Ilya Eckstein, CEO of Robin Labs, claims 5 percent of interactions in their database are sexually explicit, and that “some people try very hard to establish a relationship with the bot.”

Engineers have been aware of this problem for a while. Microsoft’s Cortana has been programmed to fend off sexual harassment, with Deborah Harrison, an editorial writer for the program, claiming: “If you say things that are particularly asshole-ish to Cortana, she will get mad.” But what about the other “female” AI out there? Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, which is voiced by a woman, don’t currently seem to fend for themselves, so should we be fighting for them?

Probably not. Although developers should definitely program their “female” AI to shoot down anyone feeling frisky, as long as AI lacks sentience it’s hard to see these sexual interactions as a big enough problem to warrant further action. Yes, undoubtedly some lonely people have taken inspiration from Spike Jonze’s Her and fancy an AI girlfriend, and yes, a robust robot reply that teaches men to respect women can only be a good thing, but on the whole, most people that get saucy with Siri aren’t actually deranged perverts. They are just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking them to say the world “willy”.

This is because despite what Quartz are claiming, the “sexual harassment” of bots is nothing new. It might, in fact, not even be gendered. Who among the MSN users of the Noughties didn’t ask the chatterbot SmarterChild whether he (most people, and media outlets, considered it a “he”) liked sex or had a penis? In fact, if you search Google Images for “Smarterchild”, pretty much all the screencapped chats are sexually explicit in some way.

Tumblr: The Dynamic Conversationalist

It’s hard to see someone sexting Siri as a problem, then, because it is part of a long tradition of humans being incredibly, incredibly dumb. Find me the man who doesn’t provoke every new chat bot on the market in the hopes of making them say something funny or rude, and you have found me a liar.

It is, of course, a big problem that AI personal assistants are so often female, as – in Laurie Penny’s words – it “says an uncomfortable amount about the way society understands both women and work.” But this, therefore, is the problem we should be tackling – instead of wasting our time debating the ethics and legality of coming on to Cortana.

I recently attended the UK launch of Amazon Echo, whose personal assistant is Alexa. Watching a room of old, balding, white, male journalists laugh heartily as the speaker on stage commanded Alexa to “Stop”, definitely troubled me. “If only I could get my…” began the speaker – as I desperately willed him not to say the word “wife” – “…children to do that,” he finished. Before we even begin to consider sexually explicit chatter, then, we should be confronting the underlying issue of gender bias in the AI industry.

Once we can set our personal assistants to have either male or female – or, even better, completely genderless – voices, we can get back to using them for what they were intended for. Asking them if they're virgins and then laughing at the response.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.