What I Learned From Creating a High School Social Network

Julian Rosenblum
Jan 16, 2016 · 6 min read

In October 2013, I launched freshStart, an anonymous social networking website for my high school. The premise was simple. Hunter College High School is a small school that starts in 7th grade. By the time you’re in 9th grade, you already pretty much know your entire class. However, these impressions are based on what people were like in middle school. I don’t think I need to elaborate on why that’s a problem. The solution I came up with was an anonymous social networking site exclusively for Hunter students. You sign up, enter your gender, grade, and genders and grades (9–12) of people you’re interested in talking to. You’re then randomly paired with someone who meets these criteria and given a chat interface, with both parties anonymous unless they choose to reveal themselves. This gives you the opportunity to make a second first impression. In short, it was Omegle for Hunter Students plus an appealing elevator pitch. In the Aaron Sorkin version of the story, I created freshStart because I was dissatisfied with my high school romantic situation. He would not be completely wrong on that one.

When I first started talking to people about my idea for freshStart, the responses were mixed. Some people thought it could be really cool and useful. Some people thought it would just be awkward and creepy. I honestly had no idea what it would be like and I was curious. So being the edgy 17-year-old coder that I was (as opposed to the wise, mature 19-year-old coder that I am today), I hacked together freshStart in a couple of days and decided I would release it. Best case scenario, I make a cool thing that people use and it makes for great college application material. Worst case scenario, it’s a complete failure and everyone forgets about it in a week. I was not interested in starting a company. I just wanted to see what would happen.

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The first promo I posted to Facebook for freshStart on August 26, 2013

I posted promos like the one above on Facebook. I told everyone I knew about it. Finally, I picked a date and time and released freshStart to the Hunter community. Much to my satisfaction (and somewhat to my surprise), freshStart was a hit. People were using it. People were talking about it. I accumulated a total of over 500 registered users (out of about 800 9th-12th graders) and over 150,000 messages sent. freshStart became a temporary Hunter phenomenon. It also did make for a pretty good college essay. But most importantly, freshStart was a great learning opportunity for me in product development, high school social dynamics, and everything in between. Here are some of the things I learned:

1. Break your app to build hype.

I learned two lessons here. The first was a programming lesson: scalability is important. The second was a marketing lesson. As it turned out, my unintentional three-hour sneak preview of freshStart did a better job of building hype around freshStart than anything else I could have done. When I rereleased it, people were signing up and having conversations even quicker than they had the first time around. freshStart was an application that depended on having lots of people using it at the same time, and so my technical debacle became the perfect marketing ploy.

2. You ≠ your app.

They were right. I had no more of a place in their high school gossiping than I would have had they been talking about Facebook or Twitter. I did not become the social king of Hunter and that was just fine. What I did instead was make an app that became cooler than I was. It was a strange combination of satisfying and dissatisfying. To use a dumb buzzword, I had disrupted my high school. Unfortunately, you can’t disrupt your way to popularity.

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My announcement that we reached 100,000 messages sent, exactly one week after the second launch.

3. High schoolers are insecure.

At this point, some of the more regular freshStart users might be a little offended. It’s also important to note that writing about how your product’s user base is fundamentally insecure makes for very poor marketing. But being insecure socially in high school isn’t inherently a bad thing. It keeps us conscious of our behavior and stops us from saying or doing stupid things. Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t negative consequences (recommended viewing: Mean Girls). I created freshStart in part to combat such ills. I don’t know if it worked or not, but what I do know, and what I would feel confident telling any high school student today is this:

It’s not just you, and I have data to back that up.

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