We Have Many Faces
We needed to build Digest because we desperately needed Digest: The social network we’ve all been waiting for.
Humans were never meant to share the entireties of themselves with each other: a cardinal norm of a civilized society that’s constantly broken by today’s social networks. This violation is the source of what plagues our relationship with these networks, and consequently, each other. Digest, a new social content network launching privately this Fall, is our solution to this problem. If that sounds intriguing to you, you should sign up for our beta, and reserve your username before someone else does.
Here’s the longer version…
“Dude, you need to chill with the dog pics,” replied my friend Tom* to a tweet of mine (*all real names have been changed because I still believe in a civil society). He was talking about a tweet I’d posted just a few minutes earlier linking to a picture of my dog doing his best Ryan Gosling impression.
My amygdala swarmed his @-reply like a cluster of spiderlings that had just happened upon a dead cricket.
Is he joking? I don’t see any emoticons.
Why would he say that?
I thought he liked my dog!
Maybe he just doesn’t like dog pics.
Wait… who doesn’t like dog pics?!
As my brain devoured the 41 nauseating characters, I felt my face get flush and my body started to shake a little. My adrenal system was sending in the reinforcements: a stress response to protect me from harm.
When you adore something as much as I adore my dog, it doesn’t take much more than an @-reply to fire up the reptilian brain. We’ve dismissed tweets as trite—myself included—for almost as long as Twitter has been around. But that doesn’t change the fact that tweets are made of words, words have meaning, and can mean mean things even when we don’t mean them.
Fortunately, the non-reptile in me was stronger that day. I stepped away from the keyboard, and fled with my tail between my legs. But something in me changed.
Even my dog, who was examining my face wondering why I looked like my dog had just died, could sense it.
In the near decade that followed that tweet, my wife (cofounder, back-end engineer, and CEO of the now one-week old Digest, Inc.) and I have spent so much time talking loudly and excitedly about The Problem With Social Media™. We now consider it a romantic gesture when one of us comes running in and asks the other, “Did you read that piece by Brian Bergstein in the MIT Tech Review about how we need more alternatives to Facebook?” Ooh la la, bae. Is it just me or are you trying to start something?
Hang on. I’m jumping ahead to the juicy part of the story. Let me back up.
I struggled tremendously with Twitter in the early days (circa 2009). While I found it intriguing at first, I didn’t really get into it until I moved into a very public job (read: speaking, writing, selling, etc.) It started as, “I should probably tweet,” but very quickly swerved off the rails into, “Why can’t I stop tweeting?!” It actually got so bad that I wrote a public break up letter to Twitter on a blog I used to help run at the time (RIP http://visitmix.com); this was before it was cool to write breakup letters to Twitter.
Sadly, mine wasn’t an attempt at coolness in the slightest. It was a true cry for help.
Unbeknownst to me, it was also the genesis of Digest.
Roberta started crying about five minutes into our interview. We were at a crowded coffee shop in the city of Kirkland, WA (yes, the Costco Kirkland).
I’d met Roberta at a friend’s party in 2011. Somewhere in conversation I sheepishly mentioned to her that my wife and I were thinking of quitting our jobs so we could build a new social network (full disclosure: I still feel embarrassed, and positively douchey writing this, because the special combination of the words “building a new social network” feels quintessentially Erlich Bachmanesque; besides, who in hell were we to be doing something like this?!).
“Great!”, she replied earnestly. “Do it fast so I can finally stop using Facebook!”
“Would you mind if I asked you more questions about that sometime?” I asked immediately feeling relieved that she hadn’t rolled her eyes at me and walked away.
“Of course not. Let’s set up a meeting!”
This was that meeting (my cofounder, Pita, and I have conducted over a hundred of these to date). I’d just asked her, “So, why did you deactivate your Facebook account?”
“Because I’m tired of all my friends’ baby pictures. I feel horrible for saying it, and this is probably TMI, but my husband and I have been trying for two years now, and I don’t know…” Her voice trailed off, and the tears just came.
I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t.
By 2010 I had made my peace with Twitter, and our relationship was being held together by a bandaid and some duct tape. But the passion was gone. I was starting to dabble in Facebook.
My wife and I had invented a few products by then to solve the firehose problem: like many others poking at The Problem with Social Media™ (including Google, RIP Circles), we’d concluded that a social graph based on two people following/friending each other inevitably led to the two individuals overwhelming each other with status updates, tweets, etc. Throw in your entire social graph, and it’s like someone turning a firehose of information at you full blast.
Most of our inventions didn’t get past paper, others made it to Illustrator, and a couple even made it to prototype form. We even had names for a couple. Sift. Room. Meh. There was a lot there but not enough for us to quit our day jobs.
Then one day in 2011, I tweeted, “Which one should I install? Instagram or Foursquare?” A handful of people responded: Instagram. (Sorry, Foursquare)
Something clicked immediately. I mean, c’mon…
Canine model: CHECK.
Share pictures of my canine model: CHECK, CHECK, CHECK!
It was a marriage made in heaven, and one that blossomed once hashtagging became a thing on Instagram.
I spent hours on #weimaraner. I liked every Weimaraner and left their humans—hoomins, for you doggy lingo purists—comments by the dozen. I followed tens, and then hundreds of them. I learned their names. I learned their quirks. I knew Sprocket couldn’t help but judge everything he looked at. Ludwig was as regal as his name but no match for Liesel’s sass (my first ‘Dogchild’). Chaz would eat through a wall if he could (and he did as Dakota stood by shaking her head). Fritz was part horse, and quite possibly the only Weimaraner in the world who wasn’t allowed on the couch (this has been duly rectified). Charlie was definitely smoking something.
When my wife and I travelled, we would leave comments on longtime dog pals’ posts. “We’re in London for a few days. We’d love to grab a pint with Sprocket, and wouldn’t mind driving 5 hours to do so. What do you say?” (for the record, they said yes; and yes, we rented a car and drove halfway across England to be judged by a dog for about 7 seconds before he took a nap). Over time, we became friends with many people through our dogs.
Many of us have now graduated to a transoceanic group message thread; among other things, we lament the good ol’ days when Instagram hadn’t sold out to The Algorithm. Still others have become one-on-one fast friends. We are from all walks of life, and span the political and ideological spectrum: we’ve voted for/against Hillary/Trump/Johnson, we like/hate guns, we get/don’t get marches. But we are bound by something that transcends all of that, and shows us we are all one and the same: we are hoomins owned by dogs. Where relationships with longtime friends and family dissolved easily in the beaker of acid that is our current political climate, the #weimcrew has held strong.
There is a firehose problem on social media. But it’s not the problem. And it took my using Instagram to express one of my many face(t)s—a passion for dogs—and have it embraced and nourished by others just like me, for us to realize there was something far bigger at play.
It didn’t fully register until sometime in 2013, but my Instagram account was the first digest.
“In the future, stay off my fucking lawn, Tony”, read the comment from John on a Facebook thread.
It was October 28th, 2016. James Comey, the infamous (now, ex) Director of the FBI, had just notified Congress that the case against Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton had been reopened. The election was exactly 14 days away, and Comey’s red October surprise had delivered one of the strongest blows yet to the ever-widening crack in the foundation of the idea that is America.
John—#withher from the start—had posted an article to Facebook a few hours after Comey’s revelation. It defended Clinton’s use of the private email servers. Tony—a happy #maga train passenger—wasn’t going to have it.
“Not buying it. #maga,” he wrote fast enough to have rendered any claim to have read John’s piece obviously indefensible. John jumped on it.
“Did you even read it?” John asked snidely.
“Didn’t need to. Fake news,” Tony shot back.
It escalated quickly from there. Passive aggression meandered its way to aggression via a frantic exchange of links and “facts”. It would almost certainly have ended in a mutual unfriending if it weren’t for the bandaid that is Facebook’s unfollow button.
Later that night, as they both lay in their beds in their respective homes, a terrifying thought hit them almost simultaneously:
Shit. I’m seeing him at work tomorrow at 9AM.
It was September 2015, and we were driving to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View.
We happened to be visiting San Francisco, and took the opportunity to float the idea of Digest to friends of ours who’d either done the startup rodeo, or were now working as venture capitalists. We weren’t pitching; just looking for advice. En route to our final meeting, Pita had said something that had set our wheels in motion.
“I think that’s the missing piece,” I said cautiously as I drove.
Pita nodded as she pulled Digest up on her phone, and started swiping through the screens taking stock of how much we’d have to throw away and rebuild. We had a working prototype of Digest at the time that we’d built between consulting jobs.
It still had a fundamental issue: Creating a digest was cumbersome. For a mobile app aspiring to give people the ability to create tens, even hundreds of digests on a whim, this felt like a real deal-breaker. We needed it to be as easy as pinning—admittedly, a high bar for a product that, unlike Pinterest, is all about user-generated content. But whenever we created a digest, it felt more like a prick than a pin, and we found that unnerving.
Pita’s revelation, one that I should have had since I’d spent most of my career in the web community, felt completely unrelated at first. Mid-discussion she’d said, “What if we just use a slash?”
“What the hell does that have to do with making it easy to create a Digest?” I thought at first. I played it out, and it quickly became obvious.
Software—thinking, really—relies deeply on intuitive concepts. The magnifying glass, folders, desktops, the hourglass, the cloud, inbox, outbox, archive, flags, notes, pages, scrolling: these real-world metaphors work because they all map to familiar concepts. The house that is cognition is built with the bricks that are these concepts. And over time, the house itself gets elevated to a concept and becomes a brick in some higher order cognition. And repeat. I Am A Strange Loop, to borrow from Douglas Hofstadter.
One such brick is the ‘/’ symbol—the building block of the Internet—which has come to mean “a part of”. Even a layman can intuit that bbc.com/politics and bbc.com/sports are two distinct parts of the BBC.
Pita had suggested applying that concept to Digest. And the moment we did, the first principles of Digest changed dramatically. All the parts were the same, but the whole was entirely different. In Valley parlance, we’d probably pivoted again.
But as we pulled into Google’s campus, we knew what we’d just done was something different: we’d just laid the final brick.
It was time to come home.
In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” While he’s changed his view since then, the largest social graph in the world, the one that connects 2B people, remains steadfastly committed to that view in terms of first principles. You follow me, I friend you: in fact, this first principle is taken for granted in almost all of our virtual social networks.
The Problem With Social Media™ is that we were never meant to share the entireties of ourselves with each other.
It is unnatural. We don’t do that in real life. Not even remotely. Not even with our closest people. The very foundation of civility—civilization—is predicated on our ability, our skill, our empathy, our presence of mind to show different sides of ourselves in different situations: to present many faces not in spite of our integrity, but because of it.
There is, and has existed for a long time before social media, a humongous and ever-growing body of theoretical research that points in seemingly infinite ways at this fundamental problem. And the big players know it. You can see it in their attempts at resolving the dissonance: lists, circles, groups, permissions, filters, unfollows, mutes, multiple accounts, and of course, Those. God. Damn. Algorithms!
None of it seems to have worked, though. Depending on the report, social media seems to have ruined everything from our peace of mind to maybe even democracy. And the players aren’t about to change course because their numbers show that we’re more engaged—could we really not come up with a better euphemism for addiction?—than ever.
Digest is not going to magically fix all of this. And as much as it’s been a slow-cooking revelation to us, the foundational bricks that brought us home have existed since the dawn of the Internet. From Google Reader to Reddit, blogs to microblogs, Facebook to Snapchat: Digest—at least the alpha version we have running on our phones right now—pays homage to many familiar features and paradigms that we’ve come to love. It will also have delightful new things that we hope we’ll love.
But one thing it will not have—ever—is the ability for you to follow me in my entirety. In our view, that feature lacks integrity. And we believe it is the one we will love the most.
Digest is a social network because people are key to its social graph. But we’re calling it a social content network because it is fundamentally about the content those people produce. In our explorations, we’ve found this small change—this evolution—to have a huge effect on the physics of social media.
This March we closed the doors to our consulting business for the foreseeable future. We’ve stashed away enough money to help us get Digest off the ground this year; enough to protect the first principles, we think. The odds are against us: over 99% of all startups fail. But we’re still going to give it our best shot. We’ve seen something, and we need to see it through.
We deserve to feel content again.
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