I don’t get Branch, but that’s okay

I’ve been playing with Branch, one of the several new platforms from Obvious Corp, the team of people behind Twitter (and Medium, and Karma, and Lift).

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Branch is a conversation platform. Each branch is a conversation. An invited group of individuals discussing a specific topic. Not the troll-heavy, signal-to-noise-ratio light world of Youtube (and increasingly Facebook), but a quieter (perhaps more informed) place where intelligent conversation and debate sparkles.

But I don’t get it.

First of all, I don’t understand how this is any different to a commenting platform, beyond the invite-only mechanic. One has to ask to join in a conversation rather than just posting. If you’ve started a branch, you can either invite others to join in, or accept requests to join in (basing that acceptance upon either knowing the individual, or if their ‘pitch’ to get involved has merit. Whilst I’m no fan of trolling, this seems to immediately reduce the opportunity to have valuably open debate. Serendipity seems to be firmly designed out. As a conversation moderator – if I don’t like the sound of someone’s opinion, refusing them entry to the debate seems at odds with what the web is great at doing – allowing everyone a voice. Perhaps it will teach us to be better moderators, to welcome opposing thought.

Secondly, it isn’t real-time, yet conversations kinda are. If you’ve asked to join a conversation, it could take some time before you’re invited, after which time, your thoughts have been posted by another, leaving your invite unused, perhaps leading to an odd “every time I invite him, he never posts” feeling, or worse “now I feel I have to say something” leading just less valuable input. The conversation feels stilted, and notifications are either thick and fast for every post or non-existent.

Finally, I’m not really sure what it offers beyond a platform like Quora – which seems to have far richer and intriguing conversation than Branch right now. Many branches seem to start with a blogpost which is then discussed (like, er… disqus). Quora starts with an open question – enforced as a question. Perhaps this is the differentiation – a recent branch by Libby Brittain (one of the platform’s team) called Iteratative GIF Branch shows a varying use, like Photoshop Tennis – but this is not a new model either. Just look at most forums for similar ideas.

This might read like I don’t like Branch. I actually love it.

I love the conversations which are forming, I love the selection of interesting discussions. I like they can be ended. I like the structures around ‘branching’ a conversation into another thread (which is of course the eponymous action, and could in time be the most interesting aspect, in attempting to map divergence of thought).

But I just don’t get it yet. I don’t think I’ve found its applicable use for me.

And that’s okay.

I’ve long been confused by people’s frustration (often anger) at platforms or devices which they don’t have a need for. That’s okay! You’re not obligated to use this!

It happened recently with Little Printer, I heard several people say ‘Pfft.. £200?! What’s the point? Why would I want that?’. That’s okay, don’t buy one. No-one will think any less or more of you.

You don’t hear this same sort of hufflepuff about films – “Pfft! The Avengers?! Why did they make that? I don’t read comics…”.

It was the same with Twitter. Many people said “I don’t get it” or “Why?” – and actually, that isn’t a valuable question. Not every platform needs a purpose, and not every platform finds its true purpose in first months of life. Twitter now has a real and valuable place in the world, (it has many in fact), it has changed the face of journalism, citizen action and put both ‘real time’ and ‘the stream’ firmly in to the mainstream. If Twitter had drowned in people saying “Why bother”, the world would be a very different place.

It is the same for many technologies, they’re re-appropriated for other uses which are more valuable. SMS the often cited example of a technology which was adopted for uses far beyond its original intention, everything from group messaging to mobile banking.

Use of platforms can be a very personal and individual thing. The best platforms offer you an insight or a mechanism which scratches an itch you have (and to be successful, that many others have too).

I hope the same is true for Branch – it is too early to tell what its true purpose or value to me is yet, but that’s okay, and it is just worth keeping an eye on, and playing around with it as it develops, until its audience project on to it the true value of the platform.

Long live not having a clue what something is for.

Update: I’ve been actively playing with Branch over the past week to try and see what content and use cases work best. I posited a question, I started a work discussion thread, I started a co-authored story, and the most fun yet – I formed a hive mind (which got featured on the homepage). Interestingly, they all feel like they need curation and ‘hosting’ to keep the conversation alive.

FOMO and the disconnection reaction

There’s been a lot of writing recently (it seems, although I’m sure there’s been a steady current of articles about this for many years) about switching off. The overload of social media, streams of content over pages, notifications, alerts, snackable content leading to continuous partial attention is encouraging many to resort to disconnecting. Turning off their devices and going dark.

The idea is laudable, getting away from the constant babble of our networks, a ‘digital sabbath’ where we haul ourselves back to a better time where we’re not bombarded with messages and pings, so we can spend time enjoying our family, friends and surroundings, perhaps even pick up a good book, cook a good meal or just have a well-deserved nap – but I think disconnection is a dangerous idea.

Disconnection suggests that it is connection which is the problem. Connection is not the problem, but rather our lack of useful tools or abilities to create boundaries and filters for what information we’re allowing to reach us at any one time.

The line drawn between work and play has blurred so significantly that it is not uncommon to read work emails on a Sunday morning over the newspapers. I have absolutely no problem with this – as a freelancer, I never stuck to the traditional Mon-Fri 9-5 concept. As a creative, idea generation never respected the office hours template, so I’d frequently relax on a Monday if I wasn’t in the zone, and work on a Sunday if I was inspired or late night coding sessions, and day time napping.

The more these traditional working hours collapse, the more peoples phases will shift in relation to one-another and the less reliable it becomes to expect some sort of downtime during 5-9 or weekends.

Disconnection is the easiest answer – turn off all communication, however this means you’ll not receive ANY prompts to switch into another thought mode (perhaps from play to work, or broad absorption vs. focussed attention), no matter how important – the death of a relative, an urgent opportunity for new business, a last minute invite to a party. From FOMO (fear of missing out) to just MO.

And we don’t actually want to be disconnected – maps, calendars, read it later applications, television – they’re all really useful and likely desired connected tools which we’d want to use, but come with the fear of accidental leaking in of messages from an undesired source, perhaps work email. Despite many of these being binary driven tools, this is not a binary state. We should not be ON or OFF.

We’ve been talking about a connected/convergent world for years. The line between online and offline is behind us. I called someone out in a meeting this week suggesting discussion of something ‘in real life’ was different to discussing it online, because digital conversations are just as commonplace as phone calls or physical meetings. They’re the same thing.

What digital frequently lacks, however, is context. Context or suggested appropriateness of conversation topic.

In a meeting room, it’s less appropriate to talk about your plans this weekend than in the pub.

In a pub, it’s less appropriate to talk about your pitch preparation than in the meeting room.

We need better ways of a) letting others know our readiness to receive information and b) filtering information which needs to get through versus information which is just noise or distraction. The simple ‘online/busy/away’ traffic lights of instant messenger aren’t sufficient any more.

We need to develop better context/desire/willingness filters to allow the right sort of content in, rather than shutting the curtains and letting in nothing at all.

It means applying meaningful values to content, and mapping it to context.

It means extending the half-life of real-time content, so it’s still visible after the fact.

It means extending the social graph model to include human information on relationships, not just semantic information (who says I want to hear from my mother?).

It feels like mobile is the best place to start – as it is increasingly the context setter (voice and data, location, integration with calendar, always with you). Products like AwayFind and Google Priority Inbox are already starting to suggest routes – but there is a vast amount of worthwhile exploration in this space.

My first job

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So, (in reverse order) after four years of consulting, eight years of running my own agency, two years of internship in agencies and two years of doing freelance stuff whilst I was at college, I decided to get my first job.

As of August 2012, I’m now Strategic Technologies Director for Carat UK.

What on earth does that job title mean?

First of all, lets start with saying I hate job titles. To sum up the breadth of one’s responsibility in a two or three word phrase is simplification beyond usefulness.

But let’s break it down:

Director: This just means I sit in a chair with my name on it.

Technologies: Technology has not been the T in IT for a long time. Technology is all encompassing, and should live in the same category of words which mean very little any more, like creative, digital or electronic. However, its useful as a signpost to my background, passion and focus in this role. We pluralised it because Technology Director suggests something I’m not. Technologies suggests the broader ecosystem, culture and society of technology – in fact, I think Kevin Kelly’s “Technium” describes that best. It is probably shorthand for 90% of the products, platforms, services and channels which have appeared in the last ten years. Technology is the connecting thread between many things, and those are the points I like working in, the intersection between things.

Strategic: I’m not sure how people classically define strategy, but personally I define it to mean exploring potential destinations and how to get there, rather than reacting to something in a kneejerk fashion. It’s also about sustainability and constant course correction.

Strategic technology: Like creative technology, but taking a broader view on the impact which emergent technology and new behaviours have on business, and helping to apply it when it is commercially relevant or progressive.

Lots of waffle, but my main aim is to help my clients and agency understand, explore and realise the steady flow of the new, through demonstration and play.

Kinda what I did already, but without having to chase invoices, right?

There were lots of reasons for taking a job, but the two that stand out are:

1. Being able to work in a team, within which I can learn from others, and collaborate better – and the Strategy and Innovation team at Carat is full of really smart people who believe the same.

2. Being able to focus on better work, and scaling the size of work I can do – through working in a single organisation, it means I can dedicate my time and energy to that organisation.

I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into some fantastic projects.

PS. I’ve still managed to protect 20% of my week towards non-profit/non-commercial work like Disposable Memory Project and Child’s i Foundation, and undoubtedly things like CLARITY* and bluesky.