This. No, not that. This.
The brainchild of former Atlantic Media entrepreneur-in-residence Andrew Golis, This. is a social network for those who want to cut through the increasing clamour of the internet.
Sparksheet chatted with Golis about This. going public and how he hopes it can provide users with pure signal in a world made noisy by the proliferation of superficial, commoditized content. Here’s our conversation:
What is This. and how did it come to be?
Andrew Golis: This. is a sharing network where members can share one link a day, and the basic idea is to create a community that’s about a deep passion for art and entertainment and journalism on the web.
We have all these incredible networks like Facebook and Twitter that connect us with all of the media that’s out there, but they’re really tuned for different things. Facebook is beautiful for connecting with your friends and family and Twitter is extraordinary for connecting you to live conversations, but neither of those are fundamentally about the quality of the media that’s floating through them.
By limiting every member to sharing one thing a day we give them the opportunity to mark something that’s special and say, “This thing is really worth your attention.” And people can follow people whose taste they respect and see that one thing. It gives them the ability to get this incredible list of things to watch, listen to or read and they end up with almost all signal and no noise.
What was the initial inspiration for This. and what’s it taken to get it to where it is?
AG: My background is in media as someone who lives at the intersection of editorial and strategy. I ran digital at an investigative documentary show called Frontline and when I was there I spent a lot of time thinking about prime-time digital and the things that did and didn’t get distributed over the kind of networks that were rising to take over the media business.
About two years ago now I joined The Atlantic, which has had an extraordinary decade of turning what was an old kind of fussy intellectual magazine into a powerhouse digital media company and launching things like Quartz. They gave me the freedom to really take that curiosity around networks, and quality and prime-time and play with it, and I was able to get the initial prototype of This. up with support from The Atlantic and its owner David Bradley. From there we were able to grow it enough and get enough traction to take it out of the company and set it up as its own startup.
Tell me more about the idea of only sharing one thing a day and how that shapes how people use This.
AG: When you create that limit it prompts a little more intentionality on behalf of the sharer.
Everyone in the system understands that when you have one thing to share everyday, if you are going to put something up you’re giving it your fullest endorsement.
I don’t think that leads people necessarily to longform or investigative journalism, but I do think it leads people to things that have required more work to create. We live in an era of commoditized content, where because of the low bar for sharing we end up with a kind of mass of mediocre stuff as opposed to stuff that reaches a little deeper into your interest and pushes you to think. I mean, just look at the stuff trending on Facebook on any given day.
Is what This. does curation?
AG: I think that curation is a buzzword that’s lost some of its meaning through overuse. But if you actually think about its history there is an incredible role for people who have this passion in helping people discover the new and the great, be it an art gallery curator or a movie critic.
Every tool on the web gives us the ability to be a curator in someway or another. Twitter is primarily a live communication platform and Facebook is giving you tools to create an identity around the people you went to high school or college with and your friends and family. But a curator actually wants to be able to create an identity around their home bookshelf. Displaying their taste is giving them the ability to say, “This is the stuff I’m passionate about and want to show.”
What we’re going for is to give our members who want to be curating, and are doing it on other platforms that aren’t really built for it, a place where they are rewarded for the quality of the stuff that they share, and producing an identity and network around that.
I got on This. because someone at The New York Times tweeted me an invite. Are users mostly journalists? Is it diversifying?
AG: One of our huge advantages at the beginning was that because this is the kind of community I’m a part of and my wife [Jessica Valenti] is a part of we had an overrepresentation of professional digital media people. That was a massive advantage because if you want to see people who have a really good sense of what’s good and what’s not on a daily basis, connect yourself to the people who are reading the internet for a living.
But at this point, journalists are definitely not anywhere near the majority. We’ll probably cross 20,000 members by the end of October.
One of the things I saw shared most widely on This. was a couple months ago when The Atlantic published an
excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. Is there a certain type of content that does well on This.?
AG: The biggest communities right now are around tech, feminism, civil rights and media. Those are the four topics with the highest membership density, but we’re also starting to see stuff in art and design, in sports, there’s a lot of stuff that’s emergent. We’ve got an international community that’s starting to bubble up, with a big chunk of German and French users.
It’s only been a week since we [publicly] launched and we went from 12- to 20-thousand members so everything is a little fresh.
In one of your newsletters, you wrote about an MIT professor’s theory of the threat of digital devices distracting us from our real lives. Is it paradoxical to try to combat distraction by building another social network?
AG: The way it’s often framed is that distraction only works in one direction: that we are distracted by devices and digital services away from real-life conversations, or relationships or whatever. But my point is that, that’s not the only direction that distraction goes. Sometimes in real life my five-year-old throwing a temper tantrum can distract me from reading a great book on my kindle. Or the auto-play video of a bear falling out of a tree can distract me from what my friend wrote on Facebook.
One of the nuances we’re going to start to push ourselves towards as we get used to what this new digital world is like, is that it’s not just a matter of being distracted from things in our non-digital lives. It’s also about being distracted from really important quality things on our digital devices by other things that we’d rather not be giving our time to but sort of can’t help but look at.
What is it that you think we need to be focused on and what are the real threats in terms of distraction?
AG: A huge amount of what we’re seeing is products and services that we love, expanding beyond what we want them to do. When I go to Facebook I get very frustrated that I can’t just see pictures of my friends and read about their lives, which is what I love Facebook for. Because that company has reached maturity with that core service, it’s expanding beyond that and trying to look for more ways to suck up our attention. It’s because of the scale it’s reached and the nature of what it means to be a public company.
The problem is not that we only need to be paying attention to these kinds of things and not to these other kinds of things. We all want to be able to enjoy some fun, light, goofy entertainment sometimes and go really deep into media that we really love at others, but when those contexts crash together in these services one of them becomes more challenging.
This. is just focused on the quality of the media that we connect you to and creating tools for people who want to curate and consume that media. In the same way you’d see at an art gallery or a bookstore, there’s a particular type of context you want to create that gives people the ability to focus on consuming media that they’ll really love
So is the internet and web culture headed towards these totally separate, siloed tools or is it going it be dominated by these big overarching platforms?
AG: I think it’s bad for consumers if you see Facebook or Apple eat the web. And the thing that we’ve seen over and over again is that the diversity and small-d democratic nature of the web, over time, makes these niches more useful than the sort of business-development driven, everything-in-one-place portals.
If we’re hopeful about the web and its ability to continually reinvent itself than I think there’s an opportunity for people who want to do something very specific.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.