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Designing public and private spaces for maximum effect

I recently tweeted about the feedback result screen I've been working on. A few people asked about what would happen when you tap the "Start conversation" button at the bottom of the screen, so I want to dig into that a bit.

Before I get into the specifics, indulge me for a minute and let's take a quick look at how communication has evolved in our era of instant communication.

A brief history of communicating on the internet

Human communication is extraordinarily nuanced, and the Internet age has exponentially fragmented the ways that we talk to each other. We've always had private conversations — intimate discussions between a handful of people who are engaged as participants and not silent observers. But the internet, and especially social media, has given us a new context for communication: the massively multiplayer online discussion (MMOD). I just made that term up.

When Facebook and Twitter launched in the mid-aught's, they were exciting precisely because of this novelty. Everything was public, and that was the whole point. But we've spent the last decade learning about the negative effects of MMODs.

Snapchat's launch in 2011 felt like a fresh take on social, and not just because you could finally share pictures of your genitals without risk of them being slathered all over the internet. It was also because Snapchat was designed for an intimacy that had been lost in Social 1.0. Snapchat felt more like a safe, private space between a few friends. It was more human in some way.

That same year, Facebook launched Messenger, an app that focused on private chat and went on to acquire Instagram for $1B the next year. Both Messenger and Instagram quickly "adopted" many of the features that Snapchat had pioneered, with great success.

In 2014 I was on a team at Meetup working on re-designing member-to-member communication on the platform. I remember being in a meeting with Scott Heiferman, debating the value of private messaging on Meetup. Scott's take was that all communication should be public (within a group). He argued that this would promote transparency and engagement. I argued that public-only communication wasn't enough to allow deeper bonds to form between members.I think we were both right.

I've thought a lot about that conversation over the last few years, and that balance between public and private has informed design decisions being made in the New App.

Hell is other people

Sartre couldn't have imagined Twitter or Instagram in 1943 when he closed his play No Exit with these words:

”So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!”

For a long time I thought that Sartre simply meant that people generally acted poorly towards each other. But it's something else: Sartre's character is trapped by the gaze of the Other, and this awareness alters his own behavior, alienating him and depriving him of his freedom. The knowledge of being observed not only changes our behavior, it changes who we are.

When we participate in a MMOD context, we're performing for an audience. This constricts the authenticity of our communication. Behind the intermediary of our screens, we end up with a kind of toxic brew that anyone who's spent time on social media is familiar with.

Cool story, so what?

I'm designing the New App to maximally leverage the unique value in both public and private interactions. What does that look like?

When you submit a photo for review, the algorithm will request feedback from a group of other members. Within the 24-hour review window, reviewers will submit their reviews. These reviews will not be visible to either the photographer or to the other reviewers until after the window closes. I'm hoping this feature will promote independent thought without biasing the reviewers based on other's feedback.

After the review period, all the reviews become visible to both photographer and the reviewers. The feedback is of obvious interest to the photographer, but a reviewer will also be curious to know how others reviewed the photo, and might learn something by comparing and contrasting their review against others.

In addition, the aggregate reviews become fully public to the entire network. Every member could benefit from seeing how others reviewed a photo. This layer of dynamic visibility, from private to public, is a novel mechanic that I hope will create a lot of value in the New App.

group-messaging-export
Group chat is focused around the photograph

But what about the ”Start conversation” button?

Once the review window closes and the feedback becomes public, the photographer has the option to engage more deeply with the group of reviewers by starting a conversation with the group. The review process that's just been completed is artificially constrained — on purpose — to help make reviews fun and predictable. But it's not a dialogue. By choosing to start a conversation with the group of reviewers, a new layer of potential depth is unlocked. These group conversations will be private. They won't ever be made available to anyone outside the photographer and group of reviewers. This creates a safer place that keeps the focus in the right place: on the photograph.


From my view, we've worn out the utility of the MMOD social paradigms from the last fifteen years. The quest for friends and followers and likes and view counts has certainly worn me out. The New App isn't doing anything incredibly novel, but I think it will feel different because it's been designed from the ground up with different goals.

Can we reuse old social mechanics in new ways to promote group learning? The next generation of social apps could be less about massive scale and more about massive value.

If this resonates with you or you're interested in being an early tester, make sure to subscribe to the email list.

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