A few weeks ago, Josh Miller announced that Facebook had aquired the team behind Branch and Potluck — a team responsible for two start-up experiments in online conversation (three if you count Potluck v1). Miller also shared that the team would be starting a new project: building a Branch-like conversation platform “at the scale of Facebook.”
There was no great buzz in the tech community after the announcement — Facebook just isn’t cool anymore (Creative Labs not withstanding), and Branch hasn’t been setting the world on fire either. If you were a tech journalist looking for a juicy story, this wasn’t it.
Still, I wonder what problem Facebook thinks they’ll solve with this acquisition. For one, there’s the company’s new mobile strategy — maybe Branch will join the ranks of Facebook’s growing mobile portfolio. But if that were the case, Facebook could have built their own fast-follower (i.e. copycat) product, just as they did with Camera, Poke, Messenger, and now Paper.
No, for Facebook, the problem must go deeper. Why would they pay $15 million for outside talent, unless they need a battle-hardened team right away?
It’s the comments, stupid
My guess is that Facebook acquired the Branch team to help reinvent the comment box attached to every post on the network. You see, conversations on Facebook have grown stale over the last few years. Privacy concerns and growth in other social networks combined to erode the lead Facebook’s commenting system once had, leaving Facebook with comments that are mostly low quality (and mostly responding to brand posts).
If commenting is a social pillar that needs to be reinforced, it won’t be long before posts (links, photos, videos) follow, because comments, more than a like, are a reinforcing signal to posters that their content was worthy — that it was appreciated.
Look through the posts in your Newsfeed (and then check Instagram for a comparison). You’ll be surprised at how little people actually comment on things these days (and these are the high engagement posts that EdgeRank surfaces). The simple comment has failed to evolve. Facebook comments have become an endangered species.
Branch was a simple product with a straightforward premise. A person could start, and host a conversation based on any topic, video, or link they found to be interesting (sound familiar?). They’d share a link to invite other people, and, over time, contributors would add their comments to a threaded chat. Each chat thread began with a specific purpose or topic, and the creator could close the thread when the conversation was complete. Chat threads could also be shared as social objects in their own right.
Despite its simplicity, Branch was a robust tool, especially for journalists and Internet celebrities with access to a large audience. It was used by this group to host digital panels, debates, and discussions of all sorts, and the features Branch included — chat invitations, highlights, and embeddable chats — played to this strength.
The other difference between Branch and Facebook’s comment box was a simple one. Branch had a larger text input field, which encouraged more considered responses from its users. In other words, the conversation was deeper.
On the other hand, Branch never solved the mainstream market. It was difficult to start new conversations on Branch without first having access to a large audience. Now, this might be an area where Facebook’s scale could help a new product to succeed, but I’m not optimistic. Facebook doesn’t have the best track record building outside their core experience.
Facebook + Branch = ???
A new Branch-like product, built on Facebook’s network, would be a valuable tool for brands and publishers. They already have an audience, and they’re constantly looking for ways to keep people engaged. But building a new tool for this group won’t solve Facebook’s problem with mainstream users (although it may boost the stock price in the short term).
By the same token, building a new mobile app based on the idea of a Branch-like experience would be misguided. You can’t fortify the castle walls while people are starving inside. Public opinion is shifting. The decline of comments signals a change in how people interact on the network. How will Facebook (and Branch) respond?