Matthew Knight, strategic technologies director, Carat
Matthew Knight, strategic technologies director, Carat
A view from Matthew Knight

Think BR: I don't get Branch, and that's OK

It's too early to tell what Branch's true purpose or value is yet, and that's just fine, writes Matthew Knight, strategic technologies director, Carat.

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).

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 whether their ‘pitch’ to get involved has merit).

While 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.

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 OK.

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 OK! 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 OK, 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?" well 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 - in fact is has many - 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 OK, 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.

Matthew Knight, strategic technologies director, Carat, and tweets at @webponce