At first, Nicole Zhu thought the invite sitting in her email inbox was spam. It was for a platform called This, and it had been sent to Zhu, a designer for Vox Media’s product team, from her sister, who also happens to work in media. “She was like, ‘Are you on This?’” Zhu recalled in a recent phone interview. “And I was like, ‘What is This?’ So she sent me an invite, and she sent me some article link about what it was. I just started using it to try it out and ended up really liking it, so I invited a couple of my friends to it too.”
The concept behind This is deceptively simple, and if you’re the kind of person it’s meant to appeal to its allure should be immediately obvious: It’s a link-sharing network where every user is only allowed to share one link per day. That’s it. There are no bells and whistles. There isn’t even a mobile app yet. Yet in the past two months since its soft launch it’s quickly catapulted to the top of the list of sites I visit daily, and I’m not alone. Some of the most prominent journalists in media, from The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates to Slate’s David Plotz to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, are among its early adopters, and thousands more are clamoring for invites once they become available.
Though the site wasn’t created to specifically service journalists, many of its earliest users work in media, most likely because the initial invites were sent out to Andrew Golis’s professional circle of friends and colleagues. And This also happens to solve a problem faced by the very people — journalists — who spend all their time staring at content feeds all day: media overload.
Golis, who was hired as an entrepreneur in residence at The Atlantic about a year and a half ago, began forming the initial ideas behind This sometime in late 2013. “I just wished that I could get this email from Ta-Nehisi Coates every night that just said ‘this’ with a link,” he said. “That kind of stuck in my brain, and we said, ‘Oh why don’t we build a whole site based on that idea?”
Soon after Golis joined The Atlantic, Gabriel Snyder, the editor of The Wire, stepped down, and so Golis quickly took over as a kind of general manager of the site. But as soon as The Atlantic hired a new editor for The Wire (which would eventually go on to shut down), Golis was able to start working with a development team on an early version of This. “We built a half prototype that we launched in late June,” he said. “And we onboarded about 300 people to kind of test it and see if this makes sense.” This version was fairly rudimentary; users couldn’t follow each other or engage with the links other than by clicking on them. “It was literally to test out whether it would be a fun thing to share one thing a day.”
A soft-launch version of the platform debuted in November, but if you weren’t on Golis’s initial distribution list, you needed to score an invite from someone already on it if you wanted to join. After reading a piece in PandoDaily that explained its core concept, I immediately grasped its appeal and hunted down Golis’s email address so I could obtain an invite. While I’ve always loved Twitter and Facebook as tools for surfacing good content, I’ve often been frustrated by the amount of noise you have to wade through on those networks. As someone who doesn’t watch televised sports, I’ve found Twitter to be unbearable to read on big game nights, and it can often be redundant whenever there’s a piece of breaking news that everyone in my feed feels the need to tweet out.
As soon as you join This and begin following other users, you’re immediately struck not only by how few posts there are — you can easily peruse all the posts from the people you follow in a few minutes — but how high-quality the linked-to content is. “What I really liked about This is there’s an end to that stream,” said Zhu. “Because people only share a link a day, you know the quality is going to be higher, and you know it’ll be worth your while.” And because the site’s main focus is sending you to content outside of it, there’s less emphasis on the celebrity of those who use it. “I feel like on Twitter it’s everybody follow this person because they’re really big in this field and I want to hear what they say. On This, it’s more about the content itself rather than the person who’s sharing it.”
Daniel Victor, a staff editor for the New York Times, noticed right away the absence of what he called “commodity news” on This. Because you’re only allowed one link per day, you’re not going to waste it on some breaking news item that you know everyone already saw elsewhere. “For me, This is a way to kind of signify that something is actually meaningful,” he said. In some ways, we’re seeing a kind of arms race as news organizations rush to aggregate every viral video or news item, and it’s quickly clogging up the social media streams of their readers. “More and more the problem is going to be that the noise gets frustrating for readers, and they’re going to seek out a way to get a greater signal without having to deal with all that crap. So this is one way out of that that could potentially be exciting.”
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Golis confirmed that he’s seen “almost no breaking news on the site.” Instead, it’s becoming what he calls a “magazine experience.” “It’s the place where late at night you say, ‘OK, I want to look at something nice, I want to look at something beautiful, where’s my first stop?’ By removing the breaking news from that experience, you get not just a higher quality but a different set of media.”
Of course many of those late-night wine drinkers won’t want to lean back on their couches with their laptops, but rather will whip out their phones and tablets, and right now This, while not exactly anathema to mobile, has very limited use outside of the desktop. Not only does it not have a mobile app, but sharing links on mobile is nearly impossible. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, both of which provide a status bar you can write in and paste links to, This requires you to drag a button to your browser’s bookmarks section. When you’re reading an article you want to share on This, you click on that button and an interstitial screen pops up allowing you to choose a thumbnail image, the headline, the author’s name, and a few words to describe the content. “I have a lot of friends that I got to sign up, but they couldn’t figure out how to get the bookmarklet going, and then they sort of just gave up,” said Zhu. “So I think that onboarding process and the time it takes to figure out how it works should come down.”
I pointed out to Golis that this approach seemed a little anachronistic at a time when nearly every new internet startup launches with a mobile-first platform. “All the decisions about how to approach it were premised on what is the most flexible and inexpensive way to test the idea,” he said. “There are a few problems that go with launching something as an app. One is you live and die by the Apple App Store. Secondly, it’s very hard to originate sharing inside of a mobile app. There’s tons of resharing inside mobile apps, but if you look at Tumblr, Pinterest and Twitter, a lot of the original sharing has to start somewhere else, because it’s so hard to copy a link, leave the app, go into another app, and then paste it.”
There’s also the nightly newsletter, which serves as an easy way to access and digest the most interesting content shared on This. It’s hand-curated by Golis; sometimes it consists of the most-shared links on This (he’ll often provide shout-outs to those who shared a link, linking back to their profile), other times it’s based on his own personal tastes. “Eventually what we’ll do is make that email a custom product for people,” he said. “So in addition to the editor’s picks there will be a nightly email with links shared by the people you follow. I’m not naive about the fact that people caring what I think is interesting doesn’t scale beyond a certain point because I’m one guy with certain interests, and those interests won’t be shared by everyone.”
But for now, with the current close-knit community, the system seems to be working. I’ve found no shortage of content on the site when I log on, which means new users aren’t just signing up to test it out and then never coming back. Golis said the site currently has around 4,800 users — not exactly Facebook numbers, but then again he’s only been slowly handing out invites. And it does seem that those who are on the site have an outsized influence compared to the general public. “At one point I did a back of the envelope calculation of the total Twitter followers that the then-2500 members of the site had, and it was like over 30 million.”
As for what lies ahead, Golis plans to continue tweaking the design and, yes, eventually releasing a mobile app version. He’ll also be courting investors; though The Atlantic currently owns This, the plan all along was for him to go and raise money in order to scale the platform. The question is whether there’s a mass market for what it offers or if it’ll always remain a niche product for journalists and other content creators. I asked Golis to guess at a potential audience size.
“We don’t know what the number is. I think it is probably not 4 billion people. I have meetings with VCs who basically think mass [reach] and dumb is the only model, and that just feels disheartening and wrong to me. It feels to me like we’re in this moment where there is a lot of mass quality — there’s a lot of stuff that is just fantastically good that reaches millions of people and there are a lot of people who want to find the best content and are consuming really good media right now. Who knows how to put an exact number on it, but we have really big ambitions to prove there are millions of people who would like to find extremely high quality media.”
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Image via Greg Peverill-Conti