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Branch, the buzzy startup that aspires to be the dining-room table of the internet, is offering new features intended to boost the community feel of the site. These include a personalized collection of conversations on Branch’s homepage and “profile cards” that show what someone is talking about and who they know.
If you’re unfamiliar with Branch, which will be part of the startup showcase at our paidContent Live media conference in New York on April 18, the point of the site is to make online discussions feel like the ones that take place around the kitchen table. It does this by allowing you to start a chat from anywhere on the internet, or transport an existing discussion (or screaming match) taking place on Twitter or elsewhere and continue it in on Branch. By clicking “Take it to Branch,” you transform a discussion into an invite-only forum that anyone can read but that requires the moderator’s permission to join.
Branch’s new features are intended to make the site feel more social by showing what the people you are connected to online are talking about — which will, presumably, encourage people to ask to join more conversations. Likewise, the “profile cards” may serve to make the people you see on Branch feel more accessible.
“Now you can click anyone’s name and hop around between the branches they’ve participated in and people they’ve talked to. They’re intended to help you explore the pockets of communities on Branch, not represent the user’s identity,” explained Branch founder Josh Miller by email (emphasis his). As an example, here’s the Branch “card” for my colleague, Mathew Ingram:
So what will all this do for Branch’s popularity? It’s hard to say. So far, the company has received a lot of attention because of Miller’s reputation as a wunderkind (he came up with the idea while working for Senator Diane Feinstein and dropped out of Princeton to pursue it) and because Branch is backed by the founders of Twitter and by tech media star Jonah Peretti. But it’s still not clear if Branch can break through to widespread adoption; as Ingram noted this spring, “closed” conversations reduce flame wars and trolling but also lack the freewheeling feel of the internet. Without easier on-ramps to the Branch discussions, the site may find it hard to appeal to a broader base than tech and media insiders.
One area where Branch does appear to have the potential to take off is as a forum for people to discuss sports or TV. For example, here’s a Branch discussion about the show Homeland that got a lot of traction.