Online Is Where We Go to Find Ourselves Online

Why co-founder Charles Broskoski will never let AI, ads, or algorithms take away from “the thing” that does.

Text Willa Köerner
Published 11 Aug 2023

In aggregate, the digital platforms of the Web2 era seem dead set on manipulating our minds, harvesting our data, and commodifying our interactions by any means necessary. But then there’s, the darling, designer-first platform that self-describes as “a more mindful space where you can structure your ideas and build new forms of knowledge together.”

In many ways, stands alone as a model for a different kind of social platform. This is by design, of course. Co-founder and artist Charles Broskoski has been a friend of mine for a while, and as the platform’s frontman, I can say with certainty that he’s the real deal in terms of wanting what’s best for and for the artists, designers, and students who devotedly use it. For the most part, that means keeping the platform as simple as possible, and warding off any opportunists who might suggest bringing AI, algorithms, or adtech into the mix.

Why don’t more platforms come at things with such a refreshingly ethical, community-first approach? Likely, it’s due to a cocktail of issues—business-driven founders needing startup money, investors wanting a return on their investments, and an eventual board needing to see consistent profits, baby! The cycle of venture capitalism is vicious and once a company begins to inflate, there’s often no turning back.

That’s why is so refreshing, and so noteworthy. At every turn, it exemplifies this sense of generative generosity and thoughtful, user-first design. Built as a place to think, gather, reflect, and build bridges between ideas alongside others doing the same, it’s one of the only digital spaces where my mind feels enriched instead of deadened; where I feel creatively productive instead of creatively drained. Imagine if more platforms made us feel this way. What could we accomplish with pervasive digital design that inspired mindfulness, critical thinking, intellectualism, and collaboration?

As we move into the internet’s next iteration, there’s a lot to learn from’s approach—both in terms of how the platform is designed, as well as how it’s become financially sustainable without selling out any of its core ideals. From being directly funded by its users, to publishing all of its financial data transparently on their website, has found a way to make a community-first model work. Technologists, take note: The move-fast-and-break-things-while-commodifying-your-users way isn’t the only way, and proves it.

In the below interview, I speak with Broskoski about how the platform got started, why it’s still going, his thoughts on becoming a DAO, and what it’ll take to keep around for 100 more years—because yes, users can breathe easy. This platform isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Photo: Peter McCain

Willa Köerner:’s almost been around for 12 years. Is there a secret to your longevity?

Charles Broskoski: The secret is just that we started because we were interested in the thing that it does, and because we needed it.

Before, there’s no way that I would’ve said, “I’m going to start a startup.” I’m not naturally entrepreneurial, and never thought of solely as a great business idea. We simply needed the thing, and wanted it in our own lives.

As for the community, we wanted more of that in our lives, too. This idea of meeting people who become important in your life, and then also coming across information that becomes important to your life—and specifically, the combination of those things, where you’re meeting the people who can lead you to important information—that process felt meaningful, and was something we wanted to codify.

WK: was born out of this desire to create a platform that helped you find people through information, and vice versa. That’s essentially the thing that does, plus enabling you to learn more about yourself through the information you collect.

CB: It took a second to orient it in that direction, but yes. Initially, John Michael Boling, Damon Zucconi, and I—some of the original people who worked on—all met each other through this platform called essentially enabled us to do two things: 1) see a trajectory of what we were interested in, plus how those things led into other things, and 2) see the other people who were interested in those same things. That felt like a breakthrough way to meet other people through what we were essentially just doing for ourselves.

Then Yahoo bought We were all just like, “We’re done, I guess.” But then John Michael said, “We should just make our own version of this.”

WK: Don’t you think that actually is entrepreneurial? Because you started a thing together, and you figured out how to make it work, and how to keep it going.

CB: itself is what drives me to be entrepreneurial, in order to make it more resilient. But technically, there’s nothing all that special about Everything about it that’s good is contextual, and related to the people who use it. The framing does something to attract a certain type of person, but it’s those people who keep the platform thriving.

Overall, there’s nothing that strategic about it. It’s just that we’ve consistently stayed interested in the thing that does, as has our community.

WK: It’s nice that you’re not trying to overdesign it or over-complicate it. It’s just functional, which is actually kind of a radical approach for a digital platform.

CB: For us, it’s been important to foreground what people are doing on, i.e. the thing. “Organizing” is not the word that I usually use when I describe that action, but when other people make software that is about organizing, a large part of the UI and UX design tends to attempt to remove friction.

For a lot of developers or people who are building these kinds of businesses, in their mind, the friction is happening when you’re deciding where something belongs—i.e. when you see a piece of information and ask yourself, “Where does it go?” For them, that friction is something to minimize. But to us, removing that friction would be detrimental, because you’d stop having a relationship to the information you’re working with.

That’s why we can’t have personalized algorithms or AI tagging. If you take away the human element of manually giving context to information, then you’re taking away the moment when a person decides that something is important—which is the whole point of

Photo: Peter McCain

WK: So much of the internet now is designed to be as frictionless as possible, but maybe the friction is where you find yourself.

CB: It’s such a slippery thing because, on the flip side, you can also feel like that activity of collecting ephemeral information can also become like hoarding, or like you’re just going to an endless store and grabbing a bunch of random shit. The hard part is coming to terms with what you’re collecting, and why. It’s an individualized radar, and it takes a little consideration. It’s asking, “Why that person? Why that song? Why that book? What is the thing that is actually hooking me in here? Why is this meaningful to me?”

WK: Do you think helps you find the meaning behind the urge to seek, collect, and sort?

CB: I don’t think itself does the work. Humans are the ones finding the meaning. is just a place where that can happen. But that’s why, as a platform, we shouldn’t do too much. We can set the stage for it to happen, but we can’t do the thing for a person.

WK: I remember having a conversation with you maybe a year or two ago, where you were trying to figure out how to introduce the paid membership model to You were like, “If we could just get to 50,000 dollars monthly revenue, then we would be sustainable.” According to your website, you’re now at nearly 70,000 dollars in monthly revenue, so you did it— is now sustainable?

CB: Yeah, we got there. Now that we’re at about 70,000 dollars in revenue a month, we’ve been able to hire a senior engineer. But it’s so funny how you always just want a little bit more. Every time we reach a goal, I’m wondering, “What’s the next step after this?”

We don’t need to get gigantic, but we do want it to be around for a long time. I like to think about how we can ensure is around for 100 more years. What would that look like? Someone has to take over eventually. And there has to be enough structure in place that that’s not a crazy proposition.

WK: You mean that at some point, to keep going, it has to transfer from being a personal project or a company that’s really tied to you individually, into something that would make sense for other people to run?

CB: Yeah. I’m not about to retire or anything. I’m talking about decades from now. But thinking in those terms, we’ve already been around for 12 years—why wouldn’t we be around for 30, 50, or 100 more?

WK: Nobody really thinks about platforms in terms of decades, or in terms of human life spans.’s model is appealing to me because of its human scale. The paid membership model adds another layer to that, where your community of users are all directly chipping in to keep going. Not many other platforms ask their users to pay directly, instead opting to capture their data and sell that instead. This feels like a more honest approach, but it’s still so different from what people are used to. Was it scary to ask your community to pay?

CB: Yeah, it was scary. We experimented with various models based around this idea of a “premium” paid account vs. a “free” account, but none of them worked well enough early on. Eventually we came to the conclusion that the best way is just to have a limit on using for free, where it ends up working like a free trial.

We recently raised our prices for the first time ever and before we did, we ran a survey to ask our community for their thoughts on pricing—what do you think is fair? What’s the highest you would pay for What do you think is too cheap? At the end of it, we added an empty text field asking, “Is there anything else you want to say?” The sheer volume of super supportive responses was wild. It just felt like, “We’re so lucky to be in this position, where our community is willing to support us even though what we’re doing must seem so annoying.”

We’ve already been around for 12 years—why wouldn’t we be around for 30, 50, or 100 more? What would that look like?

WK: That’s a good reminder that it’s always good to talk to your community. We all can assume the worst of what’s going to happen when we don’t get constant validation that people value what we’re doing.

CB: Yeah, that’s 100% true. Most of the people who had critiques weren’t focused on functionality or pricing; it was like, “ is slow for me sometimes.” And we’re like, “Great. That’s the kind of thing that we also want to address.” As grows, we’re really focused on infrastructure, resilience, and just on making what’s already there better.

We also try to make as accessible as possible. We have a lot of students, so we offer student pricing, and then we have people who are living in countries that have a really unfavorable exchange rate and often, we’ll give them the student rate. We work with people. When someone writes in, it’s just me or Daniel [Pianetti, co-founder] answering. It’s like a mom-and-pop shop.

WK: You have a lot of stans in the Web3 space, even though hasn’t done anything with decentralization or blockchain yet. Do you ever think about moving in that direction?

CB: Web3 is opening up conversations in a lot of areas that we’re interested in, but how those types of technologies get integrated into will ultimately be a thing that’s community decides.

We did an equity crowdfunding round in 2018, because the idea of letting anyone invest in was appealing. Since catching this co-ownership bug, we’ve thought it would be nice to keep pushing in that direction. Then when the DAO craze was kicking off, we were like, “This is becoming a thing. What is the legality of this?” Unfortunately, when it comes to enacting co-ownership without it being a tax liability—and without it being overly burdensome bureaucratically—it can get tricky. We’re still interested in it, but it’s such a long conversation. We were part of a cohort of people working with this collective called Exit to Community. There are no common playbooks for this stuff, but we continue to keep up with it, and talk to lawyers about how it could eventually look.

WK: Have you been approached by other companies trying to buy

CB: Not really. I think the way that those things start is by companies edging in by proposing a partnership. So, there have been some larger companies that have tried to do partnerships with us, but most of the time it just hasn’t felt right.

Other people have asked that question, “Oh, you must get hit up by investors.” But is one of those things where the people who use it are really into it, but if you’re not using it, you probably wouldn’t get it. It’s not for everyone.

WK: Do you think this disinterest in mass appeal, and the fact that you’re not always trying to scale up, makes inherently anti-capitalist?

CB: Well, no. But it reminds me how differently creative people approach the idea of “running a business.” In the few times when I’ve done little presentations in my friends’ classes that are typically at art and design schools, I tend to get asked, “What should I do? Should I be a designer? Should I be an artist?” And I’m always like, “Creative people should start businesses.” We have a very limited conception of the type of person who starts a business, especially tech businesses.

I mean, I understand why this is the case. The creative act is hard enough without having to deal with all the pragmatic, weird things around financializing it. But running a business can be a very different application of creativity. And just generally, there should be more types of people trying to make software and platforms—especially social networks.

It’s very clear that social networks play a large role in how people perceive reality now. And if it’s always this single type of person who is making these spaces, then that singular perspective is going to keep driving us in one direction.

Photo: Peter McCain

WK: I feel like a lot of people have given up the idea of launching a social platform because the smaller, more visible ones tend to rise in popularity but then quickly disappear, which perhaps signals failure. But that’s only a real “failure” if the metric for success is becoming as massive, pervasive, and long-lasting as Facebook or Twitter. But that shouldn’t be the metric, really.

CB: I think of Elliott Cost’s platforms, like Special Fish and Gossip’s Café. These are super small-scale social networks, and they’re both very particular in terms of their perspective and orientation. I’m not even sure what the state of development or ambition is for either of them. But the time I’ve spent on them has been nice, and it’s cool to see someone just messing around with what shapes social platforms can take.

WK: Social platforms that exist to serve a real purpose, or as an artist project—rather than to make money—feel like public services almost, like a public library or a park. It’s so nice to be in a digital space that isn’t full of ads, and that feels like no one owns it.

CB: With regards to it feeling like no one owns it, that’s on purpose. I’ve come to see as an organism. We can steer it, and we can push things in certain directions, but anytime we’ve ever tried something that felt like too much, it has never worked. When we do things that align with the direction that it’s already going, that stuff is always good.

WK: I like the idea of being its own organism, perhaps with its own soul.

CB: Actually, in the early days, our funder had multiple psychics on retainer who referred to as an “entity.” They would lead us through these cleansing exercises to help us deepen our relationships with the entity. [Laughs]

There was a specific moment with myself, John Michael Boling, Damon Zucconi, and Dena Yago, where we had this discussion about whether we would use if we weren’t being paid to work on it. At that point we agreed that we wouldn’t. In that moment we asked, "What would it have to look like for us to actually be into it?"

That’s when the whole thing shifted in a different direction. At that point, we took on a sense of emotional ownership. Personally, it needed to be something that I honestly cared about—not just the idea of the thing feeling interesting, or like it had business potential.

That day was when it changed. Now, the name of our Delaware C Corp—the organization that technically owns—is “When It Changed,” which partially refers to that moment.

WK: I love that. Were there any other names that itself was almost called?

CB: Actually, yes. We almost called it The Field.

WK: That’s not bad.

CB: It’s not bad, but it’s no “”

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