ThinkUp and What the Web Can Be

I spend so much time writing, and thinking, about technology and tech companies. And so much of it’s critical. I point the finger at how the apps and sites we build aren’t meaningful, how the systems and institutions that support them aren’t inclusive, that the process and the economics which make technology available to the world are broken, or at least problematic.

But talking about it alone isn’t going to fix it.

So for a few years, quietly, with my friend Gina Trapani, I’ve been working on trying to imagine what it would look like if it were done right. What about a simple app that just made you feel happier and smarter and maybe even pleasantly surprised when you looked at it? No FOMO, no turning friendships into a competition, and maybe even a little bit of soul?

And if I close my eyes, and picture the company that would make something like that, I can see it clearly in my head. Instead of a focus on just making something to sell to Facebook or Google, a focus on making something that a whole community could be proud of. Instead of trying to tack on a focus on ethics or responsibility after the fact, it could be baked in from the beginning. There’s no reason that we couldn’t build a company that just tells the plain truth, instead of trying to manage the truth. I can see a company I’d be proud to have my son, or Gina’s daughter, visit in 15 or 20 years and feel proud that this is the family business.

It’s a little bit terrifying. Every day I wonder, “Did I alienate too many people with those tweets, and is it going to screw up my chance of getting this new thing off the ground?” But every day I also see people saying “Even if I disagree with you, you stand for something, and I at least begrudgingly respect that.” My guess is that having some healthy amount of fear is a good sign that we’re taking on a project ambitious enough to inspire some fear.

It’s Not Lost

We used to have Internet companies we loved. This isn’t rose-tinted nostalgia about The Good Old Days; The apps were uglier, and harder to use, and less popular back then. But we rooted for the companies that made them, because we knew that the people who made Flickr, or Blogger, or Movable Type, or Upcoming, or Manila, or Delicious, or countless other early social apps really loved the web. We loved the web because it changed our lives, permanently and for the better. That is, in fact, what I was really grieving for almost a year ago when I wrote The Web We Lost.

But I was wrong. That web isn’t lost. It’s just dormant. All things move in cycles, and technology and the Internet are no exception. A magazine ad saying “Find us on Facebook” today is no more dire, no more permanent, than one saying “here’s our AOL keyword” was in 1997. In the darkest days of the dotcom bust, when people thought we were crazy to embrace these technologies, the Internet changed my life. It brought me my friends, my career, my wife. We were open to those things because we believed in what people were making, how they were making it, and why they were motivated to do so. If the Internet could have those values then, then it can certainly support these positive values now.

So today, my friend Gina and I are announcing our campaign to finish creating ThinkUp, backed by thousands of users, developers, designers, and community members who’ve been helping us iterate on this product for years. I’m asking anybody who’s found what I do here, what I’ve stood for over more than a decade of writing online, who wants to support these kinds of values and this kind of opportunity, to back us.

We want to make an app that delights you and rewards you and makes you feel good for connecting in a meaningful way with your friends or family or even strangers. We want an app that makes you want to call your mom, or to chip in on a project with your neighbor, or to offer a kind word to a stranger who just happens to share some of the same interests that you do.

And we want to prove that a company can do well by leading with its values. We’re happy to try to speak up for inclusion, or thoughtfulness, or kindness in the tech industry. But the economic systems and technological systems that support some of the worst parts of tech are not going to change because we tweet at somebody and scold them for being a jerk.

Technology will change when our greatest, most meaningful successes and the most innovative, creative products come from communities that demonstrate positive values every day. That’s what we’re going to fight for with ThinkUp. We’re not going to compromise. We know that software has values, and that the values in software shape culture itself. And we’re not shying away from that — we’re running headlong into it, crazy as that might be. But we can only do it if others are crazy enough to believe in it, too. So, will you join us?