Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

The Argument Machine

Say you’re a supervillian. Your goal is not to take over the world, but to create more unpleasantness. So you set out to create a device that would ensnare normal, rational people and turn them into ranting lunatics. What would your Argument Machine look like? How would it work?

(Note that I mean “argument” not in terms of academic debate, which is healthy, but in the everyday “unproductive, unpleasant, angry fight” sense of the word.)

First, the machine would have to be online, so it could reach the maximum amount of people with the least amount of construction. People feel protected online, like they do in cars, so they’re more willing to fight. But it shouldn’t be just a website. It would also have to be an app on all the major platforms for maximum reach.

All arguments have a beginning, so we’ll create a tool for people to post their thoughts. This should be as easy as possible, so people do it without thinking too deeply. Forethought is the enemy of a nasty argument.

Arguments tend to fizzle out quickly if the participants are able to make a fully fleshed-out thought, so we’ll limit every thought to a ridiculously small size, say 140 characters. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s also the root of misunderstandings.

We’ll then take those short thoughts and present them immediately to the audience, without any ability to edit them after the fact. We’ll even create a “reply” affordance that seems like it’s private, but we’ll actually show the reply publicly. Nothing creates a fight faster than in-group language overheard by the out-group.

To maximize negative reactions, we’ll design the presentation of these short thoughts to create annoyance. Tests have shown that information coming in too fast can create anger and defensiveness, just like someone interrupting you in real life, so we’ll make everything as fast and interruptive as possible. We’ll also pack the app with lots of notifications, so we can make people’s pockets buzz every time someone mentions them. Just like the electric shocks we used on those lab rats.

If someone isn’t receiving enough of these short thoughts to overwhelm them, then we’ll blanket them with suggestions of other people they should be hearing from, to encourage all new members to quickly reach an overwhelmed state.

With enough people, and enough short thoughts, arguments are sure to occur. When they do, we’ll add heat to them by making sure everyone can see the individual thoughts outside of the argument’s participants. Nothing like a hooting crowd to make a bad situation worse. We’ll even add a tool to allow others to repeat the thoughts to a wider network (out of context, of course). The more people who pile in, the longer the argument will last, the more people will participate.

If everything goes well, the mainstream media will start monitoring these thoughts, so that they can embarrass famous people when they speak out of turn. We’ll even create a way for people to embed these thoughts on other sites so that they remain even after the original poster deletes them. Gotcha!

Nothing is better at creating new arguments than other arguments, so once we reach a critical mass, avoiding arguments will be impossible. Now all we have to do is sit back and practice our supervillian laugh. And maybe go public.


I think you get my point by now. Yes, I’m talking about Twitter.

I’m not saying that Twitter was designed to create arguments. I’m just saying that, if you set out to create an Argument Machine, it’d come out looking a lot like Twitter.

I think Twitter is awesome. As of today, I’ve tweeted more than 16,000 times. It’s the community tool I use more than any other. But with Twitter preparing to IPO and monetize all of us, I worry about the health of the community the tool produces.

If Twitter cared about avoiding arguments, there are so many things they could do: remove the outdated character limit, let us edit tweets, create progressive circles of privacy, don’t let retweets out of our networks, slow the whole thing down, and encourage smaller communities. But they’re not going to do any of those things because the financial pressure points in exactly the opposite direction: more users, more tweets, faster and faster. Who cares if they’re fighting?

Well, I do. I want Twitter to succeed. But every time I see some innocuous tweet spawn another long, bile-filled thread of awfulness, I become less interested in tweeting. I know, arguments will always happen, online and off. But the design of the tools we use can encourage or inhibit this human tendency, and I’m afraid Twitter is falling very far into the “encourage argument” side of things. And I’m not alone.

Where will we go when we all tire of getting yelled at on Twitter? What would a tool designed to create a harmonious exchange of interests and ideas even look like? I’m confident we’ll find out eventually, but I seriously doubt its logo will be a little blue bird.


This post also appears on Medium.

The Right Words in the Right Order

Or: I have some awesome job news.

You learn things when you start a company. When I cofounded 8020, I learned to ask the difficult questions. When I cofounded JPG Magazine with my wife, I learned how important it was for everyone to be in charge of something. And when I founded Cute-Fight, I learned … a lot.

Cute-Fight taught me that there’s a certain skill set required to raise venture capital, and it’s not one I really want. It taught me that I really do like managing people, especially when they’re as talented as that team. It taught me that running a startup is mostly about setting priorities and convincing people that they’re the right ones.

But most of all, running Cute-Fight reminded me of some things I already knew but had gotten lost somewhere along the way. It reminded me that I really love making products for specific communities, nurturing the garden, and seeing what blooms. And it reminded me that I really like writing.

At Cute-Fight, with the design, illustration, and engineering all in excellent hands, I did whatever was left over. And most of what was left over was writing. Writing the newsletter, responding to member emails, crafting every word that appeared on the website.

It’s funny that a guy with a journalism degree and 20 years of work in and around the publishing industry should have to rediscover his love of writing, but there you go. I think it just got buried under lofty terms like “experience design” and “content strategy” and “community management.” All those things, at their core, are about putting the right words in the right order.

So when it became clear that Cute-Fight was not going to pay my bills, and, worse, that I had gone into debt chasing the startup dream, I started looking for work with increasing desperation. I made some mistakes in this process. Mistakes I feel bad about now. Suffice to say, it was a rough time. But this is a story with a happy ending.


A couple years ago, Nik and Tony started a company called Tonx. The idea was simple: get the best coffee beans from all over the world, expertly roast them, and mail them to subscribers every two weeks.

I’d been a Tonx subscriber since the start, and Nik and Tony had become internet friends. Tonx was the first company to sponsor a Cute-Fight venue, and while we were working that out, I was impressed with how smart, generous, and passionate they were.

In a couple visits to San Francisco, Nik and Tony told me about their plans for the future of the company. It hit me in a flash: Tonx is a biweekly magazine published in bean form. What JPG Magazine was to photography, Tonx is to coffee.

“What you need,” I said excitedly, “is someone who can write and edit, with experience in publishing and community building.” They both smiled and asked me if I knew anyone like that. Only then did it sink in that they were offering me a job.


I’ve been working as Tonx’s Editor in Chief for a couple months now, and it’s been a joy. It’s all the parts of what I loved about doing Cute-Fight – writing, community, product – with an amazing team of engineers, coffee pros, and a rapidly growing member base of devoted (and caffeinated) customers.

Coffee maintains a special place in creative culture. When I think back to my happiest moments, coffee was always nearby. It’s a daily morning ritual that I share with millions of other people. It’s a connective thread that ties our lives together. With such a hot, emotional product, there’s no end to the collaborative projects we could do.

tonxSo we’ve got plans. Big plans. I can’t go into detail yet, but if you know me and my work, you may have a general idea. You can see the humble beginnings in The Frequency, where we’re adding weekly travelogues, reviews, and photo essays – not just about coffee but coffee culture at large. They’re the right words, in the right order, as much as we can.

One of the most challenging things about being a startup CEO that nobody tells you is that, when it’s over, it’s terrifying to go back to being someone else’s employee, working on someone else’s vision. Once you sit in the big chair, every other chair feels too small.

My only advice for someone in that situation is this: use the experience to figure out which parts are required for your happiness and try to find that somewhere else. If you’re extremely lucky, you’ll find a team of talented people working on something awesome who need someone in exactly that role. I was that kind of lucky and I’m so incredibly grateful I can’t even describe it.

If you love coffee, sign up for Tonx. You won’t regret it. And I’ll be on the other end of that line with the rest of the team, working on some exciting stuff for you.

Ever forward!

Cute-Fight Hangs Up Its Gloves

Cute-Fight Gloves, illustration by Christ BishopAbout a year ago, when I introduced Cute-Fight, I shared the story of telling my dad about it. He asked if people would really fight each other’s pets to see who’s cutest. I ended the post with, “We’ll see.” Now I know the answer.

Yes, they would.

In the year since Cute-Fight started, first in private alpha and then in public December, about 6,000 brave souls became members, created 3,000 fighter profiles, uploaded 15,000 photos, fought 20,000 fights, which collected over 150,000 votes.

These are respectable numbers, and I’m proud of them. If I could buy every one of those members a beer, I would.

But they’re not the kind of numbers investors or sponsors got excited about. Investors wanted to see a growth curve that looked like Twitter year three, but ours looked like Twitter year one. And while a few awesome sponsors came on board to create venues, the activity was just not enough for me to sell. I dropped the prices and added more time for us to hit the numbers I promised, ultimately giving them value for their money, but it was clear the business model wasn’t working.

In March, with the small amount of friends and family money gone, my savings dry, and my debt growing, I had to stop paying the team. To their credit, and with my everlasting thanks, they kept on working as long as they could. But a few months ago, we all realized we’d have to look elsewhere for income.

There are startup hero stories aplenty in San Francisco. Tales of founders going against the odds, persevering in the face of obscurity, and then finally being rewarded with fame and fortune. But what they don’t tell you is that 99% of those stories end with the business shutting down and the founder moving away or getting a job or worse. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. And though it pains me to say it, Cute-Fight is one of those 99%. It didn’t work as a business.

So, dad, yes, people will do that. Just not enough of them.

So what now? Cute-Fight will stay online, as it is, for now. It still works, it’s still fun, and it’s still being used by its small community. It doesn’t cost a ton of money to host, and I don’t want to see all that hard work just go offline. Plus, I can’t help but hope the game will see slow and steady growth. Maybe without the pressure of fundraising, it can grow at its own rate. But we’re not actively working on it anymore, and if something breaks that I can’t fix I’ll have to just take it down.

The biggest bummer for me is all the things we had planned that we never got to do. For posterity, here’s the top of the list.

  • Retired Champions – Sadly, sometimes pets die. We had a plan to handle this. The manager would “retire” the fighter. All retired fighters were listed as champions and got a special profile and their photo on the wall of honor.
  • Themed Fights – Instead of just fighting to see who’s cutest, managers could challenge each other for battles on other themes – laziest dog, scariest cat, best driver, anything.
  • Parades – We had sketched out other games that were more collaborative. My favorite was parades, which were collections of photos on a theme, the page animating to show the photos moving down a street.
  • Teams – You could band together with all your favorite fighters and form a team. Which of course leads to…
  • Brackets – Organized events with sponsored prizes where one fighter could be proclaimed champion. The Superbowl of Cute.
  • Physical products – Real trophies for winners, print-on-demand books and posters, dog shirts and cat collar charms.

And then there’s all the obvious stuff we just never got to. A weekly activity mail. Notifications of comments on the homepage. Better tools for fans and people without pets. Better tools for adoption agencies. And on and on.

In the end, being a startup founder is about prioritizing stuff. I think I set good priorities, but there’s always that nagging feeling that any one of those things might have lit a match that led to a bigger bang. The annoying thing is not knowing.

The last few months have been some of the most depressing of my entire career. Having something you believe in so deeply, something you convinced your friends and family to invest their time and money in, something you spend every waking hour thinking about, and watching it flounder is like pounding your head into a mirror. It hurts, it shatters your vision, and you have no one to blame but yourself.

I think next time I might pay a little closer attention to my dad’s early questions.

The good news is that I’m coming out the other end of it now, and I have something I’m really excited to tell you about. More on that soon.

For now, I just want to thank the core team, Devin Hayes, James Goode, and Chris Bishop. You guys turned a silly idea into the funnest, weirdest, most joyful thing I’ve ever worked on. I can’t wait until we all get to work together again. (And if anyone out there is looking for the best designer/frontend coder I’ve ever worked with, go see James. He’s got some time open now.)

I also want to thank Patrick Mahoney of the SF MusicTech Fund for his early and astonishing support. I’ll never forget it. I’ll also never forget the people who helped with their advice and introductions, especially Chris Tacy and Janice Fraser. And, of course, thanks to my wonderful wife, Heather Champ, who loved and supported me all the way through.

Special thanks to our sponsors, Shibashiba, Twitterrific, and Tonx for their support. We couldn’t have done it without you. I heartily recommend you give them your money.

And finally, I want to thank every one of our awesome members. We built this for you and we’re so glad you liked it. Meeting your pets and seeing your photos was the best part of this whole adventure. I’m truly grateful for your participation.

Ever forward,

— Derek

How To Apologize Online

Hint: Do it like Kickstarter, not Paula Deen.

If you’re human, eventually you’ll have to apologize for something. How you communicate that apology will say more about you, your company, and your community than anything else.

Two high profile apologies hit the web today, one from Kickstarter and the other from Paula Deen. Without getting into the specifics of what they were each apologizing for, they make for two fascinating case studies in how to apologize online.

(Yes, Kickstarter is a company and Paula Deen is a person, but in this context, they’re both corporations with angry communities, and their businesses hang in the balance.)

With today’s examples in mind, here’s the Fertile Medium recipe for apologizing online.

Step 1: Restate the problem.

I know, you’re embarrassed. You probably don’t want to remind everyone of the thing that pissed them off. But apologies online take on a life of their own, bringing in people who are unfamiliar with the details. Restating the problem not only gets everyone on the same page, it also shows that you understand what you did wrong.

Kickstarter begins their post with a brief summation of what happened, complete with links so that the interested reader can follow up for more information. Paula Deen skips this step, only referring to “inappropriate language,” leaving those unfamiliar with the situation to imagine the worst.

Step 2: Own it.

Before you do anything else, prove that you know what you did. This shows that you’re not just apologizing because someone told you that you have to – you’re apologizing because you have genuine remorse.

Kickstarter says, in a paragraph all by itself, “We were wrong.” It’s a sharp, frank admission. Paula Deen says she “made plenty of mistakes along the way” but doesn’t say if she thinks this was one of them. She says “I apologize,” but never simply says “I was wrong.”

Step 3: Say you’re sorry.

Now that you’ve demonstrated your understanding of the situation, your apology will have more meaning. Never, ever follow the word “sorry” with the word “if” – as in: “I’m sorry if you’re offended.” That only shows that you don’t really mean it.(Nobody did this here, I just hate that.)

Both Kickstarter and Paula Deen did this part, but it was basically all Paula Deen did, which is why her apology has so little weight.

Step 4: Explain what went wrong.

This is a tricky maneuver. Do it right and your explanation will add valuable details that help the reader better understand your perspective. Do it wrong and it’ll sound like defensiveness.

Kickstarter did this part very well. They explain why they acted when they did, and shared more detail about their internal process. I especially like that they admitted that they’re “biased towards creators.” As a platform for creation, of course they are.

Paula Deen didn’t do this at all. She could have said, “You know, I grew up in Georgia in the ’50s and let me tell you, I heard some horrifying stuff. I’m sad to say, some of that language and some of those jokes got stuck in my head. I’m ashamed that I repeated them.”

Explaining what went wrong doesn’t mean excusing it. But, if handled correctly, it can serve to humanize the apologizer.

Step 5: Make a vow.

Explaining what happened shows you understand the past, making a vow shows you’ve thought about the future. Make a promise to not repeat this mistake. Do it at a permanent URL and be clear about what you’re promising. You’ll be judged by how you keep your word.

Kickstarter also did this with aplomb. They took direct action, explained why, provided proof, and changed their guidelines to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Paula Deen … didn’t. She apologized in multiple videos, some of which kept disappearing throughout the day, adding an unnecessary layer of aggravation to the whole ordeal.

Step 6: Make amends.

Prove you get it.

Apologizing isn’t just about words, it’s about deeds. Do something to prove that you understand the magnitude of your mistake.

In Kickstarter’s case, they made a large donation to a nonprofit that’s directly related to the issue at hand. They put more money into the nonprofit than was involved in the mistake. This shows they understand the value of their community goodwill.

Paula Deen, again, didn’t do anything of the sort.

Step 7: Apologize again.

Apologies don’t have a 1:1 ratio with mistakes. You may have to apologize more than once. Don’t like apologizing? Pick a career that doesn’t involve other people. Apologize and keep apologizing as long as you have to.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that Kickstarter apologized in text and Paula Deen did it in a video. While this could be because her primary relationship with her audience is in video, it also may have been an attempt to humanize her.

Apologies via video is a dangerous strategy. If the video is too polished (as her first one was), it can seem inauthentic. If the video is too amateur (as the second and third ones were), it looks like you’re not taking it seriously. Perhaps, if she’d written it instead, she could have given it a bit more thought. Changing her usual medium from video to text would have shown a degree of consideration that the videos didn’t.

Mistakes are inevitable. How you respond is what defines you. Use the apology opportunity to reinforce your core values.

If you do it right, you’ll create a stronger bond with your community, one that will earn you the benefit of the doubt the next time you screw up.

Do it wrong and you may just lose your job.

Fertile Medium is an advice column for people who live online. Each edition tackles a topic or question from you about building social spaces online. Want to ask a question? Tweet to @fertilemedium or call (415) 286-5446 and leave a message.

Elsewhere: My Review of the New Flickr at TechHive

The new Flickr: Goodbye customers, hello ads

Flickr didn’t actually explain itself. It took away a core part of its original product (unlimited uploads), replaced it with a free version and an expensive and limited upgrade, and declared it “spectaculr,” and hoped that we’d be too distracted by big photos and purposeful misspellings to notice.

Yeah, I’m not a fan.

You made it to the bottom! You must be very good looking. Wanna go back to the top now?

Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Instagram. I’m mostly harmless. More.

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