The making of the social network

There once was an app called called Readmill. For a brief time, it was the best literature reading and social app. You stored and read books there, like a Kindle (although, only in the open ePub format). You could highlight sections in the book, and your friends could like, or comment on the quotes. You could sum up the book at the end. It was rather like a well-designed GoodReads mashed-up with a Kindle app that cared deeply about typography.

Like many good things in the digital world, Readmill didn't last. They shut it down in March of 2014. I didn't use it all the time, but it was, to this day, the only digital reading experience that I loved. Imperfect, unfinished, and you could see cracks in the corners of their development, but my god, it was built by people who loved books, it just showed. They cared about what they were doing, and they lead with their hearts. They showed that making fine products is not a feature list, it's a execution thing.

The fellow who started CD Baby, Derek Sivers, talked about this in a blog post from 2009:

To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions. Explanation:

-------- ---------
GREAT EXECUTION = $1,000,000

To make a business, you need to multiply the two.

The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20.

The most brilliant idea takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000.

That's why I don't want to hear people's ideas.

I'm not interested until I see their execution.

How much is a shared quote feature worth? How much is highlighting your favorite passages worth? How much is the ability for friends to follow you worth? How good is the idea, and how good is the execution?

Yesterday, Paul talked about this new app called Litsy. I'm on, now (username: hellbox), and we also snagged a spot for the Seattle Review of Books (username: seattlereviewof. Why not stake that early ground? If the app takes off, we want to be a part of it).

Like nearly all startups (and I work at one), I wish them success. It's really, really hard to build a good app. It's even harder to build a successful app. If you can do both…well, look at the multiplier table above, there's a reason VC's pay dearly for people who know what they're doing.

Litsy feels like a 1.0 app to me. It's clunky, its interface is awkward and unsophisticated. It's missing things that I feel should be paramount to an app like this (I can only login on the app, but that means I have to type a long password, and there's no tie-in to 1 Password or other password managers).

When you get inside, it's essentially Instagram, but where Instagram is measured, polished, and subdued, like a commercial university, Litsy is bold, like a preschool. It's as if they didn't quite trust the users to get what the icons represented, so they made them too big. Even though I have 0 books read, 0 pages red, 0 likes, 0 comments, and 0 books added, I somehow have a "litfluence" of 42. Nods to Douglas Adams aside, this is completely arbitrary. Why should I want to earn any points when I start out with so many in the first place?

If I want to post, I can Review, Blurb, or Quote. The input page is unsettled as well, with most elements much too small (it appears to me that it was largely designed in Sketch or Photoshop without having been seen on a real phone screen). The three different types of posts are further confused because apart from a bolted-on rating system (which, I liked better than Paul, especially since it had a "bailed" button: I walk away from books freely, and a little shorthand for those that want a quick report is not unreasonable) the screens were pretty much identical. Why have all this replication? Why not see what kind of content the user is posting from context? Why have the different types at all, instead of one posting type that has options if you want to pick them, like Facebook? I mean, these are well-tread patterns without a compelling reason to go another way.

Other problems abound, it's slow to load images, and on my iPhone 6, and it scrolled clunky. There's no gimmee interactions, like double-clicking on a photo to like, that they may have picked up from Instagram and other social networks to instantly familiarize and ground users. It's not a mess, exactly, but it's not polished. It needs a user experience overhaul, in my opinion, and a reconsideration of the flow through the app.

But the truth is, my opinion on this doesn't matter in the slightest.

I know nothing about the Litsy people. I suspect they're not venture backed, or if they are, then it's very early rounds to get their proof-of-concept out the door. They're not listed on Product Hunt, and their About page is thin on any info about them.

The problem all modern app social startups face is a huge one: they're not competing against other small app makers, they're competing against Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They're competing against some of the largest, best run companies (well, Facebook) in the world. Litsy has to convince its users to use them instead of posting on those known networks where people have known friends. Where people have built networks, and social capital.

With that in mind, investing in interface and design too early can hamper the app in two ways:

  1. Users expect a slick app to have a fully robust backend, and are less forgiving about scaffolding or unpainted sheetrock. Being clunky means lowered expectations.
  2. Users will forgive an awkward interface if the app is both usable, reliable, and fast, so a young company may decide to spend its resources on its strengths, which may be engineering.

And young companies never have enough resources. Making one choice means means not doing another. There are always sacrifices.

I think Litsy is a good idea. Book people are a small, driven community. There's an opening to capitalize on Twitter's abuse problem by creating a smaller niche network (there are certainly assholes in the book world, but in general when you swim in a smaller pond, you swim with smaller sharks).

Maybe Litsy can do it. Maybe they can convince everybody to post there instead of on their other social networks. Maybe they can convince them to get their friends to sign up, and open the app often and interact with all of the content there.

And then, if they can — which is the hardest parts of starting an app, and where most fail — then the true test will come: are the Litsy people in it because they love books and book people, as they claim, or are they in it because they see a market that will be appealing to certain known buyers?

So we reserved our usernames. So, we may post a bit here and there. But because of those Readmills that we've loved — and I'm sure every one of us has a similar story — we're all biding our time, waiting to see if this next network will take off. We're biding our time, afraid that if we invest in it, either it will go away or it will be acquired and ruined. We just bide our time, but if we all bide our time then we're all sitting around the cafe refusing to eat there until it gets reviewed, and nobody is reviewing it because it's always empty. Classic Catch 22.

Oh look. User 'outofprint' posted about that book a few months ago. What do you know?