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In case you aren't familiar, Milq is a new social network focused on the cultural aspects that influence our lives and personalities and connect us to one another through shared affections and experiences. What makes Milq different from your run-of-the-mill food gram-clogged or celebrity drama infested networks is the "Bead."
Adding to an already pretty simple interface, the Bead allows Milq users to explore and collect what interests them under the categories of film, music, comedy, and sports - with more to come.
I spoke with co-CEO and co-founder Don MacKinnon about Milq and why culture-based networks are more valuable to us as users.
Tribeca: Can you talk a little bit about your collaboration with your co-founders Tomi Poutanen and Jordan Jacobs? How did the idea of curated culture within one social network come about?
Don MacKinnon: I met Jordan first. Before this I helped create Product (RED) and when I first started that, one of the first phone calls I got was from Elvis Costello’s manager saying that I needed to talk to this guy, Jordan Jacobs, who was creating a television show with Elvis Costello called Spectacle, it was on Sundance and it was amazing. It was Elvis Costello interviewing and performing with Bono and The Edge, Springsteen, The Police, and Lou Reed – it was amazing! So that’s how I met Jordan, he created that show and they turned it (RED) so we could use the content to help raise money for (RED) to fight AIDS in Africa.
I think Milq is really about seeing us at a time when the Internet should make it easier to find what you're not looking for.
Then we met Tomi whose background is really interesting. In college he wrote a legendary data compression algorithm that he sold to Microsoft that they still use for cloud storage and software delivery. More importantly he wrote a search engine algorithm that he sold to Yahoo! that is now the core algorithm of Bing. So he’s very technical. Through that he became the head of international search for Yahoo! and saw interesting behavior happening in South Korea – this is before Facebook and before Twitter – he saw people altruistically answering questions for each other. So he saw that and launched a product called Yahoo! Answers in Hong Kong, Japan, and then globally, which still has over 100 million unique viewers every month. It’s interesting because it was the first massively scaled human collaboration network, really.
That’s why the three of us are really interesting to have created this. I’ve spent my life working on what I would call more “top-down curation.” The company I created before (RED) was called Hear Music, which created a curatorial brand in music and I sold that business to Starbucks and then I created the music business at Starbucks. It was like, "So I just interviewed the Rolling Stones and this is the blues that Keith Richards thinks you should be listening to.” I’ve always had an obsession with that and Jordan had a similar obsession in creating the television show with Elvis Costello. But partnering up with Tomi allowed us to really create this way of – how can we solve the way people share and discover culture in a platform that people can work together in and collaborate?
Social media should enable sharing and learning but it feels like those great pristine recommendations of culture are being made in networks that were built for disposable posts about lasagna.
Tribeca: In your mission statement, you mention the importance of building a “Dynamic, enduring and playable map of the world of culture.” How do you think this cultural model of having a shared map of meanings will break through the noise of social networking? How did the idea of “Beads” come about?
Don MacKinnon: We feel like we’re at a very unique moment in history. All cultural content – almost everything – is digitally sharable; any song you can think of, any scene from a film, any clip from a fashion show, or sports play. You can pull it up on your iPhone and share it out. We’re all connected on these networks that allow us to share things with each other. Because of that we have the ingredients for a golden age of curation and we would all just discover the best stuff because of each other and the fact that we’re sharing like crazy. Well that would be awesome, but it doesn’t feel like that to me. It feels like we’re in more of the golden age of cacophony.
People are sharing what they love but it’s just sort of creating a din. The challenge is that all of these networks are structured the exact same way – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, all of them – which is everyone has a profile, everyone is posting things, you follow people who you went to high school and college with and people who are famous. Their posts wash over you in a news feed and disappear into the abyss. That’s actually a good thing in most cases because most of the things people are posting are like, “Look at this awesome lasagna!”
Those posts should disappear along with all of the other posts that are disposable and probably 99% of posts are disposable, but the other 1% is people sharing knowledge and recommending content that would be valuable to others. That’s a magical thing. I loved making mix tapes in college and having my friends go, “Oh my God, you’ve never heard this band, you have to hear this band! Let me play them for you.” So social media should enable that sharing and learning but it feels like those great pristine recommendations of culture are being made in networks that were built for disposable posts about lasagna.
There are two problems with that. If I follow Questlove on Twitter and he posts 30 tweets about going to the Brooklyn Bowl that are disposable and 1 tweet about this amazing cover of a Fela song and I’m like, “I love that! That’s amazing.” But if I wasn’t looking at Twitter at that exact moment it’s disappeared, I don’t even know it happened. And he’s famous! He has like 4 million people following him. But there might be people all over the world who are just as great curators as Questlove. There might be a woman in Moscow, Idaho or Belgium spending all of her time on Sound Cloud or YouTube who is an amazing film noir curator or an amazing klezmer curator and she only has 97 followers and it’s not adding to the greater human wisdom about film noir or klezmer.
Those beads in film should be there 30 years from now and still be incredibly valuable – time capsules of our culture – where feed-based networks are great for immediate self-expression, but they aren’t great for organizing what will be eternally profound.
So the idea of Milq is, Could we create a structure that allows people who share passionate knowledge for different areas of culture to be able to come together and share with each other, almost collaborate with each other in these beads in a way where they feel like they’re almost having a conversation with each other, not by just reading YouTube comments, but by actually sharing a piece of content – a movie, a song – and writing about why they love it and putting it in context. They almost feel like they are having a conversation, but what’s happening is they’re actually mapping that area of culture for everybody to explore. So someone who doesn’t know that much about film noir or 60’s neo-realist cinema can come in and they’re going to be able to hit play and the best content will rise to the top and as they discover great things there’s always a person there behind it who they can follow and learn more from.
How do you find a way, a grammar, and an interface that allows people a way to get to the stuff they’re going to love?
Tribeca: You’ve had an incredibly diverse career that has encompassed technology, music, and social action. Which aspects from Hear Music, Starbucks, and Product (RED) directly helped create the idea for Milq?
Don MacKinnon: To me the thing I’ve always cared about is creating a better way for people to discover the good stuff, is how I think about it. I created my first business, Hear Music, because I looked at the way music was sold in America and it was an incredibly narrow number of artists got played on Top 40 radio and the record stores kind of carried up those artists. There were so many great artists and great music that was being left out and there were people who were just not exploring this music because there wasn’t an easier way to do so. That’s always been my passion – how do you find a way, a grammar, and an interface that allows people a way to get to the stuff they’re going to love? How do you foster curation? Hear Music was really around creating a brand that people trusted. They trusted our recommendation partly because I would interview Tom Waits and Keith Richards and Ray Charles about the music they were listening to so it created this culture of exploration and serendipitous discovery.
Product (RED) was actually about creating a brand that people trusted and were excited about in a different way. It was, in a sense, a curator because we were choosy about the brands that we partnered with. The idea of Product (RED) – the reason I couldn’t resist the idea was because Bono came to Starbucks in the very beginning and met with Howard and I said, “Look, I can do the normal thing and go on Oprah once a year and tell people about this tragedy of people with AIDS in Africa and ask people to send $10 but we just won’t raise enough money." So his idea was, How do we get the most creative people in the world to work for the poorest people in the world? To him that was the musicians, the artists, the actors, etc. But it was also Steve Jobs at Apple and Phil Knight at Nike and even Georgio Armani. So that’s what was amazing about that. We created a net of brands but it was built by curating the brands that we partnered with and what artists we got to participate.
The great thing about Milq is even if you follow no people you can still have a great experience just by following a bunch of beads.
I think Milq is really about seeing us at a time when the Internet should make it easier to find what you're not looking for. It has made it so it’s so much easier to find, if you know what you’re looking for, whatever it may be. But it’s getting really hard to find the things you aren’t looking for, to discover the things you aren’t looking for. That’s what I really care about because I don’t think everything is about “You bought this so you’ll definitely like this!” - that relational marketing technique that’s just been done to death everywhere. It’s much more beautiful to me that on Milq you can look up Miles Davis and you’ll see that he’s in a noir piece and you’ll go, “Why is Miles Davis in noir?” Then you click it and you’ll see it’s because he did the score for the 1958 Louis Malle film Elevator to the Gallows. So you’ve gotten from Miles Davis to a Louis Malle film from 1958 in a serendipitous way that has context as connected tissue that got you there. So, when you arrive at Louis Malle it wasn’t a non sequitur, you actually came through the Miles Davis door.
Tribeca: I can’t help but notice Milq uses the word “Members,” as a way to organize followers. It seems subtle, but it also seems like it was a very conscious choice on your end. Can you talk about why you wanted to make the “following” aspect unique?
Don MacKinnon: Well that’s definitely interesting that you brought up the members aspect, we really thought about what word to use. The other thing I would say to the point about, “How many followers do I have here?!” comes out of the structures of the networks being all about people. They’re organized around you and the people that you follow and the people that follow you. They boil down to that. With Milq we’ve added a deceptively simple item, which is the “bead.” The bead allows people to come together and it creates these sort of micro-channels around every theme. So instead of just following people and seeing whatever they post, you’ll be able to follow beads and by following beads you’re going to see content that you like posted by people you don’t know and don’t follow but who you still see in context. You still get to follow people – or members – and that’s fun. When I’m in a bead of content, it also allows me to see stuff you’ve posted near the top because I follow you. But the great thing about Milq is even if you follow no people you can still have a great experience just by following a bunch of beads.
The second thing is that beads are incredibly rich signals for us in the network. So the thing that you do is you follow beads and then you collect the posts that you love within those beads, which allows you to make your own version of the bead. So you have your own playlist that is always getting better because people from around the world are adding to it, and then you can preview those and collect that stuff as well. That tells us a lot about what you like and allows us to be, hopefully pretty good about suggesting other beads you might like to follow, more so than just the redundant Facebook – Your friend did this so you should see it or your friend is following this person so you should follow them.
Tribeca: Have members used Milq in ways that have surprised you yet?
Don MacKinnon: Oh my God, yes. The sheer spectrum of things that people have created beads around has been really fun. There were things that I would expect like film noir but things like the “What’s Clappening?” bead which is an entire bead of songs that feature hand claps in them. The noir bead that is in the music category as well as the noir bead that is in the film category both have over 100 posts in them and are incredibly beautiful playlists that you would never be able to find anywhere else. So there are these very creative ideas that the community has built up in our private beta, which has been really fun. It happens all the time – somebody created a bead in film called “At the Circus?” I posted Alexander Calder’s circus, but there are a bunch of other really great things in there from Wings of Desire to the Marx Brothers. When The Bling Ring came out someone created “Conspicuous Consumption?” It includes everything from Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons to The Great Gatsby to Clueless and American Psycho. It’s constantly surprising me what people do.
The best way to make a friend is to recommend something to them and then they go, 'Oh my God I love that! That’s one of my favorite movies ever!' Milq is all about that.
Tribeca: When exploring Milq, the positivity and encouragement between members becomes apparent. It’s so nice to browse through a social network and not have to be subjected to pretentiousness or vicious comments. Why do you think members seem so thrilled to share the media that has influenced them with others?
Don MacKinnon: One of my favorite things about Milq and this grand experiment is how positive everyone is. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is the entire thing is about suggesting things that you love or that you think fit in to the micro-context of the bead. So it’s not comments, comments, comments. Instead it’s more when I want to add something to Milq, I actually bring my own piece of context saying, “Here I think this fits in,” and they write why and if people like it, they collect it, and they might comment on it but the primary act is either adding your own piece of content or collecting it. As opposed to a network where it’s really just about commenting, which to me is what creates negativity. That’s not to say there isn’t negativity but our hope was we’ve created this thing where the action is about adding the things that you love.
The second thing is trying to maintain an intimacy of culture. You know the site Etsy right? What I think is genius about Etsy – and I don’t know how they did this: my wife is a jewelry designer and when she orders something she doesn’t just get what she orders; in the box comes a little personalized piece of stationary or a little charm or a beautiful emblem or illustration and you’re like, “Wow! That is just a beautiful thing.” That isn’t something that Etsy is making anyone do, it’s just that culture of the site and that community made people value that. I would love to be able to maintain that kind of positive energy in Milq. The best way to make a friend is to recommend something to them and then they go, “Oh my God I love that! That’s one of my favorite movies ever!” Milq is all about that. Other networks are one one-hundredth of that. So hopefully Milq contributes to that feeling of, Wow I discovered something great through you, I want to keep finding stuff from you.
Tribeca: With so many platforms at our disposal right now, how do you see social networking changing within the next few years?
Don MacKinnon: I do hope that five or seven years from now we look back at this period where it’s really so built around Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, and they all have the same structure, which is what Stephen Gates wrote about – it's called an asymmetrical network. Five years from now we might look back and see this as almost the training wheels period for something that will evolve to a more mature set of networks that allow us to acquire greater quality and greater intimacy for different areas of sharing that we want to do online. So we do have a few super dominant, all-purpose networks that are about connecting people but hopefully five years from now there will be better ways of connecting that aren’t organized by people but are organized by ideas or passions or locations.
We’re trying to build one around cultural passions. We’ve taken the bead, which makes our experiment different - the idea that we’re actually having people collaborate together as opposed to just organizing it by people. That’s my hope as to what changes - that people will want to move on to something that is a better way of getting more signal out of the noise. For example, those beads in film should be there thirty years from now and still be incredibly valuable – time capsules of our culture – where feed-based networks are great for immediate self-expression, but they aren’t great for organizing what will be eternally profound.