Taking online discussions up a notch

June 25, 2013, 5:47 PM UTC
“With literally every other platform, the conversation was secondary to the content,” says Branch co-founder Josh Miller. Credit: Facebook

FORTUNE — The way 22-year-old Josh Miller sees it, there’s no shortage of ways for Internet users to blog or make comments. But a place to hold high-quality discourse? That’s harder to find. “Whether it’s commenting on Facebook, replying on Twitter, or mingling down in the comments section below a blog post, online conversation is kind of secondary to the content,” says Miller. And when it comes to complex news stories, he argues it’s just as bad: Readers miss out because they’re only getting one perspective.

That was the impetus for the electronica-loving Princeton sociology major to drop out and team up with NYU students Hursh Agrawal and Cemre Güngör to start what would eventually become Branch. Users can type in any discussion topic they like or copy and paste say, a news link, to kick off a conversation thread called a “branch.” The branch creator chooses who can join in by typing in a person’s Twitter handle, email, or name, or sending along a custom Web link to the conversation. They can also end the conversation when ever they choose.

Branch’s eight full-time employees hope this invitation-only ability to chat will enable high-quality discussions. And while Miller won’t disclose how many Branch users there are, he points to a branch from this April as a positive indicator. Started by TechCrunch writer-turned-Google Ventures partner MG Siegler in response to a Wall Street Journal story, it included other tech media like Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber, Engadget editor-in-chief Tim Stevens, and others weighing in on all-things-Apple, from what iOS 7 would look like to when the iPhone 5S could arrive. Indeed, the branch became so widely trafficked, it received nearly 500,000 hits. “One person even said, ‘Why is everyone using these scoops in Branch instead of their blogs?’” Miller muses.

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Miller claims many of the largest U.S. media publishers have used Branch, including the New York Times, USA Today, and The Huffington Post. Gawker Media founder Nick Denton once admitted he was fascinated with the service. (“I’m obsessed by Internet discussions, and how bad they are, and how much better they could be,” he told GigaOm last year.) In other words, Branch seems to have struck a chord.

“There are a lot of places where it’s become a platform for invectives,” says Jason Goldman, a Branch board member and co-founder of The Obvious Corporation, the startup incubator and investment group which participated in Branch’s $2 million seed funding. A place where people can talk and work on rounding out ideas together? “The Internet hadn’t really delivered on that promise, but Josh got me to believe in the power of conversation as a transformative tool for people.” Goldman would know, having worked on Twitter and Blogger.

So what’s next? A social network called Potluck, arriving on desktops this week, with the iOS app due in “a few weeks.” Organized around virtual rooms, each with a different discussion topic, there’s also a greater emphasis on what a user’s friends are talking about and also the friends. “Everyone we talked to — from our siblings to college roommates to parents — said they find links they think are interesting every day,” Miller writes in a blog post. But they also told the team that they almost never share them on existing platforms like Facebook  (FB) and Twitter.

Part of it has to do with what the company calls “success theater,” the pressure to be witty, to post striking images, and to receive tens of “likes” with each Facebook update or tweet. It’s enough apparently to deter many users from posting. Potluck tries to ease the pain by emphasizing the discussion topics, not individual users. Case in point: The Friend Activity feed doesn’t initially show who shared an item, only the topic or link and the number of friends talking about it. In that way, Potluck could become another way for Internet users to share — only this time, stress-free.

A look at Potluck, a new social network launching later this week from Branch that makes discussion topics, and what your friends are talking about, front and center. Credit: Branch