As the theater lights darkened at the Tribeca Film Festival two weeks ago, Chris MacAskill reached for his phone to silence it. At that moment a message appeared: SmugMug had bought Flickr.
Chris MacAskill s the co-founder of SmugMug along with his son Don MacAskill who was SmugMug’s CEO and Chief Geek (and now Flickr’s CEO and Chief Geek). Two years earlier, Chris had left SmugMug to pursue an unlikely and ambitious dream, and here was confirmation that Don had achieved a big dream of his own.
“We had always admired Flickr and Don was friends with Flickr founders Stewart Butterfield and Catarina Fake. For me, it was the love of photography the Flickr community effuses,” Chris said. “I had been given advice years earlier that dads at family companies stay too long and annoy their kids. It was a pretty incredible feeling to watch Don pull off something this big and bold. I’m as excited and curious as everyone else to see what they do with it.”
Cake a platform for conversations
Chris’ new venture is Cake, a platform to make great online conversations possible. They gave me an early invite to try it out. A few essential features are still under construction, but it doesn’t take long to grasp its potential.
It’s not Instagram or Twitter
The first way it’s different from Instagram and Twitter is users choose the topics to follow, not people. I chose topics like photography, birds, and wildlife. Everyone has special interests they can’t discuss with friends on social media for fear of boring them. Cake is for those interests. And who hasn’t experienced friends & families filling your feed with topics you’d rather not see?
A second departure from traditional groups is the way you post new conversations. Instead of searching for a group to post in, you write a post and then assign it to topics. For people who have used Medium, this should be familiar. The advantage is you can choose up to 5 topics, perfect when your post spans many of ideas. You can also create your own topics. I chose to create Olympus OMD EM1 MK II topic. My hope is that other photographers will join me on that topic.
Organization around topics may become one of Cake’s biggest strengths when it gets critical mass but a weakness before then. When millions of people are on board, the Olympus OMD EMI MK II topic will benefit from how specific it is because it won’t attract conversations about cameras that don’t interest me. Until then it may not attract enough activity.
The self-proclaimed mission of Cake is to foster great conversations. To achieve that on the Internet is a tall order, just ask Facebook and Twitter. But Cake is preparing a feature that is a staple of great conversations in the real world: panel conversations.
Anyone who starts a Cake conversation will be able to choose the panel option and invite panelists. Unlike the real world, you won’t need a sound system, stage, or an auditorium—or even be in the same location at the same time. The audience can be vast, world-wide, and they can add energy by reacting with emojis, similar to the way real-world audiences add energy by clapping and laughing. But just like the real world, audiences cannot troll the panelists. Everyone benefits by letting them speak.
Imagine a group of photographers covering unfolding events together on a Cake panel without Twitter trolls making the conversation impossible to follow. We have it for video conferencing, but not for written conversations with photos.
“The Internet is the only venue on earth where there is an expectation that anyone should be able to join the conversation,” MacAskill said. “But it’s the most difficult venue because of bots, trolls and its vastness. In 2002 when we started SmugMug, everyone said no one would pay for services on the Internet. But they did. When people experience great panel conversations, we’ll look back and wonder how we lived without them.”
Conversations are available without sign up
You might think Facebook could easily copy panels. However, Cake panels are public, accessible with a simple link, readable by anyone with or without registering for Cake. Facebook is a walled garden with a shrinking population of millenials.
Cake also has protections for conversation starters who create fully open conversations, as opposed to panels. Any conversation starter can hide posts in their conversations that they feel detract from the discussion. They can mute users to prevent them from posting in conversations they start. These are things that aren’t possible on sites like Twitter and Reddit.
It seems there’s a new social network every month but few ever make it in the age of Facebook. Cake, however, is not like what we’ve seen before. My bet is they have a real chance because they solve a problem everyone has on the Internet.
(Editor’s note: Scott is the founder of Photofocus.)