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What is Branch and why did Facebook just pay $15 million for it?

Facebook’s latest acquisition has an interesting, Twitter-ific backstory.  


Kate Knibbs


If Facebook becomes a better place to have public conversations with friends, you’ll probably have link-sharing and social conversation service Branch to thank.

Facebook purchased Branch for a reported $15 million, according to The Verge, although Branch CEO Josh Miller didn’t name a price when he announced the purchase through (appropriately enough) a Facebook note. I reached out to Facebook and a spokesman confirmed this deal by phone.

“We will be forming Facebook’s Conversations group, based in New York City, with the goal of helping people connect with others around their interests,” Miller wrote. “Their pitch to us was: “Build Branch at Facebook scale!”

So, basically, Facebook is bringing the Branch team aboard to help improve the quality of conversation people have within the site. And Facebook needs help — the current version of Newsfeed is a total mess, so acquiring a team to improve conversations between users is a strategic move to stimulate real-time dialogue between users.

But what is Branch all about?

Well, one of the first people to write about branch was Twitter’s most affable founder, Biz Stone. Here’s what he had to say in 2012:

“Branch (formerly Roundtable), enables a smart new brand of high quality public discourse. Curated groups of people are invited to engage around issues in which they are knowledgeable. This service holds the promise of a new platform for dialogue on the web—a necessary departure from the monologues we have grown so accustomed to reading online.”

So why was Twitter’s founder promoting Facebook’s latest purchase? Branch may now be a foot soldier in the Zuckerberg Army, but the company has deep connections with Twitter. Branch expanded with the help of The Obvious Corporation, an idea incubator formed by Twitter founder Evan Williams. Williams, Stone, and their fellow old school Twitter team member Jason Goldman were among the investors Williams thanked in his announcement of the Facebook deal.

Right now, Branch works like this: you can sign up through Twitter, then create a bookmark for the service and connect it to your email accounts (the second two steps are optional). You need a Twitter account to use Branch, though I assume that the revamped Facebook version will not have that requirement.

Once you sign in, Branch prompts you to start a conversation. You can type in a topic and then a statement, link, or other introduction to the discussion. Then people have 750 characters to respond. You can invite people into Branch by typing in their Twitter handle or sending them an email link.

I don’t know anyone who uses Branch so nobody responded to my conversation topic, which asked what other users thought about the Facebook purchase. And unless you share your Branch on Twitter, nobody can see it—there’s not a browsing function. So your questions just kind of hang in isolation unless you actively attempt to engage others.

Potluck, the second service launched by the Branch team, is centered on sharing news items in easily digestible tidbits. Both of these services will live on after the team starts work for Facebook, according to Miller. “Although the products we build will be reminiscent of Branch and Potluck, those services will live on outside of Facebook,” he wrote.

The version of Branch that currently exists outside of Facebook, however, is completely reliant on Twitter—and I can’t imagine that Facebook will allow a service it has acquired to continue such a tight integration with its largest competitor.

The Branch team may be well-served by this deal, since the original product was aesthetically appealing, but sort of seems like a less interesting, more insular version of Quora—and Stone’s social question app Jelly covers similar terrain, providing a place for people to ask and answer questions to their networks. I don’t think Branch would’ve been able to stand on its own, and now the team’s talents will be focused on a project with a built-in audience.

[Sidenote: Jelly is, strangely enough, where news of Branch’s acquisition first broke; yesterday, when several people answered a question about what was going on with the app by saying it was purchased (they didn’t specifically mention Facebook, however.) This raises some suspicions for me—it’s weird that news of one of the Twitter gang’s pet projects was sold to rival Facebook would break on another of the Twitter gang’s pet projects, but there’s no evidence that the leak came from the Twitter crowd, so who knows.]

Branch could be an invaluable asset to Facebook if it helps de-suckify the News Feed, though nothing the Branch team has done so far has convinced me that this is a particularly wise purchase. It’s certainly an eyebrow-raising one, partly because of the Twitter background and partly because Miller hasn’t exactly been the biggest Facebook supporter in the past. He publicly criticized Zuckerberg’s initiative last March, and once described the company that now owns his company as potentially having “an irreversibly bad brand.”

H/T The Verge | Photo via Flickr/Scott Beale

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