Glass hopes to be the photo-sharing app Instagram never was

It starts with appreciations, not likes, and photographers, not influencers.

The Glass app on an iPad.

The Glass app is all photos, and that's on purpose.

Photo: Glass

Social networks don’t feel so social anymore. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the rest seem to be leaning ever further into entertainment and away from helping people find and chat with others like them. But Glass is hoping to be different. The new photo-sharing social network is determined to find a better, less problematic, more social way to network.

Glass co-founders Tom Watson and Stefan Borsje have both worked in tech for years and have seen the pitfalls that come to social apps. So they’ve set out to build Glass very differently. They’re not taking VC money, they’re not prioritizing growth and engagement above all else and they won’t even show you how many times people liked your photo. In the process, they hope they’re building something photographers might actually want to use.

Watson and Borsje joined the Source Code podcast to discuss Glass, the state and future of social networking and what it takes to build something different.

You can hear our full conversation on the latest episode of the Source Code podcast, or by clicking on the player above. Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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A theory I've always had is that you can tell the story of the internet through photo-sharing apps. You have Flickr, you have Instagram, you have all these different photo communities over time. Why do you think it is that photos have been such a core part of how the internet has evolved?

Tom Watson: I think it's that it's such an easy thing to share. You can take a photograph and immediately put it online, and it tells a visual story.

These days, it's just such a quick way to do it. Video is incredible, and you see it becoming more and more important with things like TikTok and YouTube. But the photo can be a very quick consumption experience as well; it just takes a second to look at it.

One thing I've noticed about Glass is you seem to have a very clear idea about what you don't want to be. And I think we're now more and more clear about what the traps are that companies and products fall into, that take them away from being the things that they originally were. So I'm curious: Was there a moment where you had to sit down at the beginning and, like, write on a whiteboard or a Google Doc, “Here's what would turn us into Instagram?” A “what not to do” list?

Watson: We wrote down a list not of what not to do, but more of a list of what we wanted to be. We want to be this community, we want to be a photo-sharing service. We want to build upon those things and focus on the market of photographers, and less on the things we knew we didn't want to be. But we did know that there were certain, like you said, traps.

So it’s more like, “OK, so we're not going to take on outside funding.” And that was a real thing. We’ve been offered that through the process, and it's really tempting when you're struggling and you're trying to build something like this. But the expectation that that funding would bring into what we're trying to build just wasn't in alignment with it. If there was an investor that had a particular mindset, sure, maybe, but even then we have really held true to that view that we know we're going for a smaller market. We know we want to have independence. And in order to do that, we need to not take on additional investors.

We want growth and engagement, but exponential growth and engagement is something we're very much not into. But that's the expectation that venture capital money ties you to. And so you need to build a product that needs to do that; you need to chase that growth in any way possible. I worked at Facebook from 2009 to 2013, and then Pinterest from 2013 to 2018, so I've seen what the expectations there are for those types of companies. We just wanted to intentionally build something different, and, in order to do that, required a different business model.

Community has been an internet buzzword for forever. And community's a challenge. It's a hard thing to do from a straightforward content-moderation standpoint, it's a hard thing to create a culture inside of an app. And figuring out even what you want that community to look like, and how to incentivize it the right way, seems like the kind of thing you really have to do from Day One, or else it's just going to be a losing battle forever. So what was the stuff at the very beginning where you were like, “Here's what we want this community to look like?”

Watson: The focus specifically was, all right, we want it to be a safe and trusting environment. So we invested upfront in reporting and blocking from Day One, which are traditionally not startup features that we would do. We just needed that base level; trust and safety needs to be a huge part of our community. We also were upfront with our community guidelines and rules. And then we obviously hoped that by bringing in alpha and beta testers into the service, we could really set the tone of what the community would be like before we opened it up to a broader audience. And I think that was really important.

And then it’s just modeling the behavior. You can set up all these rules, you can set all this content moderation and stuff, but what you see when you walk into the space is really important. It like sets the tone for you, unless you have great photographers, big photographers, people who are active in the community commenting, really being engaged — those were key decisions for us before we just opened the doors like, “Here's an empty space, let's hope it all works out.”

I think I spent at least eight months talking to photographers while we were building it. And we would just get on a Zoom call — during the pandemic, people had some time — and we’d just chat with them about what's going on, run them through the product, talk about the choices. We didn’t always have a product yet, so it was just what their needs were and what they would hope from a community like this.

What were the photographers telling you in those early days? I asked a bunch of people what I should ask you, and my photographer friends overwhelmingly said: Why do all my photos look so bad on every web service? And can Glass fix this awful image compression that exists all over the internet?

Borsje: I think it's mostly just an economics question, to be honest, because bandwidth is not free. And especially if you have a large audience of viewers, you end up consuming a lot of bandwidth on the viewing side, obviously, especially if you have high-quality pictures. And I think for most platforms, it's probably a trade-off between what is good enough and what keeps our costs under control. And I think in our case, because our community's a little bit different — our community consists of a higher percentage of creators and I think a lower percentage of consumers — I think you can get away with spending a little bit more time and effort.

So we can afford to show high-resolution photos. Especially on the web version of your profile, we go through a little bit of extra effort: We load one lower-resolution photo first and then try to switch it to a high-resolution one as soon as the browser has it. So I think those kinds of tweaks are things that we can afford to do, because we're not as much of a mass-market channel as some of the others.

Would that calculation have to totally change if you get to 100 million users? Or is that one of those things that is so important to your users that you just have to deal with it?

Borsje: I think in our case, I would like to say that it wouldn't change because I think it's too important for our community to keep that around. So I would rather have a smaller group of viewers and optimize for the viewing experience than the other way around.

One big gate there just seems to be, “It costs money.” [Editor's note: Glass is $5 a month or $30 a year.] As soon as you charge something, you're going to immediately lose lots of people. And it seems like you, very smartly, are very happy to lose most of those people. “If this is not a community you want to be part of, no hard feelings, it's just not worth it for you or for us.” But I do wonder how that scales up and down.

Watson: One thing to note about when we talk about community building: One of the things that was a big factor in this is, when it's a paid-for service, you immediately have a different tone and interaction with the community versus something that's just free for anybody to just stop in on the internet. That has a very big impact on the way everyone interacts with us.

We haven't had to face massive content-moderation issues like I've seen in other social networks because we're a paid-for service. It currently requires an Apple ID to sign up, and that requires a credit card. And so you can’t even be on a trial without a little level of commitment. And I think that helps us. I mean, it’s still a free trial, but you can't just create a random account with some random username and just give it a shot. I think that really has helped us with our community building.

How has that played out? People being nice to each other makes sense. But from a standpoint of, like, “I've paid for this, I might as well try to make it good here,” do you see that feeling play out in other ways across the app, too?

Watson: I think people treat each other a little better. They’re more invested, literally, in the project. They want the space to be good. And I think that a lot of our members are getting really thoughtful comments, and they've been really responsive to our Appreciations thing, which is our version of liking.

Let's dig into that one a little bit. I think it has felt intellectually obvious to a lot of platforms and companies that, like, “Oh, we should let people say that they enjoy something,” and then all the decisions you make after that are a mess. So what was the goal of Appreciations?

Watson: I think the big goal was to remove, “That's cool,” “It's great,” “Cool,” and to create the comment space as a real area for discussion and community. So that was the impetus for it. Also, to improve engagement! We wanted people to be engaged in the platform.

We actually were kind of glad we launched without any; it was just comments. And we would get a lot of feedback saying, “Oh, this feels really old-school. This feels slower, and I love it.” And we would see some of that. We also saw a big increase in engagement when we did release Appreciations.

But we wanted to strip out some of the things that we felt were problematic with liking, or the quick positive feedback. And a lot of those have to do with tracking. We wanted Appreciations to feel like this moment between you and the other person. It's a private appreciation. We don't show counts on any part of the product, so it's just sending positive vibes or sparkles or whatever the icon implies to the other person. There's no FOMO when you go see someone else's post and see all their like counts, or their heart counts, or whatever.

If you appreciate even a comment someone's left for you, you see what's been appreciated, but nobody else sees that you've appreciated that comment. Those subtle changes make a huge impact on the way you feel on the products. A lot went into each one of those little choices and how we deliver it. But the big, overarching theme is that we didn't want it to be tracked or feel uncomfortable by using the product. It's almost like a private thing between you and the person.

As the photographer, can I see how many people have appreciated my photos? That seems like a tricky balance, too.

Watson: We worked through that, too. So if you go to your photo, there's a section that appears when someone appreciated your photograph. And it just says Appreciations. And then if you tap through, you can see all the people that have appreciated you. But it explicitly doesn't have a number associated with it. So there's not like, “15 people have appreciated your photo.” And that's really different from the world in which everything's got all these counts. And so you could count them up, I guess, if you want to, but there's just a difference: It's a nice big picture of the person and their name, people that appreciated your stuff. And it works in a small community. It doesn’t always scale. But it will scale to a very large number, right? It’s not hundreds of millions, but we're happy with hundreds of thousands of people using our product, and that's the goal.

I want to talk about the balance between not tracking and not optimizing for engagement, versus discoverability, which seems like a key thing that a lot of services get wrong. My sense is you have under-optimized on tripping through Glass, finding new funky things and people that I might enjoy. There seems to be a lot of stuff you could do there if you wanted to, but when I go to my homepage, it's just like reverse-chron photos of people that I follow.

Watson: We have a lot of plans to improve discovery. Optimizing for clarity of what you're getting to see, I think, is really important to us. When we talk to people about other social networks, they get so frustrated, they don't feel like they have control over what they're experiencing on the platform. So we really want to optimize for your home space to be what you expect to see — I follow these people, I get to see their content.

I think that's really important to us in the home space. But when you go to our Community tab, we want to work toward better ways in which we can surface you great photographers. We’re exploring editorial ways of surfacing that stuff, as opposed to an algorithmically generated list or something. We'd love for photographers to explicitly express what type of photographer they are so that you could explore and find content that way. So we're looking into improving that space, because we launched with a very bare bones list of photographers. And we've since added categories, and you can discover things for categories, which is a good first step, but we have a lot more to work on there.

Borsje: One thing that, for me, personally, is always frustrating about recommendation algorithms is that they take away some of the discovery of new stuff that I'm not familiar with yet. I think you see it on YouTube, you see it on Instagram as well in the Explore feed. Once you've looked at a certain category of photos, you're just going to get bombarded with that. And that's it. And it's really difficult to step out of that bubble and see something else. And that would, for me, be a reason to be very hesitant about introducing, “Oh, we're just going to show you what we think you like,” because we might not even really be able to figure out what you like. You might not even know yet what you would like.

I don't think you open the Glass app to get hooked and just doomscroll for like two hours. I think you come to Glass to get inspired, to see something that you haven't seen before, to get new ideas of how I can approach my photography with new techniques or new styles or something that I just haven't tried or tested before. And that sense of discovery, I think that's something that's very important to us.

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