After a number of false starts, Branch gets acquired by Facebook to help build smart conversations

Creating a new way of engaging in smart conversation online is not an easy task — just ask Josh Miller, the co-founder and CEO of Branch and Potluck, who has been trying in various ways to do just that for almost two years now, ever since he got funded by former Twitter executives Evan Williams and Biz Stone. Now he and his team get to do the same thing, but from inside Facebook: On Monday, Miller announced that the startup has been acquired by the giant social network in a deal that several sources estimate is worth about $15 million.

According to a post that Miller wrote on his Facebook page, the team from Branch and Potluck will be forming a new group at Facebook called “Conversations,” which will be based in New York — and he said the pitch was that joining the social network would allow them to “build Branch at Facebook scale.” Both Branch and Potluck will continue to exist as separate entities, and a Facebook spokeswoman said the deal was driven primarily by a desire to acquire Branch’s talent rather than any proprietary technology.

Any further comment from Miller will have to wait, since he is on vacation in Japan. But as someone who has watched Branch evolve from the beginning, I must admit I have somewhat mixed feelings about the deal — as I do when any startup is acquired by a massive company, whether it’s Facebook or Google or Yahoo.

Creating a place for smart discussion

Branch CEO Josh Miller

Branch CEO Josh Miller

On the one hand, being acquired is presumably a good deal for Branch’s investors, including Ev Williams and Biz Stone, as well as Betaworks founder John Borthwick and VC firms like Lerer Ventures. And it’s nice to hear that Facebook wants to at least try to improve the way that conversations occur on its giant platform, because I think it still needs a lot of help in that department. Also, having talked with Josh many times over the years, I know that he has thought intelligently about different ways to potentially do that.

Despite the myriad of conversational platforms we have all around us, what Branch was working on is still a difficult problem: namely, how to have an intelligent conversation in a place that seems to increasingly value speed, brevity and “viral” content rather than actual thought.

It’s also true, however, that Branch has struggled to develop an audience, and has been forced to pivot multiple times. It started as an invitation-only platform that tried to create a space for intelligent conversation among knowledgeable sources about important or interesting topics — so a discussion that began on Twitter, for example, could move to a Branch and develop further. But the invitation-only nature of the platform (among other things) limited its potential reach.

Maybe Branch can help Facebook figure it out

Although Miller told me that Branch got some traction with publishers as a place to have targeted discussions, it didn’t seem to get much usage among a broader audience, so Miller and his team launched a service called Potluck, which made shared links the focus of the conversation. Potluck also struggled to reach a broader audience, however, so the company relaunched it as a mobile app, which was designed to encourage snippets of conversation.

One of the problems Branch faced was a relatively simple — but challenging — one, and it is the same one that Path and other companies like Prismatic also face: namely, the difficulty of creating a new place for discussion or social activity when all of the oxygen in the room is being taken up by Facebook and Twitter. Even Google+ has faced an uphill battle in acquiring users, and it has all the resources of a giant web company behind it.

I don’t know whether Miller and his team will be able to help Facebook improve its conversational abilities, but I sure hope so. Despite being a “social” network, smart discussion isn’t really in the company’s DNA, and its previous attempts to improve comments and conversation have mostly failed. Here’s hoping Branch doesn’t just disappear into Facebook’s giant maw like so many other acquisitions.

Embedded below is a video of Miller talking about Branch as part of the startup showcase at our paidContent Live conference in 2013:


Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Cherkas