February 19, 2019

The Future of Web Q&A Panels Should be Cake

Last week, Recode's veteran tech reporter Kara Swisher visibly held an aggressive interview with Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey, who has been on something of a meandering press tour over the last few months, which has led to more questions than it's seemingly answered, as he has avoided specifics, and not taken full responsibility for many of the negative impacts the platform he created has spawned.

Despite Kara's noble attempts, this round didn't fare much better, largely due to Twitter's failing as a medium for such a debate. The #KaraJack hashtag, expected to be the core space for her serves and his returns, with a fair share of unforced errors, was difficult to follow in real time, with Twitter's poor design getting as much visibility as the discussion itself. Taylor Lorenz of the Atlantic called it impossible.

Twitter was not designed for this, and barring dramatic redesign or new product spinoffs, it won't be.

The most impactful press interviews are typically done live, be it for radio or TV, while other forums, like Reddit, have made Ask Me Anything (AMA) events a free for all with viewers getting as much access to the subject as anyone else. But #KaraJack wasn't supposed to be a free for all, with every tweet seeing replies from the masses, or requiring dedicated TweetDeck columns and search queries. It was supposed to be on a stage of sorts, with bright lights seeing yet another tech CEO sweat and try to avoid withering under Kara's query onslaught - the type of event you would see at an All Things D or TechCrunch Disrupt, or if you insist... at SXSW.

That's not to say panels can't be done on the web - for they can be, and done well, with a moderator having the option to interview a subject (or multiple subjects), with progressive question and answers, and audience reactions, but not interruptions. I know this, because I've seen it done. A quietly intriguing web service called Cake, created by Chris MacAskill of Smugmug and General Magic fame, has been working on a topics-focused, troll-free, community that offers a unique approach to panels.

Cake, when not doing panels, focuses on topics of interest.

If you're unfamiliar with Cake, the site's content is much like if Medium met Flickr - not a surprise from a site with roots in photography, like Smugmug, which coincidentally bought Flickr from Yahoo! last year. You can use Cake for long form posts, as I did last year after seeing my dad purchase a gun, making me rethink the safety of family visits, or you can just share a photo. Each post allows for Slack-like reactions, but also, comments, from any user - with a focus on finding similar interests, be it on Photography, Tech, Travel or anything else - not uncommon on the social web.

Cake posts showcase total reactions, which reactions, and related topics.

A site for sharing on the web is not new, nor is the idea of one focused on topics. Their manual approach to curation and high quality discussion is noble, but becomes challenging at scale, should they get there. But what is working is their approach to panels, which would have been a great home for #KaraJack, instead of Twitter.

Cake panels work because they remove the noise from the discussion and keep it in one place. Like Reddit AMAs, they can be scheduled and announced in advance. But unlike AMAs, a moderator can invite an individual or group of people to a panel, and when the panel begins, they are the only ones who can make posts or replies. The audience, for once, is silent. No shouting @replies, like on Twitter. No hashtag spam. Just the questions and the answers. And if you want audience engagement, you can create a parallel post on Cake to solicit questions or have discussion as the panel is ongoing.

Imagine a #KaraJack where only Kara or Jack could post.

Trying to design a conversational medium that is all things to all people is a mess. Twitter has struggled with experiments with tweetstorms, moments, live video, doubling character counts, trending topics, short form video and more. Twitter is great at real time news and short updates. Their search, after years of struggles, is actually very good. But it's not a good place for a smart panel like #KaraJack.

A Cake panel showcases who is on stage, what it's about, and engagement.

In the last few months, there have been panels with venture capitalists, the founder of GrubTubs, the man behind 20 years of Steve Jobs keynotes, and former General Magic employees, as well as dozens of others. Each of these panels has a clear formula, with a topic, an introduction, and then the back and forth of discussion that brings a feeling of a shared space, even if geographically distributed.

Do I expect future conversations with Twitter's CEO to happen on Cake? No. Of course Dorsey would want to use his own product. But #KaraJack didn't do Twitter any benefits, showcasing one of the service's many holes. There is a better alternative to Q&A like this out there, and I hope we can see more innovative panels coming.

The social web is long overdue for some real innovation, beyond photo filters and disappearing content. We need smarter conversations and less noise. Panels are a solid start.