We recently got a chance to catch up with Paul Lacey of tagSurf and chat about his vision for this dynamic, ground breaking mobile application.
Co-founded with Frank Montevecchi, tagSurf is a fun app that makes social media easier and more entertaining. With hyper-broad appeal to wide audiences, tagSurf has fantastic branding and design – if Facebook was the Ford of social media, we may be looking at the new Honda with tagSurf.
Powered by Ruby, with a custom built JS framework, tagSurf is also integrated with deep link search engine URX, about which we asked him a bit of the way into our interview:
UI Palette: tagSurf looks great; you just hit the meta button on social media, thank you – so who are you guys?
tagSurf is your remote control for social media.
Our app collects public images, GIFs and articles from social networks into channels based on hashtags so you can tune in to the things you really care about. As you surf each tag, you swipe right or left on each post to say if you like or dislike it. Your votes are never shared with another user, but help tagSurf figure out the best content in each channel so it can show you more of it.
We’re currently integrated with Imgur, the popular photo-hosting site for Reddit, so most of our current tags are pulling content from subreddits with the same name (i.e. r/woahdude -> #woahdude). We also recently announced a partnership with deep link search engine URX to pull content from many other networks including Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Pinterest, and tumblr, to name a few.
Frank Montevecchi and I founded tagSurf in May of 2013, after a couple years of watching our Facebook newsfeeds become increasingly polluted with stuff we didn’t care about. At the time we were playing around with an app we built called tagPitch, which let users swipe through a feed of short business ideas on individual cards. That app, which was essentially an early predecessor of Product Hunt, wasn’t well received by its target audience, but it turned us on to the power of using the swiping interface to quickly surf and rank content. We added the concept of organizing content from all social networks into swipable feeds based on hashtags, and tagSurf was born.
UIP: So Paul, are you the entrepreneur, the designer, the developer, or, kind of the all of the above unicorn?
PL: I wouldn’t call myself a unicorn, but in terms of skillset I am all of the above. I have an Electrical Engineering degree from Cal Poly SLO, and am firmly grounded in technology through my years of tinkering with electronics growing up. Although I got my first computer when I was 8, I didn’t do much software development before founding tagSurf. Luckily, I’ve done a lot of digital hardware design and taken several classes in computer science, so coming up to speed with web development was pretty quick. I was also very involved in the arts growing up, and take a very hands-on approach with tagSurf’s design. As tagSurf’s CEO, I was the first to take the plunge and leave my full-time job to concentrate on getting tagSurf off the ground. Frank and I work closely on most things. His entrepreneurial drive landed us the big URX partnership and manages marketing, fundraising, and product design. At this stage we wear many hats and push each other to learn every day.
UIP: What are you passionate about?
PL: We’re passionate about helping people find awesome new things whenever they want. Life is too short to spend it scrolling through boring and irrelevant posts on social networks. We want to be able to find great new content all the time, and to control the type of content we find the same way we control our TVs. If we want to find a hilarious story to brighten our day, there should be a channel for that. If we want to unwind while surfing amazing images from space, there should be a channel for that. tagSurf is creating those channels, and putting the remote control in your pocket wherever you go.
UIP: Who does the coding for tagSurf?
Most of the heavy lifting was handled by our early dev team, while I managed the projects and picked up the little tasks that fell through the cracks. I learned a lot while working with our developers and started to get more and more involved with troubleshooting, leveraging my engineering education and experience to create methodical testing plans that helped our front-end engineers work through some challenging problems. When we launched our private beta in early May, it became obvious we were far from finished with the software. We’d spent a lot of time testing and eliminating bugs in our development environment, and were surprised by how many new ones were uncovered once people started using the app in the real world. Many of our biggest enthusiasts could barely use the app. We needed more engineering to fix the problem, and fast.
As CEO, my job is to work on whatever is in tagSurf’s critical path. So, for the moment, I’m her functioning CTO as well. There isn’t much in our stack that I haven’t written or refactored in some way, and I’m always tinkering with optimizations and new features.
UIP: Have you hired mobile designers, or is that what you handle personally?
PL: We hired a designer out of Santa Monica who was recommended by our first engineer. She did a great job working with us to bring some awesome design to our early sketches. She understood our iterative process and had a lot of great ideas for the app. Her work speaks for itself; we get complements on our design all the time. She moved on to teaching last summer, but you can check out her portfolio at www.jennywyss.com
Once our design language was established, we found it pretty easy to continue designing new features that fit with the existing theme, so it’s now something we handle internally. Frank and I have become well versed in Photoshop and Illustrator over the course of this project, and I have a lot of experience from producing short films with my friends in high school as well.
UIP: How is the beta going, and does it have a timeline?
The beta is going very well. We’ve proved our concept several times over, done a lot of UX optimization through A/B testing, and learned a ton about a surprising target demographic. We initially thought we would get most of our traffic from Silicon Valley and similar areas of tech savvy users, since they would easily understand the concept of Reddit-like collections organized by hashtags. What we found was exactly the opposite. Our best users are folks outside of the tech industry, who have a lot of short breaks during their day, and say they only use Facebook for news and memes. They love the simplicity of tagSurf’s interface, and enjoy the ability to tune their feed with a hashtag to control what they surf.
There is no timeline for the beta. Just grow, grow, grow. tagSurf is a thing that gets better the more people use it. So we’re focused on getting our story out there and explaining what we’re trying to do. Although the interface is simple and intuitive, it turns out to be very difficult to put into words. We have great conversion in one-on-one interactions where we can put the product in someone’s hands, but a bit less online where we only have 1-2 lines of text to explain our message before someone scrolls away.
Do you have an exit strategy, or are you just in full-on committed mode?
None that we’re willing to discuss at the moment. We’re very serious about taking this all the way.
UIP: Is it fair to say, this is the Stumbleupon of hashtags, or what might be a better analogy?
PL: That’s a good analogy. We often say we’re the Tinder of Reddit. Another one we hear from our users a lot is Pinterest for Guys. It’s difficult because our target audience rarely remembers Stumbleupon and only knows Reddit as a concept. Back when we started in 2013, very few people knew what Tinder was either, so we got a lot of blank stares. Luckily there’s a lot of press about 2015 being the year of “Tinder for everything”, so we’re pretty confident mainstreet has finally caught up with our concept.
UIP: What is a deep link, and can they be blocked by other apps or websites?
PL: A deep link is just like a web link, but instead of opening a webpage it opens an app on your phone. They’re called deep links because they also provide the app with information about which state it should open into. They might tell the Buzzfeed app to load a certain article, or the Pinterest app to load a specific pin. When we use them we’re essentially deep linking into a state within a mobile app, the same way a URL takes us to specific content within a website.
The question of whether a deep link can be blocked by another app is a bit more nuanced. The short answer is yes, but it’s highly unlikely. Most app makers focus on bringing traffic into their app, not keeping it out.
UIP: It’s been said you’re the Tinder of Facebook; beyond the superficial-level UI, are you bringing users together in any way, aside from showing them the same awesome content?
PL: There’s little user-to-user interaction currently through the app. We felt the initial focus should be on discovering and ranking awesome content, and the best way to do that without sparking privacy concerns is to keep everything as anonymous as possible. Users interact indirectly through tags; each stack of cards has a different order based on the swipes of people who’ve already surfed it. They also interact by adding new tags to organize cards into new collections. Frank curates a tag for his girlfriend called #lifeissmessy that’s a collection of all the things he thinks she’ll like. It makes a nice feed for her to surf, and some of our other users have started making their own tag feeds as well. Anyone can tag anything, so it’s more like a group project to create more specific collections.
UIP: Does tagSurf have any way of policing inaccurate tags?
PL: Hashtag noise on social media is one of the biggest problems tagSurf aims to solve. The tool we use to combat this is our card-swiping interface. When you surf content on tagSurf, we know:
The hashtag you’re searching for
Your opinion on each thing in that feed
Putting those two things together, we’re able to determine a tag’s relevance to content in a way few mainstream social networks or search engines can today. If a piece of content is loved in the feed #funny, that card will move further and further up the stack until it becomes one of the top cards for that search. If the same card is then tagged with an irrelevant tag like #gross or #spooky, swipers of those stacks will downvote it until it drops to the very bottom. tagSurf has so much new content coming in, that once something gets more than a handful of downvotes, it will likely never be seen again in that feed… unless you spend a couple hours surfing a single tag. (Some of our users do.)
With this tag and swiping data, we’re able to determine that #funny is a very relevant tag to a card, while the tag #spooky is very irrelevant. tagSurf currently orders the tags displayed on a card based on relevance. So the top left tag in the list will be its most relevant tag, and the bottom right will be its least relevant, according to swipes. This way we can open the system to be a free-for-all in terms of organizing and collecting things under new tags, while leveraging our surfer’s feedback to keep the feeds clean.
UIP: What does the tagSurf content ranking algorithm take into account?
PL: Everything on tagSurf is driven by user feedback. Each right swipe is an upvote adding +1 to a card’s score, and each left swipe is a downvote taking -1 away. Right now the gain is turned up a bit higher, so swipes actually count as +/- 1 million votes. A lot of the content we get from Imgur can have several hundred thousand votes by the time it comes to tagSurf, so we’ve been tweaking the weight of tagSurf swipes to help our early users have more influence over what trends in each feed.
Favorites also affect a card’s score. When a user taps the star icon to save a card to their favorites collection, that’s a very strong positive signal. Right now, favoriting a card adds 10x the weight of standard upvote, so +10 million to the score.
Our score also includes any existing sentiment known about the content from its original social network. Since most of our best content comes from Imgur, which mimics Reddit’s up/down voting system, we get some very accurate information on existing sentiment for these cards. For other networks, it’s more of a challenge. URX doesn’t provide popularity metrics for their deep links, and most social networks don’t have a downvote option anyway – people don’t want their profile picture next to a downvote. This makes it really hard to ascertain true sentiment behind content on existing social networks. It’s a system that can be trolled pretty easily by over-active users. We’re still working on ways to successfully integrate content from these networks alongside more vetted things on Imgur/Reddit.
UIP: In choosing them as a partner, what did you like that was special about URX?
PL: URX is working on a big problem and thinking about it in a very interesting way. The transition to consuming the Internet through mobile apps instead of websites has locked a lot of content into silos, making it very difficult to get at and share. It’s kind of the opposite of the web, where everything is so free and interconnected. Deep links have the potential to bring this back to the mobile platform, and URX’s concept of making the act of referring traffic into another app a monetizable action is very interesting. App makers spend huge sums of money publicizing their products to drive usage. The ability to refer a user to another app at exactly the moment when that user wants to consume its content is a high quality lead, and something that tagSurf intends to do a lot of. We’re excited to be working with URX on this, and are very interested in its potential to bring an innovative revenue stream to tagSurf.
UIP: Guys, this is going to be huge – what’s phase 2?
PL: The main thing our users ask for is better sharing options for the content they find on tagSurf. When we first launched last summer, we didn’t have any sharing at all. We were so focused on the single user experience of browsing and discovering great things. But after putting the app in a few people’s hands during our private beta, the overwhelming feedback we heard was: “how do I share this card with my friends??”. So we made public weblinks for each card, and integrated with Facebook and Twitter to let our users share content on those networks as well.
These traditional sharing channels have seen some usage, but we still haven’t hit the nail on the head. tagSurf brings you a LOT of great, sharable content. I usually star 5 – 10 favorites during each 20-minute surf. That’s way too much to share on traditional social feeds; where posting more than 1 or 2 things a day gets you labeled as an “oversharer”.
The other thing we’ve noticed is that we usually don’t want to share something with our entire social network. We have just a handful of people we typically think of when we discover something new. It would be great if there were a way to privately share as much content as we want with others without being annoying. A lot of big players are working on this problem right now, but tagSurf seems to have stumbled onto one of the more ingenious solutions. And that’s all I’ll say about this for now. 🙂
UIP: Is this purely entertainment, or are there other angles, say, education, news, that kind of thing?
PL: We’re focused heavily on entertainment right now. There are a ton of news aggregator apps, but far fewer that focus bringing you bite sized content when you’re standing in line at the supermarket. Our integration with URX brings articles from a lot of news sources like #TechCrunch, #FoxNews and #CBS into our feeds, so we’re watching to see if any of those tags take off. For now, it seems that funny memes, photos, and animated GIFs are our best traffic.
As tagSurf grows, we expect it to consume content from more and more sources, and bring it to you based on the hashtags related to your interests. Our ultimate vision is a future where any relevant web page can be posted onto a card, tagged, and surfed according to real time popularity. If there’s an uprising somewhere in the world and the best coverage is from an obscure local news outlet streaming live video, tagSurf will be the fastest way to discover that content as surfers tag and upvote it for the world to see.
Thanks so much Paul, fantastic stuff!
Part of the brilliance of Twitter was that it pioneered the use of new symbols on the damn keyboard right in front of us, so simple, so genius, that now major league baseball teams put an “@” in front of their name behind home plate, and boom – advertising for Twitter in the World Series, with the brevity of one bloody character.
Surfing this totally new, blindingly easy way to categorize information is tagSurf, a more robust, broadly appealing, and some might say, easy to use, app than Twitter itself. Standing in the shadow of Twitter like that, innovating and improving an already great idea, tagSurf is truly unlimited in potential – what a fantastic idea, and it will be a fun one to watch grow.
Since tagSurf is finishing up its early-stage funding round this month, February 2015, now would be the time to check them out.