Why software matters
Simply having access to information is the first step in taking action around a particular cause, whether of cultural, economic, scientific or political nature, and well-designed software is becoming increasingly key in allowing people to create and share information with people across all levels of social domain. Software is also cool because it's scalable: a valuable tool or platform can be used by 100 people or 100 million people without needing to be rebuilt each time.
I started Thoughtblox a couple years ago with a few good friends. We shared the same realization that a key driver of organizational efficiency is how well a group manages the structure and flow of shared information. Thoughtblox lets people build their own content-exchange hubs where they can contribute and discover organizational knowledge without hesitation. So many information streams allow only linear scrolling through endless feeds on one end of a localization spectrum or precise keyword searches on the other. But people don’t always have the time or attention to sift through feeds and folders largely composed of noise and don't always remember exact search words. So we built Thoughtblox to give organizations and communities an intuitive tagging/filtering system that focuses intently on category-driven context of information exchange.
We’ve been fortunate to receive investment for our startup which has allowed us to build out a talented team of software engineers, designers and product specialists to help us develop the best platform possible. Now in its earliest stages of growth, we’re particularly geared to help researchers better manage information flow across large, distributed collaboration networks like universities and health science communities. Members of these wide networks can be domain-specific or interdisciplinary in nature.
Below are a few questions and answers that describe the nature of our product. Feel free to give them a look or to experiment with Thoughtblox on your own to grow collective knowledge among any of your groups and for any purpose. We're soon releasing paid, premium versions of the platform, but its core build-your-own-knowledge-network functionality is now and always will be free to use.
What is your company going to make?
Thoughtblox is a web platform that enables the creation of noise-cancelling knowledge networks for large collaborative groups. By noise, we mean the stuff that gets in the way of what people want when looking through inboxes, folders, chat rooms and social feeds. Thoughtblox lets organizations and communities quickly establish information hubs powered by a system of configurable category tags and filters that significantly improve the context and fluidity of group-wide resources, ideas, knowledge, and discussion.
Some platforms are really good at letting information flow but not letting it grow (Slack, email). Other platforms are good at letting it grow but not flow (Dropbox, Google Drive). These tools are incredibly useful for knowledge management (we actively use each of them), but what excites us about Thoughtblox is that it gives people a space to share information that probably wouldn’t appear anywhere else. Thoughtblox uniquely caters to huge groups who want to grow organizational knowledge that feels conversational, contextual and “alive”. Many have called our platform “real-time social wikis”, “professional reddit, with categories”, or “Slack for groups that are too big for Slack”.
Why did you pick this idea to work on? Do you have domain expertise in this area? How do you know people need what you're making?
I think a lot about how people make economic, political and scientific decisions based on limited amounts of information, and one of the most common ways to get information is directly from people in our networks. Most networking tools today have clunky feeds that don’t offer real-time user-prompted filtering. We started Thoughtblox to give big organizations and communities a better way to exchange and grow information with greater context and sociability.
I have experience in the sociology of science dating back to my biochemistry lab in 2012. Parallel to our intercollegiate study of plant species knockout genes, we codified analytical categories of social capital, information flow, and the spread of best-practice influences across various layers of research environments. We reported clear improvements in scientific output when groups optimized visibility of shared information and influence. My involvement with this biochem lab prompted me to add sociology as a second major so I could further explore how social network dynamics affect scientific acceleration.
Since then I’ve read hundreds of books and papers on information’s role in guiding social action and how with better platform UX we can catalyze innovation. Today, in research settings we find there’s a huge push at every major university to enhance opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. Cross-disciplinary teams simply get more grant money and get published in higher-impact journals, both of which bolster a university’s revenue and reputation.
We’ve spoken with hundreds of professors and university administrators about their current limitations of collaborative spark. In a nutshell almost everyone says they feel like they work within silos: they know the happenings of their field but not what’s going on in other departments and who at any given time would help them with a research question or join together in a team where diverse skills and backgrounds enable unique impact. Professors and graduate researchers love the idea of using Thoughtblox to stand up selectively private institutional networks for sharing posts within or across disciplinary networks, posts which only have to show up to people interested in deliberately toggled categories. They also love the idea of using the same platform to keep discussions and resource exchange moving with colleagues across various conference groups.
What's new about what you're making? What substitutes do people resort to because it doesn't exist yet (or they don't know about it)?
Email listservs let people share information with huge numbers of people, but are not conducive to user engagement and evergreen resource management. Slack is great for discourse between small groups of people, but as the group grows larger, more questions go unanswered and ideas quickly disappear. Tools like Dropbox and Google Drive are perfect for storing large amounts of data, but they don’t create a seamless forum for discussion based around that information.
Thoughtblox takes the best parts of these platforms, throws in our intuitive tagging/filtering system, and lets groups seamlessly share and discover relevant material without the fear of spamming people or scrolling through endless noise.
From the instant a user is added to a group they immediately have access to every post, discussion, and file created since the group was instantiated. In the user's "dynamic feed" she simply clicks a sidebar category and only posts of that category return in the feed. For example, one active ecology department at a large research university uses Thoughtblox to source jobs, internships, lab openings, fellowships, opportunities abroad, funding listings and research questions across a few hundred members. Students are able to toggle "Internships" and "Environmental Conservation" meaning the feed instantly updates to show them posts of only those categories. This fluid homing mechanism is unique to our platform, unlike those limited only to linear scrolling or precise keyword search.
Who are your competitors, and who might become competitors? Who do you fear most?
As team communication apps have become more popular, a number of companies have released 'enterprise scale' versions of their platforms targeted at large organizations (Slack Enterprise Grid, Microsoft Teams, IBM Connections, Workplace by Facebook). However, we haven't seen anything that rivals our system of categorization and compartmentalization of information. There are a few tools geared towards research groups (i.e. Mendeley, Researchgate, Academia.edu), and while a move towards our model may make sense in their future, their current focus rests on publication archive management rather than the more generative stages of collaboration enabled by Thoughtblox.
What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don't get?
Our team comes from varied academic and research backgrounds (aerospace engineering, computer science, economics, biochemistry, sociology, nuclear engineering, veterinary medicine, etc.), so we understand first-hand the pain points of communication in a variety of large networks, especially when trying to share ideas or find collaborators. It’s common for a researcher to use a listserv to send an email reaching 1500 people at once, knowing that the message is relevant to only a handful of those people. We’ve used plenty of team communication platforms, and while they do serve valuable purposes, they don’t address the fundamental issue for groups of >50 members: How do you reach the right people while minimizing spam or shouts into the void?
Filters, not algorithms will save us from feed noise. Today there's tech kool-aid that says "throw AI suggestion algorithms at everything to predict what people will want”. This means we’ll always miss information in Facebook, Quora, YouTube, and now, Slack (*article below), because an algorithm is prioritizing what we read this week based on what we read last week. These platforms overlook an important factor: people like having agency of what they see and what they don’t. What Thoughtblox does better than any other platform is give users quick and powerful control to filter feeds with just a click or two.
Our approach to noise-cancellation means two important things for information flow. First, the otherwise unheard-of feat of rolling out a networking platform that spans an entire university suddenly becomes manageable. Second, information shared with that network can actually grow. Every one of us has been part of a group using Facebook, chat, or email in which valuable information has been lost. So often that knowledge is impossible to dig up because the platform wasn't optimized to let information scale. Thoughtblox means blox of thought. We want to be the best platform in existence to let information surface, stick, and be built upon that would otherwise get buried in a day.