We talked to one of the minds behind wildly popular polling app Wishbone to find out why millions of teens are posting hundreds of thousands of pieces of content there daily.
The app market is more competitive than ever, so when one platform manages to build a following of millions of young users in a matter of months, it gets attention. Wishbone, which was featured in the New York Times earlier this month, is a social networking app that lets users easily poll their friends about pop culture preferences. Since May of 2015, they have drawn in over three million mostly-teen users who post hundred of thousands of simple, two-choice polls—or cards—a day.
We talked to Mike Jones, the founder of venture studio Science, the company behind Wishbone, and former CEO of Myspace, about why the app is appealing to teens, how things have changed in social media in the last ten years, and how brands can engage with the app’s active young users.
Ypulse: Tell us about Wishbone’s user base and how the app started.
Mike Jones: I’ve been working in pop culture for a long time—I started a magazine in college that was focused on the interest of teens and young adults, I started a startup after that that I eventually sold to AOL, I became an active angel investor, and then I took over Myspace when Myspace was fighting the Facebook battle. Then I started Science, where we work with early stage entrepreneurs on ideas and sometimes build some of our own ideas.
About a year ago we started building concepts specifically targeting entertainment needs within teens, and our thought was that there is this massive change in entertainment. For us, it wasn’t about thinking, “What do you do in the wake of cord-cutting?” it was, “What do you do when people don’t own TVs, and all they do is consume entertainment on phones?” We started thinking a lot about teens, how teens use phones, and how teens entertain themselves on phones. Being that I had a history at Myspace, I knew a lot about social media, and we started experimenting with stuff that we thought was interesting to teens. One of our first apps, and lucky for us one of the most successful ones, was Wishbone.
Wishbone’s concept is allowing people to put up their pop culture choices—brands they love, or bands, or musicians, places they want to go—they could express themselves through these choices, and other users could select one or the other. It wasn’t about someone being cool or not cool, it’s not about someone saying your photo is liked, or not liked. It’s saying, “Here’s two really neat things, what do people think about these two things?” We really guided into the thesis that the app wasn’t going to be focused on personal stuff, what dress you’re wearing or makeup you have on, but around pop culture preferences.
So Wishbone was born, and we have a lot of teens now who use it every day, posting their preferences and posting their favorite things, from celebrities, media, television, movies, and music. Content is created through the community. Hundreds of thousands of cards a day are created, which people publish to their friends within Wishbone. Then we select some every day to feature to the whole community.
YP: What is the Wishbone target user?
MJ: Our target user is probably a 14-21-year-old girl who lives on her phone. She uses Snapchat, Instagram,..She’s bored on her phone, wants more to do on her phone, wants to talk about her favorite things, and she’s developed content on Wishbone to express those favorite things.
We definitely have a male audience as well, but a lot of the content is coming from our female users.
YP: Why do you think that the app is seeing success with young consumers?
MJ: I think it makes people feel good. So unlike a lot of the angst that a teen might go through when publishing an Instagram photo—whether it gets enough likes, or shares—with Wishbone you don’t have that angst. The content you’re putting up is probably two of your favorite things, and you want to know what other people think, it doesn’t reflect a negative component of you. People on Wishbone are super-active so they vote on a lot of things, and they’re excited about that voting, and to see how people vote on their content. So they generally feel good.
Also, these users are at a transformative point in their lives. They’re thinking about their preferences, they’re thinking about their identity. Sometimes they’re expressing that identity through the cards they’re creating on Wishbone.
YP: How important is positivity/inclusivity in social platforms, and Wishbone’s ethos?
MJ: For us it’s important. I definitely think that teens are savvy, and I think they’re tired of the perfect kind of content that’s required on other social platforms. They want to have freedom in what they post but they don’t want to feel shamed. We like to create an environment where people can express themselves, through media, and they can feel good about that. We’re trying to allow a positive expression of content versus a judgmental one.
YP: Do you see that as a shift that has happened? What’s different about social media from when you were working at Myspace to now?
MJ: I think when you’re working with teens, there’s a lot going on in their minds in terms on who they are and how they fit into the world…and if you give them platforms uncontrolled, you end up with a lot of uncontrolled responses. I don’t think it’s something you can prevent; you just have to be cautious around it. With Wishbone, we felt the world had enough platforms where people could randomly post, or broadcast themselves in whatever way they wanted, and we wanted to do something different. We focused on entertainment, as a kind of core content, versus people’s personal media.
I think relative to Myspace, users today are definitely more savvy as it relates to content. Ten years ago, there was that first awareness of, “Everything I post on my Facebook might be there forever.” So I think you have teens that are much more aware now of how content lives.
I think the second piece is that teens are becoming more aware of the idea that apps like Instagram are often portraying a fantasy life. I don’t think that’s necessarily changed their attitudes towards participating in it. They might look at it with a little bit more skepticism, but Instagram is an incredibly powerful platform that is not going away anytime soon. I think people understand that it’s about posting the best photo, and the best version of your life, you post the absolute best most fantasy persona of yourself. So they may have changed their savviness, but I don’t think they’ve changed their behavior.
YP: Do you think that Wishbone serves as an antidote to all that fantasy?
MJ: I think it’s probably a simpler answer than that. Teens have a lot of time on their phones. They essentially have this television in their pocket with two primary channels: Instagram and Snapchat—and they have way more time than they have channels. So we’ve created a compelling, entertaining experience for them that makes them feel good. Hopefully we’re going to become one of those core channels for them. They want more content. They want more things to do.
YP: What should brands know about Wishbone?
MJ: We love talking to brands, and we have a platform where we can drive opinion and choices relative to brands. We work with a lot of movie companies. Whether it’s Katniss Everdeen versus Hermione Granger, or whether you’re going to see the next Star Wars or not, our audience creates a ton of content around media. We have information regarding how people feel about characters or actors, celebrities, or upcoming films—and to a certain extent it’s more information than a lot of studios have. So we spend a lot of time talking to entertainment brands because we have a treasure trove of activity that they can engage in. There are quite a few studios that are building accounts on Wishbone, to allow their fans to connect with them.
There are other brands I’ve seen use it in smart ways, where they’re actually putting up upcoming fashion lines, upcoming looks and styles on Wishbone to understand the temperament of that teen audience. There’s not very many places where you can post something and get tens to hundreds of thousands of votes on it in a few hours. So I think a lot of brands are starting to use the Wishbone platform to get feedback from teens, which is exciting and fun.
YP: How does branded content work on the platform?
MJ: We have updated throughout the day a kind of “daily dozen” and community feed, where sometimes we’ll feature a brands’ content—there might be one card out of 50 that maybe we would select and push there. But most of it is being discovered organically. Some brands and publications have direct followers—we’ve seen Tiger Beat and other teen-focused magazines now on Wishbone, or Milk Studios, or different fashion brands that are using it to talk to their audience. In that case it’s the audience they drive, similar to Instagram or Twitter. If they drive lots of people to follow them, then they get a lot of people to vote on their content.
Since you were part of Myspace when they were struggling, what do you think Myspace’s biggest mistake was?
MJ: Well, when Myspace was formed, it was really the first massively scaled social software that had ever been released. It educated a large part of the world that there could be this kind of platform where you have your identity, and you could communicate with people, and it could be safe, and there could be a really neat benefit to having this version of you that lived within a platform. That was the good part, right? The bad part was it was a very version 1 of that system. As the population initially engaged with these behaviors they wanted a ton on anonymity. It was a time when, for instance, people weren’t comfortable putting credit cards on websites for online shopping. It was a very different time in the internet’s history.
What you realize as you build social software is it becomes even better if you actually don’t have anonymous content. If you’re allowed to talk to your real friends, it’s twice as exciting as allowing you to talk to anonymous people. Then Facebook comes out, and releases a fully true friend graph system that takes all the great things about social software but connects you to people’s real names. That’s a big turning point. People realized social software is good, anonymous isn’t great, oh look, now there’s a true identity platform in Facebook, oh that’s even better. I’m not sure there’s much Myspace could have done to prevent it. Myspace started as a purely anonymous system, and that’s the way it had to be done at that time, and I’m not sure Myspace could have moved away from that and stayed relevant.
YP: Is there anything you’re excited about for Wishbone’s future in 2016?
MJ: Luckily, I know that great software needs to iterate fast, and stay ahead of the needs of the audience, and we push new builds almost every two weeks. I’m super excited about specifically what we’ll be pushing in February. I can’t really announce it yet, but I think we’ll be expanding the way that you can interact within Wishbone shortly, and I think it will further excite our community.
A longtime entrepreneur and the former CEO of Myspace, Mike Jones now serves as the CEO of Science Inc., a Los Angeles-based company builder that nurtures successful digital businesses by bringing together the best ideas, talent, resources and financing through a centralized platform. In the last year, Science has shifted toward building out their mobile group, focusing on mobile entertainment for Millennials, and has launched several apps including Wishbone, which has more than 3.1 million monthly active users and holds a top 20 spot in amongst Social Networking apps. Reach him @mjones.
To download the PDF version of this insight article, click here.