While the basic functions of social aggregation sites are straightforward—users submit links, and an algorithm sorts them so as to match the interests of readers—the different ways a site can implement those features will often have outsized consequences. They may encourage very different communities, each with its own taste in links and style of discussion.

The team behind Hubski, a relatively recent addition to the social aggregation field, know this. They’re taking their time growing the site in order to ensure that its implementation encourages more than just volume. In a recent string of email exchanges, I talked to Mark Katakowski, Steven Clauznitzer and Ben Buller about how they’re carving out a space on the Web for thoughtful link-sharing and discussion.

CultureRamp: Mark, you started out as a contributor on Reddit before deciding to start your own social aggregation site.

Mark Katakowski: I haven’t completely left Reddit, but I do spend less time there than I used to. There is a popular narrative that I was a disenchanted Redditor that left to “build a better Reddit”, but it’s not the case. Reddit has created an incredible community engine. In fact, Reddit was the reason I went to the Rally for Sanity in D.C., which was my first time at a rally of any sort. I’m not out to improve on what they have done.

My goals for Hubski are to provide a specific type of experience that I value. The extent to which Hubski is similar or different to other sites is mostly a product of that effort.

Steven Clauznitzer: I had never been on Reddit prior to joining Hubski. Since joining Hubski, I’ve intentionally avoided spending time on Reddit. This may sound counterintuitive, but I didn’t want to be overly influenced by an existing platform. I knew that Mark was very well-versed with Reddit, but we wanted Hubski to be something all its own.

CR: How did Steven come on board?

Steven: Mark asked me to check out something he created, called Hubski. He knew that I had never spent any time on Reddit or any other aggregator, but told me that I would really enjoy Hubski. I was hesitant at first, but Mark is a good friend and I knew that if it was something he’s excited about there must be some merit. I quickly saw the potential and really enjoyed sharing post, reading posts and conversing with a small but intelligent community. I had a number of suggestions for Mark regarding the site, and he was glad to receive them.

Then, one day we were out to dinner with our wives and Mark asked me if I would formally come on board as a co-founder of Hubski. It was then that I unveiled perhaps the largest contribution I have given to the site, which is the idea that the hub-wheel could act not just as the symbol for Hubski but also as a voting mechanism.

CR: How did you arrive at that idea?

Steven: Do you remember the end of the movie Predator? The alien triggers a self destruct mechanism attached to its wrist which has some sort of alien number countdown. I had a day dream that the countdown mechanism on the Predator’s self destruct apparatus looked like our hub-wheel. It was then that I realized it could be used as a device to count/measure and not just as our logo.

CR: In what ways has that changed the way Hubski operates?

Steve: Already Mark had set up Hubski without any “down votes”. Using the Hubwheel as a voting mechanism got rid of arrows altogether and thereby set up a way of giving only positive reinforcement on the site.

Also, once a post or a comment gets beyond 8 shares, it can’t go any higher. This takes the ego/gaming out of the equation, making a post or a comment [ways to add] to the community or the discussion rather than to garner “points”.

Plus, it’s a way to integrate the logo into the experience in a fun and meaningful way. It’s no longer just a symbol—it’s a tool.

CR: Hubski bills itself as a “thoughtful” aggregator. Does that trump other concerns, like building a large community?

Mark: Yes, it does. We aren’t out to build the most popular service. We are trying to build one that does something very well. There is a large need for a service that provides thoughtful sharing and conversations, and that’s what we are trying to meet.

Ben Buller: Its generally my position that while Hubski welcomes everyone, many people may not be a good fit for Hubski. The best we can do is try to set an example for the community by being engaging and constructive, especially with those users who reciprocate. In this way, new users hopefully get the sense that the Hubski community highly values conversation.

Steven: There are a number of ideas that we’ve considered that could bring more people into Hubski but could potentially lessen the experience and we always pass on those ideas. First and foremost I think Ben, Mark and I all want to create a place that we enjoy visiting ourselves, a place with integrity. If we stick to that vision, good things will continue to happen.

CR: What’s an example of an idea the team floated that might have drawn in more people, but that you ultimately abandoned as likely to change the experience?

Steven: When we first started Hubski, many people that visited the site couldn’t believe that we wouldn’t let people log in with their Facebook account and integrate the experience with the Facebook platform. There is no doubt that if we were to embrace the Facebook culture we could get more people to Hubski more easily, but I think we would rather eat glass. Hubski has a learning curve and we like it that way. Those that are interested enough to figure it out are often interesting enough to enrich our community.

Profile pictures is another feature that people have mentioned would be “fun” and could get people “more personally invested” but that’s not the kind of personal investment we are after. There are a number of people on Hubski that I’ve never met and while I have no idea what they look like, I know a lot about them: their interests, their passions and what motivates them. I consider many of these faceless people friends and find them no less fascinating because they lack a profile picture.

CR: So, in terms of the design choices you make in setting up a site like Hubski, how do you zero in on the “thoughtful” part of that equation? 

Mark: I use Hubski myself. A large part of the motivation for creating Hubski was to create a place that I wanted to exist. Using the site as I intend it to be used, I experience what seems to enable thoughtful interaction, and what runs counter to it. If we realize that something is wrong for the site, we change it. Generally speaking, I look for solutions that encourage positive behavior over ones that punish negative behavior.

CR: What have been the major challenges you’ve faced so far?

Mark: Everyone wants something a bit different from Hubski, and as a community site, these differences are often discussed. To some extent, Hubski is designed so that people can create their own experience. However, there are shared aspects of the site, and not everyone will ever agree on how things should work, or what is most important.

What Hubski doesn’t do is just as critical as what it does. Sometimes implementing two great ideas can actually lead to a worse experience overall. Probably the biggest challenge is balancing the needs and requests of users with the underlying goals of the site. Part of this is my fault, as I like to get involved and ask for feedback often.

Steven: We don’t advertise and rely almost solely on word of mouth. Therefore it’s been a steady but slow growth, which is good as it is real growth and it has brought about a really interesting community.

However, it is challenging in that we are interested to see how the site scales. It’s a bit like knowing you’ve got the best restaurant in town that not a lot of people know about yet. Part of you wants to see if the kitchen can sustain a larger audience. I think it can.

CR: How do you balance thoughtfulness as the scale of the community grows?

Mark: That is the real trick, and there’s no simple solution. Part of it has to do with maintaining a structure that enables a user to easily control his/her experience, and part of it has to do with the underlying culture of the community. Shared spaces are a double-edged sword. They bring people together, but they can also lead to undesirable group dynamics. Solving this problem is an ongoing part of what we do. I look to behaviors in offline interactions and communities to inform what we do and don’t do on Hubski. It’s actually something that I really enjoy thinking about.

Steven: We’ve been diligent about listening to our community whilst never compromising our vision. This can be a tight rope to walk but Mark, in particular, guards that vision admirably.

CR: That strikes me as being one of the premises that has traditionally distinguished aggregators from other forms of social media. A social networking site like Facebook, for instance, routinely changes the structure and terms of its service, which has the effect of creating temporary gaps between the user’s perception of control and their actual control. Services like Reddit and Hubski, on the other hand, seem very focused on making the user’s experience transparent and controllable.

Mark: That’s true. I see our role as providing fertile ground for meaningful exchanges. A big part of that is respecting the users as individuals, and keeping them abreast of what’s going on.

Hubski relies on the creative energy of it’s users. They aren’t just sharing photos, they are engaging each other in thoughtful conversation. That not only takes time, but is an emotional investment as well. For that to work, the space needs to reflect their presence. That extends into the functionality of the site itself.

People can resent Facebook and still use it. I don’t imagine that anyone that resented Hubski would still use it.

CR: It sounds as though you’re out to privilege the “social” aspect of social news aggregation over the “aggregation” part. How far would you be willing to take that? For example, would it be worth severely limiting the ability to submit links, essentially curbing aggregation in favor of interaction?

Ben: Submitting links is very important; without them we would have almost nothing. But what they are is conversation starters, not ends unto themselves. So, I wouldn’t say that we privilege one type of content over another. I would say that we highly value connections between users, and we think that is what the site is best at fostering.

That said, each user can determine how the site is useful them personally. We will not dictate, nor restrict, what type of content can be submitted by whom, so long as its legal and non-abusive. That’s why I say that the best we can do is try to set an example of what type of place we think Hubski can be. No one is obliged to follow our lead.

People are very used to a lot of negativity on the internet. It is our position, backed up by experience, that positive reinforcement can go a long way to fostering a really awesome community.

CR: You guys recently changed the way that following and tagging works on the site. Can you give me a sense of how you decided on and implemented that change?

Ben: Speaking for myself, the best part about the site is not content discovery, but rather conversing with the community over a myriad of topics, sometimes learning a ton, and sometimes getting to be the teacher. Building rapport, trust, and some sort of online friendship is more important to the virtues of the site than having the most efficient way to discover the latest and greatest from around the internet. Many sites already exist for that purpose, and we probably couldn’t do better than them if we tried.

This is the idea behind the recent change to the way tagging works. Recently, we have had a large influx of users from Reddit. A contingent, though by no means all, of them are disillusioned with Reddit and seem to want a replacement. For those users, tags are a surrogate for subreddits. We neither intend, nor would like, to build a Reddit clone. We therefore made this decision in order to try to encourage people to move away from that way of thinking while using Hubski. One can still tag their posts, and others can search for posts with a given tag, but one can no longer subscribe to tag X directly.

This is a work in progress and could be amended, but for now we plan to let it evolve and see what the community thinks of it after they’ve become accustomed to the new system. We bill Hubski as a thoughtful place. Really, what that means is that Hubski is, first and foremost, about people. That’s the message that I think we are trying send.

CR: Is that normal operating procedure for designing the site? Implement it and see what happens?

Ben: We definitely operate by trial and error when it comes to new features.

For example, a while back we changed the layout of the site to be a three column format. We thought it looked kind of cool, perhaps reminiscent of a newspaper. Everyone hated it. It took only minutes for the complaints to roll in. It didn’t take long to move away from the columns. Responding to the community is important when it comes to the details of the site (design, usability, etc), so long as we don’t let crowd dictate the principles of the site (hence all the fights about tags).

Steven: It’s about people. In life we often meet people because of a topic or an interest. Once we get to know that person we realize that our interests align on a number of topics. Hubski allows for this type of progression. You can search for #science and find NotPhil there, look at his previous posts and realize that you have enough like interests to begin following him. This is just part of the thinking behind the recent changes.

CR: I’d imagine balancing all of this is very time-consuming, but I’ve also noticed a lot of Hubski users praising your turn-around time when it comes to implementing new ideas.

Steven: Let’s just say that we all spend a lot of time on the site and when we are away from it, I’d wager that we are all thinking about it. It’s fun to work on, I think we all take a good amount of joy from it. I know that I have learned a lot from the Hubski community.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.