Optimism has been part of my nature for as long as I can remember. As a child I remember watching my favourite football team thinking we’d never lose. I’d believe we could win until the very end of a game no matter how badly we were losing or who the opposition was. I felt (because it’s true!) that anything is possible until that game is over.
My youth also included the arrival of social media into our lives. For all its fun, soon seeing people speak online made me question my intuitive optimism about other people. Still today, reading Twitter conversations feels like an alternate universe to the politeness of conversations offline. Discourse on social media intensifies social problems like loneliness, and political polarisation. It incentivises soundbite politics and has inflamed the culture war. Pessimism in this context is tempting. Fortunately though, this game is far from over.
Academic research shows that current social networks either encourage us to be more outraged and abusive or disproportionately amplify the minority actually like that. Toxicity is the result of the platforms we inhibit rather than just the way people are. These platforms were initially designed unaware of the problems they could create but also consciously tap into our worst impulses and play off short attention spans to sell advertising. This may seem an optimistic takeaway but, again, it is true: the toxicity is not inevitable.
Much of our lives are still spent in the real world, offline. We aren’t in the metaverse yet. And still people reinforce my optimistic outlook, for there is greatness all around us. Just a few months ago - true story - I was in a London black cab in which the driver turned out to be an expert in philosophy. He spent the 20-minute journey explaining, in detail, the ideas of Kant, Hume, Locke, Hegel, Marx - he was getting into Buddhism as we pulled up to my home. I’m optimistic conversations like this (intimate, detailed, fun) can happen online, at scale, if only there was a platform that made these types of conversations their main priority.
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Collate is that place - a platform for online letter correspondences between political, cultural and intellectual leaders and the public, in public. How and why this works:
1. The beauty of letter-writing. Written correspondence allows for contemplation, detail, and asynchronous discussions between busy people. Letters are literary and historic and have an etiquette associated with them that we think will help great conversations flourish.
2. Less is more. On any online forum, the quality of posts decreases as the quantity increases. Not enough effort goes into most posts and it becomes harder to find the good stuff. We are increasing the barrier to entry for posting by having a 100-word minimum on all letters. You can also only respond to letters addressed to you or those where the author has addressed their letter openly to everyone.
3. Protected conversations. Due to our replying rules, once correspondence is ongoing between two people on Collate, others can’t join in. Much like a conversation in real life - where a stranger jumping into a conversation you’re having on the street and shouting “YOU’RE WRONG!” isn’t common. With one-on-one, relationships can grow and ideas fleshed out.
4. Transparency as a feature. Everything you read on Collate is stored in your Letterbox as well as your public profile. This means everyone has access to everyone else’s reading history. This ensures people read letters before replying to them and is a fascinating way to discover new content and learn about a person’s interests. What is President Obama reading, I wonder?
5. Just the start. Collate will constantly improve as we learn from you, our community, on what you need to have better conversations online. Our product will undoubtedly evolve as a result, but the target of maximising the number of high-quality online conversations will remain.
Mission: leaders, ideas, togetherness
Collate exists to bring great minds together for conversations that will change the world. Specifically, by identifying better leaders, discovering great ideas and building human togetherness.
It’s a paradox that political, cultural or intellectual leaders—those most revered in society—suffer some of the worst abuse online. On Collate, leaders will face less abuse and should feel welcome to share their nuanced views. Members of the public who engage thoughtfully can get in-depth access to scrutinise and understand their leaders. Leaders can then benefit by proving themselves in standing up to comprehensive scrutiny and displaying substance in their thinking. By rewarding leaders willing to do so, and exposing those who don’t, our societies can discover the leaders we deserve.
Collate is a place for experts to correspond with each other, in public. Experts possess exceptional knowledge or insight in their field that help the rest of us better understand the world. Experts publicly corresponding with each other can extend this further. Understanding something on a similar level means experts can ask each other better questions, empathise with the other person’s perspective more accurately and have more to teach/learn from the other compared to a journalist or layperson. This back-and-forth allows the expert pen-pals to extract more insights from each other than they may produce alone.
Collate correspondences aren’t just about who’s involved, but how they’re conducted. Polarisation is a big problem, but the solution is simple: talking it out. Collate is a safe space for disagreement with letters as a useful tool. Letters are a medium in which people communicate respectfully even if they disagree strongly. Our world is so complex that the smartest and most enlightened are still often wrong. Contrary to “great minds think alike”, great minds actually think differently, and disagree often. We need to be able to talk through our differences assuming even those we disagree with act in good faith. Collate is where we move forward (when necessary) into difficult conversations with good humour and empathy.
The combination of better leaders, amazing ideas and more unity is the powerful recipe for progress we are aiming at.
Join us, write to the leaders you care about, and let me know what you think with a letter in response to this one.