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Vax '15: How to hack a Conversation Starter

The very nature of conversation dictates that there has to be a focal point, a starting place from where the discussion springs forth. Whether that’s a discussion about last nights baseball game, or something that happened during your daily commute it’s pretty easy to strike up a conversation with a friend while in person. What isn’t as easy is finding a way to organically explain to your friends or family on social media why they should consume any given story if the end result is just contextless data on the page.

That’s where the Conversation Starter tool comes into play. Today I spoke with Miriam Nadler, a Full-Stack Engineer for Vox Media, who is working with her colleagues Eden, Georgia and Mike to develop a snippet tool for Vox Media sites to solve this problem. Miriam tells me instead of having readers consume media and drop a simple, impersonal link to social networks, that the goal is to include ways to help people start organic conversations, connecting one another to stories on a personal level.

Mike Case

Vox Media Chief of Staff, Mike Case has had his hands full as of late. Given the incredible amount of work that goes into coordinating the planning for Vax ’15 -- 78 people travelling from a large number of locations need somewhere to eat, sleep and work -- he still had time to help bring the concept for Conversation Starter to life. But before you learn the how, it’s important to understand the why.

It began this past April at the #SNDMakes D.C. event, where someone brought up a recent feature published by the Washington Post; named ‘the n-word’. On first read it’s arguably a large, meaty piece of media that takes longer to consume than an average post, and that fact alone might dissuade others from partaking in the experience.

The n-word is a project developed by a team of journalists over at Washington Post, one that explores the origins of the word, its place in American vernacular and how it has evolved to hold various meanings over time. The discussion around the driving force behind this feature was the conclusion that it was unsatisfying to share something so serious with a standard, cold promotional headline. There are no two people on the planet who hold the exact same values, thoughts and opinions. By allowing their readers to impart their personal feelings on the subject matter, the Washington Post presents a more personal, tailored experience they can share with friends or family.


Georgia Cowley, Senior Designer at Vox Media not only worked with the team to come up with the minimum viable product for Conversation Starter, but she helped design it with the following experiences in mind: Experience, Product and PersonalFor Eater it may be useful for a reader who provides information on their epicurean tastes, and who wants their friends to experience a new restaurant or dish with them. On The Verge you might want to know what type of phone is the product best suited for your needs. On Vox there exists the potential to examine not only socioeconomic issues, but provide visual data on personal concerns such as whether your income and social class may work against your chances of going to college.

Again, the potential for sharing personal conversations around rich, web-based content is endless.

Eden Rohatensky, a Full-Stack Engineer at Vox Media, when asked for comment on this year's Vax experience, could only say that working with Miriam was the best thing she'd experienced this week. And it’s nigh-on impossible to dispute that, especially after observing the diverse field of projects happening in the workspace over the past few days. Devoting time to the projects that capture your interest, but don’t normally have time to build is a great team bonding experience. Especially for this team, as both Eden and Miriam are both remote Vox Media employees it’s the first time they’ve worked together in the same space, as well as with many of their colleagues.

The team hopes to present a prototype to their peers by Friday, but most of all they’re excited to see the possibilities on how this is used by not only the editorial teams at Vox Media, but also those who read and consume our content. If you're looking to know more about the minds behind this project you can reach out to them directly over social media at the following Twitter accounts:

Eden Rohatensky

Georgia Cowley

Mike Case

Miriam Nadler

If you're looking to keep up to date with our adventures here on the Product Blog, and on Twitter or Instagram where you can follow the #VAX15 tag to join in on the adventure from afar.