We recently pitched Biograph to the Center for Humane Technology, in response to their call for apps built for Time Well Spent. As this is a cause close to our hearts, and as our responses to CHT’s questions illuminate Biograph’s core principles, we’re sharing excerpts from our pitch here.
Biograph’s mission and lasting benefits
Biograph’s mission is to empower people to author their own lives and make memories a superpower. The app, which evolved from our personal biography business, generates the instant and lasting benefits of storytelling, including increased memory, focus, resilience, empathy, autonomy, and well-being. These accruing benefits promote intergenerational communication and cultures of respect. You’ll experience these benefits immediately upon opening Biograph to compose and recreate privately or with trusted co-authors. Over time, you’ll generate a wonderful library of personal experience.
After five well-spent minutes on Biograph, I feel happy, re-created, and connected to myself and others. I might spend two minutes listening to family members describing a digitized Kodachrome from the 60s with present-day perspective. I’ll spend one minute replying and take two minutes to create a new memory, privately meditating on a selfie along the riverwalk.
Among the lasting benefits Biograph aims to generate is a stronger democracy. We believe this requires counteracting asymmetries of knowledge/power, such as those forged by the predatory ad-based business models of surveillance capitalism. We offer a humane alternative: a private by design, social technology that empowers people with their own storied data and preserves it against the ravages of advertisers, third parties, and time.
We do things differently: Biograph is designed for time well spent
Biograph authors tune into and experience the present rather than endlessly scrolling through content designed to bait and enrage. Users of Old Social Media are duped into surrendering the best parts of themselves, plus their time and attention, in exchange for pseudo-personalization and inauthentic connection. The longer one’s eyes are glued to the screen, the more profit Old Social Media extracts from them. By contrast, Biograph does not exploit but helps authors save time and experience.
Our voice transcription empowers people to write by speaking, whether at home or on-the-go with friends, whether they are skilled writers or novice storytellers. It may take 30 minutes to write 500 words by hand, while most people speak about 100 words per minute. So, five well-spent minutes on Biograph can save 30 minutes of typing or handwriting, while experiencing life unmediated.
Further, Biograph helps people stay organized with searchable audio, visuals, and text. Writing—which is among the best ways to close the wisdom gap—is ripe for innovation. Biograph cultivates Time Well Spent, and ultimately wisdom, by enhancing our ability to write and record experience.
We promote creativity over consumption; championing privacy, rejecting advertisements, and grounding technology in meaningful human relationships united by the common purpose of storytelling. Everything you create on Biograph is private by design. You can invite up to 30 co-authors to lend their voices to each of your stories. As a result, the stories on your Biograph are always relevant to you. Instead of posturing for 1,000 followers or scrolling through AI feeds optimized for attention capture, we present human intelligence from people you know and love who are intentionally sharing stories with you.
We call our community members “authors” not “users.” We do not profit off authors’ attention. We do not extract, sell, or access authors’ data or stories. Our freemium subscription model incentivizes us to invest in improving authors’ experience rather than compromise ourselves for ad dollars. Our privacy controls are clear and prominent by design. In lieu of a “like” button, you can engage with other authors by adding your voice. We celebrate authors’ ownership of their data by providing easy export features and ability to transport stories.
Our interdisciplinary team is united by shared humane principles including autonomy, transparency, and informed consent. As we evolved from a boutique storytelling business to a technology platform, CHT has been our north star and Shoshanna Zuboff’s Age of Surveillance Capitalism is required reading for our team. Whereas Old Social Media is beholden to an inhumane advertising model, Biograph represents a product that begins with humanity and preserves it at all costs.
How we measure success
We measure success by our contribution to the culture shift toward a more humane future. More specifically, (1) how much head-down scrolling screen time we replace with active speaking and listening time (2) and the degrees of improved focus, resilience, and general well-being reported by Biograph authors. We plan to quantify using metrics such as those conceived by the Study of Lives Research Group at Northwestern University, which has codified how “the development of narrative identity plays a vital role in mental health.” By tracking the recurrence of positive and negative words and phrases, for example, these researchers have shown that storytelling improves well-being immediately and over time. However, because Biograph is private by design and we will never access authors’ content, such research will require the informed consent and voluntary participation of any authors who wish to partake.
Core to our philosophy
We’ve been thinking about humane technology from the beginning. Before we entered the digital technology space, while starting as writers and publishers, we conceived our books as social antidotes to the social dilemma. In the preface to Sam’s Tavern (2018), a memoir about our great-grandparents’ Chicago tavern around the time of Prohibition, we wrote:
“Biograph emerged from interdisciplinary curiosity, obsession with optimization, and instinctual need for human connection…. Too much faith in the Cloud and social networks lulls us into a complacent assumption that the best stuff of our lives has been documented and preserved; that the wisdom of our predecessors, not to mention our own hard-won wisdom, will be ready to call upon when we want and need it most. But deep down we know that the accumulated scraps of life – posts, paystubs, tweets, receipts, and selfies – means a heap of nothing if they are not purposefully contextualized by the animating spirit that lives them. We therefore conceive the preservation of life stories not as recollection of ancestors and origins, but also as pre-serving: a proactive form of service for self, family, community, and posterity. Our work is inherently philanthropic in its love for humanity…”
Likewise, at the conclusion of our second memoir, Recorded Time: How to Write the Future (2020), we asked:
“Why should millions of ‘users’ surrender their data, their relationships, their time, the very essence of their lives to social media overlords who sell them out—even now, when we have power to tell our own stories in our own words, to control our own narratives, to know ourselves and be known by others? Instead of spilling our souls into someone else’s commodity, we’ll subscribe to an application that authorizes us to write the future, preserving life to the last syllable of recorded time.”