This article was first published in the February 2030 edition of Sustain magazine. Ten years since the public launch of GUIDE we sit down with its designers to chat about its origin and what’s made it successful.
It’s a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in the bustling cafe at Tyntesfield house, a National Trust property south of Bristol. I’m enjoying a large pot of tea and a slice of cake with Joe Shilling and Gordon Leith designers of one of the world’s most popular social applications: GUIDE. I’d expected to meet somewhere in the city, but Shilling suggested this as a suitable venue. It turns out Tyntesfield plays a part in the origin story of GUIDE. So its fitting that we are here for the tenth anniversary of its public launch.
SHILLING: “Originally we were just playing. Exploring the design parameters of social applications.”
He stirs the pot of tea while Leith begins sectioning the sponge cake they’ve ordered.
SHILLING: “People did that more in the early days of the web. But Twitter, Facebook, Instagram…they just kind of sucked up all the attention and users. It killed off all that creativity. For a while it seemed like they just owned the space…But then TikTok happened…”
He pauses while I nod to indicate I’ve heard of it.
SHILLING: “…and small experiments like Yap. It was a slow burn, but I think a bunch of us started to get interested again in designing different kinds of social apps. We were part of this indie scene building and releasing bespoke social networks. They came and went really quickly. People just enjoyed them whilst they were around.”
Leith interjects around a mouthful of cake:
LEITH: “Some really random stuff. Social nets with built in profile decay so they were guaranteed to end. Made them low commitment, disposable. Messaging services where you could only post at really specific, sometimes random times. Networks that only came online when its members were in precise geographic coordinates. Spatial partitioning to force separation of networks for home, work and play. Experimental, ritualised interactions.”
SHILLING: “The migratory networks grew out of that movement too. They didn’t last long, but they were intense. ”
LEITH: “Yeah. Social networks that just kicked into life around a critical mass of people. Like in a club. Want to stay a member…share the memes? Then you needed to be in its radius. In the right city, at the right time. And then keep up as the algorithm shifted it. Social spaces herding their members.”
SHILLING: “They were intense and incredibly problematic. Which is why they didn’t last long. But for a while there was a crowd that loved them. Until the club promoters got involved and then that commercial aspect killed it.”
GUIDE had a very different starting point. Flat sharing in Bristol, the duo needed money. Their indie credibility was high, but what they were looking for a more mainstream hit with some likelihood of revenue. The break-up of Facebook and the other big services had created an opportunity which many were hoping to capitalise on. But investment was a problem.
LEITH: “We wrote a lot of grant proposals. Goal was to use the money to build out a decent code base. Pay for some servers that we could use to launch something bigger”.
Shilling pours the tea. Leith passes me a slice of cake.
SHILLING: “It was a bit more principled that that. There was plenty of money for apps to help with social isolation. We thought maybe we could build something useful. Tackle some social problems. Work with a different demographic than we had before. But, yeah, we had our own goals too. We had to take what opportunities were out there.”
LEITH: “My mum had been attending this Memory Skills group. Passing around old photos and memorabilia to get people talking and reminiscing. We thought we could create something digital.”
SHILLING: “We managed to land a grant to explore the idea. We figured that there was a demographic that had spent time connecting not around the high street or the local football club. But with stuff they’d all been doing online. Streaming the same shows. Revisiting old game worlds. We thought those could be really useful touch points and memory triggers too. And not everyone can access some of the other services.”
LEITH: “Mum could talk for hours about Skyrim and Fallout”.
SHILLING: “So we prototyped some social spaces based around that kind of content. It was during the user testing that we had the real eye-opener”.
The first iterations of the app that ultimately became GUIDE were pretty rough. Shilling and Leith have been pretty open about their early failures.
LEITH: “The first iteration was basically a Twitch knock-off. People could join the group remotely, chat to each other and watch whatever the facilitator decided to stream.”
SHILLING: “Engagement was low. We didn’t have cash to license a decent range of content. The facilitators needed too much training on the streaming interface and real-time community management.”
LEITH: “I then tried getting a generic game engine to boot up old game worlds, so we could run tours. But the tech was a nightmare to get working. Basically needed different engines for different games”
SHILLING: “Some of the users loved it, mainly those that had the right hardware and were already into gaming. But it didn’t work for most people. And again…I…we were worried about licensing issues”
LEITH: “So we started testing a customised, open source version of Yap. Hosted chat rooms, time-limited rooms and content embedding…that ticked a lot of boxes. I built a custom index over the Internet Archive, so we could use their content as embeds”.
SHILLING: “There’s so much great stuff that people love in the Internet Archive. At the time, not many services were using it. Just a few social media accounts. So we made using it a core feature. It neatly avoided the licensing issues. We let the alpha testers run with the service for a while. We gave them and the memory service facilitators tips on hosting their own chats. And basically left them to it for a few weeks. It was during the later user testing that we discovered they were using it in different ways that we’d expected.”
Instead of having conversations with their peer groups, the most engaged users were using it to chat with their families. Grandparents showing their grandchildren stuff they’d watched, listened to, or read when they were younger.
SHILLING: “They were using it to tell stories”
Surrounded by the bustle in the cafe, we pause to enjoy the tea and cake. Then Shilling gestures around the room.
SHILLING: “We came here one weekend. To get out of the city. Take some time to think. They have these volunteers here. One in every room of the house. People just giving up their free time to answer any questions you might have as you wander around. Maybe, point out interesting things you might not have noticed? Or, if you’re interested, tell you about some of things they love about the place. It was fascinating. I realised that’s how our alpha testers were using the prototype…just sharing their passions with their family.”
LEITH: “So this is where GUIDE was born. We hashed out the core features for the next iteration in a walk through the grounds. Fantastic cake, too.”
The familiar, core features of GUIDE have stayed roughly the same since that day.
Anyone can become a Guide and create a Room which they can use to curate and showcase small collections of public domain or openly licensed content. But no more than seven videos, photos, games or whatever else you can embed from the Internet Archive. Room contents can be refreshed once a week.
Visitors are limited to a maximum of five people. Everyone else gets to wait in a lobby, with new visitors being admitted every twenty minutes. Audio feeds only from the Guides, allowing them to chat to Visitors. But Visitors can only interact with Guides via a chat interface that requires building up messages — mostly questions — from a restricted set of words and phrases that can be tweaked by Guides for their specific Room. Each visitor limited to one question every five minutes.
LEITH: “The asymmetric interface, lobby system and cool-down timers were lifted straight from games. I looked up the average number of grandchildren people had. Turns out its about five. So we used that to size Rooms. The seven item limit was because I thought it was a lucky number. We leaned heavily on the Internet Archive’s bandwidth early on for the embeds, but we now mirror a lot of stuff. And donate, obviously.”
SHILLING: “The restricted chat interface has helped limit spamming and moderation. No video feeds from Guides means that the focus stays on the contents of the Room, not the host. Twitch had some problematic stuff which we wanted to avoid. I think its more inclusive.”
LEITH: “Audio only meant the ASMR crowd were still happy though”.
Today there are tens of thousands of Rooms. Shilling shows me a Room where the Guide gives tours of historical maps of Bath, mixing in old photos for context. Another, “Eleanor’s Knitting Room” curates knitting patterns. The Guide alternating between knitting tips and cultural critiques.
Leith has a bookmarked collection of retro-gaming Rooms. Doom WAD teardowns and classic speed-runs analysis for the most part.
In my own collection, my favourite is a Room showing a rota of Japanese manhole cover designs, the Guide an expert on Japanese art and infrastructure. I often have this one a second screen whilst writing. The lobby wait time is regularly over an hour. Shilling asks me to share that one with him.
LEITH: “There are no discovery tools in Guide. That was deliberate from the start. Strictly no search engine. Want to find a Room? You’ll need to be invited by a Guide or grab a link from a friend”.
SHILLING: “Our approach has been to allow the service to grow within the bounds of existing communities. We originally marketed the site to family groups, and an older demographic. The UK and US were late adopters, the service was much more popular elsewhere for a long time. Things really took off when the fandoms grabbed hold of it.”
An ecosystem of recommendation systems, reviews and community Room databases has grown up around the service. I asked whether that defeated the purpose of not building those into the core app?
LEITH: “It’s about power. If we ran those features then it would be our algorithms. Our choice. We didn’t want that.”
SHILLING: “We wanted the community to decide how to best use GUIDE as social glue. There’s so many more creative ways in which people interact with and use the platform now”.
The two decline to get into discussion of the commercial success of GUIDE. It’s well-documented that the two have become moderately wealthy from the service. More than enough to cover that rent in the city centre. Shilling only touches on it briefly:
SHILLING: “No ads and a subscription-based service has kept us honest. The goal was to pay the bills while running a service we love. We’ve shared a lot of that revenue back with the community in various ways”.
GUIDE can be situated within the Slow Web movement. There are a host of services offering quieter online experiences. Videos of walks through foreign cities. Live feeds from orbiting satellites and VR outposts mounted on marine buoys and in wild locations around the world. Social features as bolt-on features. But GUIDE’s focus on the curation of small spaces, story telling and shared discovery sets it apart.
Of course, all of this was possible before. YouTube and Twitch supported broadcasts and streaming for years, and many people used them in similar ways. But the purposeful design of a more dedicated interface highlights how constraints can shape a community and spark creativity. Removal of many of the asymmetries inherent in the design of those older platforms has undoubtedly helped.
While we finished the last of the tea, I asked them what they thought made the service successful.
SHILLING: “You can find, watch and listen to any of the material that people are sharing in GUIDE on the open web. Just Google it. But I don’t think people just want more content. They want context. And its people that bring that context to life. You can find Rooms now where there’s a relay of Guides running 24×7. Each Guide highlighting different aspects of the exact same collection. Costume design, narrative arcs and character bios. Historical and cultural significance. Personal stories. There’s endless context to discover around the same content. That’s what fandoms have understood for years.”
LEITH: “People just like stories. We gave them a place to tell them. And an opportunity to listen.”