From a busy Commonwealth Avenue, Boston University students can observe some of their most talented peers working on ventures through the windows of the BUild lab. Inside, a young, energetic, dark-haired woman surrounded by seven students grabs a marker and jots down ideas on a whiteboard. Masks up, emotional barriers down. Gloria Robinson and her team are designing a new way of conversing online—a constructive, interactive, and authentic one. And there’s no time to lose.
“Companies like Twitter or Instagram are trying to get you to be addicted, not to be happy,” Robinson said. “You want to be liked and get that dopamine rush. It’s like eating too much chocolate and feeling horrible afterward.”
For the past decade, criticism against social media companies has mounted. Netflix’s recent documentary The Social Dilemma encapsulates the issues at stake—growing user polarization and social isolation. Now, the generation that grew up surrounded by devices and feeling emotionally disconnected is coming up with fresh solutions. Robinson, a BU student and the founder of the new online platform "Go Off," is one of them. The start-up aims to break echo chambers by letting users with common interests text each other about media content.
After months of experiments with select users, the team will run the platform’s open beta in January. This means that the platform will have gone through the majority of its critical testing and development and that anyone will be able to use “Go Off.”
“People want to feel heard when they’re talking, and a “like” doesn’t cut it anymore,” Robinson said. “On “Go Off,” users’ profiles show what media they’re consuming, which is a much better way to know someone than through photos that their mom tagged them in two months ago.”
Go Off will have conversations for you to get involved in and let your voice #beheard with topics ranging from politics and health to pop culture, personal identity, and more! ? We want to ensure you’re chatting about what YOU love, so send us ideas or pieces of media you want to see on Go Off! ? View the rest of our topics and sign up now for upcoming conversations at www.gooffco.com! #conversations #topics #yourvoice #betalaunch #gooff #startup #techstartup #bostonstartup #signup #media #liveconversations #usercontent
Since her freshman year, Robinson has been attending “Coffee and Conversation,” a weekly event organized by BU’s Howard Thurman Center. This school tradition encourages students, faculty, and staff to gather and discuss the day’s headlines, trending topics, and controversial ideas around warm cups of coffee and freshly baked cookies. This opportunity to engage in civil discourse and listen to new perspectives sparked Robinson’s idea for Go Off.
When Robinson checked news articles’ comments sections, she was frustrated with users’ lack of open-mindedness compared to what she knew from the center. She sought to bring the same attentive spirit that she found at the HTC into a virtual space.
Robinson is not alone in her thirst for constructive discussions online. Her team’s Director of Research and Development Jessica Zheng said that Gen Z is looking to discuss politics, especially after this summer’s surge in activism on social media during the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The platforms we have now aren’t doing us justice,” Zheng said. “In the last few months, our needs have shifted and we no longer want social media to be a place to present the persona we’ve created.”
The debate is happening at 9pm EDT tonight! Do you have a place to share your thoughts? Go Off is hosting two conversations this Wednesday where you can unpack and discuss the debate. If you haven’t already, sign up thru the link to our website in our bio. We hope to see you then! #StayInformed #StayVocal #presidentialdebate2020 #GoOff #beta
Nyah Jordan is a BU student who was part of a group of seven users participating in a conversation moderated by CEO Robinson during the third presidential debate, on October 22.
Jordan said that the platform allowed her to have immediate conversations with people she would not otherwise talk to. Having a moderator ask new questions when the discussion lulled also made her experience fulfilling.
“Twitter and Instagram are more about fleeting thoughts and pictures than meaningful conversations,” Jordan said. “I like ‘Go Off’ because it gives me a safe environment to interact with people that I don’t know.”
Michael Tannous, a BU student who participated in the same discussion, found the conversation intellectually stimulating because he interacted with people that he disagreed with.
“I don’t have social media because my feed would conform too much to my viewpoint for my comfort,” Tannous said. “But I would use ‘Go Off’ because the commentary on that platform is more diverse and intellectually triggering.”
“Go Off” seeks to avoid the formation of sounding boards through moderation, using software to identify when the conversation is stalling. At a time of political polarization in the country, Chief Operating Officer Emma Nelson is convinced that the platform’s intentional design will help users with different beliefs explore new perspectives on sensitive issues.
The company’s clear focus and ability to articulate what used to be an abstract idea is no coincidence. Throughout the developmental stage, Robinson has been adamant about clearly defining the problem that “Go Off” is solving—users’ addiction to social media and desire for more stimulating interactions. Her mentors are the ones to thank for such a coherent definition.
Since October of 2019, when she first dreamed up the idea of Go Off, Robinson has surrounded herself with business professionals at BU who believe in her and her mission.
BU Trustee Cynthia Cohen is one of them. As a sponsor of Innovate@BU, a university initiative that fosters an entrepreneurial mindset in students, she works with students who have unique ideas on a daily basis. To her, Robinson stands out because she is an issue-aware individual.
“There are these pockets of incredibly special students, from MLK to Geena Davis, from Pulitzer prize winners to acclaimed scientists, that have come out of our university,” Cohen said. “Robinson is part of the next generation of leaders. She’s a BU student to watch.”
Yet, as Robinson receives some constructive criticism on the product, she struggles to lift herself up and be as compassionate with herself as she is with her colleagues. As promotional and technical issues have arisen, learning how to deal with a sense of failure has taken a toll on the CEO.
“The last few weeks have been a tough rollercoaster,” Robinson said. “I’m trying to let myself not meet some of the high standards in my head.”
Still, Robinson’s colleagues remain impressed with her energy. Some say that Robinson’s aura and big-picture thinking is what drew them to the venture.
“She is a visionary and a 1920s movie star at the same time,” Zheng said. “I’ve never met somebody whose fire burns so consistently.”