Building Tools for More-Authentic Online Conversation

Building Tools for More-Authentic Online Conversation

When Benjamin Botvinick ’21 and Zack Ankner ’20 (pictured below) traveled to Montreal for McGill University’s McHacks hackathon this year, they knew their competition was strong.

“We went in knowing we wanted to come up with something good and be really competitive, but we were going up against students from MIT, Harvard, and these other great universities,” Zack says.

To their surprise, their project SurfChat, a Google extension that allows people to chat with other visitors using the same website in real time, earned them an Amazon award and offers to intern at the commerce giant. They couldn’t accept the offer, though—they’re too young.

“It was funny, because before the judging even happened, we were approached about internships and had to explain that we’re still in high school,” Ben says. “The response was ‘Sure, that’s fine. You guys are seniors, right?’ And we had to explain that Zack’s a junior and I’m a sophomore. So, a few more years.”

The goal of SurfChat is to bring the spontaneous nature of in-person communications to the digital world. Users of the extension will be able to talk with other SurfChat users any time they’re on the same website—striking up a conversation the same way you might if you were standing in line at a store or reacting to a movie together with another person. Watching a movie online is a far different, more isolating experience than going to a movie theater, Zack says.

“You have your own account, and you can see posts that you made, but you don’t have specific followers—it’s not like seeing only the posts from people you’re friends with,” Zack says. “It’s completely randomized, to your benefit.”

“That’s what makes it unique,” Ben adds. “You don’t post to people who are reviewing your profile. It’s more about having conversations in the digital world in the same way you would talk to someone in the physical world. The reason in-person conversation happens is that we have people all around us. Seven billion of them. And yet when we’re browsing the web, it can be a pretty solitary experience.”

At the end of the academic year, the boys won a contest at Milton called E-Venture Challenge, in which students pitched entrepreneurial projects and competed for seed money—raised by students—to develop their ideas. They plan to focus on marketing the extension to attract more users, and are applying for a provisional patent. SurfChat is available free on the Chrome Web Store.

Ben believes it’s important to improve the depth of communication on the internet. To keep the chats authentic and trustworthy, users are required to display their real names.

“I’m extremely interested in how people communicate, because one of the biggest problems that we have with technology is that with more technology, there’s less communication,” he says. “We spend more and more time alone by a screen, so how can we make those genuine connections? Because as much as Instagram connects people, as much as Snapchat connects you, those are solo ventures.”

A MINDFUL LIFE

“Forever, is composed of Nows,” wrote Emily Dickinson more than a century and a half ago—a message that resonates today more than ever. Modern life—with its overwhelming demands and distractions—makes it increasingly difficult to pause and reflect upon our lives. In this issue, Milton alumni share their stories about the power of living in the Now—of staying present to more fully assess our lives and relationships. We also feature a story about making student mental health a priority, and hear from our faculty about the importance of taking the time to listen and stay connected to ourselves.