Nearly 10 years ago, I launched a small chat tool.
Somehow, through a lot of luck, and a bunch of hard work, it managed to become popular among classroom teachers as a way to enable new kinds of conversations.
Now it's time to say goodbye and move on.
In early 2008, social media was a vastly different place.
Twitter was barely over a year old—and lacked many of the features we take for granted today, like real search, and built-in hashtag support—but already making an impact on education. My father had seen the news about audiences "live tweeting" talks at South by Southwest, and asked me one day if I knew a good way to have a live stream of tweets with a given hashtag he could project on a wall during a class he was teaching.
Twitter's main search was still an external tool called Summize and it tended to lag behind real-time by a bit (Summize would be acquired by Twitter in mid-2008 and integrated shortly after that). "But," I said, "I've been playing around with real-time comments for blogs. I could get rid of the blog post and put it on a website for you." And that's the origin of TodaysMeet.
"TodaysMeet" was first name we thought of that sounded reasonably close and the
.com domain was available. I wrapped the prototype I'd been building in my best attempt at a user interface, and put it on the web for the fall of 2008.
There were a few early experiments. At one point you could import tweets with a given hashtag into your room (at the time, Twitter was much more open about how tweets were displayed). But for the most part, TodaysMeet ran on a single server hosting a number of other projects, and I didn't think about it too much.
During the next few years, without me really noticing, TodaysMeet was gaining some traction among teachers. Those students in my dad's class all went into education. They brought TodaysMeet to conferences and into their classrooms. They shared it on their blogs and even in a couple of books. TodaysMeet owes all of its success—and I personally owe so much—to those early, eager, curious users.
Until, in 2012, I went to a Presidential debate party at a friend-of-a-friend's apartment. By the time I'd gotten to the party, my phone had already blown up with alerts that TodaysMeet was struggling under a huge increase in use! I spent most of the debate in the kitchen, on a laptop borrowed from the host, editing TodaysMeet live, hoping to keep it mostly available.
Over the next few months, I rebuilt TodaysMeet from the ground up and relaunched it in May 2013.
The new iteration allowed me to add a few features teachers had been clamoring for, and in response, more and more teachers used and shared it. A year later, by spring 2014, TodaysMeet had grown significantly—and was costing me a decent amount to run—so I left my job to concentrate on TodaysMeet full-time.
2014 saw a series of huge changes to TodaysMeet: it became possible to sign in to manage your own rooms and moderate the comments. Rooms became embeddable. And the biggest: a premium subscription option called Teacher Tools. For the first time, TodaysMeet could sustain itself financially.
TodaysMeet has always been just me. I've done everything from answer the emails and tweets to design and build new site features to answer a pager when it goes down. While I cannot even begin to express how much I appreciate the opportunity the users have given me to build a product that meant so much to so many—I am humbled to be part of hundreds of thousands of classrooms and impact the lives of literally millions of students—it has been tough, at times, to keep up with it. TodaysMeet makes enough money to keep itself going and pay for the occasional vacation, but not enough to make it my full-time job. And having no one else has meant I have been on-call essentially 24/7 since 2012. (For example, I haven't traveled without a laptop since then, and even so, there has been downtime while I was on a plane.)
So, in 2015, I went back to work full-time and TodaysMeet became a nights-and-weekends project again. The pace of changes definitely slowed down. I have a huge backlog of projects, small and large, that I'd hoped to build.
Protecting the privacy of the students' who use TodaysMeet has always been one of my highest principles. At the same time, teachers need both accountability and ease of use, which has required an incredibly difficult balancing act. And it must be done while adhering both to the letter and the spirit of the law, whether it be COPPA or state laws in the US or, now, the GDPR in Europe. I have been an advocate for privacy and user control of data in general, but when dealing with the youngest users, it takes on a whole new urgency.
The GDPR is an important step in the evolution of our rights of privacy and over our data on the internet—even if there are issues with some of the details. However, for TodaysMeet, it has put me in an impossible position.
If TodaysMeet could ever be made compliant with the GDPR, it would require completely re-imagining how it works and how participants interact with it. Compromises that were possible to comply with COPPA would no longer be suffice. The ease of use that has made TodaysMeet so popular would almost certainly have to change. And doing all of this would require more time and effort than I have to give right now.
TodaysMeet is also an anonymous chat tool in an era of the internet I never anticipated. Periodically I've been called upon by schools to help with incidents of amazingly hurtful, abusive, and downright violent language. I have removed some really unbelievable material and I know that there's more out there that hasn't been found or reported. Every time it's a reminder how critical that accountability is, and it has made me wonder if TodaysMeet is actually a force of good in the world. I'm still not sure. I think it certainly was, for a while.
TodaysMeet has taught me more than anything else I have ever done. I have done product work, design, development, operations, database administration, security, business ops, customer service, social media, marketing, and more (with varying levels of success, of course). It is an incredible privilege to have had this opportunity, even it has sometimes felt like an obligation.
I'm incredibly proud of a lot of the work I've done within TodaysMeet and hope to be able to leverage or open source a lot of the technology, and blog about parts that are more practice than code.