Switchboard, an anonymous messaging app, made its name on campus last year, debuting during the reading period for Spring 2015 exams. The original version was a smash hit: 17,000 messages were sent using the app during its brief five-day run. Its current incarnation, built by Michael Piazza ‘17, Dylan Jeffers ‘16, Eric Wang ‘19, Natan Moura and Jacob Streilein was released last week and has been downloaded by 203 students so far.
When I asked Piazza to tell me the full story of how he and Jeffers came up with the original idea for the app, he paused. He wanted to keep the story “a little bit mythic,” he explained. That sentiment could come off as presumptuous, but it’s not inaccurate: whenever I mentioned I was writing a piece about Switchboard, someone would tell me their own version of its conception. Dylan and Michael created it overnight; Michael made it because he didn’t want to study for his finals; etc.
Switchboard, said Piazza, was born at a hackathon held at Haverford College in February 2015. He and Jeffers had been a part of a winning team (along with Nader Helmy ‘17, Miguel Gutierrez ‘18, and Simon Bloch ‘17) at a Google Hackathon earlier that year and thought they could easily tackle a smaller-scale competition. “We were like, oh yeah, small fish, Haverford hackathon,” said Piazza. “We went in kind of arrogant, we didn’t really have an idea for what we wanted to do.”
Jeffers said the actual idea for the app came “fairly late” into the hackathon. They knew they wanted to build a messaging app, “but had trouble hitting the right blend of simplicity and expressiveness,” he said. Eventually, they landed on the idea for a messaging app called Message in a Bottle. Users would get a text from a random number that said a message had washed up on the shore from Swarthmore. The metaphor behind Message in a Bottle, explained Piazza, was that there was an ocean between Haverford, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr, and students from all three could send off bottles that would wash up on the shores of other schools. Piazza credits the metaphor to Jeffers: he would start with a metaphorical bent, and they would attempt to weave that idea into every part of the project.
Message in a Bottle didn’t end up placing at the Haverford hackathon (an app by Sedinam Worlanyo ’17, Amy Han ’17, and Razi Shaban ’16, a fellow Swarthmore team, took first place). The app crashed during the two-minute demonstration, and Jeffers and Piazza received a bag of cookies as a consolation prize. “They literally said, ‘this is your consolation prize,’” said Piazza.
Despite the lack of recognition at the hackathon, Piazza and Jeffers maintained that the app was something Swarthmore needed. A transfer from CalArts, a school roughly the size of Swarthmore, Piazza said he is constantly struck by the fact that Swarthmore students know they are surrounded by 1,500 other people but still feel incredibly lonely. “If you go on Yik Yak,” he said, “you see people complaining all the time about how brutally lonely, depressed, and isolated they are. And it can be a depressing and isolating environment.” Message in a Bottle transformed into Switchboard, but the goal behind the app remained the same: to allow students to pick up their phone at any time and find someone with a shared experience to talk to.
As the spring semester progressed, Piazza and Jeffers continued to talk about what their app could be. They put in scattered days of work but hadn’t come significantly closer to a finished project by the end of the semester. No progress had been made on Ally, their app from the Google Hackathon, and Switchboard was stuck in a “halfway state,” he said.
“I did a little evaluation at the beginning of the week and said hey, I can probably spend my reading week not studying, or drinking, or having fun,” said Piazza. “I’m just gonna stay up until 5AM every night with Dylan, and we’re just gonna work on Switchboard.” Jeffers described the late nights as tough: “We were probably slowly killing ourselves, like Swatties tend to do, telling each other that it would all be worth it in the end.”
That version of Switchboard bears essentially no resemblance to the app released a few weeks before. Rather than an iOS app, it was sms-based: users would text a phone number to get plugged into a board (#swat or #vent) and all messages would be routed through that number. The app was purposefully lo-fi: Piazza cited Firechat, an app used by protesters in Hong Kong that routed messages through Bluetooth as an inspiration. “These kinds of decentralized systems that empower users were inspiring to us,” he said.
Theoretically, said Piazza and Jeffers, anyone could have used this app. No smart phone was required, only a texting plan. And people were using it: hundreds of messages were sent on its first night. Both partially attribute the success to timing. “It provided a great way for Swatties to procrastinate during finals,” said Jeffers.
When Piazza and Jeffers saw how many people had signed on that first night, they decided to stay up late one last time. They quickly added a few analytic measures: how many messages were sent, how many people were using the app, which boards were most frequented (the #meetup board in particular, said Piazza, was “unsurprisingly popular”).
All of these analytics measures, along with a few updates, were being made on a live version of the app. That is, they were deploying new code as people were using the app. This was risky, as any mistakes could have interrupted users, but the code held up. By the end of the week, about 250 people had signed up and, in total, had sent 17,000 text messages.
While the first night affirmed how popular the app could be, Jeffers said it also revealed their “crucial miscalculation” of costs. The reason no one had ever used a text message system like this, they discovered, is because it is exorbitantly expensive. Jeffers and Piazza had to pay for the phone number, and each message routed through it cost $0.15. Five minutes after launch, said Jeffers, their initial $20 deposit ran out. 30 minutes later, another $40 was gone.
“As soon as it started to grow,” said Piazza, “we were dropping between $40 and $60 a day on Switchboard.” Piazza, Jeffers, and Jeffers’ girlfriend all chipped in cash, viewing it as a “proof of concept” for the idea, but they shut down Switchboard after their collective $300 investment ran out.
Building for iOS
That first night, Jeffers and Piazza decided that they’d need to make an iPhone app. Jeffers called this a “bittersweet realization.” While both would be in the L.A. area for the summer, they would be working at full-time coding internships that didn’t involve iOS development or relevant skills. Neither owned an iPhone.
Jeffers and Piazza found time to meet after work, splitting their efforts between the front and back ends of the app. Both took an online course in the iPhone development language Switch and brought on two of Piazza’s CalArts classmates, Moura and Streilein, to help build a user interface.
The original plan was to launch the iOS version of Switchboard at the start of the Fall 2015 semester, but it turned out that building an iOS app was “orders of magnitude more difficult than building this little text-message prototype,” said Piazza. Jeffers also had to work remotely this semester, as he hadn’t fully healed from a concussion he sustained last spring.
Jeffers ability to contribute while injured was limited, so Wang joined the team this fall. Wang heard Piazza’s name from a mutual friend, Robert Eppley ‘19, and sent Piazza a message on Facebook. Later that week, Wang and Piazza ordered takeout and talked about the app. Wang, who had previous experience with iOS programming from high school, contributed to the app’s Settings page and fixed bugs in existing code.
Switchboard officially launched on December 2. Their analytics are stronger than those of their initial launch last spring: the team can see when people are using the app, which boards are being used and for what, but Piazza says what Switchboard’s future will be defined by its users. A new #pubnite board premiered last night, and #procrastin8, a board that connects users for a set eight-minute time period, will be implemented some time this week.