If I timed it right, I’d make all the lights and speed down Folsom with no hands, the city a foggy blur I glided through on my commute into the office. But such mornings were rare. San Francisco is full of so much I didn’t want to miss. A freshly painted mural outside Philz Coffee on the corner of 24th Street; a mother zipping up her daughter’s purple jacket on the porch of a remodeled Victorian duplex; a bearded man singing a song I couldn’t catch into a glass-bottle microphone. I’d take in all I could as the tunnel of Chinese elms along the southern stretch of the street thinned out and I approached the 101 underpass. With cars rumbling overhead, I’d fix my gaze straight, toward the glass high-rises, and grip my handlebars tight as Folsom arced into SoMa.
It was late October 2010. Those first weeks after launch. Our office was in a windowless room that we sublet from a solar panel company. As hundreds of thousands of eligible singles downloaded our app in search of love, we remained three: the Founder, the engineer, and me. We worked sixteen-hour days, leaving the glow of our Apple displays only to refuel on Red Bull and Nature Valley granola bars. We fixed bugs, wrote code, answered support emails. The mundane essentials of invention.
I arrived at the office to find the Founder and the engineer at their computers, headphones on. The engineer was sporting a San Francisco Giants jersey. The team was in the World Series, but I never heard the engineer talk about baseball, even though sometimes in the evenings we heard fans cheering at the stadium, only blocks from the office. He never talked about anything outside of server errors and software bugs and CrossFit. Maybe he was wearing the jersey for Halloween, I wasn’t sure. I leaned my bike against the IKEA couch, sat down at my IKEA desk, and set to work on the content review queue.
Good morning, the Founder messaged. Can we chat in a few?
Sure, I responded. Just working through the queue.
An app’s success hinges on a combination of luck and product–market fit. One week after we launched, a B-list celebrity tweeted about us. An A-list celebrity retweeted her, and our downloads spiked. We were the App of the Week and gained a quarter million users overnight. TechCrunch wrote of our rocketship growth. VCs walked into our office unannounced, desperate for a stake in our success.
We had our secrets. There’s always more going on under the hood of an app than its creators care to admit. And I felt protective of this system I’d helped create. Especially when my so-called college friends—strivers and ladder-climbers, hoping to “reconnect” after a couple years of silence—flooded me with texts. Is the desperate quotient real? Is it true [celebrity’s name redacted] uses it under an alias? Inevitably, they would become upset by my lack of response, as though my silence conveyed something important about our friendship. And maybe it did. So what do you do there, Ethan? one guy from my freshman dorm asked, after I’d ignored three or four of his texts. Aside from look at porn, I mean.
Content review, I corrected, a term that cast the work as more professional, at least in my eyes. I added that I also helped implement clever in-app solutions for users struggling with serious issues: cutters and anorexics, the depressed and the bullied. If you included “suicidal” in your dating profile, for instance, a pop-up appeared with a link to a website of helpful resources. Out of twenty thousand users who typed “suicidal,” five percent tapped the link. That’s one thousand lives I may have saved. Incredible scale.
DateDate had just hit 1,000,000 users. The Founder liked us to write out the number like that, “1,000,000” instead of “one million.” It was a marketing thing. He said the zeros would help people see the magnitude of our community, though honestly “one million” looked equally impressive to me.
1,000,000 is when I started to feel totally exposed. I couldn’t work on another project for more than fifteen minutes before I was shuttled back to the world of content review. It had only been a couple of weeks, but I was drowning.
I navigated to a webpage called Flagged Photos, an admin-only site that showed a 7x7 grid of images reported by our users. We couldn’t automatically remove photos, because many users reported images that didn’t violate our guidelines. Someone needed to review them. Alongside dick pics and zoomed-in screenshots of porn clips were photos of family reunions, weddings, company softball games. In the grid, I selected the photos that needed to be removed—a racist meme, a snapshot of a woman with SLUT photoshopped across her forehead—and hit Submit. The selected photos disappeared from the app, while the others were allowed to stay. The webpage reloaded to display a new grid of photos.
About thirty refreshes later, I finished. Until another warning appeared in my inbox: Content Review Queue Full.
I made mistakes. With that many photos, they blur together. You see things that aren’t there. Users would email to appeal the removal of their photos, and I’d open a new window to review their deletion. Oftentimes I’d see a photo removed correctly, but sometimes the photos were entirely innocent, not a violation of our guidelines at all: the skyline of some unrecognizable city; a wiry-haired dog running on the beach; a tourist posing at the Leaning Tower of Pisa, pretending to hold it up. In re-reviewing the photos, I wondered how I ever thought they were violations. Were these honest mistakes, a mis-click of my mouse? Or had I seen something then that I couldn’t see now?
You ready? the Founder messaged. I paused clearing out the queue. He rolled his chair over and set his laptop down next to my keyboard. “I want to show you the pitch deck.” The deck was for our Series A investment, the first major infusion of capital into DateDate since our launch. While the angel investors from our pre-launch seed round had contributed money on the basis of their faith in the Founder’s idea, the venture capital firms on Sand Hill Road expected a plan.
The Founder scrolled through slides too fast for me to analyze, but slow enough for me to see that he was proposing several options for monetization. Advertisements, premium accounts, paid add-ons. Regardless of the method, user growth was paramount. The Founder paused on a slide titled “Our Growing Community.” In the slide, he estimated our community would swell to 10,000,000 by the end of the following year. If I’m doing six hours of content review per day now, I calculated, I’d be doing sixty hours per day then.
“Please,” I begged. “Let me hire someone.”
Copyright © 2023 by Josh Riedel