A scene-y newsletter launches a scene-y social network

A scene-y newsletter launches a scene-y social network
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For Tyler Bainbridge to launch his recommendation app PI.FYI, it took years to build up a cult following — and a lot of resentment toward his job.

In 2020, only a month into his engineering job at Meta, Tyler Bainbridge started to feel “a big tech doom” settle over him. He needed a side project to feel good about himself. So Bainbridge did what many millennials in need of a hobby did during the pandemic: he started a newsletter.

Riding the early wave of Substack, he and his friends Alex Cushing and Serey Morm launched Perfectly Imperfect, an email where people — some semi-famous, most not at all — offer recommendations for everything from films and skincare products to vague ways of living. It was, in theory, a response to the faceless algorithmic suggestion. Here, Ayo Edebiri recommends “being high maintenance”; there, Bowen Yang recommends the app Notion; Caroline Calloway recommends a first edition of her own book.

Since then, the newsletter has grown to just shy of 50,000 subscribers and has been described by The New York Times as “a kind of Debrett’s for a clout-chasing universe of Lower Manhattan influencers, podcasters, ‘it’ girls, artists, scribblers, memesters, scenesters” (I only understand 50 percent of that sentence). Bainbridge’s vision for Perfectly Imperfect was always bigger, though. He wanted a more democratic version, one where everyone could participate, not just people with Jeremy O. Harris-level micro-fame. What he imagined was… a social network.

It was not lost on Bainbridge that he was trying to start a social network while employed by the company that runs the world’s largest one. But working there full time, he would never have the space to work on the next iteration of Perfectly Imperfect. He didn’t have the money to quit either. A third option emerged: “I kind of had my fingers crossed that I was going to get laid off,” he recalls.

Bainbridge got his wish and was swept up in Meta’s last round of massive layoffs — 10,000 in total — last May. In the subsequent months, he built PI.FYI, a user-generated recommendation platform. If the newsletter Perfectly Imperfect was an after-work project, PI.FYI became a severance project, funded not by venture capital but the five months of remaining pay from Meta that kept Bainbridge afloat. (Those checks stopped coming last fall — “Now I’m just bleeding money,” he says, clarifying that “this isn’t one of those kind of passion projects from some trust fund kid.”)

PI.FYI launched as an iOS app in beta in November and, as of last week, is available to the public.

The atomic unit of any platform is the post. On PI.FYI, each post is a recommendation — open-ended and categorized nebulously with the emoji of the user’s choice. Opening the app today, the first three recs in my feed: GOOGLING THE COLD WAR, KEEPING A NOTES APP WITH COOL WORDS, SHOPGOODWILL.COM. (Posts are styled in all caps.)

PI.FYI also has some other social media staples: there are comments, likes, and the ability to post an “ask,” a call for a specific kind of rec. Aside from a few other familiar website trappings, the app is deliberately bare-bones. And currently, the feed is reverse chronological. You can see posts from people you follow, or the firehose of “everyone” with no algorithmic intervention, at least for now.

“I think the kind of blind discovery vehicle of a feed of anybody is kind of the ideal way of using the site,” Bainbridge says.

For now, PI.FYI is small — just passing 10,000 users. You can see that reflected on the site, one where Bainbridge himself occupies a kind of MySpace Tom presence. He’s the most prolific poster on his own platform and follows 1,330 people, which at this point, is a huge chunk of the site’s users.

When I joined the beta, I didn’t recognize a single other user. At first, it felt odd reading a feed of recommendations from strangers. Still, over the past couple months, I’ve found it more compelling than scrolling Threads or Bluesky. As those two Twitter replacements have sought, and mostly failed, to capture the energy of madly posting, PI.FYI meanwhile evokes a much earlier era of the internet. For one, it kind of looks like the MySpace-era web. The user base is small enough that it could convincingly be called a community; there’s no foggy algorithmic curation; and with very few engagement incentives, there’s little aggressive behavior.

“I don’t think we’re the things that we like. You’re not, like, an individual because you like Poor Things.”

In fact, if I have a complaint, it’s that the vibes are too positive. For all the Dimes Square-affected associations with Perfectly Imperfect, PI.FYI is surprisingly earnest. The closest thing I’ve seen to a negative post was “bad days,” with a user suggesting that they suck and should be avoided, if possible.

It’s easy to poke fun at a young network, especially when the prevailing criticism of Twitter and Facebook’s early days was, Why would anyone care about what you ate for lunch? But maybe PI.FYI should relish this time, well before it has reached the threshold where bad actors inevitably flood the platform. When I ask Bainbridge when he’ll institute content moderation, he admits it’s something he will have to think about in the future.

“The prompt ‘share recommendation’ itself is kind of a positive action. And to use it in a negative way, it doesn’t feel intuitive,” he says. “So I think the kind of negativity and toxicity you see on a site like Twitter won’t necessarily come here because it doesn’t make sense.”

Time will tell whether that thinking is naive or not, especially if PI.FYI grows to the size that Bainbridge is hoping it will. “I think, in my mind, there’s no reason this site couldn’t be used by my parents or by anyone,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be, like, ‘cool kids’ that would read the newsletter.” He cites Are.na as an aspirationally sized online community, though can’t think of many others with the kind of success and size he’s envisioning. PI.FYI offers a paid “pro” membership that comes with small perks, though subscribing feels like patronage to a budding platform. Bainbridge doesn’t yet have many specifics on other money-making plans.

Our largest social networks have spurred growth by incentivizing people with engagement metrics. Those same incentives have often been what encouraged its users’ worst behaviors. PI.FYI’s ambitions are humble: get large enough to sustain itself (and for Bainbridge to keep working on it) but not so massive that it loses itself. The current size of PI.FYI is the charm. Does it maintain that if it gets big?

Unlike a newsletter, which expresses an editorial vision, a social network mediates connection and communication. It suggests what makes a person: on Instagram, we are our photos and videos; on Letterboxd, we’re our taste in film.

“I don’t think we’re the things that we like. You’re not, like, an individual because you like Poor Things,” he says, pushing back. “But you are an individual because you decided to share that you like to go on a walk when you’re stressed out or, ‘This is how I like to fall asleep at night.’ Those are kinds of recommendations that are a little bit more abstract and not media product focused that I think actually do paint a picture of what you are like.”

It’s not about the post itself, but the act of posting. Which is to say, in the worldview of PI.FYI, you aren’t what you eat. You’re what you tell other people to eat.

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