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Boxee Founder Avner Ronen Launches Public, an App to Broadcast Text Chats (EXCLUSIVE)

For eight long years, Avner Ronen tried to reinvent television with his consumer electronics startup Boxee. Now, Ronen is back with Public, a messaging startup that aims to rethink broadcasting itself as a text medium, complete with Gifs and emoji to boot.

“I believe messaging could be a third medium for broadcasting conversations,” Ronen told Variety during an interview this week. “It’s been around for decades on audio (radio and now podcasts) and video (TV and now YouTube). I believe messaging could be a third platform for conversations.”

Public, which launched with an iPhone app and website Friday, can best be described as group chats with an audience. A few active participants chat with each other on a topic, be it “Game of Thrones,” a sports team or “Black Arts & Literature.” All these discussions happen in public, allowing anyone to follow them in real-time or read up on them later. And chats can be embedded on other websites as well as shared via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

One of Public’s first launch partners is Fullscreen, which is using the service for a public chat to promote the newest season of “SummerBreak,” the AT&T-sponsored reality show that follows a group of high schoolers during their summer break. The show has already been using Periscope, YouTube, Instagram and other platforms extensively. Now, cast members are going to chat with each other on Public, with fans being able to follow their conversations. “It’s a perfect use case for Public,” said Ronen.

The Boxee founder got the inspiration for Public a year ago after leaving Samsung, which had acquired Boxee two years prior. In 2015, many messaging apps were looking to add more encryption and privacy safeguards in response to Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance. “My contrarian instinct got me thinking: What would happen if someone would build the least secure messaging platform, where everything you say is public,” said Ronen during our interview, which was itself conducted on Public. “Hence the name.”

Public in many ways competes with Twitter, which has long attracted celebrities as a medium to speak directly to fans. But having long conversations on Twitter can be challenging, because the back-and-forth can get lost in a maelstrom of unrelated tweets. What’s more, Twitter allows anyone to chime in, which can lead to a lot of noise.

“It is very hard to maintain a conversation when there are too many people talking,” said Ronen. Public on the other had is more like a panel at a conference, where a few people speak, and many listen. Members of that audience can still comment in a sidebar, ask questions and even ask to be invited to join as guest participants.

But the organizers of a Public conversation can also delete comments, and anyone can block a user. Said Ronen: “Hopefully this structure will provide for a safe, positive space where people can have meaningful conversations.”

Public raised a total of $2 million at the end of last year. The company’s app launch comes two months after Twitter’s former VP of product Michael Sippy released its own group chat app dubbed TalkShow that uses some similar ideas. However, Ronen didn’t seem too concerned with his competition.

Instead, he argued that the real test will be whether consumers are actually ready to read chats  much in the same way they have been consuming podcasts and late night TV talk. Said Ronen: “The format is very familiar, but chat has never been a spectator sport.”

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