In an act of clairvoyance, Hugh Dornbush and Alex Lasky snatched up the domain Selfie.com two years ago, when the word wasn’t yet a ubiquitous part of the lexicon. Their idea for an app was definite, but its title wasn’t so concrete until they encountered the term by chance and realized it was a perfect fit. Along with a third partner TC Meggs, their goal was to make social media actually social. Sure, Twitter lets us troll the Kardashians and Instagram allows us to curate our lives in beautiful, filtered snapshots. But Selfie allows people to talk face to face via their smartphone’s front-facing camera. You can post videos of yourself on other apps, but Selfie brings the human element back into our modes of communication as we stare at our phones and force people to respond to each other with themselves as they would IRL. Imagine if Vine and Snapchat eloped and used IVF with a front facing camera. Selfie would be their baby. We chatted with the founders about Selfie’s endless possibilities, playing chess in nightclubs, and how they’re planning on conquering the social app world starting today.
How did Selfie get created?
Hugh: Alex and I have been working on it for about two years now. After working on another startup before that in the celebrity and entertainment space, we one day figured out that there was a new direction we should be taking. Everyone is at this point where we’re always connected to other people through our phones, through things like text messaging and social media and whatnot, but when we interact with other people it’s not with the actual person—it’s with an alert or a status update or something that’s a non-human representation of a person. So we thought there needs to be a social platform where people interact in person, and started making this project. Soon into the project, we were looking for a name and came across the world selfie.
Alex: We knew what we were going to do, but for five days we were banging our heads like what is it, what is it? Then one day we went to a restaurant and saw these two girls taking a photograph of themselves on their phone and I said, “Do you want me to take that for you?” And the girl looked at me and said, “No, it’s a selfie.” I was like, “A what?” “A selfie.” I said, “Who calls it a selfie?” And she’s like, “Everybody.” I hadn’t heard about that but immediately I called Hugh and told him to look up selfie. We found it on urban dictionary and it had its definition and it was trending, and we saw it as the perfect word for what we were. For us, selfie was by definition the extension of yourself, your personality, your human self in social media.
What exactly is Selfie?
Hugh: We’ve been working on a video-based way for people to communicate. Everyone in the world can sort of meet in person and communicate face to face both publicly with people that you may not know already and with family and friends. It’s a time to evolve the selfie from what it is now, which people largely associate with a still photograph, to something that’s a living, breathing person.
Alex: One of the most amazing parts of it is when two people who have met each other or follow each other on the app meet in real life. There’s no sense of not knowing them or “Oh, you’re my Facebook friend” or “I follow you on Twitter.” That doesn’t exist. What exists is “Hey how are ya.” We already know each other and there’s that really amazing feeling that everybody has and it’s so cool. I was in the office and a guy named Lewis who’s on the app came in, and I saw him walking down the hall and said, “Hey Lewis,” and he goes, “Hey Alex.” I kept walking then stopped and was like, “Lewis?” He goes “Yea Alex?” “Have we ever met in person?” He goes, “I don’t think so.” And we hugged. It’s a totally wild experience.
How does Selfie stand out among Twitter and Instagram besides being able to speak to people and have conversations?
Hugh: It’s not exactly about how we’re different from any particular product, but we saw that there was something overall missing, which was that you tended to not interact with human participants on the other end. With Selfie, you’re not reading a text transcript of an idea that someone had, but you’re seeing a person at a moment where they’re communicating an idea and all the other things that go along with it, like the way their face looks and the sound of their voice. It’s a place where everyone can go and interact with anyone face to face, the way we know how to do it best.
Alex: It’s great to get a like, but when someone that you know smiles or laughs or says something back to you, that feels awesome. When you meet someone on Selfie, you get a sense of their personality. Not only that, but you see interesting things like their kitchen, you see them cooking, or brushing their teeth. People will Selfie during coffee breaks at work, show us around where they work. There’s a guy who every Sunday has a BBQ on his terrace with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve known him for a long time, but I’ve never known what his Sundays were like.
Do you think people are going to gravitate away from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. and use Selfie instead?
Hugh: I think that what we want is for people to find a lot of applications for Selfie. We made a place that we think can support a whole lot of ways that people want to interact with one another. I have noticed more selfie photos being taken and then selfie photos turning into selfie videos, and you start to see people talking outwardly, but there isn’t another app where you reply to a selfie video with a selfie video.
Alex: Some of the ways people are using it now is just chatting with each other, keeping up with each other during the day. Some people are starting a conversation, then some people are creating their own shows in a sense and doing something that’s a daily routine. I’m actually in the middle of a Selfie chess game with a guy Fred who teaches children how to play chess on a Youtube show. I got on Selfie and said to him, “How might one play chess on here?” He just said, “Game on.” We get creative.
Chat Roulette and Youtube have had issues with people getting grimy. How will you guys deal with or prevent Selfie from getting abused or misused?
Hugh: A lot of different ways. One is to do all of the responsible things from a product and legal perspective. For instance, if you see something that’s inappropriate in any way you can flag it for review and block a person. The terms of service are not unclear about the type of stuff that’s permitted. On Chat Roulette, one of its key features was anonymity, which led to a certain kind of behavior. Selfie is really different because your identity within the community is you.
Alex: People are already policing each other a little bit. There was an instance where a guy said something mean to a girl. Then the girl responded back to him kind of acknowledging what he said, saying okay. He replied saying, “I’m really sorry, I saw on your face that you looked upset by what I had said.” And he went back and deleted his original Selfie. The community works and looks out for each other.
Celebrities are all over Twitter and Instagram. Do you think they’ll start using Selfie?
Hugh: We think it’s a pretty good platform for a person that has a point of view to express, and celebrities and public figures are often looking for exactly that.
Alex: There are a lot of celebs that really are good at social media and they create their own stuff and love their fans and want to give their fans a chance to feel connected. This is the most connected way possible.
What do you think gives Selfie the highest chance of success?
Hugh: I think it’s the thing that’s most native to it which is that it shows off one another as actual people, which you don’t get anywhere else right now. It’s a way for everyone to get together in a way that they’ve never been able to get together and interact before.
Alex: Think of the future in a bunch of sci-fi movies where people are looking at a screen and everyone’s accessible there. Or you touch a picture frame on a wall and the person you’re talking to comes out. Why not make this start? Why not now?
What’s the most interesting Selfie you’ve seen posted so far?
Alex: One of the most emotional Selfies was having followed this guy Walter and his family to China to see him reveal his new adopted son. You can’t not smile and feel the emotion that’s involved in that. The first response that came in was from a user who said “Wow, that’s amazing to wake up to. I was adopted myself and the circumstances were different, but that was something.” That was pretty moving.
Hugh: There’s this Selfie user who’s in a band that’s big in the Netherlands, and he had been communicating with a girl via Selfie that was a big fan. One night the band was performing and he recognized her in the crowd, from Selfie, pulled her onstage, and made a Selfie to capture the moment.
Is there anything you fear about what can happen once it’s launched?
Alex: Let’s put it this way. At night sometimes we’ll call each other at three in the morning because we have been having nightmares where we dream in Selfies. We have been at this and fighting and pushing for so long to make this a product because it’s our passion and we believe in it. We think its a product people will love and enjoy and we just hope we achieve that.