While social media platforms like Facebook use algorithms to push users towards people and groups that share the same ideas and beliefs, a new platform co-created by a University of South Florida alum encourages communication between people of different mindsets.
"It's breaks you out of that echo chamber, that bubble," said Will Cohen, one of the brains behind the website Bridges. "You're actually able to connect with others and experience other different forms of opinions and ideologies."
As part of a new, ongoing monthly series, University Beat is profiling an entrepreneur with ties to the University of South Florida - it could be a current student, alumni or faculty member.
Cohen graduated from USF in 2006 with a BA in advertising. From there, he went to work doing social media and mobile marketing for Dillard's and Triad Retail Media, where he handled digital advertising accounts for clients like Walmart, Toys“R”Us and Staples.
Cohen then struck out on his own, forming Top, Inc., a Ft. Lauderdale-based digital marketing and technology company.
That led him to Bridges, which Cohen and co-creator Heath Fogelman of Dunedin came up with in the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"We were starting to realize that all the debates and discussions that people were having around social media were more contained in an echo chamber versus allowing more diverse and different answers when people were speaking," Cohen said.
"We were thinking that it would be nice, instead of surrounding yourself with the same people that are thinking the same things as you, to connect people that are different and have different perspectives and experiences and walks of life," he added. "Maybe that would help you gain some other information that you really wouldn't have thought about."
That concept is so unusual, it got the attention of The New Yorker, which called it the "un-Facebook" in an articles just months after Cohen and Fogelman unveiled it.
“Even after the election is over, these people are not going away. They will still have the same feelings, the same anger and the same distrust (regardless of who wins),” Cohen told me in an e-mail. “Bridges aims to ease this tension by allowing both sides to connect and learn from one another.”
There's an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign underway for Bridges, which is currently in the beta stage of development. Cohen said the basic idea has remained consistent throughout the process.
"People sign up - it's based on location, it's based on gender, it's based on political ideologies, social ideology and beliefs and all those type of things," Cohen said. "It then connects you with people that are completely different."
One of the reasons Bridges' concept works, according to Cohen, is because it's based on one-to-one "closed circuit" conversations.
"So it's more like a messaging platform versus a holistic, social media platform where everybody can see what you're saying," Cohen said.
He feels that his time studying at USF, in particularly the diversity he experienced, helped inspire the creation of Bridges.
"USF was known for having a lot of international students, and it's really a place where you meet people from all walks of life, not just from the United States -- I had friends from every part of Europe, people from the Caribbean, people from Canada, people from Africa," Cohen said.
"It was a really great way to work with others and, just in my college years, really gain an even deeper perspective of diversity and how others think and escape that echo chamber of what I know."
Cohen is still involved with the USF Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications through mentoring undergraduates and guest lectures. Even though he admits it may sounds clichéd, he tells students to follow their dreams.
"Nothing is impossible. If you really have a goal in mind and you work very hard at it, then you can accomplish that," Cohen said. "It just really takes a lot of work and there's a lot of adages -- when others are sleeping or are out and about socially, that's when you should be working on your dream and achieving your goals. The more work you put in, the more results you're going to gain from that."
University Beat will be profiling a USF entrepreneur once a month in 2018. If you'd like to suggest a possible subject worth talking to, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Up next in March - a USF graduate who is making his Hollywood dreams of filmmaking a reality in Florida.