From the July issue

By Elizabeth Moore

Millennials—I’m sure you’re tired of hearing the word: what started as a helpful descriptor has been reduced to a vague insult. Millenials are always on their phone. Millennials are lazy. Millennials only make relationships online. To the media, millennials are the go-to scapegoat for all things moral dissolution. We’re apparently fraying the fragile fabric of decent society. It seems, however, that the verdict may have been cast prematurely. The negative attitudes toward millennials might just be misguided, because honestly—it’s not easy being us.

We are the first generation to truly live in the digital era—we grew up with dial-up and AOL messenger, and if nothing else should be cut some slack for that. We were infants when people still paid for email service—and we all know that one parent still paying for their Yahoo account.

Though the media disagrees, we are the new pioneers, the ones wading through the murky waters of a new era, and in 2000 years, robot teachers will teach robot students about millennials, “The Greatest Human Generation.” Our brave new world has become digital, and we’re the ones responsible for navigating it.

Ping IllustrationAs a result, a lot of things have changed—perhaps none more than personal interactions. While it’s difficult to even imagine how our parents functioned without cellphones, much less date without Tinder, the sword is a double-edged one: texting a friend “omw” makes plan coordination easier, but these new modes of communication come fraught with side-effects.

A paradoxical relationship exists between social media use and social interactions, as the number of apps designed to make communicating simpler actually make it much more complicated. For instance, when our parents wanted to meet with their friends their mission was riddled with obstacles: calling landlines, hoping they answered, writing down directions because no handheld GPS guided with seductive British whispers—but the complications were fewer and more visible.

Now, it’s all too easy to drown in an ocean of social media subtlety. A text to someone you’re “talking to” without a response—explainable, but if they just posted on Instagram—cold betrayal. Ultimately, the more avenues of communication, the more ways in which people can be not contacting you. Compare every second your phone receives a text to every second your phone could receive a text, and the dark side of uncapped communication becomes apparent.

Enhanced communication has diluted the potency of connection, and in a poisonously self-perpetuating cycle, the more time spent interacting, the less value the interactions have. The result is countless hours of mindless scrolling through Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter just to stay connected: like the Red Queen says, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

Enter the creators of an app called Ping Social, the brainchild of three University of Texas students: Will Ko, co-founder and CEO; Winston Tri, co-founder and lead ios developer, and Wes Cole, director of marketing. “Ping all started with a problem,” says Will, seated in a conference room at the trendy startup-incubator Capitol Factory, located in downtown Austin. “The problem was that getting together in our generation is kind of a mess.” Inviting someone to a Facebook event borders on impersonal, but texting an acquaintance can verge on too personal. They were looking for an efficient, creep-free way to make plans with friends. “We wanted to create an organizer centered around local events and social media. It’s a lot more casual than a Facebook event and not as intimate as a text message,” Winston explains.

So how does Ping Social work? You create an event on Ping—say, margaritas at Trudy’s at five, and your friends on Ping—only friends that you approve by the way—can see the event.

They can comment on it, or simply click an “Attending” button.  Your friend’s events (coined “pings”) are conveniently displayed on a map. “Ping is rooted in friendships and community,” says Wes. This way, you can see all your friends’ events in one place, as well as check out who’s going—all without the inconvenience of a lengthy text message exchange. “My a-ha moment,” Wes says, “the moment I really said to myself that ‘Wow, we’re really doing something and benefitting from it,’ is one night we decided we were going to watch a scary movie.

Before we created Ping, we would have texted people to join us. Instead, we put it on Ping. These girls showed up, who we were friends with, but not exactly close enough to invite them via text to watch a scary movie—because that’s pretty personal. They showed up with popcorn and we all had a great time. I don’t think that would have happened without the aid of Ping”.

The fathers of Ping claim that their product stands out amongst the saturated app landscape, because “a lot—basically all—of social media focuses on what already happened.

So if I’m going through Facebook, I’m looking at the past. I’m looking at things that have already happened.

I’m looking at chances to hang out, to make a real human connection. That’s the cool thing about us.” 

Ping Social aims to be the app that will fix all the social media woes of millennials, but as Will acknowledges, “It’s kind of ironic, because we built an app to hopefully reduce the amount of time you spend on social media.” Their aim though, is to “connect people in real life, versus the digital connections you would have on something like Instagram or Twitter.”

The crux of Ping’s unique approach to social media is their clean, simple user-interface. “We designed the app purposefully without metrics. There’s no likes, no real comments, no engagement things. The only thing you can do is make a ping, attend a ping, or comment on a ping. So, it eventually just runs out of utility”.

“As cheesy as it sounds,” Wes says, “we’re believers in the ‘hang up and hang out’ mantra. Ping is the cure for phone addiction.”

The startup arena is not without risks though, and while marketing director Wes Cole graduated this May, co-founders Will Ko and Wes Tri dropped out last semester to focus on developing Ping. They’re currently re-enrolled as part-students, though, and when asked about graduating, Winston and Will both smiled: “Hopefully.”

Putting school on the backburner can often seem like a purple heart in the tech start-up world, a sign of dedication to the cause. Their examples, of course—Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates—are good, and the tech world has never stopped for diplomas. 

The team has an office at the Capital Factory, the largest tech incubator in Austin and a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory for nerds: open floor plan, fully stocked kitchen open, casual-but-hip twenty-something’s sashaying around, fair-trade coffee in hand. “This place is great, because it’s a creative space populated by startups,” says Ko. What’s more, is that you can book office hours with mentors—mentors being CEOs of successful businesses in the tech world.”

In the fast-paced tech world, business owners as young as Will and Winston come as no surprise, and so the atmosphere is understandably unbuttoned, and while the ambience at Ping may reflect the tech world, it also shows the overall mindset of millennials in the work force. “The focus has shifted from the presentation of your company,” Will says, “to more focused on building a great product. It’s not about what you wear or how you look. As long as you work hard, that’s what matters in the end.

The importance of teamwork too, seems to be a motif for the motley undergrads. “Build your team,” says Will. “Find people who believe in your vision, because you can’t do it by yourself.” Will, Winston and Wes have embodied that idea to an extent some would call reckless—in addition to being business partners, they are also roommates and best friends.

Wes believes that being close friends benefits their business relationship, though. “We’re not afraid to hold back, because since we’re so close we’re not afraid of hurting each other’s feelings. If we think someone’s idea needs more work, we just say it. And then we can figure out the problem.”

While exciting, a lot of work remains to be done and the time window for success is small, meaning for the co-founders of Ping, there’s no summer break this year. The majority of their summer will be spent working on their first round of fundraising, as they plan to transition to Android soon. As for the post-grad future, Winston hopes “to get a small group of people who really love and know the product. And then sort of go from there. We’ll reach out to Texas schools, and then the rest of the US. And then, our vision is to bring Ping internationally— Asia and Europe. Specifically places with really dense populations, because that’s where Ping shines.”

Nurturing a fledging company demands sacrifice, and while their friends attend the Ping-coordinated volleyball games and pool parties, they’ll be working under the fluorescent lights of Capital Factory. But, hey—at least they can wear flip-flops to the office.