LIFEWORLD with Joey Lim & Jawn Diego Reyes

Rethinking social platforms, creating virtual memories, and increasing agency.

Published March 25, 2024
USURPATOR sat down with Joey and Jawn from Lifeworld to talk about their new platform

Listen to the extended version of our conversation on Spotify where we talk about our digital patterns, blurring the boundaries between real and virtual memories,  and Frank Ocean’s Tumblr.

⋆    ˚  ✦     ⋆  ✵ ·  *  ⋆ ✧ ✦  ·.  ✧ ✵  ·.    ✦   ⋆ ✧ ✵   ˚   ⋆

USURPATOR: I guess the platform kind of speaks for itself, but if you guys could give me a quick intro into what it is.

JOEY LIM: Yeah, we've been working on this platform called River for the past year, but the idea has been brewing for longer than that. It's a social network that focuses on multimedia files, and we adopted the whole playlist idea. We thought that there were a lot of underdeveloped experiences around what it looks like to create a playlist for or with other people, but not limited to a music context.

I love sharing on Google Drive specifically because I want to share images and videos in one neat folder, but it's hard to do that elsewhere. Putting that on a typical social media platform, like Twitter or Instagram, doesn’t really fulfill the function that I'm looking for when I'm trying to send people links. Right now on River, you can post all kinds of different file types, 3D objects, images, audio, and everything. You can create channels with other people, which are our equivalent of playlists. We just launched about a month ago, so we're very early into everything.

U: How long have you guys been planning it?

JOEY: It started somewhere when I was working at Zora. Around that time, we started to get the idea for a platform to show everything all at once—not just images like Instagram, or short-form text like Twitter. From there, we experimented quite a bit with NFT curation, and then we started asking even more fundamental questions like, does it need to be NFTs? Does it need to be this, or does it have to be implemented this way? River is the most minimal version that we've been able to distill. Now that we're at the base level of posting functionality, we're trying to build it back up so that there are tighter features and social loops where you could just be interacting with like two channels or two groups of friends, and that could be all that you do on River. That's a broad overview of where we're at right now. I'm curious what your initial impressions were?

U: I guess, point blank, when you go on the platform, it reminds me of But the first thing that you see is the aesthetics of the content that people are posting. It's different every time you log on, just based on what people have been uploading. The front page is just the most recent thing that someone has uploaded. What's the social component to the platform?

JOEY: That's the next thing that we're trying to build. The most important thing was for people to create these context containers, which are the channels, and be able to post all types of media files, and then for us to actually render them on the few pages. Right after that, I think we're just trying to scope out what the most high yield social features are that don't feel like a brute conversion of existing user behavior on more traditional platforms.

Even if you have a thousand followers on River, it's not the same as when you have a thousand followers on Instagram or Twitter.

U: How so?

JOEY: I think it's like a very simple math thing to me. The distribution that you get from Instagram or any platform dictates how valuable each follower is. Even if I had a million followers on a very irrelevant platform, it actually doesn't mean anything. It might only convert to maybe 800 followers on a very popping platform.

U: I think about that a lot, especially in terms of TikTok versus a platform like YouTube—follower count versus engagement and what that respectively means on each platform. You can have millions of followers on TikTok, but your videos might only get 100,000 views or 10,000 likes. On YouTube, it seems like people often have a lower subscriber count, but their videos could be popping.

JOEY: We're looking at how we can follow or diverge from this very well-defined path. We could implement a follower count, comments, or DMs so that people can use it and it feels familiar. But every platform does that. I feel like even your banking app will now have DMs. I don't need that.

U: Katie was telling me about when Spotify had DMs for a split second.

JOEY: I loved the experimental attitude of implementing DMs to introduce some sort of social feature to a nontraditional social app. But I think we're at this point where it feels like we've seen every version of everything in terms of what an app is supposed to feel like.

The cynical side of me just thinks that if it’s mid, that may be the worst thing that you could ever be known for. Having an app that functions in a way that generally meets user expectations, it's the easiest path to being completely gone within—I was going to say six months, but I might actually say—six weeks, now.

JAWN DIEGO REYES: It's kind of wild, I feel like all those feature sets—followers, friends, engagement, post views, likes—create this weird pressure that, for me personally, prevents me from wanting to post anywhere. Stripping all that back and just being like, “Hey, I have this one picture” and maybe people saw it, but I don't want any more information other than that. Seeing all that extra stuff is almost like the sound of hearing your own voice.

U: That's so true. I was talking to someone the other day who hated Instagram stories because they hate seeing who watched them and then chose not to like it. They just feel constantly taunted by these arbitrary metrics.

JOEY: Yeah. We took a lot of inspiration from e-commerce, because the fundamental logic is adding something to a cart. Adding to a cart is kind of like adding something to a playlist or to a channel. E-commerce is really good for inventory browsing; I want to see clothes from this designer, I want to see jeans, I want to see tops, etc. It’s actually the pinnacle of having really good navigation.

And this isn't to say that social media doesn't have good navigation, but it's just that the navigation is based on persona. I'm trying to find different people, but what does it look like for a platform that goes beyond navigation based on that? That's what Facebook or MySpace had to figure out—how do we get people online? We don't have that problem anymore. Everyone is online. So when everyone's online, people are more interested in finding things rather than people.

U: The inherent social component to a lot of apps does seem limiting in a certain way. There's so many people on Instagram who I don't want to follow, but I feel like I have to because I know them.

JOEY: Right. Or my motivations might not be exactly to follow, but maybe to save their posts. So there's an entire spectrum in which I want to take a certain action, but it's not as obtuse as following someone indefinitely until they do some egregious shit and I need to unfollow.

It's a process of identifying where some of the cracks are in between the logic that's been established in the past 10-15 years, and seeing how we can do something interesting there—something that’s not mid.

U: Tell me a little bit about your guys' team. There's four of you, right?

JOEY: Yeah, I'm one of the four co-founders of Lifeworld, which is the company name, and the product is called River. I mainly design the product and do brand stuff, and then the rest of the team are all fullstack engineers. So, I'm quite lucky in that regard.

JAWN: Yeah, I think it’s crazy because we all come from mad different backgrounds. I recently started coding, but I come from 3D art. So, whenever you want to put something on a browser, you have to know a little bit of code. My experience before this was just through the MySpace HTML, so ChatGPT changed a lot. I just needed to get to the point where I could do XYZ, and then the learning took place from there.

U: How long did it take you to learn?

JAWN: I feel like I'm still learning. But what's been interesting is how you approach problems now, if you can break down a large problem into bite-sized pieces, you can pretty much make anything. And then, of course, it helps having people that know how to code to be like, “Yo, I'm stuck here.”

U: So, how did you guys all join forces?

JOEY: It was very organic. I don't think any of us had really the intention of starting a company, let alone leaving our jobs to start a company. But we've been working together on various other projects prior to River and prior to starting Lifeworld. We all had a lot of similar sentiments about how there's a lot of fluff that we want to directly tackle. Fluff as in, not a bad thing, but just what we can do to provide the most minimal, distilled experience that we all believe in. That shared ethos and the shared urge to make a very simplified experience was the basis for actually trying to make something.

U: At what point did you decide to go all in on it?

JOEY: It was about a year ago. I was at Zora, doing a bunch of research and development with the DAO space. Zora was heading into a different direction that kind of limited what I was pursuing at the time. It was kind of a fork in the road and I was like, “All right, this is my opportunity to actually try this out.” From then on, we all started committing to this idea and it took maybe a couple of months to get everyone on board and get incorporated and everything. But it was a very organic and quick process to get to a place where we were serious enough to be like, “All right, this is a platform that we're making.”

U: What's the ethos of the company? Does the company exist for this product, or is River going to be one product among others?

JOEY: In the initial days, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out the corporate structure. It sounds a little bit misleading to say corporate structure because the conversations that we were having were more to do with whether we wanted to be a creative studio, or what shape it would take.

Even within creative studios, there is an entire range of ways that you can go about having a business. We were identifying all the pros and cons of different approaches that we can take and landed on this consensus of making something for ourselves as nice as possible, as fast as possible, which will actually open our ability to pursue different kinds of creative directions outside of being a tech startup that's working on a platform.

So, I think Lifeworld is this incumbent brand that will slowly start to flourish as more people use River and are generally hip to what we're doing. That's why there was a need to separate between us four and the product that we're pursuing.

U: And then there are two other guys on the team.

JOEY: Yeah, Max and Salief.

U: So Jawn, before you said that you were doing 3D art?

JAWN: Yeah, I’ve had so many past lives. I've done everything from working at a halfway house, working at an opera house and doing graphic design. I started FELT Zine with a collective of friends, which is all around digital art.

U: What is FELT Zine? I hear about it a lot.

JAWN: FELT Zine is an art collective started in 2011. Initially, we were doing photographs of clothing and shoes. People were sending us samples of clothing, so we had an archive of cool unreleased clothes and stuff. But then, around the vaporwave era, there was a crazy intersection of remixing music and 3D artwork. It very quickly led to exploring the relationship between art and music. And then that just continued. We would drop zines and issues of artists that were making really interesting stuff.

It was initially us looking for these hyper-specific references, and through that, people find you and reach out. It grew like that. Kind of hard to define because there's also mad different interests that we have individually. Dev is really into curating IRL events, and also makes crazy art. Mark is into games, and I'm into this.

U: So, it's still going on?

JAWN: Yeah, I explain things through metaphors a lot, but it feels like inhales and exhales. Inhale is where you really are hyper-focused on what you're doing collectively, and then exhales are where you can go explore, see these other things, and then come back. I like to involve myself in stuff that feels like life work, you know?

U: Yeah, I feel like that's what everyone's trying to do right now, instead of working at a B2B SaaS 9 to 5. Maybe it’s just New York and SF, but people are trying to build something around an actually important problem that they care about, but maybe also has expandable boundaries.

JOEY: I think it's an agency thing. Once you start doing stuff that you feel under qualified to do, you realize that there's no such thing as a threshold that you need to meet, or a minimum requirement. In life, there's minimum requirements for everything, like college admissions and all that. So, you're really led into that mental process of where you need to clock in X amount of hours with this amount of ability in order to pursue anything. But that’s something that I never knew, like, even as someone who is not a U.S. resident, you can still start a company in the U.S. There's so many of those small instances where you reaffirm that not knowing is never a blocker from starting stuff.

U: Yeah, and being in some kind of central location where you're meeting people who are doing cool things. That’s how things snowball, even just in how you guys met each other and started building this. It's so cool and organic how you meet so many people and crowdsource information, develop these hives or collectives. It really gives me more faith that maybe social media isn't ruining us.

JAWN: There's always these little magical moments. My wife is always making fun of me because basically everybody I know is from online. I'm definitely grateful for those magical moments where you do find like-minded heads.

JOEY: Recently, me and Jawn were talking about how cognitive dissonance is such a big thing that people experience for whatever reason on social media, but there's also a new interesting phenomenon happening, which is the opposite of that, which is cognitive resonance.

U: So how does that tie into the platform in terms of seeing what other people are posting and how it's consumed and shared?

JOEY: Nostalgia is such a huge force in someone feeling connected to something. It’s such a strong agent of wanting to connect more things together, or create a denser mental map of things that are interesting to you. It no longer applies to just one medium, I can be into this specific thing about music that also applies to film, to furniture, or anything else. And right now, with vertical scroll TikTok and Instagram feeds, a lot of social media users are more or less confined to a passive consumption where the content never ends, and it serves to entertain you. But what does it look like for a platform that actually encourages you to be actively participating and put things into different containers, and find more like-minded people in the process? A more simplified version of saying this is just that I love agency—people starting Instagram brands or a new podcast with their friends. What does it look like for a platform to specifically help people to expand outside of consumption, and become more of a producer of things?

JAWN: Yeah, from my point of view of how I want to use River, I think initially there was a frustration in making a piece, and I would have a lot of references. But once you make something, it doesn't even matter what your intention was, because people are going to receive it however they want. But also, I love the idea of footnotes. I love the idea of putting out a piece but having all these other references, and I wanted to create a space to share them. I'm making a cleaner way to show the full picture, the opening of individual rabbit holes. They add context to the piece but also decontextualize it to allow people to form their own conceptualizations of everything that's happening, which feels interesting to me.

Another example could be like, mixes on YouTube. Sometimes they'll drop a whole mix, but they won't add the track or sample IDs.

U: Yeah, sometimes people will be adding the track IDs in the comments. But it drives me nuts when they aren’t there.

JAWN: Yeah, one time I was trying to get the IDs off this guy and he was totally gatekeeping. He was like “Open up your ears.”

U: I was talking to Zane about the same thing—references and gatekeeping culture. I think that he notices it a lot around fashion, but it seems like, on the Internet, for the most part, things are pretty democratized.

That's something that I think about a lot, especially when it comes to collections and channels, which relates to your guys' platform. It seems as if some aspect of social media is geared around archiving things. I'm thinking of Pinterest,, Tumblr, not so much Instagram.

JOEY: Yeah, I mean, now with the save feature. I think the Internet behaves in a completely different physics than in reality, even the fashion thing that you just brought up. I think the reason why certain things were a gatekept was because, let's say a collection from the 90s, the only way they could distribute is with booklets. They were not mass producing those things. So naturally, it was a physical limitation that the information wasn't going to reach all corners of the world. Whereas on the Internet, distribution is not an issue. You can send directly to people regardless of physical location, there isn’t a finite amount of space. You can contain X amount of information that's seemingly ever-expanding. I feel like playing into those dynamics is pretty much what all of social media has been doing.

A minor ethos that we have is that we're not necessarily a revolution. River isn't a revolutionary product. It will feel familiar in a lot of ways. But the way that we're trying to be different is by trying to combine 3% of everything that's existed prior to us. We might want to take 3% of the thing that made Instagram stories special, or 3% of hashtags, and then refitting them into a way that makes sense and doesn't feel like a very brute translation or copy/paste.

That's where Threads failed to land a cultural moment. It worked so well that the eventual question is, “Why wouldn't I just use Twitter?” There's an art in subtlety, the impact of accumulating all these subtle things, and eventually feeling like this very unique place to be. That's probably why Tumblr felt really interesting. It's just a lot of research into what made certain pockets of the Internet and certain small features within those pockets interesting, and seeing how we can apply them to River in a way that makes sense for 2024.

U: What kinds of research are you guys doing? Concrete things that people have reported that worked for them, or is it more social research, stuff that you guys find cool?

JAWN: I've noticed an observation bias as we've been working on this, I’ve definitely seen other heads working on something very similar. I think that there is a desire for moving away from traditional social media and going back to something else. You know, we’re talking about Tumblr and, these things go back to a time when things felt like they had bigger consequence.

JOEY: Also, we spent a lot of time obsessing over list view. Think of getting your first iPod and putting songs onto iTunes and then seeing it all in a list.

U: I was literally talking about this the other day, I was expressing my frustration with Spotify because I was an iPod Classic user until 2020. I didn't have Spotify, I was just rocking with SoulSeek. All my music was so accessible to me because it was in the list view, I could just scroll through all of the music that I had. I know that you technically can use Spotify that way, but that’s not its default function.

JOEY: The thing that I've noticed from a design perspective is that it's also the density of how spread apart everything is. The density of information is a huge shift in how people perceive the collection of information. The hard part is really nailing it down through multiple iterations and feedback based on how dense people actually want certain experiences to be. I'm a believer that list view should be quite dense so that you can get a very global view of what's happening. But to address the specific need of having a little taste of each thing, then grid view works better. For grid view, you have to think about how big those thumbnails need to be, how many per row, how many columns. That's simultaneously the very tedious part of designing.

It took a long time for us to get to the design that you see today. But I can confidently say it represents all the previous versions in a way that spiritually encompasses everything.

JAWN: I just started thinking back on your K-Pop episode where the guest was talking about these niche K-Pop apps. It feels like we've reached this Cambrian explosion of hyper-specific applications. Everybody's got an app, Instagram/Meta has Threads for Twitter, it's like, why do we need all these things? I have this thought where even when people use Google search, they're not actively trying to find the answers they challenge their beliefs. It's almost like a mirror. I think that with applications, it's probably something like that, where they're going to find something that they already like or that they're already used to.

What gets me hype about River is that there's a protocol underneath. For example, if Joey decides to censor all these crazy things, I can take all that information and expose it. I want rounded corners, I want grid view, I want only the color blue. All this data allows people to build custom things on top of it and personalize it.

U: Okay cool, I didn't know that that was a function of it as well.

JAWN: Yeah, River’s open source. That's one of the interesting things about the protocol too, you can take things at the channel level and make your own site out of it. It doesn’t have to stay with River.

JOEY: It's like the Tumblr thing, where you had the core interface where you were discovering, liking, reposting. And then there was your blog where you could manipulate the presentation of the link that you were sending to people. With AI tools going crazy right now, the distance between someone who has that desire but doesn't know how to code yet, to being able to spin up something and fulfill that desire is getting closer. Like, Frank Ocean's Tumblr was a huge inspiration.

U: I do think a lot about catering to the masses or being user friendly in a way that people can figure things out and use something easily, and then giving people the opportunity to go as in-depth with it as they want. I feel like you kind of have to balance those two things.

How do you guys feel about the curiosity of users, especially in the modern era? I feel like my curiosity has been stunted, and when I'm faced with a new application or program with a steep learning curve, it’s so hard for me to learn it and stick with it. I guess it's all about adoption.

JOEY: I think that's such a common thing. Like, I don't know where to be curious or what to be curious about. But even with how we're talking right now, I think the best way to do it is via your existing friends. One core part of the social aspect that we're trying to create is like, accounts with millions of followers, or subreddits with tens of thousands of people, they’re too open. How am I supposed to choose one subreddit over another and figure out where to put my time and effort and feel like a part of the community? Inversely, the constraint of having small, closed communities is actually really nice to get you feeling like there is a much smaller world in which your participation feels more direct and intimate. One thing that we're trying to do is just invite existing systems to channels. Based on whatever we talked about today, if I thought there was an interesting channel that I would like you to participate in, I'll invite it to you. You can redeem that code and then start posting, and you'd be interacting at the channel level, not on the River level. If you get to the River level, great. But our goal is to keep it pretty niche.

U: It seems like you're giving the affordances of using a creative platform beyond what it was intended for.

JOEY: Yes, like Kevin Abstract in 2013 goes on the Kanye West forum and posts “Who wants to start a band?” Those are really special places that people congregate around. Tumblr was that, MySpace was that, SoundCloud was that. What does River need to do so that it can create that moment for someone looking for a place to connect with other people? That will downstream all the design decisions and social features that will uniquely enable that type of user motivation or logic.

U: It gives me a lot of faith in the user journey that people are still curious enough to adamantly take over a platform for their own use and manipulate its boundaries. I feel like we don't see it anymore because the developers are trying to think of everything for us, and dictate your experience on a certain platform and how you're supposed to use it.

JAWN: One of the first things we talked about was getting some very specific kinds of heads on the platform so the content is cool. But I actually love the chaos, just so it becomes this really weird, chaotic front page that maybe has no relationship between things. It forces the emergence of groups right away, so people can traverse the niches but still come up for air in the mainstream side and then go back down.

JOEY: I've grown to really appreciate how different the homepage feels, and I've grown to feel less a type of way if someone I really admire checks out River and then they see all these shit posts.

When platforms talk about censorship and stuff, the big thing for me is that censorship is bad because it just limits the diversity of things that you can experience. River, at this moment, feels truly like the Wild West. That diversity is hard found in that vertical scroll, everything is constantly adjusting to your evolving preference. It feels like constraints are always really necessary for you to feel more agency to do whatever you want with them.

U: Yeah, that's true. I wish I felt creative enough that when I got on a new platform, I didn't immediately try to decode what other people are posting and how they're using it. I instantly get pretty mimetic. I'm so used to things being spoon-fed to me that when I go on a new platform, I'm just trying to figure out where the spoon is.

JOEY: Exactly, what do I need to do to feel like I can put it into a convenient mental model? In that sense, is really a trailblazer where it really depends on how you use it, and the people that you see using it, it’s going to define the impression and the brand that you have of More and more emergent platforms—not only us, but everyone—are going to feel closer to that.

I think it’s super interesting that everyone has a very different impression of a thing, and the brand doesn't need to have this guideline of how everyone should feel about it.

JAWN: It’s crazy, because one thing I think a lot about is this context leak that happens on all platforms. What happens if somebody drops a mad personal note on River, and right next to it is the most clown picture of someone doing some dumb stuff. Does that make us more numb to these emotional roller coasters?

U: I've thought about this before, specifically with TikTok. The speed at which your emotions are changing; you're crying and then you're laughing and then you're watching a really serious lecture. It's this constant, schizophrenic whiplash. Do you guys think that's a good thing?

JOEY: I don't think it's a unique thing. If you live in a city like New York, that's kind of the experience you have anyways. Everyone is operating at different depths, and that's a quality that people come to appreciate. It's not inherently a good or bad thing. It exists not only in modern social media, but it's just a factor of life.

U: I'll be listening to Hyperpop in my headphones and then I walk past a guy who's, like, dying on the street. This weird integration of virtual moods and real life.

JAWN: It’s crazy what kinds of new behaviors emerge. I always wonder if I wore a Vision Pro for a while and got really used to it, am I going to be hallucinating in real life? Am I going to be doing random hand motions after I take it off?

U: Every time I'm looking for something around my house, I have the innate impulse to do Control+F. It’s like you're getting your wires crossed. But I am on my computer literally all the time, so it makes sense that it has bled into all aspects of my life. Sometimes my dream is just my phone. Not even me looking at my phone, but my whole dream is just the phone screen. Like, we are one.

JOEY: I think a lot about virtual deja vu. Even in the early days of VR, people with a fear of heights would experience the most animated version of it, but their body would get tricked very easily. Cognitively, I think we know that this is just VR, but our body feels that this is a true lived experience. So similarly, once we start to really blur the distance between the physical world and the digital world, those memories will start to blur between what we experienced and what we saw online.

U: So, where do people find you?

JOEY: They can find us on Twitter (Jawn, Joey). They can find us on Instagram (Jawn, Joey). They can find us on River.

U: Thank you guys so much for coming.

⋆    ˚  ✦     ⋆  ✵ ·  *  ⋆ ✧ ✦  ·.  ✧ ✵  ·.    ✦   ⋆ ✧ ✵   ˚   ⋆

Follow us




About us

USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

Run by @hard_boiledbabe