Josh Frankel, Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Whysaurus
“Join our community of folks who want to reclaim online argument and build The Library of The Best Arguments. We won’t answer every question. But by arguing, we’ll get closer.”
Josh is an artist and the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Whysaurus, a fledgling publishing and discussion platform for online debate and argument. A Hell’s Kitchen native and Stuyvesant alum, Josh is a refugee from 15 years of advertising, where he served as director, designer, animator, and creative strategist. More recently, Josh’s work has intersected the civic space. In 2017, he co-curated a Jane’s Walk of Times Square three blocks from where he was raised. Following the critical embrace of his short film, Plan of the City, the work has grown into an opera-in-progress, A Marvelous Order. Think of the piece as a Hamilton for urban planning, with Jane Jacobs, the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities squaring off against Master Builder, Robert Moses. Josh’s partner, artist Eve Biddle, runs the Wassaic Project, an artists’ colony, up in Duchess County, which takes them out of Brooklyn every summer. You can connect with Josh via his website and follow him on Twitter.
What Does He Do?
Whysaurus is a project to reclaim online argument and collaboratively build The Library of The Best Arguments.
“The idea grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. It was inspired by some late night conversations I had after reconnecting with a high school buddy in our late twenties. In the ten years since high school, we’d each gone in different directions. Our arguments were messy. I felt like there must be a better way.”
As the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Whysaurus, Josh has been in charge of UX, product management, some UI coding, and content management, and is now shifting his attention towards community building, strategic partnerships and fundraising.
The vision for Whysaurus is simple: Next time you’re arguing about criminal justice, gentrification, climate change, or yes, Trump – you can head to the platform, pull up the best arguments and build on them, rather than having to reinvent the wheel.
“We are creating a publishing and discussion platform – designed for good argument – and a community of folks with diverse viewpoints who love a good back and forth.”
How did he get into this work?
Josh hails from a long line of educators serving the New York City Public School system. His mother taught pre-K at his local elementary school, and then in Jackson Heights. In his family, there are principals, as well as school secretaries.
He recalls that his family always had a healthy respect for debate: “I certainly argued with my parents as a teen. My parents did a fairly good job in not trying to settle disagreements.”
As a father of two children under six, he and his partner are likewise trying to explain things, “to get to ‘why’ in a way they understand without doing it by fiat.”
Initially, Whysaurus had some success in the education space. “We shared our MVP with a bunch of friends and discovered a demand for it in education. At the heart of the Common Core curriculum is the idea that if you teach kids to understand and create evidence-based arguments, they’re gonna do well. Whysaurus was piloted by the College Board in a dozen A.P. History courses, and it also garnered interest in freshman college-level English at U.C. Berkeley.”
Pre-dating our election, Josh was struck by the poverty in our public space for having difficult discussions. “For me, arguing is muscles. It’s how we come up with the solutions to our most difficult problems. If we’re only engaging in argument around the Thanksgiving table just once a year, we’re not going to be good at it. Whysaurus offers us the chance to exercise those muscles. If we can’t argue successfully, then democracy can’t function, and I think we’re doomed. We focus on the validity concept, relevance concept, rebutting the counter argument, and red teaming. These are all pieces of arguing effectively.”
What project is he working on?
This fall, Whysaurus is in the process of scaling up from some odd 100 members. “I want to build a community that digs argument and is here for the journey. Able to disagree without being disagreeable. That could go a long way to make decision-making better. That’s why I’m doing this. We hope to create a database of best arguments. Sound claims—with links to their evidence—will be saved for future use and future argument. So that when you’re making a case for climate change, voting, or nuclear non-proliferation, you can consult Whysaurus.
We’re also going to launch a data-driven FB campaign to learn about which demographics are drawn to this. We’ll use analytics to bring people in the door, and see how they use our tools. I’m looking forward to election season. Creating opportunities for new and engaging arguments on the site. I’m also looking to experiment with a kind of an opinion column where the reader comments are integrated directly with the opinion itself. A kind of fusing of content and the discussion.”
How did he come to Civic Hall?
Josh first met Civic Hall member Edna Ishayik of Civic Nation just as she launched More Perfect, a discussion group convened to talk about the state of politics and how to be better participants in our democracy. The group sometimes deployed Whysaurus to clarify ideas.
Josh attended several Civic Hall Member Showcases before joining:
“I always left inspired, by seeing folks using new technology to figure out how to make the world better as opposed to line their pockets. Sometimes the best way to make a project successful and sustainable is to make it into a business – which seems to be the focus of Civic Hall. From the outset, it felt like a club I’d like to be a part of.”
What are you reading right now that is inspiring?
Chris Hayes’ Twilight of The Elites is incredibly relevant to this moment, despite having been written in 2012 (which feels like ages ago sometimes!).
What is his ask of Civic Hall?
“Join our community of folks who want to reclaim online argument and build The Library of The Best Arguments. We won’t answer every question. But by arguing, we’ll get closer.” (whysaurus.com)
We have an email list of a few folks who take turns making arguments and sharing them – the Whysaurus Challenge! Civic Hall friends are welcome by using the referral code CIVICHALL.”