People

Telepath is a new, kinder social network. But is the internet ready to be nice?

Former Quora execs are prioritizing moderation over user numbers for their new social network. The question is how long investors stick around for that to work.

The new Telepath app

The new social network Telepath specifically bans identity-based attacks, doxxing, harassment, porn and violence.

Image: Telepath

The rules of the new social network Telepath are simple: Be kind. Don't be mean. No harassment, and no fake news. The existential question for Telepath will be whether that's easier said than done.

"It's becoming harder and harder for people to have great conversations on existing platforms," said Telepath's co-founder and chairman, Marc Bodnick. "People are mean to each other, and that meanness is kind of rewarded with distribution. There's tons of disinformation. Women are treated very badly. And so our view was that there's an opportunity to create a new social network really focused on conversation and connecting people who share the same interest."

Telepath is beginning to dole out invites Thursday to people who want to bring back the feel of the early internet conversations over mutual interests without the fear of being doxxed, harassed or trolled. People sign up to follow different conversation networks, from funny tech memes at #TechHumor to conversations about failing companies on the #Deadpool network, or smaller groups talking about subjects such as the HBO show "Lovecraft Country" or Chinese investment in Africa.

In a landscape of social networks, Telepath stands out because it's more about your interests than who you know, and it requires real names for the conversations. It's also positioning itself as a kinder, more inclusive network by making a point to establish ground rules and moderation up front. There's also a sense of timeliness to it, with conversations ranging from Supreme Court nomination guesses to Miami Heat rookie Tyler Herro's win over the Celtics. Telepath also deletes all posts after 30 days.

The result is a social app that feels like it's borrowing from Reddit's subreddit topic structure, Twitter's in-the-moment feel and Snapchat's ephemerality. Only nicer.

Another difference? Telepath's team says it's willing to sacrifice growth in favor of getting moderation and community right.

"Frankly, we need to just be willing to spend a lot of money and take it really seriously, which part of doing that is building out the entire moderation team in-house," said Telepath's CEO Richard Henry. "We're not going to outsource it to a contracting company, which is what every other major network does essentially."

Already it's had to make some tradeoffs instead of going for scale. So far, it's started by launching with an invite-only policy rather than opening the floodgates. To sign up, people have to use a real phone number that is validated in the hopes to cut out bot accounts and make it harder to prevent blocked people from returning to the network. Telepath users are also required to use their legal names (with some exceptions for people who are known by other names, such as people who are transgender) in the hopes of encouraging real and authentic conversation. For comparison, Facebook uses a similar real-name policy, but only requires a functioning email address to sign up, making it easier to sign up using bots. Twitter only requires an email address to create an account.

"That's going to open up moderation bandwidth to focus on other things," said Henry, who worked at Quora with Bodnick and Telepath's head of moderation Tatiana Estévez.

Anyone who signs up for Telepath has to agree to a set of community rules. Be kind is the first one. But Telepath also specifically bans identity-based attacks, doxxing, harassment, porn and violence, be it in links, images or words. (So, no sharing shooter manifestos or links to sites that encourage violence.) Telepath will also lock threads if they're deemed to be circling the drain or if people keep trying to get the last word.

Image: Telepath

It also wants people to "stay on-topic and tone" and not "bombard an obviously pro-x network with an anti-x agenda, or vice-versa." Bodnick used the example of Feel the Bern, a pro-Bernie Sanders network, that would not allow anti-Sanders critics to come in and repeatedly post. (Respectful debate in a broader U.S. politics or election network is completely encouraged and welcomed, though.)

One area Telepath plans to draw a hard line: misinformation or fake news — issues that Bodnick criticized the major platforms for refusing to properly tackle because, he said, they were afraid of wading into politics. Instead, Telepath plans to identify publishers and assign a trust score of sorts, while also being unafraid of banning the likes of OANN, Breitbart, and Diamond and Silk if they're found to be regular publishers of misinformation, he said.

"The problem is just acknowledging who these publishers are and also kind of acknowledging the reality that more of these publishers are on the right, than are on the left," Bodnick said, although the company acknowledges they exist on the left, too. "If you want to promote or publish conspiracy theories, go somewhere else. We have a 'no fake news' policy, and we're going to enforce it."

There are limits to Telepath's "be kind" mantra, and it doesn't mean the whole network is filled with rainbows and smiles. The anti-Trump group on Telepath is called #DumbHitler. There's a network about #FoxNewsIsPoison where all people complain about is Fox. Several of the different networks are places for people to talk about other things and people who "suck," from #BenShapiroSucks to #ElonMuskSucks to #BidenSucks to #PiersMorganSucks.

Telepath acknowledges that public figures will be treated and handled differently, and it won't be immune to criticism. "There is somewhat of a difficult line here where we want to encourage kindness and empathy, particularly between people in conversations on Telepath, but also it's not our intention to silence criticism," Henry said.

That line will only be harder to tread as the company grows. Right now, the company doesn't really have a plan to make money, and the cost of growing and scaling its moderation before user numbers means it will have high costs up front. So far, it's been funded by venture capitalists like First Round, which have invested an undisclosed amount in the company already. But raising money from investors can be tricky when VCs start agitating for returns, which typically come as a byproduct of hitting scale — not just capturing the hearts of a few thousand beta testers.

Plenty of social networks have gone down the path of raising venture capital while things were hot before struggling to grow. There were the days of Secret and Yik Yak, which both found audiences before falling apart and going under. Ello, a similar interest-based network, launched in 2014 with the promise of an invite-only, ad-free social network, but failed to gain traction. Even more-established communities like Reddit and Quora have struggled to find a path toward making money.

But Bodnick thinks there are investors — and, perhaps more importantly, users — who will find value in a slower built, more highly moderated social network.

"I think in this world that we live in now, it's not everyone, but I think a lot of people in the business, financial investor world believe in the possibility of quality and the potential of a great social product," Bodnick said. "And so I don't think you have to rush out the door to explode your scale or start making money in some sort of cheesy way."

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