In July, amid the rise of the buzzy audio-only social network Clubhouse, some users reported being harassed by other members. This seemed obviously bad, but at the time the company had no guidelines about how users should behave on the site. Moderation duties were left to the two co-founders, then the company’s only employees, and it’s fair to say that enforcement was not their full-time focus.
When I wrote about the situation at Clubhouse, responses were divided. Some readers said that because the app was still in private beta, and had just two employees, users ought to cut it some slack. Moderation would come as the app scaled, they said, and to beat up the founders for not having every detail in place during the launch stage was unfair to the team.
The other view, which I took, is that any social product ought to begin with moderation in mind. We’re long enough into the history of these apps that we know many of the ways in which they will be used, and misused. To begin without a plan for dealing with those malicious uses is to walk down a path that predictably leads to misery.
Of course, easy for me to say: I’m not building a social app. But Richard Henry and Marc Bodnick are. The duo, who previously worked together at the question-and-answer community Quora, today announced a wider release for Telepath, a new app for discussing your interests. The app, which like Clubhouse is available only in private beta and requires an invitation to use, resembles a hybrid of Twitter and Reddit. As on Twitter, the app opens to a central scrolling feed of updates from people and topics that you follow. And as on Reddit, every post must be created within a group, which Telepath calls a “network.”
But what stands out about Telepath is its approach to moderation — which is both more aggressive and more constructive than any I have ever seen in a venture-backed social app at this stage of development.
As always, there are tradeoffs. Telepath requires users to use their real names, which makes internet usage more difficult for activists and dissidents. It requires the use of a real mobile number as well — the one you get from your carrier, not some VOIP burner number you get online. And perhaps most importantly, you have to act the way Telepath tells you to act. For example, there’s this:
Stay on-topic and tone. Some networks have a very clear topic, tone, and intent, and others are more broad. Don’t bombard an obviously pro-x network with an anti-x agenda, or vice-versa.
Don’t circle the drain. If you are in a contentious debate where anyone is repeating the same points, seems focused on having the last word, and/or is badgering others, Telepath may lock the thread to end the conversation.
It may go without saying, but Telepath is going well beyond the standard social network bans on hate speech and incitement to violence. This is a policy written by people who have argued online, and who want to create a place where those arguments are productive.
The rules quoted above are consistent with most social network community guidelines in one obvious way: they tell you what not to do in the app. But Telepath is also unusual in that its first rule gives you an actual behavioral north star for your time spent posting:
Be kind. Don’t be mean. Don’t attack people or insult what they post. Assume that other people have good intentions. If a reasonable person would think you’re being an asshole, that’s not okay. Persistent behavior that’s on the line is not okay.
If you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time on Twitter, where attacking people and insulting what they post can sometimes feel like the entire point of the service, this rule may feel like a breath of fresh air. Twitter has spent more than two years now pondering how it might “serve healthy conversations” with little to show for it beyond improved abuse reporting and enforcement tools. Telepath, on the other hand, is just telling everyone to be nice to each other or it will kick them off the app.
Telepath arrived at the idea of kindness as a first principle after rejecting its cousin, “civility.”
“‘Civil’ feels like you’re trying to stay inside some yellow line,” Bodnick said. “And you know the kind of people that will try to get a centimeter from that line. But kindness is really what we want. We want people to give each other the benefit of the doubt. We’d like it to be a place where people can change their mind … But the only way you’re gonna get people to change their mind is if you have a tone that is gentle and empathetic.”
That all sounds true enough. But as I like to say, policy is what you enforce. So how is Telepath going to make this a reality?
One, the company plans to handle all of its moderation in-house, Henry and Bodnick told me. The company plans to add moderators as it grows, and assumes it will have lower profit margins eventually because of a heavy investment in full-time employees working on these issues.
The company’s first head of community, who currently oversees all enforcement on Telepath, is Tatiana Estévez, who also joined from Quora. In a Twitter thread today, Estévez discussed making Telepath feel like a good place for women as a way of nurturing the community more broadly. And unusually for a social network, Estévez talked about Telepath’s comfort with judging users’ intent when they post. If they think you’re being a jerk on purpose, they’re going to take action against you, no matter what you have to say about it. She writes:
One of the most important problems Telepath is focused on is making the community fun and safe for women. We want women to love Telepath, ideally more than the men do. Making women feel good/comfortable/confident — that’s critical to an awesome modern conversation community.
Given the complexity of online hostility toward women, our moderation philosophy focuses on intent. We won’t hesitate to be aggressive if we conclude a man has bad intentions. We won’t allow trolls/misogynists to get away with repeatedly trolling on the edge of our rules.
And what will you get, if you build an interest-based network where women feel just as comfortable as men, and people are required to be kind? Henry has an idea.
“We just really want make something that’s fun,” he said. Early Twitter felt that way to him, he said, as did early Quora, and he worked at both companies before starting Telepath.
“At this point I’ve spent my entire career working on social networks — for some reason,” Henry laughed. “And it’s just not worth doing it if it isn’t fun.”
I haven’t spent enough time on Telepath yet to know how fun it is. But I really couldn’t be more impressed with the approach this small team is taking to building trust and safety policies so early in its existence. One reason why I clamor for competition in social networks is to promote the generation of new and better ideas — and I think many of the ideas Telepath is working on deserve to be studied and then cloned by its peers. Even, and perhaps especially, its larger peers.
I met Henry and Bodnick today over Zoom, and was impressed with how fluent they are in the dynamics of modern online conversations and their clear perfectionist streak. They told me they rebuilt Telepath four times before getting it to this stage, and decided to launch more widely only after implementing a key privacy feature that sparked lots more sharing: conversations delete by default after 30 days, but save to your private archive.
There are other things to like here — at least as alternatives to the status quo. Telepath is a people-only network; there are no bots, organizations, or publishers permitted. The company has banned disinformation and the sharing of hoaxes. And it is specifically focused on removing or limiting the reach of modern behaviors that aren’t outright hateful, but are most often annoying: “sealioning, or man-splaining, or reply-guy-ing,” as Bodnick puts it.
One imperfect but helpful way of thinking about all this, at least for me, is that Telepath is building solutions to problems that were invented on Twitter.
Will it work? It’s too soon to tell. The company raised a seed round from First Round Capital, among others, and plans to expand its user base to about 4,000 people over the next few weeks. At that scale, a lot of things can “work” without ever growing into a viable company.
But even if Telepath doesn’t take off, it has given us a gift: a blueprint for approaching content moderation that is tough, constructive, and takes a point of view about how people ought to behave. I believe that this model can work in at least some cases, and over time we may learn that a similar model can work in lots of cases. I’m grateful that the Telepath team have been such good students of our information sphere and brought their smarts to bear on some of the internet’s trickiest challenges.
“We’re in a blessed position because we’ve been thinking about this from day one,” Henry told me.
Imagine what position the rest of us would be in if previous social networks have been thinking about this from day one, too.