Hands on with Telepath, the social network taking aim at abuse, fake news and, to some extent, 'free speech'

There is no doubt that modern social networks have let us down. Filled with hate speech and abuse, moderation and anti-abuse tools were an afterthought they want to invade now. In the meantime, personalization engines only give us what concerns us, even if it is not the truth. Nowadays a number of new social networks are trying to turn the old model on its head - whether that is trying to use audio for more personal connections like Clubhouse, eliminating clout tracking like Twelv, or in the case of a new social network, telepath by adding a Platform designed to be guided by rules that focus on enforcing kindness, combating abuse, and disabling the spread of fake news.
Many of these early efforts are already facing challenges.
Private social network Clubhouse has repeatedly shown that enabling free flowing communication in the form of audio conversations is an area notoriously difficult to moderate. Though the app is still not available to the general public, it became controversial in September when it allowed anti-Semitic content to be discussed in one of its chat rooms. In the past, users were also allowed to openly harass an NYT reporter.
Meanwhile, Twelv, a kind of Instagram alternative, dispenses with the "Like" button concept and all the other functions that now overload Instagram, which was once just a network for sharing photos. Unfortunately, this also means there is no easy way to find and track interesting users or trends on Twelv. You need to get friends to join the app or know someone's username to look them up. Otherwise no content will be shown to you. The result is a social network without the "social".
Telepath is now a more interesting development.
It has an even higher goal on social networks - to create a hate speech free platform where fake news cannot be spread.
So far, no social network has been able to achieve what Telegraph claims in terms of content moderation. The ambitions are bullish and since the network is in private beta they are not tested on scale either.
Though Telepath is positioned as a different type of social network, it doesn't focus on developing a new sharing format that could encourage participation - like TikTok popularized the 15-second video clip, or like Snapchat made the world of "stories". "
Instead, at first glance, Telepath looks like just another feed that you can scroll through. (And given the amount of linked Twitter content in Telepath posts, it almost serves as a return channel for the competing platform.)
The startup itself was founded by former Quora employees, including former head of Quora Business & Community, Marc Bodnick, now Executive Chairman of Telepath; and former Quora product manager Richard Henry, now CEO of Telepath. They will be assisted by Tatiana Estévez, former director of Quora Global Writer Relations, who is now the Telepath Director for Community and Security. and Ro Applewhaite, previously Pete Buttigieg's research fellow for America, now Telepath Head of Outreach.
It is backed by a few million seed capital led by First Round Capital (Josh Kopelman). Other supporters include Unusual Ventures (Andy Johns), Slow Ventures (Sam Lessin) and unnamed angels. Bodnick and his wife Michelle Sandberg also invested.
Photo credit: Telepath
When talking about telepath, it's clear that the founders are nostalgic for the early days of the internet - that is, before everyone has hooked up. In the past few years, people have connected in smaller online communities and made Internet friends who have become real friends. This is a moment in time that they will hopefully recapture.
"I have benefited a lot from meeting people on the Internet, building relationships, and having conversations - that sort of thing," says Henry. "But the internet just isn't as fun as it used to be."
He suggests that the anonymity of networks like Reddit and Twitter makes it difficult for people to make real connections. Telepath, who focuses on conversations, wants to change that.
"When we enable a really fun, friendly, and empathetic conversation environment, a lot of good things can happen. And you may find someone you want to work with, or end up with a job, or make new friends, or They end up meeting offline, "says Henry.
To get started with Telepath, join the network with your cell phone number and name, search and follow other users much like Twitter, and then join interest-based communities like Reddit. When you launch the app, be sure to search a home feed that highlights topics of conversation from your communities and interesting replies - orange for replies from people you follow and gray for those that Telepath has discovered worth adding to the home screen.
As you read the posts and visit the communities, you can thumbs up, vote down what you don't do, reply, mute, block, and use @usernames to tag someone.
Photo credit: Telepath, screenshot via TechCrunch
Another interesting design choice: Everything on Telepath disappears after 30 days. No one will be able to sift through your misinformed posts from a decade ago to shame you in the present, it seems.
What sets Telepath apart the most, however, isn't the design or format. It's what goes on behind the scenes, as described in the rules of Telepath.
Users who join Telepath must agree to "be friendly," which is rule number one. They are also not allowed to attack or harass others based on their identity. They must use a real name (or their preferred name if transgender) and not post violent content or porn. "Fake news" is banned, as evidenced by attempts by a publisher to regularly spread misinformation.
Telepath has even tried to formalize rules for how polite conversations should work online, with rules like "don't circle the drain" - meaning you don't always try to have the last word on a contentious debate or have a locked thread to bypass. and "stick with it", which means you don't bombard a Pro-X network with an anti-X agenda (and vice versa).
Photo credit: Telepath
To enforce its rules, Telepath first asks users to log in with a cell phone number, which is verified as a "real" number for a SIM card rather than a virtual number. Brenner "app.
To create a "friendly environment" Telepath will sacrifice growth and hire moderators to work internally as long-term, trustworthy employees.
"All major social networks have grown essentially indefinitely," explains Henry. "You had over 100 million active users and then you said," Okay, how do we moderate this huge thing? "He continues." We are in a fortunate position because we become moderate from day one. We can set the norms. "
However, "Day One" was a long time in development. The team has rebuilt the product four times within a few years. Now they have developed in-house tools that moderators can use to gain insight into the system.
According to moderator Estévez, this includes a reporting system, real-time content streams organized in buckets (e.g. a "new users only" bucket), and various searchable ways to get the context of a report or a specific problematic user .
"Really good tools - including real-time streams of content, classifiers for problematic behavior, searchable context, and the difficulty for banned users to return - mean any moderator we hire is pretty scalable. We believe there are network effects on positive behavior" , she says.
Photo credit: Telepath
"Our intent is to make moderation decisions quickly and with great accuracy, which means we will be putting a lot of technical effort into getting these tools right," she adds.
The founders have decided not to currently use third-party systems to aid moderation, they told TechCrunch.
"We looked at a number of standard moderation systems and basically built everything we need from scratch," says Henry. "We just need more control over how these systems can work to get the result we want."
Investing in human moderation over automation also requires additional capital to scale. Telepath's decision not to serve ads means that alternative business models may need to be considered in order to sustain themselves. The company is currently interested in subscriptions but has not yet made any decisions about them.
Prohibition of trolls
Although Telepath only has more than 4,000 users in its private beta, the two-person moderation team is already tasked with moderating posts from thousands of content shared daily. (The company does not disclose the average number of violations it tackles each day.)
If a user breaks the rules, moderators can first warn them about the violation and ask them to remove or edit a specific post. Nobody is punished for making a mistake or not knowing the rules - they have the opportunity to fix it first.
However, if a user breaks the rules repeatedly or in a manner that appears intended, e.g. B. carry out a harassment campaign against another user, they will be completely blocked. Also, because of the phone number verification system, they can't just go back - unless they buy a new phone.
These moderation actions do not necessarily have to follow strict guidelines, such as a "three-hit rule". Instead, the way in which the rules can be enforced is determined on a case-by-case basis. Where Telepath leans towards more stringent enforcement it is about willful and blatant violations, or those of which there is a pattern of bad behavior. (As with Reply Guys and sealing behavior.)
Additionally, unlike Facebook and Twitter - platforms that sometimes seem surprised by viral trends that need to be moderated - Telepath intends that nothing on its platform go viral without being seen by a human moderator, the company said.
Fake news
Telepath is also working on developing a reputation rating for users and trust ratings for publishers.
In the former case, the goal is to help the company determine how likely it is that the user is breaking Telepath's rules. This has not yet been developed but is used behind the scenes and is not displayed for all to see.
For publishers, the trust score is how factually correct they are, and in what percentage of the time.
Photo credit: Thomas Faull (opens in new window) / Getty Images
"For example, if the most popular article is just completely factual or deliberately misleading about the editor's views ... it should mean a greater penalty for the trust score," explains Henry. "The problem is that the established platforms have rules against disinformation, but the problem is that they don't enforce them out of a desire to be balanced."
Bodnick adds that this challenge is not as insurmountable as it seems.
"We believe that a handful of outlets are actually responsible for most of the disinformation ... I don't think we intend to build a modern truth system that will find out if the Washington Post is anything more than I think the main target will be to identify repeat disinformation publishers - determine if they are persistent disinformation publishers and then destroy their distribution, "says Bodnick.
That plan, however, includes establishing rules for telepaths flying in the face of what many today consider "free speech". Indeed, Telepath believes that social networks that promote free speech are a failed system.
"We think the problem is that with this approach to free speech it says, 'I don't care how many disinformation posts Breitbart has published in the past three years, three months and three weeks - we will treat every new post that way as if it could be as truthful as any other post in the system, "says Bodnick. "It's inefficient."
"This is how we're going to scale this disinformation rule - by determining which relatively small group of publishers - hundreds, low hundreds, I guess - are responsible for posting a lot of disinformation. And then reducing its distribution," he says.
This opinion on freedom of speech is shared by the team.
"We're trying to build a community, which means we have to make certain compromises," added Estévez. "In the rules we refer to Karl Popper's tolerance paradox - in order to maintain a tolerant society one doesn't have to tolerate intolerance. We are not interested in providing a platform for certain types of language," she notes.
This is exactly the opposite of conservative social media sites like Parler and Gab. There the companies believe in free speech to the point that they left content on an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, saying that no one filed a report on the threat and law enforcement did not contact them. These MAGA-friendly social networks are also full of conspiracies, factually checked reports, and quite frankly, lots of vitriol.
The expectation is that if you go on their platforms it will be your responsibility to mute and block trolls or the content you don't like. But those who join these platforms are naturally among like-minded users.
Meanwhile, Twitter tries to strike the middle ground. In doing so, it has alienated a number of users who feel it doesn't go far enough to counter abuse. Users report harassment and threats, then wait days for their report to be reviewed to find out that the tweet in question was not in violation of Twitter's rules.
Telepath is on the other end of the spectrum, aggressively moderating content, blocking and banning users when necessary, and penalizing publications that are not reviewed or those that spread misinformation.
"Kindness" carve-outs
Despite all of this extra effort, Telepath doesn't always provide thoughtful and kind-hearted conversations.
This is because an exception has been worked out in his friendliness rule that allows users to criticize public figures and that no action appears to be taken that could affect problematic, if not hurtful, conversations.
Photo credit: Telepath
A user's experience in these "gray areas" can vary by community.
Telepath's communities today are focused on hobbies and interests and can range from innocuous like books or branding or Netflix or cooking to potentially polluted like Race in America. In the latter, there has been discussions about capitalizing "black" which suggested that it might not have been a useful idea. In another case, sympathy is expressed for a person who falsely pretended to be a person of color.
In a post about affordable housing, someone openly wondered if a woman who said she didn't want to live near poor people was actually racist. Another commentator then noted that gang members can lower property values.
A QAnon community, meanwhile, is discussing the movement and its ridiculous followers from afar - which is apparently allowed - although serious support would not be possible.
There are also almost 20 groups about things that "suck", like in GOPSucks or CNNSucks or QuibiSucks.
Anti-Trump content can be found on a network called "DumbHitler".
Meanwhile, online publishers who routinely post discredited information are banned from Telepath, but YouTube is not. So, if you feel like you need to share a link to a video by Rudy Giuliani accusing Biden of dementia, you can - as long as you don't tell the truth.
And you can post opinions about some horrible people describing them as horrible thanks to the excavation of public figures.
Cheater and Deadbeat Dad? Go ahead and call her a "disgusting person". VP Pence has been referred to as "SmugFace mcWhitey" by one commentator and Ronny Jackson is described as "such a piece of sh **".
Explains Estévez that Telepath's "be kind" rule is not intended to protect public figures from criticism.
"It is important to note that internet toxicity in relation to politics does not come from people using bad words, but from people using arguments with bad faith. They spread misinformation. They shed light on marginalized groups about their experiences. This is the real issues we're addressing, "she says.
She also notes that online "courtesy" is often used to silence people from marginalized groups.
"We don't want Telepath's focus on kindness to be turned against those who criticize powerful people," she added.
In practice, this is what happens today at Telepath, which is a private, closed-door network where users can beat Trump, his supporters and right-wing politicians in peace by Twitter trolls. And it is a place where a majority also agrees with these opinions.
So it apparently built the Twitter that many on the left wanted, just as conservative social media outlets like Gab and Parler built what the right wanted. In the end, however, it's not clear whether this is the solution to modern social media problems or just an escape. It also remains to be seen whether a mainstream user base will follow suit.
Telepath remains in a closed beta of indefinite length. You need an invitation to join.
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