Tech veterans try to build a kinder, more thoughtful Facebook


  • Social media
  • Friday, 25 Sep 2020

The Telepath network, which will be invitation-only to start, is trying to instill strict content standards from the get-go, including a rule against disinformation and hate speech. People have to use their real identity, and provide a valid phone number to sign up. — AFP

One of the most important investments Marc Bodnick’s old venture capital firm, Elevation Partners, ever made was putting US$210mil (RM875.07mil) into Facebook Inc before the company went public. More than a decade later, Bodnick is trying to build a new social network without the flaws that Facebook and other platforms have come to embody.

The former venture capitalist and technology executive – whose sister-in-law is Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg – on Thursday formally unveiled Telepath, an interest-based service intended to foster online conversations. The network, which will be invitation-only to start, is trying to instill strict content standards from the get-go, including a rule against disinformation and hate speech. People have to use their real identity, and provide a valid phone number to sign up. “Be Kind” is the site’s first rule.

“We’re not so much focused on the TikTok use case, people sharing videos or people really sharing photos,” said Bodnick, Telepath’s co-founder. “We’re really focused on long engaging conversations with people who share the same interest with people who probably didn’t know each other before.” Bodnick said Telepath wants to limit accounts to real people, meaning no businesses or publishers.

Bodnick drew inspiration from the internet’s early days, when platforms like Facebook helped users meet people and share ideas without as much concern over animosity, hate speech or misinformation. “It was horizon-expanding,” he said of joining Facebook. But Bodnick said there are lots of people like him who are “abandoning traditional platforms” that would like a place to once again meet strangers and have serious discussions online. Telepath lets users follow “topics”, like video games, political humour and climate change, and then contribute to group discussions around those subjects.

It’s clear that Telepath’s founders see the site as an alternative to services like Facebook and Twitter Inc, even if they don’t say so explicitly. “The early Internet was a really good place to [have conversations], but the incumbent social networks don’t serve this purpose anymore,” chief executive officer Richard Henry wrote in a blog post. “They promote unkindness by rewarding conflict and hostility, distribute disinformation rapidly, and algorithmically promote polarisation.”

Bodnick and Henry aren’t the first entrepreneurs to dream up a nicer, more reliable, cleaner social network. Those that have come before Telepath – sites like Path, Google Plus, Ello and Secret – have mostly failed to gain much traction. Facebook’s greatest asset remains its network of users, which now total more than three billion people a month. Despite Facebook’s struggles in recent years with consumer trust, there remains a sense that almost everyone uses its services, which entices other people to stick around.

Early Telepath users make up a who’s who of technology and venture capital industries, including Instagram boss Adam Mosseri, Spotify co-founder Daniel Ek, Benchmark partner Bill Gurley and Hollywood writer and producer Brian Koppelman. It’s common for early consumer apps to attract a heavy Silicon Valley audience, though that rarely translates to the mainstream.

Bodnick said people who want to have thoughtful discussions are not limited to cities like New York and San Francisco. “I’d like to think that we can get really big,” he said, but added, “we don’t have to be one of the biggest social networks in the world to build something valuable.”

As for competing with his sister-in-law, Sandberg, Bodnick said she has nothing to worry about. “I don’t think we’re going after anybody,” he said. “We wouldn’t even presume to compete with them we’re so tiny.” – Bloomberg

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