Can you make a large online space where people treat each other like human beings, without sacrificing the freedom of anonymity? It’s a question that social networks like Twitter, which just decimated its workforce in a push for profitability, have been struggling to answer. But a company called Imzy, founded by veterans of Reddit and Twitter, has spent the last several months laying the foundation for what it hopes will be a kinder and more manageable social network. This week, it’s going from an invite-only beta to a fully open platform, after raising $8 million in a funding round led by Index Ventures.
“We're not a media company,” says Dan McComas, CEO of Imzy. “Your eyeballs are not what we're trying to monetize here. What we really want is a well-functioning community.” Like Reddit, where McComas and five other Imzy co-founders formerly worked, Imzy lets users create communities based on shared interests. But its community guidelines place a greater premium on kindness, and it bans content like gore and pornography. Former Reddit community management head Jessica Moreno, who now holds the same position at Imzy, previously called it an attempt to “set a standard for a better internet.”
In order to post to or interact with a group on Imzy, users must first join it, something that’s supposed to encourage a deeper social investment. “If you were at a restaurant, and you heard people talking at another table, would you pull up a chair and join their conversation without asking permission, or being invited to join, first?” wrote co-founder Lesley Brownlee, in response to a question about the policy. “The act of hitting the ‘join’ button for the community is asking permission to join the table, and in turn the conversation.” Some communities ask people for real names (although Imzy won’t ask for proof of identification), while others allow pseudonyms; users can create multiple profiles for different spaces.
Unlike most other networks, Imzy also allows users to “tip” fellow community members or moderators with real money. It’s part of a planned larger payment system that will supposedly let Imzy operate without advertising — and the attendant pressure to grow at an unsustainable rate, serving ads to ever-larger numbers of users. McComas says Imzy will eventually release a developer platform that lets people link their communities with other services that Imzy doesn’t offer, like Meetup-style event organization tools.
“It's very important that we kind of set the seed for our community, that this is not an advertising platform and that your payments are going to be a part of the platform in some way,” says McComas, although he admits that a “very small” proportion of the site’s users have used the tipping system.
Imzy is the latest in a long line of alternative social networks pitched as replacements for Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook. These services usually fade into obscurity after a brief period of hype, although that doesn’t necessarily mean failure — Ello, the red-hot social network of 2014, has survived as an online “artist’s colony.” Since its beta launch roughly six months ago, Imzy has signed up around 50,000 members in 6,000 communities, 50 to 60 percent of which McComas says are active on a weekly basis. (By comparison, Reddit has around 240 million users.)
While opening up the site will likely speed growth, it will also present new challenges, including the potential for more malicious and less invested users. McComas says that staff are available around the clock to help community owners with moderation problems.
Things like having a clear way to escalate complaints can help stop a social network from becoming toxic. So can a company’s founding ethos. But it’s also easier for Imzy to offer a friendly space simply because it’s still at a manageable size. The question is whether it will be able to establish a core group of users — and whether its ad-free business model will be enough to sustain them.