Many of these early efforts are already facing challenges.
Private social network Clubhouse has repeatedly demonstrated that allowing free-flowing communication in the form of audio conversations is an area that’s notoriously difficult to moderate. The app, though still unavailable to the broader public, courted controversy in September when it allowed anti-Semitic content to be discussed in one of its chat rooms. In the past, it had also allowed users to harass an NYT reporter openly.
Meanwhile, Twelv, a sort of Instagram alternative, ditches the “Like” button concept and all the other features now overloading Instagram, which had once been just a photo-sharing network. But, unfortunately, this also means there’s no easy way to find and follow interesting users or trends on Twelv — you have to push friends to join the app with you or know someone’s username to look them up, otherwise it shows you no content. The result is a social network without the “social.”
Telepath, meanwhile, is a more interesting development.
It’s pursuing an even loftier goal in social networking — creating a hate speech-free platform where fake news can’t be distributed.
No social network to date has been able to accomplish what Telegraph claims it will be able to do in terms of content moderation. Its ambitions are optimistic and, as the network remains in private beta, they’re also untested at scale.
Though positioned as a different kind of social network, Telepath isn’t actually focused on developing a new sharing format that could encourage participation — the way TikTok popularized the 15-second video clip, for example, or how Snapchat turned the world onto “Stories.”
Instead, Telepath, at first glance, looks very much like just another feed to scroll through. (And given the amount of linked Twitter content in Telepath posts, it’s almost serving as a backchannel for the rival platform.)
The startup itself was founded by former Quora employees, including former Quora Business & Community head, Marc Bodnick, now Telepath Executive Chairman; and former Quora Product Lead, Richard Henry, now Telepath CEO. They’re aided by former Quora Global Writer Relations Lead, Tatiana Estévez, now Telepath Head of Community and Safety; and Ro Applewhaite, previously research staff for Pete Buttigieg for America, now Telepath Head of Outreach.
It’s backed by a couple million in seed funding, led by First Round Capital (Josh Kopelman). Other backers include Unusual Ventures (Andy Johns), Slow Ventures (Sam Lessin), and unnamed angels. Bodnick and his wife, Michelle Sandberg, also invested.
When talking about Telepath, it’s clear the founders are nostalgic for the early days of the web — before all the people joined, that is. In smaller, online communities in years past, people connected and made internet friends who would become real-world friends. That’s a moment in time they hope to recapture.
“I’ve benefited a lot by meeting people through the internet, forming relationships and having conversations — that sort of thing,” says Henry. “But the internet just isn’t fun in the ways that it used to be fun.”
He suggests that the anonymity offered by networks like Reddit and Twitter make it more difficult for people to make real-world connections. Telepath, with its focus on conversations, aims to change that.
“If we facilitate a really fun, kind, and empathetic conversation environment, then lots of good things can happen. And it might be that you potentially find someone you want to work with, or you end up getting a job, or you meet new friends, or you end up meeting offline,” Henry says.
To get started on Telepath, you join the network with your mobile phone number and name, find and follow other users, similar to Twitter, then join interest-based communities as you would on Reddit. When you launch the app, you’re meant to browse a home feed where conversation topics from your communities and interesting replies are highlighted — orange for those replies from people you follow and gray for those that Telepath has determined are worth being elevated to the home screen.
As you read through the posts and visit the communities, you can “Thumbs Up” content you like, downvote what you don’t, reply, mute, block, and use @usernames to flag someone.
Another interesting design choice: everything on Telepath disappears after 30 days. No one will get to dig through your misinformed posts from a decade ago to shame you in the present, it seems.
What’s most different about Telepath, however, is not the design or format. It’s what’s taking place behind the scenes, as detailed by Telepath’s rules.
Users who join Telepath must agree to “be kind,” which is rule number one. They must also not attack one another based on identity or harass others. They must use a real name (or their preferred name, if transgender), and not post violent content or porn. “Fake news” is banned, as determined by a publisher’s attempts at disseminating misinformation on a regular basis.
Telepath has even tried to formalize rules around how polite conversations should function online with rules like “don’t circle the drain” — meaning don’t keep trying to have the last word in a contentious debate or circumvent a locked thread; and “stay on topic,” which means don’t bombard a pro-x network with an anti-x agenda (and vice versa.)
To enforce its rules, Telepath begins by requiring users to sign up with a mobile phone number, which is verified as a “real” number associated with a SIM card, and not a virtual one — like the kind you could grab through a “burner” app.
In order to the create its “kind environment,” Telepath says it will sacrifice growth and hire moderators who work in-house as long-term, trusted employees.
“All the major social networks essentially grew in an unbounded way,” explains Henry. “They had 100 million-plus active users, then were like, ‘okay, now how do we moderate this enormous thing?’,” he continues. “We’re in a lucky position because we get to moderate from day one. We get to set the norms.”
“Day one” was a long time in the making, however. The team rebuilt the product four times over a couple of years. Now, they say they’ve developed internal tools that provide moderators with visibility into the system.
According to moderator head Estévez, these include a reporting system, real-time content streams organized in to buckets (e.g. a bucket for “only new users”), as well as various searchable ways to get context around a report or a particular problematic user.
“Really good tools — including real-time streams of content, classifiers for problematic behavior, searchable context, and making it hard for banned users to return — mean that each moderator we hire will be quite scalable. We think that there are network effects around positive behavior,” she says.
“It’s our intention to scale up fast and high accuracy moderation decision-making, which means that we’re going to be investing a lot of engineering effort in getting these tools right,” she adds.
The founders have decided not to use any third-party systems to aid in moderation at this time, they told TechCrunch.
“We looked at a bunch of off-the-shelf [moderation systems], and we’re basically building everything that we need from scratch,” says Henry. “We just need more control over being able to tweak how these systems work in order to get the outcome that we want.”
The investment in human moderation over automation will also require additional capital to scale. And Telepath’s decision to not run ads means it will eventually need to consider alternative business models to sustain itself. The company, for now, is interested in subscriptions, but hasn’t made decisions on this front yet.
Banning the trolls
Though Telepath has only 4,000-plus users in its private beta, the two-person moderation team is already tasked with moderating posts from across the thousands of pieces of content shared on a daily basis. (The company doesn’t disclose how many violations it takes action against per day, on average.)
When a user breaks the rules, moderators may first warn them about the violation and may require them to take down or edit a specific post. No one is punished for making a mistake or being unaware of the rules — they’re first given a chance to fix it.
But if a user breaks the rules repeatedly or in a way that seems intentional, such as engaging in a harassment campaign around another user, they are banned entirely. Because of the phone number verification system, they also can’t easily return — unless they go out and purchase a new phone, that is.
These moderation actions don’t necessarily have to follow strict guidelines, like a “three strikes rule,” for example. Instead, the way the rules may be enforced are determined on a case-by-case basis. Where Telepath leans towards stricter enforcement is around intentional and flagrant violations, or those where there’s a pattern of bad behavior. (As with Reply Guys and sealioning behavior.)
In addition, unlike on Facebook and Twitter — platforms that sometimes seem to be caught off guard by viral trends in need of moderation — Telepath intends for nothing to go viral on its platform without having been seen by a human moderator, the company says.
Telepath is also working to develop a reputation score for users and trust scores for publishers.
In the case of the former, the goal is help the company determine how likely the user is to break Telepath’s rules. This isn’t developed yet, but would be something used behind the scenes, not put on display for all to see.
For publishers, the trust score will be how factually correct they are what percentage of the time.
“For example, if the most popular article in terms of views from the publisher is just completely factually incorrect or intentionally misleading…that should have a bigger penalty on the trust score,” explains Henry. “The problem is that the incumbent platforms have rules against disinformation, but the problem is that they don’t enforce them out of this desire to appear balanced.”
Bodnick adds this challenge is not as insurmountable as it seems.
“Our view is that, actually, a handful of outlets are responsible for most of the disinformation…I don’t think our intent is to build out some modern-day truth system that will figure out if The Washington Post is slightly more accurate than The New York Times. I think the main goal will be to identify repeat disinformation publishers — determine that they are perpetual publishers of disinformation, and then crush their distribution,” says Bodnick.
This plan, however, involves setting rules on Telepath that fly in the face of what many today consider “free speech.” In fact, Telepath’s position is that free speech-favoring social networks are a failed system.
“The problem, in our view, is that when you take this free-speech centered approach that sort of says: ‘I don’t care how many disinformation posts Breitbart has published in the last — three years, three months, three weeks — we’re going to treat every new post as if it could be equally likely to be truthful as any other post in the system,’” says Bodnick. “That is inefficient.”
“That’s how we will scale this disinformation rule — by determining which relatively small group of publishers — I’m guessing it’s hundreds, low hundreds — are responsible for publishing lots of disinformation. And then take their distribution down,” he says.
This opinion on free speech is shared by the team.
“We’re trying to build a community, which means that we have to make certain tradeoffs,” adds Estévez. “In the rules we refer to Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance — to maintain a tolerant society, you have to be intolerant of intolerance. We have no interest in giving a platform to certain kinds of speech,” she notes.
This is the exact opposite approach that conservative social media sites are taking, like Parler and Gab. There, the companies believe in free speech to the point that they’ve left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, saying that no one filed a report about the threat, and law enforcement hadn’t reached out. These MAGA-friendly social networks are also filled with conspiracies, un-fact checked reports, and, frankly, a lot of vitriol.
The expectation is that if you go on their platforms, you’re in charge of muting and blocking trolls or the content you don’t like. But by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.
Twitter, meanwhile, tries to straddle the middle ground. And in doing so, has alienated a number of users who think it doesn’t go far enough in counteracting abuse. Users report harassment and threats, then wait for days for their report to be reviewed only to be told the tweet in question didn’t break Twitter’s terms.
Telepath sits on the other end of the spectrum, aggressively moderating content, blocking and banning users if needed, and punishing publications that don’t fact check or those that peddle misinformation.
And yet, despite all this extra effort, Telepath doesn’t always feature only thoughtful and kind-hearted conversations.
That’s because it has carved out an exception in its kindness rule that allows users to criticize public figures, and because it doesn’t appear to be taking action on what could be problematic, if not violating, conversations.
A user’s experience in these “gray” areas may vary by community.
Telepath’s communities today focus on hobbies and interests, and can range from the innocuous — like Books or Branding or Netflix or Cooking, for example — to the potentially fraught, like Race in America. In the latter, there have been discussions about the capitalization of “Black” where it was suggested that maybe this wasn’t a useful idea. In another, sympathy is expressed for a person who was falsely pretending 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 commenter then noted that gang members can bring down property values.
A QAnon community, meanwhile, discusses the movement and its ridiculous followers from afar — which is apparently permitted — though supporting it in earnest would not be.
There are also nearly 20 groups about things that “suck,” as in GOPSucks or CNNSucks or QuibiSucks.
Anti-Trump content, meanwhile, 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 feel you need to share a link to a video of Rudy Giuliani accusing Biden of dementia, you can do so — so long as you don’t call it the truth.
And you can post opinions about some terrible people in which you describe them as terrible, thanks to the public figure carve-out.
Cheater and deadbeat dad? Go ahead and call them a “disgusting human being.” VP Pence was referred to by a commenter as “SmugFace mcWhitey” and Ronny Jackson is described as “such a piece of sh**.”
Explains Estévez, that’s because Telepath’s “be kind” rule is not intended to protect public figures from criticism.
“It is important to note that toxicity on the internet around politics isn’t because people are using bad words, but because people are using bad faith arguments. They are spreading misinformation. They are gaslighting marginalised groups about their experiences. These are the real issues we’re addressing,” she says.
She also notes that online “civility” 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 adds.
In practice, the way this plays out on Telepath today is that it’s become a private, closed door network where users can bash Trump, his supporters and right-wing politicians in peace from Twitter trolls. And it’s a place where a majority agrees with those opinions, too.
It has, then, seemingly built the Twitter that many on the left have wanted, the way that conservative social media, like Gab and Parler, built what the right had wanted. But in the end, it’s not clear if this is the solution for the problems of modern social media or merely an escape. It also remains to be seen whether a mainstream user base will follow.
Telepath remains in a closed beta of indefinite length. You need an invite to join.
Straubel isn’t prone to self-promotion, or even progress reports. His personal Twitter account, nor the one dedicated to his startup, Redwood Materials, has ever even tweeted. And he does like toiling away on complex problems.
But his understated delivery obfuscates his ambitions and plans for Redwood Materials, the recycling startup that he co-founded in 2017. Straubel envisions and is actively working to make Redwood one of the world’s major battery recycling companies, with numerous facilities strategically scattered throughout the globe.
“This is something that is a major industry and a major problem, and it’s a big part of why I want to spend my time on it,” Straubel said on TechCrunch’s virtual stage Wednesday at TC Sessions: Mobility. “I want to do something that can actually make a really material impact on sustainability in the world. And you need scale to do that. So I am very excited to keep growing this and to be one of, if not the major battery recycling company in the world. And eventually, one of the large battery materials companies in the world.”
The Carson City, Nevada-based company, which Straubel runs, is aiming to create a circular supply chain. The company has a business-to-business strategy, recycling the scrap from battery cell production as well as consumer electronics like cell phone batteries, laptop computers, power tools, power banks, scooters and electric bicycles. Redwood collects the scrap from consumer electronics companies and battery cell manufacturers like Panasonic. It then processes these discarded goods, extracting materials like cobalt, nickel and lithium that are typically mined, and then supplies those back to Panasonic and other customers. Redwood Materials has a number of customers, and has only publicly disclosed that it is working with Panasonic and Amazon.
While Redwood Materials is a B2B company, its business model could someday evolve. Interest has been so high that Straubel is now contemplating whether it should also expand into a more consumer-facing business as well. Redwood may never offer collection sites where consumers can drop off old smartphones and other consumer electronics. However, the number of inquiries from local government officials, as well as consumers looking for options to recycle electronics, including the batteries in EVs, has prompted Straubel to at least consider the possibility.
What is known is that Straubel sees numerous facilities — perhaps dozens — getting set up regionally, and in some cases co-located with factories if the customer is large enough. The company hasn’t disclosed where those future facilities will be located.
The company has two recycling and processing facilities in Carson City. And while that hardly qualifies it as one of the world’s largest battery recycling companies, Redwood is already operating at the “gigawatt scale.”
“We’ve been able to grow extremely quickly and to ramp up our capacity and I expect that will follow roughly the scale of lithium-ion production, lagging by a few years,” he said.
To put Straubel’s words into context, consider the Gigafactory that Panasonic operates with Tesla in Sparks, Nevada. Today, the factory has the capacity to produce 35 gigawatt hours of lithium-ion battery cells annually. If Straubel hit the scale he’s shooting for, Redwood would be supplying Panasonic with enough materials to match that production capacity. Reaching that goal would fundamentally change Panasonic’s supply chain away from minerals that had been mined and toward those recycled by Redwood. Those recycled materials would come from Panasonic’s production scrap as well as other sources of consumer electronics.
Celina Mikolajczak, vice president of battery technology at Panasonic Energy of North America, said it would be foolish for the company to ignore the recycling supply.
“We’ve already dug these metals out of the ground, we’ve put them in cells, they’re sitting there,” Mikolajczak said during the joint interview with Straubel at TC Sessions: Mobility. “And yeah, it’s a little difficult to handle cells, they process a little differently than a typical metal ore, right, but at the same time, we have a much higher concentration of the metals we need than a typical metal ore. So it makes total sense to go after recycling and to do it aggressively because there’s a lot of it, there’s a lot of batteries already out in the world.”
Today, the majority of lithium-ion batteries used in smartphones and other consumer electronics are not recycled and instead either sit forgotten in the owner’s junk drawer or enter the waste stream and end up in a landfill. Electric vehicles have a much longer shelf life, so to speak. But eventually batteries used in electric vehicles will pose a challenge for automakers, as well as communities grappling with the waste.
Straubel wants Redwood to be a part of that end-of-life solution for electric vehicle batteries as well.
“The second-life issue and how these batteries are recovered it’s really interesting and there’s a lot of different ideas around about how batteries can go into a whole second application,” Straubel said, noting that Redwood is not working directly on second-life use cases. “It’s great if we can get more useful life on these devices by reusing them for a period of time, but it only delays the inevitable; they eventually need an appropriate disposal, and recycling solution.”
Straubel said he wants Redwood to be that backstop.
There are a number of automakers that have talked about repurposing EV batteries for energy storage. But the details of how an OEM might recapture those batteries back from consumers is scant. Straubel wants Redwood to be an independent company so it can partner with all OEMs producing electric vehicles and provide its materials across the entire industry.
Redwood has never talked publicly about which automakers it might or already is partnering with. However, looking across the EV landscape a few likely partners emerge. For instance, electric vehicle startup Rivian has never announced plans to work directly with Redwood Materials. But the companies do share Amazon as an investor and customer. Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe and Straubel not only know each other, they share a common vision.
Scaringe has talked about plans for second-life batteries — albeit without a lot of detail yet — as well as what happens at the end of a battery’s life. Rivian doesn’t have any vehicles on the road today, so it’s a seemingly distant problem. That changes in 2021 when the company will bring an electric pickup truck and SUV to the consumer market, as well electric vans to Amazon. Ultimately, Rivian has a contract to deliver 100,000 electric vans to Amazon.
“I’m really excited about what JB [Straubel] is doing because we’d love to have these vehicles be a feedstock, and the batteries from these vehicles be a feedstock to then begin another start of lifecycle for another set of batteries and electric vehicles,” Scaringe said in an interview last month at the Bloomberg Green Summit, in which he joined Straubel and Ross Rachey, director of Global Last Mile Fleet and Products at Amazon, on a panel. “The ability to control this essentially as a closed ecosystem allows us to learn and build the muscle memory for this as the whole industry starts to shift not only to electrification, but different methods of consumption as well.”
All about scale
Straubel said he isn’t interested in taking Redwood Materials public, certainly not in the short term.
“For better or worse, I had a front row seat to some of the less efficient parts of being a public company,” Straubel said, a comment directed to Tesla’s public status. “It’s nothing that I’m rushing toward. I think that being public is somehow equated with success, which doesn’t really make sense.”
He said his goal is for Redwood to make an impact, do something meaningful at an industrial scale and generate returns — aka be profitable.
“It’s not about going public quickly, or, you know, trying to give a quick return to investors or something like that,” Straubel said. “This is what I really want to spend my time on. And I see this as a very long-term growth mission that is likely to span decades.”
Straubel talks a lot about scale, both in terms of his vision for Redwood as well as the current state of e-waste sitting in junk drawers of U.S. consumers. It was the scale of the Gigafactory, which is used by Panasonic to make battery cells and by Tesla to make the battery packs and electric motors for its vehicles, that partially drove Straubel to start Redwood in the first place.
“As the world electrifies transportation it needs so many different materials and the supply chain upstream of the factory is, I think, often under appreciated,” he said. “The Gigafactory is a little bit like an iceberg — there’s so much of it that’s kind of below the surface, in the suppliers and in the mines and refineries and all the different things that need to feed into it that you don’t typically see.”
Parts of the supply chain became more of a bottleneck as the Gigafactory ramped, he added.
“You certainly see Tesla focusing more on this, I think rightly so,” Straubel said, a nod to Musk’s recent public comments about needs to focus on the broader supply chain of materials such as nickel. “That was a very interesting area that I thought wasn’t getting as much attention and end-of-life and recycling as a part of that material supply chain is just an incredibly powerful space, one where I think we can have a major impact on the sustainability of creating batteries.”