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Anti-Reddit platform Imzy partners with Lena Dunham to build online community for Lenny Letter

TechCrunch TechCrunch 18/05/2016 Megan Rose Dickey

It’s no secret that Reddit isn’t the best place on the Internet. In fact, its name has become synonymous with hate speech, racism, sexism and other terrible things.

So, maybe getting let go from Reddit was a blessing in disguise for Dan McComas, the former SVP of product at Reddit. Since leaving Reddit, McComas has built Imzy, which aims to be a platform for healthy communities where its members are free from harassment and abuse. Already, the company has raised $3 million in funding from Charles River Ventures and O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures.

Today, Imzy is launching a partnership with Lena Dunham to form an online community for the Lenny Letter, an online newsletter started by Dunham and Jenni Konner with over 400,000 subscribers and a 65% open rate. Lenny Letter, in addition to comedian Dan Harmon, Feral Audio and Black Girls Talking, is one of Imzy’s first official partners. Official communities will be noted with a verified mark.

“In my head, the ideal community would be Lenny Letter,” McComas told me. “They have an audience that is particularly passionate about something and one that doesn’t have a great place that really looks after them online. I thought Imzy would be great for that.”

Imzy, which is still in private beta, currently has 10,000 people on the site — myself included — with 20,000 on the wait list. There are about 1,500 communities ranging from relationships to feminism to Black Lives Matter. McComas says the number of interactions are growing every day on Imzy, which will make its public launch next month.

Other than McComas, Imzy has a founding team of five former Reddit employees, which includes Jessica Moreno, the former head of community at Reddit, Kaela Gardner, Alex Marinenko, Lesley Brownlee and Jaleh Afshar. The other member of the founding team is Josh Fraser, the co-founder of Forage.

“The problem that we’re directly trying to solve is we believe there’s no platform right now, no company that was started that is aligned well with community success,” McComas told me. “Every company right now that is trying to do communities online has their incentives to be a business in ways that work against the communities that are on their platform. They either need to be hyper-growth or ad focused. Ultimately you end up having to put the wrong people into communities to grow the communities.”

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    On Imzy, you're allowed to have multiple usernames, but you can only have one username per community.
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As the Imzy community grows, and communities within the Imzy community foster, McComas wants to be really careful about how they’re growing. He also wants to make sure people don’t end up in the wrong community.

“One of the cardinal sins of hurting a community is growing it at a pace that’s not right for the community,” McComas said. “We’re just trying to do everything we can to be with aligned with community as possible.”

Being aligned with communities means focusing on the people who build the communities — the ones who play a key role in the early days of it. It also means focusing on identities, security, transparency and analytics.

“Online, you have an interesting problem in that the people who run these communities tend to spend an inordinate amount of time managing these communities and end up having a full-time job,” McComas said. “In pre-existing things, you either need to find someone else to help you do it, or stop doing a good job because it’s taking too much time, or need to find a way to be compensated for doing the work.”

Imzy’s developer platform will enable communities to evolve as they grow. Upon launch, Imzy might not have a way for communities to schedule events and take RSVPs for them. But, through the developer platform, someone could build that, hook a payment platform into it and then charge a few bucks to people who want to attend. The aim is to prevent community fragmentation while also enabling other communities on Imzy to benefit from the tools on the developer platform.

Unfortunately, McComas says, you usually have to sacrifice parts of the community in order to be compensated. For example, on Reddit, you may see those who moderate online communities spending hours a day managing it. When there are a lot of people trafficking a community, there are bound to be those who want to take advantage of it, and might try to buy their way into the community for special treatment, McComas said. That may come in the form of someone paying a moderator to include their name in the comments, ban competing posts and let certain things slip through. That ultimately creates fractures within the community leadership and leads to a trust breakdown at all levels of the community.

“Speaking as a long-time Reddit user, it happens a ton,” McComas said. “Tons, tons, tons, tons — it’s big business over there. And it’s a massive problem. Real community is so delicate. It’s such a delicate thing. To run a community as a media platform or advertising platform — I just really don’t think it’s ever going to end well. What you tend to see on other platforms is recurring problems and escalations of catastrophes, and they all can be boiled down to this one problem that the company’s incentives do not align with the community’s incentives.”

With Imzy, the game plan is to build infrastructure for communities to manage themselves efficiently from the very beginning. Imzy has a tips platform that lets you reward great posts, and the team is also working on ways for communities to enable peer-to-peer transactions, crowdfunding and ultimately enable them with the tools to make money. That could be in the form of selling tickets for an in-person meetup or selling community swag and merchandise.

Through Imzy’s developer platform, community members and leaders can tap into the toolsets to build the features they need, and then share them with the rest of the larger Imzy community. That way, McComas says, Imzy can evolve in a way that is necessary for the communities.

In addition to providing monetization tools that align with the values of the community, policies are very important to Imzy’s mission. As head of community on Imzy, Moreno is tasked with making sure bad actors don’t get in and ensuring that certain types of communities don’t find a place on Imzy, like ones for porn, hate speech and harassment. That’s because Imzy has identified that those communities bring in higher than average bad behavior. Moreno is also responsible for working closely with communities and users to address their needs and build the tools they want. If the communities ask for something, and it’s something Imzy can do, Moreno told me, they’ll do it.

“I really just want there to be a better atmosphere on the Internet in general,” Moreno said.

That said, some bad actors from Reddit have found their way onto Imzy. What’s surprising, however, is that they’re behaving well on Imzy. Moreno’s theory is that if you treat people well and be nice to them, they’ll be nice to you, too.

“There’s a possibility to shift the super harassment dynamic that’s out there right now,” Moreno said. “I’m hoping we can help do that — provide a place for people to hang out and enjoy themselves on the Internet.”

Moreno’s experience at Reddit was subpar, to say the least. While working at Reddit, Moreno told me she received a slew insults about how she should be raped and murdered, and that her kids should be raped and murdered. Pretty fucked up stuff.

In growing the broader Imzy community, getting diverse people on board as early as possible is another priority.

“As conversations start to bleed over from community to community, and as problems arise, there has to be different voices contributing to the conversation,” McComas said. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job so far.”

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