Remember company confession pages on social media platforms? People flocking to these pages used to enlighten us about their insufferable managers, unfriendly HR policies or that colleague who doesn't pull his/her weight. To spice things up, there were also posts seeking advice on marital troubles, which you might not always be able to ask of your colleagues. Those pages sometimes also doubled up as a counselling and recommendation platform, on everything from jobs to doctors.
Now imagine a scenario where you know for sure that the managers and colleagues you wanted to give feedback to are looped into the same network, and you can share what you wanted under the cloak of anonymity?
Meet Zorro, the pseudonymous social media platform, founded by Jasveer Singh, Abhishek Asthana (known as Gabbbar Singh on social media), and Deepak Kumar, which is all set to launch next month.
Though the idea itself isn't original, for anonymity isn’t a novel concept, it has garnered investor interest even before the launch. The firm is currently testing a platform with over 1,000 users, to get it ready for launch.
It has already raised $3.2 million from a clutch of angel investors including Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma, CRED’s Kunal Shah, OYO founder Ritesh Agarwal, and BharatPe's Ashneer Grover. Venture capital firms that co-led the round include 3one4 Capital and 9Unicorn Ventures, with Roots Ventures and Venture Catalyst joining in.
Moneycontrol spoke to the founders, investors and industry experts to understand how Zorro works, what is attracting investors to the platform and, more importantly, what are the challenges of running an anonymous platform when social media is riddled with moderation troubles.
What is Zorro?
If the name reminds you of the masked hero Zorro, a fictional character created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley, you would be spot on. The fictional character is a vigilante who wears a mask (for anonymity) to protect the downtrodden against corrupt officials.
According to its CEO Jasveer Singh, just like the masked hero, the platform Zorro is aimed at giving people a space to express themselves, without the fear of being attacked publicly on social media.
What does this mean? Singh said that one of the huge challenges with social media platforms is that when the networks are open, people take it as an opportunity to bully others behind anonymous handles, giving anonymity a bad name.
Over the last decade, many platforms surfaced to address the issue of anonymous networks, but failed. For instance, anonymous apps such as Secret and Sarahah, which were popular when they launched 6-7 years ago, eventually shut down after bullying and malicious lies about people became rampant and harder to control.
Singh said that that is when they realised that opening a network to everyone was a problem in anonymous networks, since people consider that as a licence to bad behaviour.
So Zorro, he said, is not completely anonymous. Instead you interact with people in your contacts, using a pseudonymous name.
Is Zorro a Reddit, or Quora for India?
Singh shared that while there is nobody playing in the space they are in, and every social media platform is competition, they are more like Twitter that is pseudonymous. This is evident from the multiple Twitter references Singh made during the course of the conversation with Moneycontrol.
“If you go to Reddit, it is mostly forum-based. You cannot go to Reddit at the frequency of Twitter, where you go check your feed every few minutes. Reddit has a different format, which is long form, and similar to Quora,” he explains.
Singh said he wants to build Zorro more like a Twitter timeline, where users come back again and again to the platform at a high frequency. This would mean having trending topics, where people would discuss the latest events and sports.
How does it work?
Just like any social media platform, the app will be accessible on web, and smartphones, both iOS and Android and sign-up will be via your mobile number/email. But instead of giving your own name, you select a pseudonym. While signing up, you also have the option to connect to your Twitter profile as well.
However, the company is still contemplating whether the network should be open to all, or invitation-based and open up to users in phases, like how Clubhouse did.
Coming to the timeline, it would change from person to person, based on their contact list, and Twitter followers, if the user had given access. For instance, if you are following 200 people on Twitter, of which only 100 are on Zorro, you will be able to see content only for those 100 people and others from your contact list.
Also, all posts are public and there are no options to directly reach out to the user.
If one were to describe it, this would look like a Twitter feed, where one can comment, like a post, and share it with friends. But unlike Twitter, Zorro has a dislike button and is devoid of the direct messaging option.
So if you see honest feedback about a startup culture, you know that it is from one of the dozen people in the network, but you can only guess and not know who posted it. So it is like playing a guessing game and there is enough intrigue to keep the people on the network, points out Singh. This also to some extent controls the content from degenerating, he added.
Singh explained that the feed is also localised based on interest and events. For instance, if you are a student, he/she will see more content related to campus life. If it is a startup founder, the timeline will have more startup-related content and discussions, to pull in more users. The feed will also change based on events similar to Twitter. For instance, if there are startups’ initial public offerings, the feed will have more IPO-related content and so on.
Anurag Ramdasan, partner at 3one4 Capital, an investor in the platform, said, “If you look at pseudonymous networks like Reddit, they have been steadily growing in India. While pseudonymity on Zorro gives you some sense of freedom, it is not truly anonymous, so the conversations don’t degenerate to some extent.”
Ajeet Khurana, ex-CEO, Zebpay, and an angel investor in Zorro, said that in any social networks there are always anonymous handles, which make the experience distressing on the platform. But in the case of Zorro, which is a ring-fenced network, you know what to expect since it is the same people from your network.
An investor in Zorro, who did not want to be named, said, “Consider a scenario where a future employee of a company wants feedback on what the work culture is. Glassdoor reviews are mostly managed. But here an existing employee can give you feedback anonymously. India has a need for this because people want to know about a brand, company. Brands can also monetise on the platform.”
However, the investor quoted agreed that there will be content moderation issues, which the company has to figure out.
Content moderation, regulator challenges
One of the biggest challenges facing social media networks is moderation. From Facebook to Clubhouse, all of these companies are struggling to control objectionable content ranging from porn to hate speech. For social networks focused on India, this is even more of a challenge, given that there are 22 official languages in India, and each with a multitude of dialects making it a nightmare for the platforms.
A senior executive from a Bengaluru-based social media unicorn who did not want to be named explained that Indian languages and dialects make it difficult to moderate content. “What is not objectionable in one language could be objectionable in another dialect, and context is important as well. While artificial intelligence to some extent helps in identifying such content, it is not enough to judge the context of the conversation, limiting its ability,” the executive said.
Neil Shah, vice president, research, Counterpoint, concurs. He said, “Even if you use automation, how do you moderate Hindi words which are written in English?” The job becomes more difficult with the growing number of users, and their opinions on different topics from racism to geopolitics.
Not to forget the regulatory landmine in India. US-based platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have come under government scrutiny for content published on their platform. Last year, WhatsApp had moved court against the provision in the new infotech rules that mandated the platform to reveal the originator of information under certain circumstances, on grounds that it would break end-to-end encryption. Twitter and the government have been at loggerheads since the beginning of last year over its moderation policies.
While Singh agreed that moderation is a challenge, it has put in place measures to address that.
Restricting the feed on the timeline to people you follow and contacts, Singh said, brings down the negativity by 90 percent. “We strongly believe that if you are an entrepreneur, there is a very high chance that those in your contact list and those you follow in the same network are going to be as civil as you are.”
But yes, a person might not always behave in the same way online, especially if they are anonymous, in this case, pseudonymous. “That is why we have a dislike button,” Singh said. If dislike for a particular post is too high, the artificial intelligence algorithm recognises that it has to be deprioritised from the feed or pulled down.
The platform has taken a clear stand when it comes to content such as hate speech, which is a bone of contention in all platforms. Explaining his stand, Singh said, “Content moderation is one of the biggest challenges on any platform, not only for us, but for everyone.” So the company will let the user decide whether the content needs to be left as is or taken down, based on the dislike button and comments, he said.
“No artificial intelligence can figure out exactly what is right and what is wrong, as the context could be very different. That's why human interaction is going to decide what is right and what is wrong, not artificial intelligence. And that's why we will focus mostly on that side of it,” Singh explained.
On the regulation front, he said, “The regulations will remain the same for Twitter or Instagram or TikTok, and will not affect us any differently for being pseudonymous. We will be following the reporting tool from day one.”
However, experts are skeptical about the platform's ability to address the challenges. “Creating social media is not easy. You need to create a social effect and then add value which is tough. Additionally, if one is using a pseudonymous name, how do you build trust on the network and verify the users?” Counterpoint’s Shah said.
Initially the platform will be free, till it reaches a certain scale. To attract more people, the firm will bring in top influencers in the sector. “Why did Clubhouse become popular, not because of the content, right? Not because of the audio sessions, but because Elon Musk came and spoke,” Singh said. The company is also ramping up its team from 9-10 employees to 20.
However, monetisation will be a challenge, once it reaches a scale.
Singh said the company is looking at two ways to monetise. One is super user, similar to Twitter Blue, which offers extra features such as undo tweets and customising app icons for a monthly fee. This is yet to be launched in India.
The second is advertising. “Nowadays the targeting is done on the basis of your interests. We strongly believe whenever you open our app, we will make your 10-15 minutes interesting enough to learn and challenge your thoughts so that you keep coming back,” Singh said. Also, a pseudonymous name piques one’s curiosity, which will also help keep up the engagement on the platform, he added.
While cracking monetisation in social media is hard, the company also has the advantage of having a co-founder who has maintained a pseudonymous identity.
“No one has been able to crack this pseudonymity bit yet. The good part is that our tech side is solid. Our team members have more than 10 years’ experience in building a core tech product. Our operations chief (Asthana, who goes by @Gabbbar Singh on Twitter) has been pseudonymous for over 10 years and has a lot of learnings and I have been building products for a couple of years. So, we have a good combination to drive the entire thing,” he added.
Singh also draws confidence from the fact that, unlike earlier, people are willing to pay for a good product.
As an investor, who did not want to be named, pointed out, “I like the idea of a paid anonymous platform, where you are filtering out trolls.”