User safety is key for all online platforms, particularly when you’re dealing with vulnerable youngsters. Moderating can be challenging and getting the balance between censorship and safety right can be hard.
We sat down with industry veteran and founder of Friendbase; Deborah Lygonis, to discuss the experience she’s gained from developing and running a virtual world for teens.
Interviewer: Hi Deborah. Could you please give us a short introduction to yourself?
Deborah: My name is Deborah Lygonis and I am a serial entrepreneur. I have started and run several businesses over the years, mainly within the software and gaming sector, but also e-health and other tech. I love tech and I’m passionate about startups and entrepreneurship. I also work as a coach and mentor for entrepreneurs within what’s called the European Space Agency Business Incubator; The ESA BIC, and for a foundation called Entrepreneurs Without Borders.
Interviewer: Wow! That’s an impressive background. One of the things you’ve started as an entrepreneur is Friendbase, right? Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Deborah: Yes. Friendbase is a company that I founded with my brother and a third guy called Andreas. We’ve known each other for many years. Well, obviously, I’ve known my brother for many years, but Andreas as well, has been part of our group of friends and acquaintances for many, many years. We decided to found Friendbase in 2013. We saw that the whole idea of virtual worlds hadn’t really migrated over to smartphones and we wanted to see if it was possible to create a complete cross-platform version.
So, we put together a mockup of an Android, IOS, Web version and put it out there to see if that was something that today’s young people would like.
Friendbase is a virtual world for teens where they can chat, play games and also design their looks and spaces. Now we’re also moving towards Ed tech in the way that we’ll be introducing quizzes that are both for fun but also have learning elements in them.
Interviewer: That sounds awesome. What would you say is the main challenge when it comes to running cross-platform online community and specifically one that caters to teens?
Deborah: There are a lot of challenges with startups in general, but also, of course, running an online community. One challenge is when you have people that meet each other in the forms of Avatar and written chat and they have different personalities and different backgrounds that can cause them to clash. The thing is that when you write in a chat, the nuances in the language don’t come through as opposed to when you have a conversation face to face. It’s really very hard to judge, the small subtleties in language and that can lead to misunderstandings.
Add to that as well that there are lots of different nationalities online. That in itself can lead to misunderstandings because they don’t speak the same language.
What starts off as a friendly conversation can actually rapidly deteriorate and end up in a conflict just because of these misunderstandings. That is a challenge, but that’s a general challenge, I think, with written social interactions.
Interviewer: Just so we understand how Friendsbase work. Do you have one to one chat, one to many chats or group chats? How does it work?
Deborah: The setup is that we can have up to 20 avatars in one space. No more, because then it will get too cluttered on the small phone screens. So, you can have group chats. I mean, you see the avatars and then they have a text bubble as they write so that it can be several people in one conversation.
Interviewer: Do you have the opportunity for groups of friends to form and join the same kind of space together?
Deborah: Yes. Each member has its own space. They can also invite and open up their space for other friends.
Interviewer: And in that regard. What you often see in the real world with team dynamics is that there is a group of friends and there is the popular people in that group. And then one person who maybe is a little bit an outsider, who will at times be bullied by the rest of the group. Do you see people ganging up on each other sometimes?
Deborah: I haven’t seen groups of people ganging up on one individual. It’s more the other way around. There are individuals that are out to cause havoc and who are just online to be toxic.
Interviewer: That means that you have in general, you have a really nice and good user base. But then there’s the rotten fruits that come in from time to time.
Deborah: That is what it is like today. We are still fairly early stage, though, when it comes to the amount of users. So I would expect this to change over time. And this is something that we’re prepared for. We added safety tools at a really early stage to be able to learn how to handle issues like this and also how to moderate the platform when incidents occur. So, I think that even though that we don’t have that type of ganging up on each other at the moment, I would expect that to happen in the future.
Interviewer: But it sounds like you’re prepared for it. Now you’ve made a really nice segue into my next question; What is the main motivation challenges you experienced running Friendbase? What are the main challenges right now and what do you expect you will have to handle later on?
Deborah: I think that a challenge in itself for all social platforms is to set the bar on what is acceptable and not.
Our target group are mid teens and up. So we don’t expect young children to be on Friendsbase. We feel that if we made a social world for young children, then we’d need to have a completely different set of regulations, more controlled regulations, rather than when it is teenagers and upwards.
However, that demographic is also very vulnerable. So, of course, there has to be some sort of measurement in place. The challenge is to determine, at what level do you want to put the safety bar and also how can you tell the difference between what is banter between friends and when it sort of flips over to actually be toxic or bullying? That’s something that is really, really hard to differ between. And I think that if you work with chat filters, then you have to have some sort of additional reporting system for when maybe the filters don’t manage this challenge. The filter is only a filter and can’t determine between the two. So that’s one challenge. It’s also complex to enforce the rules that are in place to protect the users without being perceived as controlling or patronizing.
At the moment, we also have a challenge in that we have users that come back solely for the purpose to cause havoc and create a toxic environment. We track them down and we ban their accounts, but it’s a continuous process.
That is something that should it escalate over time it will become increasingly time consuming. That’s why it’s really, really important for us to have tools in place so that it doesn’t have to be moderated manually. That will just take too much resource and time.
Of course, you have the even darker side of the internet; sexual predators that are out to groom vulnerable youngsters and to get them to maybe move over to a different platform where they can be used in a way that is extremely negative.
That’s something that is difficult to handle. But today, thanks to artificial intelligence and again, amazing toolsets out there. There are attempts to look at speech patterns and try and identify that sort of behavior. And there it’s also really great to have your own tool sets where the user can actually report someone if they feel threatened or if they feel that someone’s really creepy.
Interviewer: When you have returning users who have made it their goal to attack the platform, in a malicious way, do you see that it’s the same people returning based on their IP or the way that they talk?
Deborah: It’s not always possible to see it based on their IP because they use different ways of logging in. However, given their behavior, we can quickly identify them. And we have a group of ambassadors as well online on Friendbase that help us. On top of that we have a chat filter which can red flag certain behavior. So that helps as well.
There are a group that come back over and over again and for some mysterious reason they always use the same username. So they’re not that hard to identify. That group is actually easier to control than a group which has a different motive on why they are online and why they are trying to target youngsters. The toxic ones that are just there because they think it’s fun to behave badly. It’s easy to find them and close down their accounts.
Interviewer: We already touched upon this, but what would you say is the hardest moderation challenge to solve for you right now?
Deborah: The hardest moderation challenge to solve is, of course, finding the people who are deliberately out to target lonely youngsters that hunger for social contact. The whole grooming issue online is a problem. We are constantly trying to find new toolsets and encourage our users to contact us if there’s something that doesn’t feel right. So grooming is something that we’re very, very much aware of. If we happen to shut down someone’s account by mistake for a couple of hours, they’re most welcome to come to us and ask why. But we’d rather be safe than sorry when it comes to this kind of behavior. However, it is hard to track because it can be so very, very subtle in the beginning.
Interviewer: Friendsbase has been around for a while now. Are there any challenges that has changed or increased in occurrence over the years? And if yes. How?
Deborah: Actually, not really. I think the difference is in our own behavior as we are so much more aware of how we can solve different problems.
Bullying has been around for years. Free Internet as well. Sexual harassment of youngsters and between adults, of course, has also been around for years. It’s nothing new. I mean, the Internet is a fantastic place to be. It democratizes learning. You have access to the world and knowledge and entertainment.
But there is a dark side to it. From a bullying perspective you have the fact that previously, if you were bullied at school, you could go home or you could go to your social group somewhere else and you would have somewhere where you would feel safe.
When it’s online, it’s 24/7.
And it is relentless when it comes to the whole, child abuse part. Of course, it existed before as well. But now with the Internet, perpetrators can find groups that have the same desires as themselves and somehow together they can convince themselves as a group that it’s more acceptable. Which is awful. So that is the bad part of the net.
So, when you ask: Have the challenges changed or increased since we started Friendbase? No, not really. But what has changed is the attitude of how important it is to actually address these issues. When we started the company in 2013. We didn’t really talk that much about safety tools. I mean, we talked about should we have whitelist or a blacklist, the words. It was more on that level. But today most social platforms, they have moderation, they have toolsets, they have guidelines and policies and so forth.
So, I think that we who work with online communities as a whole have evolved a lot over the past years.
Interviewer: Yeah, I would say today in 2020, you probably wouldn’t be able to launch a social community or platform without launching with some sort of moderation tools and well-defined guidelines.
Deborah: I think you’re right. Several years ago, I did the pitch where we were talking about online safety and tools of moderation and were completely slaughtered. What we were told was that being good online or this whole be cool to be kind is going to stop our growth. It’s much better to let it all run rampant and then it will grow much faster. I don’t think anyone would say something like that today. So that’s a huge shift in mindset. Which is great. We welcome it.
Interviewer: That’s a fantastic story. You’ve been in this industry so long; you’ve seen this change. I find it fascinating that just seven years ago when you said I want to protect my users, people laughed at you. And now people would laugh at you if you said, I’m gonna go live without it.
Deborah: I know. Can you imagine going on stage today saying that I don’t care about safety? I mean, people would be so shocked.
Interviewer: You said before when we talked about the main challenges if you experienced growth, you’d need to change your approach to moderation and automate more in order to just keep up?
Deborah: Yes, definitely. We try and stay on top of what toolsets are out there.
We build in our own functionality, such as muting users. So, if someone is harassing you, you can mute them so that you can’t see what they’re writing. Small changes like that, we can do ourselves, which will be helpful.
Something I’d like to see more and that we’ve actually designed a research project around is to not only detect and ban bad behavior, but to encourage good behavior.
Because that in itself will also create a more positive environment.
That’s something that we’re really excited about, to work with people that are experts within gamification and natural language processing to see how can we create tool sets where we can encourage good behavior and see what we can do. Maybe we can start deflecting a conversation that is obviously on its way to going seriously wrong. It could be so simple as a small time delay when somebody writes something really toxic with a pop up saying: “Do you really want to say this?”. To just make someone think once more.
This is something that we’re looking into. It’s super interesting. And I hear there’s a couple of companies just the last few months that are also talking about creating tool sets for something like this. So, I think it’s going to be a really, really interesting development over the coming years.
Interviewer: It sounds like safety is very important to Friendbase. Why is that?
Deborah: Why is that? Quite early on, we who work in the company discussed what our core values should be. And one of the core values we decided upon is inclusion. Everybody is welcome. And for everyone to feel welcome. You have to have a welcoming atmosphere.
When you continue along that line of thought, then obviously you come to the point where, OK, if everyone’s going to be welcome and you want it to be a friendly space, then somewhere you’re going to have to stop toxic behavior. So, for us safety, it’s just part of our core values.
And also, I have a teenage daughter who loves gaming. I’ve seen how platforms behave. She’s part of groups that interact with each other online. I just feel that there must be a way of doing things better. It’s as simple as that. We can do better than this, letting it be super toxic. And there are some amazing people out there working with fantastic toolsets. There are some fantastic platforms and social games out there that also work in the same sort of direction as we do. It’s really great.
And you know what? To be quite honest, I think that there have been several case studies where it’s proven as well from a business perspective that you have a longer retention and a higher profitability when you can keep your user online for a longer time. So, you know, in itself, from a business sense, it also makes perfect sense to work in a way where you keep your user as long as possible.
Interviewer: You have tons and tons of experience obviously with startups and social platforms. If you were to give a piece of advice to someone who is running a similar service to Friendbase or even who are thinking about starting one, what would that be?
Deborah: It would be, first of all, to determine what level of safety you want to have, depending on your user group. Obviously, the younger demographic you have, the more safety tools you must ensure that you have in place. Also, not to build everything yourself. Especially if you’re working on an international market with many languages. Just to be able to filter many languages and in a decent way is a huge undertaking. If you think that you’re going to be able to hack together something yourself, it’s not that easy. It’s better to work with a tool or a company that has that as their core business because they will constantly be working with the state of the art solutions.
So better to liaise with switched on companies that already work with this as their main reason for being. I think that’s important. And then, of course, add your own easy to report system, easy to communicate with your user’s system so that you have sort of a double layer.
I mean, I’ve seen several different companies that work now with different moderation tools and chat filters and so forth. Many of them they do stellar work. And it’s important at the end of the day because if anything really, really bad would happen, then you’re just finished as a business. It’s as simple as that. The last thing you would want is to have someone knock on your door and shut you down because something’s happened online in your platform.
Interviewer: Definitely! What’s in the future for Friendbase? Where are you in two years?
Deborah: Where are we now? We’re now raising funds, because what we’ve seen is that we have a very, very loyal member base and they are wanting to invite more of their friends. And I think that with very, very little work, we can get the platform on a really interesting growth path.
Deborah: So, yeah, our our aim is to become one of the big global players. It’s exciting times ahead.
Interviewer: For sure. Any closing remarks? Any statements you want to get out there from a personal point of view or from Friendbase?
Deborah: The Internet is a great place to be because there’s so much you can learn. You can meet so many interesting people. But, there is a dark side as well. And you have to be aware of it. Just by being a little bit street smart online people can keep themselves safe. And we’re getting there. People are learning. Schools have it in their curriculum, social platforms try to teach users how to behave. So slowly but surely, we’re getting there.