Social networks are the worst thing about the internet right now. From Facebook to Twitter to Reddit, they’re cesspools of harassment, bullying, and fake news–the last place people with mental health problems would want to share their stories.
But a new social networking app called Huddle claims to be a truly safe digital space. When you join the app, you either must enter your phone number or log in through Facebook so Huddle can verify you’re a real person (Huddle claims your information is never shared). Once you choose a username, you can join support groups and post personal videos to the groups that others can reply to. The idea is that once you join a group, you become an engaged member, giving others support when they need it and knowing you can ask for help and be heard. Three months after the app’s launch, there are 100 groups focused on topics like depression, eating disorders, teen pregnancy, infidelity problems, drug addiction, and asexuality.
So how did this young startup convince thousands of users to share their most personal struggles, fears, and triumphs–without, they claim, any instances of harassment yet?
It starts with video. Most online therapeutic forums and social networks are primarily text and chat-based, but Huddle’s cofounders, developer Tyler Faux and designer Dan Blackman–both veterans of Tumblr–wanted to create an experience that was as close to an in-person peer support group as possible. Blackman, who grew up with an alcoholic father, was familiar with how much face time in a support-group context could help. “Text is a really good medium for a lot of things, but you don’t get a sense of who’s behind the keyboard,” Faux says.
Instead, they landed on video. Thanks to Snapchat, video is becoming a dominant way of communicating between friends, especially for young people. Huddle uses an interface that will be familiar to Snapchat users, where you swipe to get to the next video–but the videos don’t disappear when they’re done playing. Instead, each video continues to play on a loop until you swipe to the next one, allowing you to take any time you need to digest and respond to the person’s story. Below each video, there’s a place to write or record a reply, as well as a way to directly message the video poster. You can also send a wave of support. I posted a very short video, and was thrilled to see that almost immediately a few people supported me and one person commented positively–an entirely different kind of experience than a Facebook notification that x number of people have liked your post. Anyone who signs up for the app can look through the content, comment, and upload videos to any group.
The cofounders believe that people are less likely to bully others if they have to say hurtful things out loud, to a camera. “It’s hard to point a camera at your face and be a troll,” Faux says. (Still, since videos go out to an entire group of people, that might not be the way a bully would use the app–instead, there’s plenty of space to harass people in the comments, just like elsewhere on the internet.)
To get around the problem of how intimidating it can be to record a video of yourself talking about your struggles–and sharing it with strangers on the internet–the cofounders alit on a clever UX trick: a pixelation feature that lets users decide what amount of pixelation they want on their video, from utterly unrecognizable to crystal clear. The veil of anonymity is under the user’s control. The feature is designed to make users comfortable and give them the agency to decide how much they want to hide their identity. But the idea isn’t to be totally anonymous. Your voice remains your voice–ensuring you still sound like a real person, even if you don’t look like one.
Over the last few months, Faux has noticed patterns in how people use the pixelation feature. Users often allow for clearer images when they’re speaking from a position of experience and are further along in their personal journey. Others will use pixelation less the more time they spend on the platform–an indication that they’re becoming more comfortable.
Using video as the main mechanism for communicating on the app does have its dangers–people could use it to show obscene things, for instance. But Faux and Blackman say that so far, they’ve had no instances of harassment.
There’s likely some element of self-selection here. Because Huddle is so niche, people probably aren’t seeking it out unless they really want help. Besides, internet trolls probably just haven’t found out about it yet–the app only launched this year.
But the cofounders believe they differ in a significant way from other online communities like Facebook: The videos are shown in reverse chronological order meaning there’s no algorithmically prioritized feed, which ensures that everyone’s voice can be heard. You don’t get notifications when someone has “liked” your post–instead they’re for when someone in your support group posts something, or if you receive a message. “Huddle is an app you need to be present for,” Faux says. “You can’t scroll through an endless feed.”
Huddle also has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. “Positivity and safety are what we care about for our community,” Faux says. “Other social networks may have different goals.” Their policy means that Faux and Blackman and their one other employee are constantly monitoring the content on the app and take down any content that’s negative.
But having a no-bullying policy only goes so far on a platform that prides itself on being a safe space for people struggling with mental health issues. For instance, it’s inevitable that mentions of suicide will arise. Faux and Blackman say that if a user mentions any kind of self-harm, the app sends the user resources like a suicide prevention hotline and removes the content so it doesn’t encourage others (and likely saves the company from liability). “We see this platform as a stepping stone toward getting the help people truly need right now,” Blackman says. “We have content now where people are talking about really hard things. But ultimately if they feel like they can talk about it safely, and they get something out of Huddle, that’s our main goal.”
So far, Faux and Blackman say they have only ever flagged one post for self-harm. Because Huddle is so small, it’s not surprising they haven’t had any significant moderation problems. It’s easier to create a safe space when you’re small–it’s another when you’re a business that has to grow. And Huddle does plan to grow. It raised a $1.2 million seed round from Thrive Capital in August. Huddle’s plan to make money is to add paid access to professional therapists and counselors as well as other resources. The peer support will continue to be free for users, the founders say.
For a new user, scrolling through the groups and listening to some of the stories people share is a harrowing experience. Some talk about abusive partners; others about crippling anxiety; others about challenges with a friend who’s in a new relationship. But the deeply personal things on Huddle aren’t there by chance. People are choosing to share their experiences, to ask for advice, and to support others they don’t know personally–showing just how much an app’s carefully crafted, thoughtful design can turn your phone from a negative place to a positive one.