Ever since German student social network StudiVZ was steamrollered by Facebook five years ago, Germans have stuck to US-based platforms such as Twitter, Instagram WhatsApp and Snapchat. With competition like that, launching a new social network might seem like a fool’s errand. And yet, in a Berlin loft full of young programmers, the first promising German social network for years is taking shape.
“I wouldn’t touch this under any circumstances,” a well-known European investor admitted privately. It’s a chicken and egg problem: no users, no content – no content, no users.
Founder Alessio Borgmeyer sits at a long kitchen table beside a sink overflowing with dirty cups with his startup Jodel’s raccoon logo. One tap of his smartphone reveals that the app’s activity is anything but dead. Under the heading “Berlin” is a timeline of posts from a community overwhelmingly made up of students, starting with the most recent: “I’m in Ikea with my girlfriend. Save me!”
Who is this reluctant shopper? No idea. There are no names or profiles on Jodel. Users are anonymous. You can vote contributions up and down. Every up-vote earns 10 karma points and a more prominent position. Five down votes gets the entry removed. Posts reach everyone in a vicinity of 10 kilometers, as if yodeled from a mountain top.
The app already has a German fan base and is catching on at Northern European universities.
“We want to connect you very quickly with your community,” says Mr. Borgmeyer, whose karma level is approaching 250,000. And indeed, the network is becoming more than a platform for bored students. Around five million texts and pictures are posted every day – many of them jokes.
Mr. Borgmeyer, now 26, launched his firm in Aachen, where he studied mechanical engineering. There, complete strangers arrange to meet and play sport via Jodel. In Cologne, users exchange tips on the best local cycle shops.
Mr. Borgmeyer describes how he’s working to broaden the network – on the advice of a friend: “When he only sees posts from students who have only just got up around midday, he gets mad.” So in Berlin and Cologne, the founder is now trying to guide users with channels such as “fitness” or “what’s going on today?”
That hasn’t always gone to plan. Mr. Borgmeyer is known for his laid-back demeanor at conferences, where he’s easy to spot in his reversed raccoon baseball cap. And his fledgling startup is making an impact. Even Adam D’Angelo, Mark Zuckerberg’s first CTO who went on to launch the question-and-answer site Quora, seems to think so. He and other investors, including Silicon Valley fund Floodgate, have just put €6 million, or $6.7 million, into Jodel. With the help of his US investors Mr. Borgmeyer plan is to expand to the US, and to experiment in the homeland of social networks. German startup entrepreneurs the Samwer brothers are also investors.
The app already has a German fan base and is catching on at Northern European universities. But Mr. Borgmeyer is thinking bigger. “My mother also wants to know what’s going on in Bad Homburg, what are people talking about here, right now?”
Mr. Borgmeyer sees Jodel becoming a digital village square. But it also has potential as a digital pillory. Until recently, Jodel did have a US competitor, YikYak, another anonymous locally based messenger. At one point, investors like the Silicon Valley superfund valued YikYak at $400 million. Then hordes of racist trolls at US colleges used it to threaten black students with murder and rape, and sexually harass female lecturers. When the YikYak’s founders refused to identify the trolls to university management, the network was discredited and had to close down in May.
Jodel’s “good vibes only” slogan has yet to be put to such an extreme test. As with any technology, there will always be possibility for users to abuse it. The founder was uncomfortable talking about Jodel’s own turn with controversy, the “Porno Jodel Sunday” channel, where students posted naked pictures. He says they were deleted before going online.
The anonymous nature of the app can also pose issues. Helena Köster, a 19-year-old student, complained of the unwelcome attention from one Jodel user who appeared to be watching her, and posted her full name and whereabouts during a late shift at the bar she was working at. “There were no insults, but it was still unpleasant,” she said. “There are people writing about you and you don’t know who it is?” She reported the message to Jodel, and in less than an hour it was deleted.
According to Mr. Borgmeyer, YikYak outsourced moderation to external service providers who were out of their depth. Jodel on the other hand, makes industrious users its moderators – several thousand in Germany alone. Some even boast of their status on the network. When a comment is reported, it’s shown to several moderators who can delete it if it’s insulting or suggestive.
If the network keeps growing, it will become more diverse, but also more impersonal. Unpaid moderators in the Jodel community are happy to provide this service for now. Jodel also isn’t profitable yet.
That’s normal for such a young social network. And there could be attractive possibilities for local advertising. For the time being though, Mr. Borgmeyer is happy to live on investors’ money. “If you sell advertising, you’re making a product for users and for advertising clients,” he says. His first priority is to make a product for users only – and for many more users than he has today.
Alexander Demling is a reporter for Handelsblatt covering technology, startups and financial topics. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.