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If you were to do a Google search of the social media app Yubo, you'd mostly find news articles warning parents about child predators.
Here's a brief selection: "Yubo is not safe for young users." "Parents, here's a new app your kids might be using." "Parents growing concerned over the Yubo app."
This apparently dangerous, child-oriented social media app has been having a moment among the kids these days, albeit a quiet one. Engagement on the app — its users are mostly teens ages 13 to 25, based in the U.S., Canada and Australia — increased nearly 400% in the last year, and while the founders won't provide daily usage statistics, they've collected at least 45 million users.
At its core, Yubo turns the idea of "stranger-danger" on its head. The app very openly wants young people to make new friends with strangers on the internet. If that makes you afraid for your own children, or for the future as a whole, you're not alone. And, in the eyes of Yubo CEO and co-founder Sacha Lazimi, you're also very wrong.
"There is no difference for this generation between online and offline," he said. "Older generations don't understand this. When you don't understand something, you are scared right away. This is normal, for them to be scared."
Yubo doesn't aim to facilitate relationships with child predators, or introduce preteens to twenty-somethings; in fact, those kinds of things would get you banned from the platform. Studies show that young people are lonelier than ever before, and that's where Lazimi sees an opportunity: He built a social media company that helps teens make friends with others their own age. He wants his users to be able to safely meet and befriend new people online, all while living in a virtual world that operates with the exact same rules as the physical one.
According to Ariel Fox Johnson, a senior counsel for global policy at Common Sense Media (which advocates for a better and safer internet for children and teens), social media poses some special risks for kids: It can exacerbate mental illness and loneliness, introduce children to potentially predatory strangers and adults, expose their personal information to private companies and governments and preserve what they say online for an unforgiving future. Everything Yubo is trying to create sits right at the tangle of this web of problems — and the app's founders say they are trying to solve them.
What eventually became Yubo was once just a Snapchat discovery tool. Lazimi, Jérémie Aouate and Arthur Patora, friends at an engineering school in Paris, wanted to build a simple tool where people could find new friends on Snapchat. They had noticed an increasingly odd phenomenon, where Snapchat users were posting their usernames on Facebook, on websites, anywhere they could find, all so they could get new people to add them on Snapchat.
So Lazimi and his friends built what was essentially Tinder for Snapchat friends. You could swipe left or right on someone to decide if you wanted to add them to your Snap. And tens of thousands of people started using the tool, eventually prompting them to ask: Why?
They landed on loneliness. All of the people using their tool were teenagers. They just wanted new friends online. "At this point, we understood that they were mainly looking to have meaningful interaction with other people, and there is a strong need for socializing online," Lazimi said.
But taking a basic dating app for Snapchat and turning it into a massively successful social platform is not something that just happens. Especially when you are trying to build a self-sufficient app that not only rejects the traditional revenue models for social but also creates productive friendships for perhaps the most difficult audience.
So Lazimi and his friends got their start with $20,000 from a group of investors. They had to find a way to make the money last for a year in London, split three ways, so they rented a house and then sublet one of the bedrooms to another renter for extra cash. With one person sleeping in the living room, they spent almost an entire year building the first version of Yubo, almost never leaving, hardly sleeping. If there's a stereotype for the early life of a startup, they were living it.
It worked, sort of. They eventually ended up in an accelerator in Paris, and now, five years and three funding rounds later, they've made about $20 million in one year of revenue and feel confident they could be profitable if they wanted. (They currently reinvest their profits into marketing for the app.) Because they rely on in-app purchases rather than advertising for monetization, they feel more comfortable about their long-term financial future. Their last funding round, in November 2020, raised $47.5 million.
But Lazimi isn't interested in the traditional startup model of long-term dependence on VCs. Raising money has been difficult, at times, and the investors don't always understand Yubo's goals. "The investors said, 'You don't make friends online, you make friends offline,'" Lazimi explained. He gets the sense that they invested mainly because they believe in the team and the company structure, not the product itself.
"We are much more independent in this model. It's a healthy model. We think it's the future of any social platform if you want to monetize today, because if you monetize through ads then you compete with the big players that have lots of users," Lazimi said.
Researchers have found for years that younger generations are lonelier than their parents, and many studies blame traditional social media for that divide. "Young people with moderate to severe depressive symptoms are nearly twice as likely as those without depression to say they use social media almost constantly (34% vs. 18%)," according to a report from Common Sense Media released Wednesday.
Most of Generation Z spends their free time on "traditional" social networks like Instagram, which are designed to reward content performance, Lazimi explained. "The teens have lots of followers, but very poor interactions. Likes, views and comments are not meaningful, and that's why they feel very lonely. They can't discover other groups of people like you would on a gaming platform or in real life," he said.
Yubo rejects almost everything about traditional social media (there are no ads, no likes, no algorithmically-driven content discovery) and instead draws heavily on the culture and structure of gaming platforms. Gaming worlds like Fortnite and Minecraft are among the few virtual places where children reliably make friends with people they don't know (and these platforms are equally rife with allegations of child predation). So Yubo built small rooms where people can video chat, livestream and play games together, get invited in and out of the conversation, and even buy "add-ons" to improve the group experience. It's Fortnite, but for actual life.
Which brings us back to where this story literally and metaphorically began. All of these new and different ideas about social media sound wonderful, but can Yubo really keep people safe? Content moderation is still a difficult problem to solve. And according to Fox Johnson, when 13-year-olds use social media, there will always be a few adults who would lie about their age for the chance to talk to them.
Yubo uses the age data to sort people into rooms restricted by age, so everyone interacts with people within their own age group. And then the app educates users about its safety policies relentlessly. "We really try to prevent things from happening, rather than just moderating," Durand said. "One example: If you're trying to send private information about yourself, we send a warning pop-up to tell you that it could be dangerous to do that. And it usually works."
The company takes a very involved approach to content moderation; text and photos posted to profile pages are approved before they go live, and the app's content moderation systems will stop or interfere with livestreams or conversations whenever behavior might violate user policies. It's a much more heavy-handed approach than what someone might usually experience on Facebook or YouTube, albeit at a much smaller scale.
The internet's fundamental problem might be that people feel free to ignore normal social expectations online. It's cyberbullying 101: Anonymity lets you be a jerk. Lazimi rejects that paradigm for his app. "We want our users to behave as they behave in a public space, as they behave in a university. If this is something you can do in real life in a public space, then you can do it on Yubo. It's that simple," he said.
"We've seen that some of the more damaging parts of social media for teens' mental well-being are algorithmic amplification of content that can keep them hooked, and the very public visualizations of popularity. So I don't think getting rid of those is a bad idea," Fox Johnson said of Yubo's premise. "Obviously we see that teens are getting some positive benefits from social media, in particular during the pandemic. So it has to be possible to create a space where teens communicate with friends in a safe and positive way."
Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.