Towards a social media ecosystem that prioritizes user control
Reflections on Block Party’s seed round and what we need to cultivate a middleware ecosystem
Back in February 2020, when Block Party first launched, we announced that our goal was to bring a safer online experience to everyone. While a lot has changed in the two years since then, that mission has only become more urgent and essential. Although the sheer size of the challenge can be daunting, we still firmly believe that solutions are possible and that we’re making progress. (In fact, we’ve made enough progress to have raised a seed round - scroll straight to the end for the details.)
We’re more convinced than ever that the path to meaningful change lies in letting users have more direct control over their own online experiences. It’s time for not just Block Party, but a whole ecosystem, to tackle this area.
What it takes to build a middleware ecosystem
Block Party is what Daphne Keller of Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center refers to as “middleware”. We sit between the social media platform and its users, allowing users to curate their experience more actively than the platforms allow out of the box.
Unlike other platforms with thriving third-party ecosystems that help to provide users with greater choice and more functionality — think browser extensions on Chrome — there’s little available for social media consumers today. So what needs to change?
Ecosystems of this kind require three things to thrive: public demand, opportunities to monetize, and API access. The first two are straightforward. Although many users assume their experience must be dictated exclusively by the platforms, it’s clear from recent user rebellions (see: the influencer revolt against recent Instagram updates) that public opinion is shifting in this area, and an ever-larger group of users will expect a greater say over their timelines. If those users value control enough, opportunities to build businesses to serve their needs will emerge.
As for API access, well — we’ve sung this song before. It’s time to open up and let outside companies help. Twitter is leading the charge in this area, but the other platforms should join the party. The platforms can continue to design for the broadest possible set of their users, and we third parties can create the more tailored experiences that so many yearn for.
The opportunities ahead
It’s no secret that Block Party intends to expand to additional social media platforms beyond Twitter. But more than that, we’d like to see other companies join us in tackling very real pain points that end users experience that the platforms will never completely address on their own. We’ve started with trust and safety, but there are plenty of others: timeline curation, content recommendation, accessibility, civic engagement, community and coalition building, and more.
In the meantime, we’re hoping to set an example for what’s possible when platforms make space for middleware. To that end, we’ve raised a $4.8 million seed round, led by Stellation Capital with participation from funds including Impellent Ventures, Fuel Capital, and Goodwater Capital. We’re also fortunate to have participation from leading social media operators, including Jeff Seibert (founder of Crashlytics, ex-head of Twitter consumer product); Dr. Rumman Chowdhury (Director of ML Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability, Twitter); Evan Sharp (co-founder, Pinterest); Cindy Gallop (CEO, Make Love Not Porn); Scott Belsky (co-founder, Behance); Annie Lee (former marketing leader, Twitch); Yun-Fang Juan (early Tech Lead, Facebook); Bangaly Kaba (former Head of Growth, Instagram); Pasha Sadri (co-founder, Polyvore); Sebastian Gil (early engineer, Snap); and Sheldon Chang (early engineer, Snap).
With this funding, we’ll accelerate both our product development and our hiring efforts. In the coming year, we look forward to expanding to support other platforms, introducing more tools for employers to help address online harassment as a workplace safety issue, and deepening the support we can provide for Twitter users experiencing a digital safety crisis.
Excited about what the social media ecosystem could achieve for users but not ready to start your own company? Join us — we’re hiring.