Tracy Chou’s Block Party is fighting trolls—and the VC ecosystem

In January 2021, distinguished software program engineer Tracy Chou opened up registrations for her firm’s first product. The service—like the firm, referred to as Block Party—is designed to assist individuals who expertise harassment on-line, beginning on Twitter however with the ambition to broaden to different platforms. By giving customers extra management over what they see on Twitter, Chou is hoping to unravel considered one of the largest and most intractable issues with social media.

The issue is additionally deeply private. “I’ve some devoted harassers who’re proud to have been harassing me for six or seven years,” says Chou, who grew up in Silicon Valley as the little one of Taiwanese immigrants. “Platforms are actually unhealthy at detecting this and don’t actually care.”

Chou’s experiences with on-line abuse started when she was in highschool, she recollects, however slowly escalated when she grew to become an early worker at Quora after which Pinterest. Whereas at Pinterest, she printed a blog post encouraging tech firms to disclose what number of feminine engineers they employed, sparking a motion towards publishing range metrics. In 2016, she cofounded Venture Embody, solidifying her place as an outspoken advocate for fairness and inclusion in the tech trade. However as her profile has risen—she now has greater than 100,000 Twitter followers—the extra she has been compelled to cope with trolls, stalkers, and serial harassers sending her abusive, horrifying messages all over the place she goes on-line.

“My complete life is oriented round how I could be secure, psychologically, mentally, and bodily,” she says.

Now, as Block Party’s founder and CEO, Chou is confronting a brand new problem: a well-capitalized competitor providing a free various to Block Party. Just some weeks after Chou opened Block Party to the public, one other startup referred to as Sentropy introduced the same product. Like Block Party, Sentropy Shield is designed to assist Twitter customers handle on-line harassment by filtering out abusive messages. Whereas Chou finally plans to promote subscriptions to Block Party, Sentropy, whose core enterprise is enterprise software program, says it is going to at all times provide Shield to particular person customers totally free.

My complete life is oriented round how I could be secure, psychologically, mentally, and bodily.”

Tracy Chou, Block Party

The monetary disparity between the two firms is stark. Although each launched their client merchandise in early 2021 and have been based round the identical time in 2018, Sentropy has raised a complete of $13 million in funding. Block Party has raised lower than $1.5 million, from Precursor Ventures and a handful of angel traders together with Venture Embody CEO Ellen Pao, former Fb govt Alex Stamos, and former TechCrunch editor Alexia Bonatsos. Once we spoke in early March, Chou was her firm’s solely full-time worker and she or he’d constructed most of the product on her personal. Sentropy, in the meantime, has a crew of 26.

For some in Silicon Valley, information that Sentropy can be competing with Block Party touched a uncooked nerve. “It is more durable as a lady of shade to lift cash and it’s wild to have watched @blockpartyapp_ get to market with these instruments first and get much less cash and fanfare than this transfer,” tweeted Karla Monterroso, the former CEO of nonprofit Code2040, after Sentropy launched its client product. “Competitors on this house is good for all of us. However I’m so struck by the distinction in funding and protection when the founder is an impacted girl of shade aspect by aspect with a white man.”

Chou describes the scenario much more bluntly. “It’s such a rigged recreation,” she says. “I’m going up in opposition to individuals who have 10 occasions the quantity of funding.”

Block Party founder Tracy Chou [Photo: Kevin Abosch]

Block Party and Sentropy’s disparate fortunes additionally assist to light up the incentive construction of enterprise capital, which usually prioritizes monetary returns over social good. In the case of Sentropy, main traders, together with Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, appear to be excited by each. However there’s little question that enterprise companies equivalent to Sentropy, which deal with promoting software program to different firms and platforms, are likely to command greater valuations throughout fundraising.

Whereas Block Party is a client product designed by and for individuals being harassed on-line, Sentropy’s consumer-facing rival, Sentropy Shield, was developed by repurposing the firm’s AI enterprise instruments. Different startups constructing enterprise instruments to fight on-line abuse, together with Spectrum Labs and L1ght, additionally raised eight-figure sums in 2020.  

“[Enterprise] software-as-a-service companies commerce at greater multiples and make more cash,” says TaskRabbit founder Leah Solivan, who is now a basic companion at Gasoline Capital. “That’s the nature of issues.”

That doesn’t make the competitors any easier for Chou, for whom on-line abuse is private—and who believes that this first-person understanding is obligatory to truly remedy the drawback. Whereas Sentropy and different abuse-management startups courtroom enterprise clients, Chou says she determined to deal with particular person customers as a result of she’s seen how large platforms equivalent to Fb and Twitter—which, like Sentropy, make use of machine studying to filter hateful content material—have repeatedly failed individuals like her.

“It was an enormous ache level, having to see [abusive posts] in the first place, and an enormous weight on my psychological well being,” Chou says. However due to the threats to her security, she additionally didn’t have the possibility to only ignore it. What she actually wished as a client was a method to cordon off the harassment so she might deal with it when she was mentally ready, relatively than cope with abusive messages constantly disrupting her day.

i block party app screenshots
[Image: courtesy of Block Party]

That’s precisely what Block Party does: It mechanically mutes accounts based mostly in your preferences, and quarantines these accounts and the messages they ship in a “Lockout Folder” on Block Party’s website. You need to use Twitter as standard in the app or in the browser and by no means see any of the hate or abuse directed at you; the Lockout Folder is at all times there if it’s essential go and doc abuse or test to see if somebody has been muted who you do wish to join with. As well as, Block Party has a “Helper View” so mates can step in to handle this folder for those who don’t wish to have interaction with harassing messages in any respect.

Block Party is useful as a result of platform-level options nonetheless put the onus on the harassed to dam, mute, and report abuse, which for high-profile individuals like Chou can vary from a gradual trickle to a deluge. That’s one motive Chou determined to construct a product for the individuals who expertise abuse relatively than the enterprises that host it.

She additionally believes that enterprise-first approaches misunderstand how firms take into consideration harassment in the first place. “I don’t suppose it’s as promising from a market and enterprise perspective, as a result of firms consider abuse as a price middle—one thing they should spend cash on but it surely doesn’t make them cash,” she says. “Corporations would relatively pay lower than extra.”

Even Sentropy appears to have realized a few of the limitations to an enterprise-only method, because it determined to launch a client product as properly. “Customers depend on the firms to at all times have their security pursuits in thoughts. We predict we could be the security layer that sits between customers and platforms,” says Sentropy COO Taylor Rhyne. His imaginative and prescient for Shield is just like Chou’s for Block Party: “You set [Protect’s settings] one time, and we constantly average content material wherever it’s coming from.”

The price of constructing for customers

Not everybody buys Chou’s argument {that a} consumer-first method is superior, and even price funding. For example, she says that traders at the prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator discounted Block Party as a result of they imagine the platforms are already fixing the drawback of on-line harassment utilizing machine studying.

“Some of us are skeptical as a result of they consider the drawback we’re engaged on as ‘area of interest’—what YC stated, for instance—and that we’ve got a small potential buyer base,” Chou says. “[But] we’ve truly seen a lot wider applicability of our most simple product than even we anticipated.” (Y Combinator didn’t reply to a request for remark.)

Whereas Chou initially anticipated Block Party to be most helpful to individuals with giant social followings, she says the product additionally has customers with fewer than 100 followers on Twitter. “There are additionally individuals who’ve purposefully stepped again from social media due to the toxicity who’re comfy reengaging now with Block Party as a safety mechanism, so it’s an even bigger market than could be seen by simply what number of customers have x variety of followers on Twitter, Instagram, and so forth.,” she says.

For now, Block Party is free to make use of, although Chou plans to introduce a subscription tier in the future with further options. As a result of the service’s beta launch in 2020 was hit with a denial of service attack and its ready listing was spammed with abuse, customers are actually individually screened and wish to attend a brief time period earlier than they’re admitted to Block Party. Alternatively, they’ll pay an $8 “anti-troll toll” to get entry to the platform instantly.

We’ve had a lot of individuals ask us how they’ll pay extra, as a result of they’re getting a number of worth out of the service.”

Tracy Chou, Block Party

Already, Chou says, she’s seen optimistic indicators that buyers are keen to pay for Block Party. She says that between one-third and one-quarter of signups pay the $8 charge though they may wait to entry the product totally free. “We’ve had a lot of individuals ask us how they’ll pay extra, as a result of they’re getting a number of worth out of the service,” she says. She’s additionally heard from organizations which are excited by buying entry to Block Party for his or her workers.

It’s no shock that Chou’s traders are predominantly composed of people who find themselves additionally prone to be intimately acquainted with on-line harassment and its affect. Pao, as an example, grew to become the interim CEO of Reddit in 2014 and faced intense attacks from the service’s users after banning some poisonous communities identified for harassment. She later resigned. Pao is additionally outspoken about inequity in tech: She misplaced a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit in opposition to VC fund Kleiner Perkins, and now serves as the CEO of Venture Embody, which she cofounded with Chou.

After Block Party’s pre-seed spherical, nonetheless, Chou says she’s struggled to lift extra funds—and having a direct competitor might have made issues worse. 

The tensions between the two startups spilled out into the open in early February, when Chou and Ohanian clashed on Twitter over whether or not Sentropy had pivoted to go head-to-head with Block Party. Chou shared an electronic mail from Sentropy CEO John Redgrave, from a yr earlier, assuring her that his firm was taking a “complementary” method; Ohanian countered that this was nonetheless the case, provided that Sentropy’s core enterprise stays enterprise. In a separate collection of tweets alleging bias in the enterprise capital world, Chou noted that Ohanian had invested $2 million in Sentropy earlier than it had a working product—greater than all the cash she’s been in a position to elevate thus far. 

Ohanian has stated he was not aware of Block Party when he invested in Sentropy. When reached for remark, Ohanian stated he led Initialized Capital’s 2018 funding in Sentropy as a result of he believed “a really robust AI/ML answer [would] be wanted to curb hate and harassment on-line,” and that he’d been in search of a “crew with deep [natural language processing] expertise who was additionally mission-driven round this drawback.” He says the firm had some tough fashions and a prototype constructed when he invested. 

Redgrave was equally diplomatic when requested to reply. “I believe our approaches to the drawback are totally different,” he says. “I believe extra importantly, these working in belief and security have to work collectively. I believe the drawback is a lot larger than any considered one of us can remedy.”

The deal with enterprise

In distinction to Block Party being grounded in Chou’s private experiences with abuse, Sentropy’s new client product grew out of its roots as an enterprise agency serving to firms handle their platform’s abuse issues. Its 4 cofounders—three males and one girl—have a observe file. In 2017, the startup the place all of them earlier labored, Lattice Information, a machine studying firm that had spun out of a Stanford lab, was acquired by Apple, reportedly for $200 million. Quickly after, it was time for a brand new mission.

Rhyne says he and Redgrave “began fascinated about what tech we might construct round on-line gaming. As we began going out and speaking to individuals in numerous corners of the gaming world, it grew to become clear [harassment] was a blocker like only a few different issues.”

It grew to become clear [harassment] was a blocker like only a few different issues.”

Taylor Rhyne, Sentropy

Redgrave, Rhyne, and CTO Michele Banko collectively cite their very own experiences and the experiences of family members with on-line harassment, in addition to a need to make a optimistic affect on society, as motivation for Sentropy. Nonetheless, based mostly on our interviews, Sentropy’s cofounders have a extra restricted private connection to the drawback than Chou. “This was not the factor we have been most instantly drawn to. It wasn’t as apparent to us because it is now,” Rhyne says.

Sentropy’s expertise, which makes use of AI to grasp the context of phrases and account conduct to detect if a message is abusive, was first deployed in two business-to-business products designed for platforms that don’t have colossal engineering groups devoted to the drawback of harassment. Sentropy declined to call any clients however says it is working with courting and social media firms in addition to outsourced content-moderation operations.

After launching its B2B merchandise in 2020, Redgrave says that the firm began getting requests to make use of its algorithms from people who cope with on-line harassment. He says a distinguished girl of shade celeb requested for entry to Sentropy’s tech to assist her handle abuse on Twitter. (Redgrave declined to specify who, however provided that Ohanian is considered one of Sentropy’s traders, one would possibly surmise that his spouse, tennis champion Serena Williams, may very well be the celeb in query.)

[Animation: Sentropy]

This immediate led Sentropy to take the machine studying fashions in its enterprise merchandise and repackage them right into a client product referred to as Shield, which launched in February 2021. Shield detects and flags problematic content material and permits customers to dam or mute particular customers or content material themes. The product additionally offers a manner so as to add key phrases that ought to at all times be filtered out. Sure options are barely totally different from Block Party, however the idea and implementation are largely the identical. Sentropy says Shield will at all times be free for people to make use of. The corporate might ultimately promote Shield subscriptions to companies, like sports activities groups and different organizations, however Redgrave says that’s not at the moment Sentropy’s focus.

Regardless of the firm’s new client product, Redgrave says Sentropy isn’t pivoting in that path. “The enterprise is very a lot nonetheless our focus,” he says. “We imagine that going after enterprises can be the greatest method to handle this drawback at scale.”

Blasting via partitions

Whereas Chou has confronted challenges in the conventional fundraising sphere, she additionally has some distinct benefits.

“The founders which are purpose-built for his or her alternatives are actually obsessed with what they’re constructing,” says Solivan, the Gasoline Capital investor. “That zeal helps drive the momentum and the scale that’s required to construct a sustainable and thrilling enterprise. [Chou is] going to hit hurdles, she’s going to hit partitions, and she or he’s going to discover a method to blast via them like nobody else would for that individual drawback.”

Chou, in any case, is constructing a product that can remedy her personal drawback—and an issue for a lot of ladies, LGBTQ of us, and folks of shade who’re outspoken on-line. Regardless of the tens of millions invested by platform firms aiming to fight it, harassment is merely a part of being on the web for many individuals.

[Animation: courtesy of Block Party]

“I’m considerably newly out as trans and that has led to an enormous improve in the quantity of hate that I’m receiving on Twitter,” says Jaclyn Moore, the showrunner for Pricey White Individuals on Netflix and a Block Party person. Moore determined to check out Block Party to handle the abusive message she was receiving. “I set it up as soon as, I arrange my filters, after which I might return to Block Party and overview the mutes that it does mechanically,” she says. “But when I didn’t try this, I didn’t know I used to be getting hateful something. I had no concept.”

That’s by design—and derived fully from Chou’s private experiences of being harassed. Moderately than utilizing machine studying algorithms to attempt to assess the intent of a tweet, Block Party’s evaluation is based mostly on the traits of every account that is interacting with you on Twitter. You first set your filtering settings, which allow you to resolve what kinds of accounts to mute. For example, you would possibly simply wish to see feedback and responses from individuals you comply with and individuals who comply with them. Which means any new accounts, any accounts with out profile footage, and any accounts with fewer than 10 followers—all indicators that an account could also be used for harassment—received’t ever make it to your notifications and can as an alternative keep in the Lockout Folder.

“Perhaps it caught a pair individuals out of 100 that have been individuals saying good issues however we didn’t comply with one another. That felt like such a small worth to pay,” Moore says. “This is such a chic answer as a result of it doesn’t require your consideration.”

This is such a chic answer as a result of it doesn’t require your consideration.”

Jaclyn Moore, showrunner, Pricey White Individuals

One profit to this method is that there’s a variety of content material that doesn’t truly violate a platform’s phrases of service or wouldn’t essentially be flagged by an algorithm as overtly racist or sexist, however is nonetheless disagreeable and mentally taxing to see throughout day by day on-line life. “There’s loads that doesn’t should be deplatformed—insults, mansplaining,” Chou says. “However I’d like extra management over if I see it or not.”

Block Party’s focus, for the time being, is on Twitter, partly as a result of the platform has a long-standing harassment drawback and since its API (utility programming interface) is open sufficient to help Block Party muting accounts on a person’s behalf. In the end, nonetheless, Chou desires Block Party to turn out to be the API for security throughout the total web, just like how Stripe has turn out to be the ubiquitous API for funds. Moderately than her firm needing to courtroom the large platforms, Chou’s ambition is that platform firms will combine with Block Party. For customers, the service might turn out to be “that preferences and filtering panel wherever they log on,” she says.

It’s a sweeping imaginative and prescient for what Block Party might turn out to be. However for Chou, the fundraising challenges she’s dealing with characterize a barrier to Block Party’s future—regardless of her conviction that she has the technical experience, private expertise, and keenness to construct the product right into a profitable startup. “The shortage of range, illustration, inclusion, fairness, and dedication to those points all via the [startup] ecosystem means we’re going to maintain not fixing issues which are simply getting worse,” she says. 

Whereas Chou believes her firm might turn out to be a worthwhile enterprise, at the finish of the day she says she cares extra about combating on-line harassment than about her particular person success. “If somebody solves this and that’s why Block Party doesn’t exist, that’s effective,” she says. “I don’t need a situation the place copycats put us out of enterprise, after which they don’t perceive the drawback, and the drawback is not solved. I would like this drawback to be solved.”