Less hate, more clarity: Check out Pixstory, a new social-media app out of India

Updated on Jan 20, 2023 05:35 PM IST

Pixstory aims to minimise polarisation, disincentivise hate, and rate users so that everyone has at least a sense of whom they’re engaging with. Can it work? Take a look.

New entrants to the social-media space are doing things differently, allowing users to create semi-private spaces within a platform, encouraging positivity and integrity. Could apps such as Mastodon, Pixstory, Discord and Hive Social edge out the old guard of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter? (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
New entrants to the social-media space are doing things differently, allowing users to create semi-private spaces within a platform, encouraging positivity and integrity. Could apps such as Mastodon, Pixstory, Discord and Hive Social edge out the old guard of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter? (Shutterstock)

We’ve made our peace with doomscrolling. That’s just the way it is, we say — there’s bad news in the world; it comes at us in a steady stream; attached is a string of responses that are inane at best, violent and invasive at worst.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be like this. The primary platform for doomscrolling is Twitter, and it is seeing loyalty levels dip amid heightened uncertainty about regulations, rising hate speech, and sheer ennui among users for whom the antics of the new CEO Elon Musk are the last straw.

A range of platforms are presenting themselves as alternatives. Mastodon, despite its more complex interface, has gained users. Hive Social, a sort of mix of Twitter feeds and Facebook Messenger, has seen more sign-ups. Post News is seeking to replicate Twitter, with no character limit and the addition of micro-paywalls (but it has a long waitlist).

A new entrant is now gaining steam and it has emerged from India. Pixstory is a social-media platform launched in 2021 by Delhi-based former journalist Appu Esthose Suresh. Its mission, he says, is to minimise polarisation, disincentivise hate and misinformation, encourage civil dialogue, and rate users so that everyone on the platform has at least a sense of whom they’re engaging with. Ratings are based on factors such as quality of posts uploaded by the user, incidents of hate speech logged against them and domain expertise displayed.

“We are trying to promote the idea of Clean Social. We like to think of ourselves as the first clean energy vehicle of social media,” says Suresh, 35, who conceived of the app while pursuing the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity fellowship at the London School of Economics in 2017.

“As a journalist, I had a close look at how social media allowed misinformation to proliferate. Elite gatekeeping further marginalised diverse viewpoints. With this app, we hope to offer an equitable platform to people who do not typically belong to these elite spaces of public recognition, and can bring about a behavioural change on social media,” Suresh says.

The FIFA World Cup has served as a particular boost for Pixstory, following the hate that flooded social-media timelines after France lost the Cup to Argentina last month, most of the vitriol directed at black French players Kylian Mbappe, Aurelien Tchouameni and Kingsley Coman.

Now, on January 22, Suresh and NBA star Dwight Howard (an investor in Pixstory) will address football fans at London’s Emirates Stadium ahead of the highly anticipated Arsenal vs Manchester United English Premier League (EPL) match, as part of a drive to encourage more wholesome engagement between fans and players.

Pixstory, which has logged 170,000 profiles and 800,000 unique users so far, has also partnered with football clubs such as Arsenal, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain Féminine and collaborated with the Oxford Internet Institute on research towards building a safer and more collaborative social networking platform. “We’re delighted to be working with Pixstory… We’re looking to see if we can make using the internet a more positive experience,” Ralph Schroeder, senior research fellow at OII, said in a statement.

Points to ponder

So how does the app work? All users begin with a base integrity score, which then rises or drops based on the content they post. Users who submit identity verification (a phone number, Google or Apple ID) get a higher integrity score, as part of an attempt to battle bots.

AI-led algorithms scan user-generated content to filter out hate speech and sexually explicit posts, as defined across 14 parameters (attacks based on gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, political leaning, threats of sexual aggression, encouragement of self-harm, etc).

Each post can include up to 12 images and 360 words of text or one minute of audio. Instead of a “Like” or “Dislike” option, the choices are “Support” or “Challenge”. Challenges to a story are reviewed by moderators. If a Challenge is upheld, a post may be taken down, reducing the overall integrity score of its creator. High-scoring users are granted Topic Expert badges, and their posts given greater visibility. “The aim of the app is to replace virality with integrity and bring more accountability and transparency to interactions,” Suresh says.

Scores on apps aren’t new. Platforms from TripAdvisor to Uber and Zomato to Airbnb give users and partners scores based on their integrity, reliability and etiquette, among other factors. Most major social-media platforms rank users in some form or another too. Algorithms on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram use these rankings to determine who (and how many) see each post. It’s the idea of correlating these two elements — ethical rankings and visibility — as part of a mission to make social-media use less toxic that gives Pixstory a niche of its own.

“Social media, in its current avatar, is broken and is desperately up for a relook,” says business and technology writer and analyst Charles Assisi, co-founder of media and learning platform Founding Fuel and co-author of The Aadhaar Effect. The real question will be: Can they keep it up, as the user base grows?

With the evolution of social media set to take a dramatic turn soon, it’s possible that the future lies in a far more decentralised format, says Rahul Matthan, partner with the law firm Trilegal and head of its technology, media and telecommunications practice.

Decentralised social networks of the future could be made up of bespoke, local servers designed around specific topics. “Such a system would not need to rely on algorithms,” Matthan says, “and it would give users the freedom to design their own filters, depending on their tolerances.”

(With input from Vishal Mathur)

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    Anesha is a features writer, sometimes a reader, who loves to eat and plan fitness goals she can never keep. She writes on food, culture and youth trends.

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