IRL is a new social network taking on Facebook groups

The SoftBank-backed social network already has 12 million users

Want an app for finding and messaging people specifically as a group? That’s the bet behind IRL, a young social network that has been growing quietly for the past year and has attracted just a luscious amount of money to take on Facebook.

The two-year-old startup is betting that a post-pandemic world will fuel its mission to help people “do more together,” usually by meeting in real life — you know, IRL. The idea has attracted deep pockets from Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank, the largest investor in a new $170 million round that values ​​IRL at nearly $1 billion.

That’s a remarkable amount for an app with around 12 million monthly users and no revenue. Still, IRL is finding early traction with people under the age of 18 primarily in the United States, and the app has already facilitated more than 1 billion messages a year. A handful of universities now let students enter their school emails to gain access to virtual events and group chats.

What does a paid IRL group look like?
Image: IRL

IRL CEO and co-founder Abraham Shafi said, “We’re building Facebook groups and events for the generation that doesn’t use Facebook.” ledge. “There just happens to be no other product really focusing in this space for the next generation.”

It’s true that Facebook users are getting old – look no further than Instagram Creating an app for kids As a sign that the company is desperate to attract youth. And Shafi is right in recognizing groups as an important area in social networking, as people are moving away from communicating primarily in public feeds to private chats.

IRL is starting to experiment with allowing groups to use them for things like tutoring or music lessons, though it hasn’t rolled out the feature widely. Eventually, it also plans to let brands promote the events on its main search page.

According to Shafi, the goal is to become “a super messaging social network” over time. “We have an opportunity to make WeChat for the rest of the world,” he said, in reference to the messaging app that over 1 billion people in China use for everything from paying bills to Ola taxis. “The combination of messaging and events creates the conditions for a platform,” said venture capitalist Mike Maples, an IRL board member and investor who was also an early supporter of Twitter.

For now, the majority of IRL users are teenagers who live in Central America, but Shafi plans to use SoftBank’s money to help it grow in other countries. Apart from paying a few creators on TikTok to promote their IRL chats quickly, the startup hasn’t spent any money on marketing. Instead, it’s finding new users in apps where young people are already spending time, such as Snapchat, Roblox and TikTok – the latter of which is also working on product integration with IRL. (SoftBank’s only other known investment in the social media industry is TikTok’s parent company ByteDance.)

As part of this fundraiser, IRL is setting up a Creators Fund that will pay people using its app to organize events in big cities, such as an outdoor movie night or a block party. The application program will set aside up to $100,000 in grant funding for each city, starting this year in the US and moving to other countries sometime in 2022. PAHAL is application only and IRL has not specified the list of cities yet.

IRL CEO and co-founder Abraham Shafi.

Giving your young audience exposure to group chats with strangers leaves the potential for problems, and IRL will struggle to moderate its growing network. The startup has already had to deal with spam, and is just now starting to hire for its trust and security team. It plans to give group moderators adjustable tools to proactively remove bad messages through Hive, an automated content moderation platform that Reddit also uses. Group chats that are not invite-only will be reviewed by IRL staff before being promoted to the Explore page of the app.

Even with all the money it has raised, IRL faces tough odds against the tech giants. Aside from audio social app Clubhouse, which has already seen its growth stall as people emerged from pandemic lockdowns, only a small handful of social networks have managed to reach hundreds of millions of people since Snapchat debuted nearly a decade ago. was. Unlike Clubhouse, IRL has yet to top the App Store’s free download charts, according to research firm Apptopia.

Thanks to its new fundraiser, IRL doesn’t need to make money in the near term, but it certainly needs to prove it can keep growing, according to Shafi. “The pressure is on to become a global phenomenon as quickly as possible.”

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