How the ex-Twitter founders of Pebble plan to compete with their old employer


Pebble only has about 15,000 users, but that’s intentional. The co-founders of this new social media platform, known until earlier this week as T2, wanted to move slowly and build it right—not move fast and break things.

That doesn’t mean Pebble’s ambitions aren’t grand. The company, which has raised $1.1 million in seed funding, according to Pitchbook, joins a legion of contenders vying to be the next Twitter. The company changed its name this week and began welcoming more users.

The mission to build the next Twitter is personal: When Elon Musk bought Twitter, he laid off more than half the staff. That included Sarah Oh, a human rights advisor working on Twitter’s trust and safety team. After the layoffs, Oh’s friend Gabor Cselle, a former Google and Twitter product manager, called to enlist her to build a new version of Twitter. He wanted her expertise to ensure the new site was focused first and foremost on trust and safety. In that spirit, Oh says they’ve solicited expert and user feedback to write fresh community guidelines, built a process to verify individual user identities, and used automated systems to flag abusive speech or behavior.

With the help of their third co-founder, former Discord engineering lead Michael Greer, the Pebble team has built out its features to include direct messages, an algorithmic feed, and a new AI tool that suggests what to post and reply.

Pebble’s founders know they’re not the only ones trying to replace Twitter—there’s Bluesky, Mastodon, Meta’s Threads, and many, many more—but they think if they can start small, grow gradually, build a good product, and foster a healthy community, they could have a real shot at being the platform that actually succeeds in claiming Twitter’s defectors.

Quartz spoke to Oh and Cselle about Pebble’s launch, its new name, and their aspirations for the platform.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Quartz: What’s the story of how Pebble got started—and why did you change the name from T2?

Cselle: The story starts last November. I had left Google and wanted to do something in social media, but I didn’t yet know what. When Elon Musk took over the first week, I was watching the Twitter drama unfold and was like “Wow, actually it’s not going well. Maybe he doesn’t have a master plan.” After he laid off half of the company that Friday, I tweeted a Google sheet called “T2: What would it take to build another Twitter?,” which got hundreds of likes and retweets. I called Sarah and said “I think the next version needs to be pretty trust and safety-focused. Will you join me in this quest?” And she said yes.

When we went to register a domain name, was available for $7.16 on a Namecheap domain sale, so I registered it thinking it’d be a temporary name and it wouldn’t take us more than three months to get to the permanent one. It took us 10 months, 60 names, and working with a naming agency before we got a name we really loved—Pebble—and we got the Icelandic domain ending .is, which is for Iceland.

So, why Pebble?

Oh: This really isn’t about us. It’s about the people who are on the platform, who are joining us on this journey. And you can see, even in the domain name and the URL, it says Pebble is Scott, Pebble is Sarah, Pebble is Gabor, Pebble is this brand or organization. That really embodies this ethos that we’ve started from the beginning, which is to center the community and to really create a space where each voice can have an impact. And so what better way to illustrate that through our name? A lot of people have already started to chime in on the platform today saying the name evokes the ripple of a collective. Many pebbles can make up a beach. And so that imagery really hits the central purpose of Pebble, which is to bring people together and create space for voice.

There are so many Twitter lookalikes. Why would someone want to join Pebble instead of Mastodon or Threads or Bluesky?

Cselle: We’re trying to go with a bottom-up approach: not launching to 100 million people on the same day, not having a sort of rich-get-richer situation where the existing blue checks get all of the attention and get all of the followers. We also wanted to go slow and build the feature set: We have DMs, we have an algorithmic feed, And today we added the ideas tab, which is our first step in having AI assist you in the problem of “What do I write?” The AI starts you off with a couple of ideas, asks you to introduce yourself, and later—as you start interacting with others—proposes responses to users that you’ve previously responded to. This has been a really great way, at least for me, to manage my Pebble inbox and interact with the community. One important thing to note is that 85% of the proposed posts have been edited by users before posting. We have the human in the loop so it’s not just bots talking with other bots but humans interacting with each other.

Why do users need help figuring out what to post?

Oh: There’s this core problem that we keep coming back to, which is that people are having a hard time finding meaningful connections and conversation on the internet right now. And that’s what people have been telling us since day one. For us, success is not only about helping people find the content they want, but also make meaningful connections that they wouldn’t have made otherwise. AI really presents a new opportunity for us to help make some of those connections happen.

When I think of AI, though, I don’t think of human connection. How do you reconcile that users want human connection but the person on the other side might just be posting what a bot thinks they would say?

Oh: It’s a tool. But from talking to community managers, I can say they love that the ideas tab makes suggestions for saying “welcome” to new people who are on the platform or it might say, “This looks like something that you’ve engaged with before and you might be interested in adding a comment too.” Obviously, we’re still in the early stages of developing this, but we’ve been encouraged by how much people love the recommendation for how to respond to a post. I think of this more as an editor tool than an auto-post function.

I know you have grand ambitions. How many users do you have now and what are you kind of bracing for by getting rid of the waitlist and letting more people in?

Cselle: As of this morning [Sept. 18], we had about 15,000 users. We’ve added several thousand today. I don’t think “bracing” is the right word. What we’re seeing today is a steady trickle of people coming into the platform and we expect that to continue.

I know there’s still work to be done—first and foremost, launching a mobile app. But eventually what’s your plan to make money?

Cselle: One of the cool things is we’re building in a trust and safety-first approach. Twitter, for example, has had their ad revenue decline 59% year over year in the US. And that’s because brand safety is missing. If you look at some of the federated alternatives [like Bluesky and Mastodon], I think that brand safety is missing as well. So I think it’s probably no surprise to say that when we get there, which is not anytime soon, we’re going to monetize with ads in a responsible and brand safe way and with subscriptions. But we haven’t kind of articulated the exact plans yet.

I know you’re focused on starting small, focusing on trust and safety, and building community—but how do you actually scale that?

Cselle: I think we made a lot of these investments early: in content moderation, detecting content that’s against our guidelines early—whether that’s images or text. We wanted to get to a place where the network is healthy—and those investments are now paying off because now we’re able to open to many, many more people. I think everyone was like, “Oh, this thing is done. Oh, now there’, “you guys are done.” And then there was Substack Notes, “you guys are done” and it was Threads and “now you guys are done.” But we’re not done. We’re still here and we’re still building with the community and we’re still growing and there’s still more content on this thing every day because we really believe in a fundamentally different approach of going one by one, going slow and steady, going person by person, and creating a really great community for them, not putting a bunch of blue checks into a new product, not Some like blockchain fantasy like distributed will solve everything. I think it’s a different approach and it is community focused and that’s worked really well for us.


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