It’s a walrus! No, it’s a giraffe! No, it’s Micgoat, a new app to debate controversial issues

Debating is at the core of a robust society — as are online social networks. When combined, they transmute each other into a minefield of negativity, abuse and destruction. With products today, we are either living in an echo chamber of like-minded people who agree with us all the time, or we’re duking it out in trench warfare format for little gain and few opinions changed.

Micgoat is hoping to change that. The product, which officially launched its debate platform app on the App Store today, uses short presidential debate-style videos to elevate the discussion around controversial topics. Users of Micgoat can propose topics such as “will bitcoin crash” or “we should have universal basic income,” and then make a short, one-minute video about the topic. Users who watch the video can then reply with their own 30-second videos.

The idea is that it is too easy to troll on traditional social networks, not to mention that bot networks can quickly devolve interesting debates. By emphasizing video in its product, Micgoat’s goal is to persuade people to talk to one another in a more human way, reducing the disinhibition effect that comes from posting text online.

Users can scroll through different debates on the platform

The app is the brainchild of Justin Zhen and Gregory Ugwi, the co-founders of Thinknum, a New York-based financial data and analysis platform, along with Marta Lopata, who joined the company last year and is now Micgoat’s CEO. Thinknum has previously raised a seed round from Pejman Mar Ventures.

Having watched the 2016 U.S. presidential election along with debates on technology subjects like bitcoin, the three realized that they shared a common passion around the quickly degrading quality of debates online. “I think what a great debate looks like is when there are two people from completely different backgrounds who are able to come together and talk about controversial issues,” Lopata explained to me. Too often, existing social networks just don’t offer that sort of quality.

Lopata, whose background is in entrepreneurship and who spent five years in Asia, believes that a product like Micgoat has the opportunity to turn the tide. She emphasized that there are multiple sides to most debates, and that the combination of video and showing two sides is a powerful antidote to the belief that each of our own views is automatically correct.

While politics is what most people think of when they hear debates, technology and finance are industries where passions can be even more intense. Those industries also are very familiar to Thinknum, whose clients are financial analysts.

Zhen said, “Since we have the technology in place, people can debate sports, or local politics. Right now, there is no efficient channel for local politicians to get up in front of their constituents, since Fox News and CNBC don’t cover those races. We can be just part of the everyday dialogue.”

Thinknum staff are helping with the product development and engineering of the product today. Lopata says that “Right now we see a balance of working together, and long-term we can see us spinning out.” There are three full-time employees on Micgoat, and another seven members borrowed from the core Thinknum team.

Long-term, the team hopes to add more “gamification” features to encourage everyone in the community to engage with the debates. In addition, the team is optimizing its search algorithms so users will be able to better find the most interesting debates. Zhen suggested that audio transcription would allow for better searching while maintaining the video experience of the app. The company also intends to release an Android version shortly.

So far, abuse has not been a problem, according to the company. Zhen believes that the combination of Facebook identity and showing one’s face in the app helps reduce the abuse that can be endemic on other platforms. As the platform scales up, the team intends to be very careful to ensure that the community stays positive even when discussing tough challenges.