Social network Homeis builds safe space for immigrants online

Social network Homeis builds safe space for immigrants online
Copyright 2019 CNN
Homeis is an app aimed at people born in foreign countries to find each other in their new home city.

For the past two years, an Israeli entrepreneur has been working on what may seem like an idealistic, impossible task for this moment in time: building a better corner of the internet for immigrants.

Ran Harnevo, 44, is the co-founder and CEO of new startup Homeis — a social network that feels like a hybrid between neighborhood social networking app Nextdoor and Facebook.

It’s a place for people born in foreign communities to find each other in their new home city for tips, dates, jobs and more. For example, Israelis living in New York City can find recommendations on locating authentic Israeli cuisine or babysitters and doctors who speak Hebrew nearby.

Harnevo was inspired to create Homeis after moving to New York City for his past startup and struggling to call it home.

“I remember how hard it was to have access to information, not to mention in Hebrew,” he said, recalling challenges such as getting a guarantor to rent an apartment. He learned to lean on others who had similar moving experiences and could impart advice and connections. He eventually realized what he went through was not uncommon.

His startup, online video distributor 5 Min Media, was later bought by AOL, in 2010, for more than $60 million. Harnevo served as president of video at AOL for several years.

When he and his former startup partner Hanan Lashover, 44, discussed what to do after 5 Min Media, he started researching immigration trends. “It became bigger than me,” he said.

Together, they launched Homeis in December 2017. The platform started with Israelis in New York City — an obvious test bed given their backgrounds. Homeis will announce this week it raised a new round of $12 million in financing led by venture capital firms Spark Capital and Canaan Partners to fuel its expansion. Other investors, including Tim Armstrong, the former CEO of AOL, and Reddit cofounder and tech investor Alexis Ohanian also participated in the round. This brings Homeis’ total capital raise to date to $16 million.

Around the world, 258 million people don’t live in the country in which they were born, according to the United Nation’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In the United States, that number is climbing — almost 14% of the population was born in another country (44 million people in 2017), according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

To sign up for Homeis, individuals answer two questions: what is their country of origin and where do they currently live. The company does not currently vet the responses; Harnevo said some users are joining cities ahead of their moves to line up resources. The app is then set in their native language. Beyond that, users can be anonymous, or opt to provide their real name and picture.

Homeis has since expanded to communities for three nationalities — Israeli, French, and Indians in select US cities. According to Harnevo, the app has been used by 400,000 immigrants to date and is “rapidly growing in these communities.” About 40% of users return monthly to use the app, he said.

“Our job right now is to expand the product aggressively to all other nationalities,” said Harnevo, noting it plans to add Mexican communities throughout the US in September, followed by other Latino communities.

But building a safe social network, for immigrants nonetheless, may seem like a daunting effort in 2019. Platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have grappled with the weaponization of their services, ranging from targeted harassment towards individual users to widespread misinformation and meddling.

The company has human moderators for each community that monitor the service and can flag bad actors, Harnevo said. It is also working to encrypt direct messages within the app.

But it doesn’t require much imagination to anticipate that a platform like Homeis, a self-proclaimed space for immigrant communities, could be a natural target. Some experts are skeptical.

“You have to think not will it be weaponized, but how long would it take for it to be weaponized?” said Renee Murphy, a principal analyst at Forrester focusing on governance, risk and compliance.

According to Homeis’ privacy policy, it does not sell any user data but it does share personal information and usage data it collects with third parties to service users on the platform. Rather than relying on ads, Harnevo envisions a business model more like China-based messaging platform WeChat. One day, the hope is that immigrants could access financial services, health insurance, and more inside Homeis through business partnerships.

The issue of immigration is particularly sensitive these days with it being one of President Trump’s top policy concerns.

Most recently, the Trump administration announced a controversial new rule that could dramatically cut the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter and stay in the US. The administration’s actions have stoked fear in immigrant communities, even among those who are US citizens. Trump’s own rhetoric has been pointed to as sowing division in the country, including warnings of an “invasion” of immigrants.

Roberto Gonzales, a professor at Harvard University who specializes in immigration, said a platform like Homeis could help immigrants integrate into a local community, access jobs and housing. However, he said there has been a “chilling effect in immigrant communities across the country.” This may make some wary of participating in such a platform.

“We understand the sensitivity here very well as immigrants,” said Harnevo, adding that he believes that the platform has some built-in deterrents to bad actors. “Even if you come to spread hate, you’ll need to build audience in a language you need to understand, and with the right cultural nuances,” he said.

Armstrong, who worked with Harnevo while at AOL, said the “community is self-incentivized to neighorhood watch … which I think you see in the offline world, as well.”

In the first 18 months of the app, Harnevo said he’s yet to deal with hate on the platform but also acknowledged it is still early days.

“Unlike global networks such as Twitter and Facebook, we’re creating a homogenous product, based on a very clear cultural identity,” he added. “The result is that we’re not hosting two groups that hate each other on the same platform, which fundamentally changes the nature of the service.”

Much like Facebook is pushing its users towards “private groups,” some Homeis’ investors say they believe social media is heading towards a more “verticalized environment.”

“You can’t help but feel at some level besieged, if you’re an immigrant — and it has increased the need for something like this,” said Dan Ciporin, general partner at Canaan Partners, who added safety is top of mind. “I don’t think there has been a single board meeting where that hasn’t been addressed in some way. … It is not only important, it is critical.”

During an interview at his office in New York City, Harnevo had a stack of newspapers, each geared toward a specific ethnic community, under his arm. Among them, one for Israelis in Los Angeles, another for South Asians in New York City.

“The reason these exist is because they haven’t been disrupted,” said Harnevo, noting they’re an old-school means of finding doctors or jobs. “We expect immigrants to use the internet as it is but that internet doesn’t work for immigrants,” he said.