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He was laid off by Elon Musk. Within hours, he had a plan to outdo Twitter

<i>Maya Umemoto Gorman/The Washington Post/Getty Images</i><br/>Alphonzo
Maya Umemoto Gorman/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Alphonzo "Phonz" Terrell is the CEO and co-founder of Spill

By Clare Duffy, CNN

New York (CNN) — Just over a year ago, Alphonzo Terrell received an email letting him know he’d been laid off from Twitter.

Terrell – who’d spent three years heading the platform’s social and editorial teams – was among the roughly 3,700 employees let go from the company on Nov. 4, 2022, just a week after Elon Musk closed his $44 billion Twitter acquisition. That day, Terrell tweeted that it was “time to build something new,” and then got on the phone with friend and former colleague DeVaris Brown.

“I called him and I said, ‘I think it’s time to build and if we do this together, I think this can be really successful,’” Terrell, who’s also known as “Phonz” online, told CNN in an interview in September.

Within hours, Terrell and Brown had laid out plans to launch a new app capitalizing on their experience building communities online and thwarting some of the typical problems known to plague legacy social media platforms. They wanted it to be everything most social media struggles to be: positive, safe and inclusive. They named it Spill, a nod to the phrase “spill the tea,” which refers to sharing gossip or information.

Terrell for years has been working at the intersection of tech, media and culture, largely behind the scenes. Now he’s making a big bet on a concept tried by other social networks before, but which has consistently fallen short: Create a safe, rewarding and financially successful platform for Black, LGBTQ+ and other historically marginalized users.

Those users, he says, often play an outsized role in driving online culture but are more likely to face harassment, like threats of violence or attacks on their identity, or to have others profit from their ideas. Spill is open to anyone, but by focusing on serving communities typically marginalized online, including with new content moderation and creator payment strategies, Terrell believes, the experience on the platform will be better for all of its users.

Spill clearly lays out that mission in its community guidelines, noting that it wants to create “an inclusive space that centers the experiences of the people that are typically left behind by social media platforms” while also “leaving plenty of space for hot takes and debate.”

Such a platform is even more important, Spill’s leadership believes, in the wake of Musk’s takeover at Twitter. Under the billionaire’s leadership, policy updates, changes to content moderation practices and controversial statements from Musk himself have led to a reported rise in hate speech on the platform and left many users searching for alternatives. And as the user base of the platform now known as X splinters, so does Black Twitter, the community of Black users that was a big part of Twitter’s growth and culture. Terrell wants to create a home for those users on Spill.

“Having worked at Twitter, I was very familiar with where the challenges of that platform were,” said Terrell, who now serves as Spill’s co-founder and CEO. “Our core thesis with Spill was to focus on the culture drivers — Black women, the queer community, other culture-driving communities around the world that are often setting the tone, the trends, the lexicon, all the amazing magic that will happen on social platforms, but getting the lion’s share of hate, abuse [and] not getting credited or rewarded the way they should for their contributions.”

But Spill is clear that it’s not trying to recreate Twitter, or any other existing platform.

“The distinction here is that Spill is not trying to be Black Twitter 2.0,” said April Reign, the equity advocate and #OscarsSoWhite creator who is now an advisor to Spill. “I think that Black Twitter thrived … sometimes in spite of the platform itself. Spill is intentionally creating a foundation.”

Still, as legacy platforms have repeatedly learned the hard way, building a safe social network is not easy, especially as bad actors are becoming more sophisticated. Beyond safety, Spill also faces steep competition from the scores of new platforms that have launched in the year since Musk bought Twitter.

“I think the biggest challenge is making sure that we stay focused and block out any noise,” Terrell said. “There’s so much going on, and I think it’s easy and tempting to sort of compare and be like, ‘All these [platforms] are trying to do the same thing.’ And we know we’re doing something fundamentally different.”

‘You have to understand it on a visceral level’

During his time at Twitter, Terrell effectively served as the voice of the brand, with his team in charge of, among other things, running the company’s own accounts on the platform. Prior to Twitter, he worked in digital and social marketing for major brands such as HBO and Showtime.

In those roles, Terrell saw what kinds of content and creators drove conversations on the platform, which he says gives him a leg up in building a new social media app.

“The concept for Spill really goes back to something that I’d seen throughout my career working in culture and technology and media,” Terrell, who is based in Los Angeles, said. “Going back to the days of early digital platforms, whether it was Myspace, YouTube and then Vine, and more recently with TikTok, Black folks, especially Black women, over index on social media usage. More than any other identity group, they are consistently driving these trends … This is something that if you work in the space, you know.”

But, he said, “no platforms had really said, hey, we’re going to build and center and focus on the challenges that face those communities from the beginning.”

Terrell bonded with co-founder Brown — a developer who’s spent time at tech giants like Intel, Cisco and Microsoft and helped to found several tech startups — during their first-day orientation at Twitter, as two of the few people of color in their on-boarding group.

Since that first conversation about launching a new app last year, Terrell and Brown have built a powerhouse early team, including Reign and brand strategy and culture pro Kenya Parham, who is serving as Spill’s vice president of community and partnerships.

Asked why he thinks other platforms have so far failed to create a consistently safe and inclusive experience for a wide range of diverse users, Terrell said: “Well, let’s talk about the obvious: Most of them weren’t founded or created by people from marginalized groups or from underserved communities.”

“We have been very intentional about the people building this platform and the audiences that we’re centering from the beginning,” he said. “In building for culture-driving communities, you have to understand it on a visceral level.”

‘Group chat meets meme machine’

Spill users have already come up with a name for themselves: “Spillionaires.” And they’ve developed community traditions, including a weekly movie viewing where users agree to watch the same film at the same time and post their reactions, a phenomenon that’s come to be known as “live spilling.”

“That’s been one of the most exciting and special things that we’ve seen happening so far is the community really taking ownership of the platform teaching us what they want,” Terrell said.

The app is designed to be something “between a group chat … and a meme machine, so that you can create and express yourself in real time using visuals and using the native language of the internet,” according to Terrell. The feed features posts with large, block text, often superimposed over images or GIFs; on certain posts, users can swipe through to view a series of images. At the top of users’ feeds is the “Spillboard,” which highlights trending posts and is meant to help elevate creators on the app, Terrell said.

Spill takes design inspiration from its name, too. A teacup has replaced the heart as the platform’s “like” button, and users can choose from a range of different colorways for the app, aptly named things like “green tea” and “hibiscus.”

And beyond its design choices, Terrell said Spill is aiming to cultivate a more positive, upbeat culture than Twitter and other social platforms.

It’s a tack that other platforms have also tried to take, but it often proves difficult to carry out in practice, especially when they’re reliant on boosting engagement to appease advertisers.

“It’s difficult to make a nice platform because the meanness of the internet generally, and social media in particular, is not only a function of the engagement advertising business model … but also because of human behavior,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director at the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. “I think we have enough experience with the internet now to know that people misbehave on the internet and are willing to do so at very little provocation.”

Still, Spill’s users are already connecting with its culture, which some say feels distinct Twitter, where inflammatory or polarizing content is often the most likely to gain strong engagement and be promoted by the platform’s algorithms.

Since its iOS beta version launched in June, more than 200,000 users have signed up for Spill and another 200,000 have joined the waitlist. Spill in July hit the top of the Apple App Store’s most popular social apps list. Spill’s userbase remains far smaller than competitors like X (which has somewhere around 250 million daily active users) and Meta’s Threads (which has 100 million monthly active users), but the sign-ups have exceeded Spill’s initial expectations. The company’s original goal had been to have 100,000 users by the end of 2023.

Already, Terrell said, 44% of Spill’s users posted on the platform within 12 hours of joining, and users create, on average, 14 posts (called “spills”) and comments per day.

Spill has also raised more than $5 million from investors including the Kapor Center for Social Impact and Mac Venture Capital. And the company, which for now plans to have a largely ad-based business, has already inked ad deals with the likes of Netflix, Disney, Amazon Prime and VH1.

‘Technically sound and culturally savvy’

Even with the best intentions, keeping social networks safe is often easier said than done.

Legacy social media platforms have repeatedly failed to anticipate how their products might be manipulated or misused until something goes wrong. Despite years of scrutiny and improvements by existing social platforms, women and people of color are still far more likely to say they’d been harassed online for their gender or their race, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center report. Members of the LGBTQ+ community also face disproportionate abuse online.

And while Spill currently requires users to join a waitlist before being allowed on the app — which gives it some control over its user base — the platform will eventually be open to anyone, which could open the floodgates to potential bad actors. (The waitlist is currently in place to ensure Spill’s technical infrastructure can support its user base. A certain number of users are let onto the app from the waitlist weekly, or if they are given by a friend one of three invite codes each user is granted when they join the platform.)

That’s why, Terrell said, Spill is working to build safety into the app from day one.

Among its efforts to improve the experience for users, the company is completely rethinking content moderation. Spill has a team of human moderators, and it’s also working on developing a new large language AI content moderation model to help monitor its systems that’s written by members of Black, LGBTQ+ and other historically marginalized communities.

Even with AI content moderation models, other social media companies often fail to catch harmful content that makes it onto their platforms. But Terrell hopes that by involving the people most likely to face abuse online in its training, Spill’s model will be a step in the right direction.

“So Black folks, queer folks, other groups that face these challenges, are inputting into this model so that it can be extremely technically sound and also culturally savvy, which we really haven’t seen before,” Terrell said.

Spill’s community guidelines prohibit behaviors such as promoting hate based on protected characteristics including race and gender, violence and extremism and encouraging self-harm. The platform also says in its community guidelines that while “criticism and holding people accountable for their actions is an essential part of how communities operate,” users may not “organize, incite, or engage in repeated abusive conduct targeting a specific person or group of people.”

Violators of Spill’s rules, including posting dangerous content such as violent threats, will be removed and could result in account bans, according to the platform’s rules. Less severe rules violations, such as “posting a misleading rumor,” could result in a user having some of the app’s features (like the ability to “quote” and reshare other posts) disabled, Spill says. And repeat violators of the platform’s rules will also risk having their accounts removed.

The company is also working on a system to better track and reward users who create viral trends or memes. The move is an effort to rectify the ongoing phenomenon elsewhere online where creators of popular content — often Black women — don’t get credit for their ideas while bigger, more popular creators profit from them. (One of the most prominent recent examples of this issue was Georgia teen Jalaiah Harmon, who created the Renegade, which became one of the internet’s most viral dances, but was virtually unknown until tech reporter Taylor Lorenz profiled her in the New York Times.)

“We have had about 20 years of social media to learn from, and we wanted to take lessons from that and apply them going forward to really unleash the next generation of social, which we think can be far more beneficial, entertaining, rewarding,” Terrell said.

Investors will also be looking for that next-gen social platform to be profitable, and the potential is there for a company that’s catering to the users making the most engaging content on the internet, said Latoya Lee, an assistant professor at California State University Fullerton who has studied Black Twitter.

“A lot of the content that made Twitter what it is, or what it was, came from Black Twitter,” Lee said, adding that if Spill succeeds in addressing the shortcomings of Twitter, as well as other existing social networks, “I think that there’s lots of opportunity for the platform to grow and for it to attract content creators.”

In the meantime, Spill is also working to set itself apart from competitor platforms that also emerged in the wake of Musk’s Twitter takeover, including Mastodon, Bluesky and Threads. What’s more, Spill is staying focused on a targeted audience at a time when many larger platforms are increasingly focused on trying to provide something for anyone.

“I think it’s definitely radical,” Terrell said. But, he said, “I think in actuality, it’s the right way to approach this moment, building a social platform in a world where there are so many other networks in existence — this is a huge gap.”

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