Social media, meet your past: This startup wants to bring back phone calls

Developer Avi Lieberman hopes his Pattr app will allow ‘old-fashioned’ social network, where people can talk to friends and make new ones

An illustrative image of a man talking on a smartphone (fizkes, iStock by Getty Images)
An illustrative image of a man talking on a smartphone (fizkes, iStock by Getty Images)

Avi Lieberman didn’t have any experience in social media. His career was in the  software, logistics and entertainment content fields. But the 55-year-old from the central city of Modiin knew he had to find a way to change how people socialize via their smartphones.

After watching his children and his peers use social media apps, including WhatsApp, Twitter, WeChat and Facebook, Lieberman felt the experience included very little organic socializing — where people meet each other for the first time and converse.

He decided he wanted to build an “old-fashioned” social network, but in a virtual setting — where existing social circles can interact and new relationships can be formed among strangers.

The idea is to help create an online “public square,” referring to common spaces or city squares where people can meet and interact.

Avi Lieberman, the founder of Pattr (Courtesy)

Lieberman believes many social media platforms are missing a feature that would let users expand outside their network and let strangers meet to talk about topics of mutual interest.

“A lot of that was just missing from everything that was called social media,” Lieberman said. “And I realized that this is a problem that needed to be solved.”

The solution, Lieberman decided, is an app he called Pattr. Designed for all ages, Pattr is a social media app based solely on three kinds of phone conversations: group calls; public squares, where users can meet and converse with strangers who have similar interests; and one-on-one phone calls.

In group chats, participants can build circles for groups of people they already know, such as friends, family or colleagues, for work-related or personal calls.

The public squares, also called rooms, are public and private chat spaces for people who have expressed interest in a certain topic. For example, anyone who has indicated their interest in a subject, or participated in previous conversations about a subject, is notified about a public square at a specific time and date. Large groups can be divided into smaller breakout rooms for independent conversations, tailored to the idea that strangers can meet and converse about a subject of mutual interest.

An early version of the Pattr app (Courtesy)

The third feature, one-on-one calls, is for users who want to meet someone new who shares a similar interest or passion, such as cooking, raising kids or homeschooling during the pandemic.

To organize public squares and connect participants with similar interests for one-on-one conversations, Pattr uses a machine learning engine that focuses on users’ conversational styles, habits and compatibilities. For conversations outside an existing social group, Pattr selects public square participants and one-on-one partners to optimize engagement and enjoyment.

The AI engine, which Lieberman said he is filing a patent for, analyzes information in a conversation to gauge users’ level of engagement in the topic discussed. After conversations, a yes or no questionnaire is provided for users to rate their enjoyment level.

Lieberman said there is no speech recognition or semantic analysis, giving users complete privacy.

The audio-only feature, Lieberman argued, makes Pattr more appealing. Though he admits video is necessary for school and work among other things, Lieberman said that for socializing, video is a barrier for getting people to use a given app. People, he said, are focused on their appearance on video, or they don’t know where to look and end up staring at the screen instead of the camera, and suggested there is more engagement in a conversation without video.

Lieberman was eager to stress the differences between Pattr and other socializing apps. He said unlike Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Pattr is not a post and consume network — there are no influencers and no followers. He said it’s not a dating app like Tinder, and it’s not a messaging app like WhatsApp or Telegram.

The various rooms in the Pattr app (Courtesy)

Pattr is strictly for conversations with friends and strangers, he said, highlighting the notion that all participants have the opportunity to converse with existing social circles and make new ones.

The operation, which began in early 2020, is quite small and entirely virtual. Lieberman is the founder — his first time founding a high-tech startup. He has a designer in India and Pakistan, and some developers in Ukraine. His funding comes from a “friends and family” round, making it a small and closely held startup.

“It’s a very 2020 type of company, and a very COVID-type company as well,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened people’s awareness of their need to socialize, said Lieberman: in-person socializing is limited, human interaction depends on social apps, and still people have said they suffer from loneliness. This led Lieberman to believe that another kind of interaction is needed.

“One thing [coronavirus] has done is made a lot more people aware of what I’ve always been aware of, and that people’s needs for socializing are not met by their Facebook and their Instagram and their TikTok accounts,” Lieberman said.

The app is currently in the alpha stage, tested by a small group of people.

Lieberman intends to launch an invite-only beta version of the app by the end of the year, which will be mostly for feedback and uncovering bugs, and then seek more funding. All the features will be included in the launch, though the machine learning aspect — responsible for user and conversation analysis — will have a separate launch sometime in 2021.

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