Editor’s Note: This story originally ran on Sept. 10, 2018. It is reprinted here as part of our year end coverage.
By Lily Richman
Upon learning that roughly 40 percent of transgender people have attempted to commit suicide, four high school girls decided to take action.
Their response was The Trill Project, an app that has been downloaded approximately 15,000 times and has accumulated more than 20,000 posts since its launch in June. The corporation is currently valued at $1 million.
Trill is an anonymous social networking application. Originally created as a vehicle for members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies to freely express themselves, Trill sees itself as a novel platform for social media interaction.
“Trill takes the best parts of what it’s like in a social network to form connections with people and have friendships and talk to your peers, but also integrates professional support,” said Georgia Messinger, Trill’s Chief Operating Officer and Chief Marketing Officer.
Trill, whose name is derived from combining the words “true” and “real,” allows users to follow tags on such topics as “lgbtq+” or “friends” to track posts about a particular topic. Users can also join a smaller Community with people who share similar interests or tags.
Rather than allowing users to pick his/her own username, Trill seeks to preserve anonymity by assigning usernames based off one of 15 colors selected by each person.
“If you can make something cool like Snapchat or Instagram that people want to go on every day because it’s fun and there are games … but you can also get professional support and have moderators on-hand, then you basically get rid of all the negative stuff that anonymous social networks have fostered,” 18-years-old Messinger, said.
Messinger is a National Center for Women & Information Technology national awardee.
The app is scheduled to re-launch on Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, with a plethora of new user profile colors, including new yellows, blues, and purples. The new iteration will also feature a user support score to quantify contributions to the Trill community, a mechanism for offering compliments and a mood meter to measure feelings.
The Trill Project was one of five teams selected from over 1,000 applicants to receive funding from Founders Bootcamp, an accelerator for high school students’ startups. Trill received $50,000 in exchange for a five percent stake in the company.
Founder Roger Kassebaum began Founders Bootcamp with his former student, Managing Partner Richard Dahan, with the goal of empowering and aiding young entrepreneurs. Kassebaum facilitates connections and mentorships between the high schoolers and experienced professional mentors.
Messinger, now a freshman at Harvard University, and 17-year-old Ariana Sokolov, Trill’s Chief Executive Officer and a freshman at the University of Southern California, worked throughout the summer with the four other Founders Bootcamp teams at Cross Campus, a Santa Monica coworking office space on Colorado Boulevard. Their days typically consisted of morning workshops and evening guest speakers. Messinger said the teams sometimes stayed until 3 a.m. working.
The five teams pitched their startups to the Tech Coast Angels, the largest LA angel investment group, in August. TCA members offered critiques, advice and encouragement, according to Kassebaum.
Trill was first conceived in January as part of the annual Technovation challenge to create an app that tackles an issue important to one’s community. The idea for Trill garnered widespread support. The team received hundreds of responses to an Instagram question “What would you tell if nobody knew you were telling it?” and over 10,000 people reblogged a Tumblr post discussing the proposed app.
Sokolov said users have praised the project for paying attention to an underserved community.
Sokolov, who began coding at 8-years-old, is a two-time winner of the Arizona Congressional App Challenge and a three-time winner of a scholarship to Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. She said user safety is her biggest priority.
Other anonymous apps like Yik Yak, Whisper and After School fall into the trap of marketing themselves with gossip, according to Messinger. Trill Project, however, is “branded completely differently,” she said.
Trill uses volunteer moderators to review posts and watch for indications that a user may be harming his/herself, harming someone else, or is being harmed. Trill currently has about 50 moderators, all of whom apply for the position and receive training to facilitate conversations. If a user cyberbullies someone else, Trill removes their account and blocks that IP address from creating another profile.
Because the app is anonymous, moderators are not able to get into direct contact with users, but they can attach trigger warnings to posts that contain serious mental health concerns like suicide and comment on posts with links and phone numbers for emergency resources such as the National Hopeline Network; the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network; nearby medical facilities and more.
“I’d like to think that people who would not have been getting support before are getting support,” said 17-year-old Lucas Gelfond, Trill Director of Moderators and TEEN LINE listener. “I really do believe that it’s having an impact, and that’s inspiring.”
Trill also employs machine learning algorithms that study moderators’ behaviors and will be able to sort through posts more efficiently in the future. Messinger said the algorithms could potentially be licensed to other companies to identify people in crisis.
“I think their algorithms and the professional help they have online can help some people during those weak moments and make them a lot healthier and happier,” said Kassebaum, who taught high school science for around 40 years prior to starting Founders Bootcamp. “If they can save some lives, that’s incredible.”
Trill and the other Founders Bootcamp startups will pitch their ideas to Silicon Valley venture capitalists on Oct. 24 to raise a seed round of funding. The corporation hopes to reach 100,000 users by that time.
The Trill Project is available for download in the App Store. For more information, visit https://trillproject.com.