Elite students are debating hot-button issues on a new invite-only app

At a look, the video seems to be like a TikTook. But towards the underside, the place a TikTook’s caption could be, are two giant buttons. One reads “Respect But Disagree.” The different reads “Convinced By You.” Across the highest is a query, written in white: “Should Dems pack the Court?”

“Hell no,” declares a younger girl, whom the app labels “Naomi, Political Science” onscreen. “If Republicans are elected in the future, they’re now going to be more likely to stack the court as well.” Swipe up and “Brian, Founder, Oxford Political Review” seems to specific an opposing viewpoint. “As much as I believe Democrats ought uphold norms of civility or neutrality and all that, in theory, look: The reality is it’s dirty, and it’s time we fight back,” Brian declares. Brian’s video is the top-voted video on court-packing, having earned a mixed 17 “Respect But Disagree” and “Convinced By You” votes since its posting. Naomi’s video is in fourth place, with 4.

A screenshot of a video on Polemix. A person stands in front of a white wall. Above them is the text “Should Dems pack the court?” with the hashtags #Yes #Yes#WhenTheyGoLow#WeGoLow. On the left of the screen are three buttons for “Share”, “Results”, and “My Point”. On the bottom is the name “Brian, Founder, Oxford Political Review” with a gold medal emoji, and buttons labeled “Respect But Disagree” and “Convinced By You”.

Brian says, “Hell yes.”
Image: Polemix

A screenshot of a video on Polemix. A woman sits in front of a blue and yellow wall. Above her is the text “Should Dems pack the court?” with the hashtags #YNo #court. On the left of the screen are three buttons for “Share”, “Results”, and “My Point”. On the bottom is the name “Naomi, Political Science” with a gold medal emoji, and buttons labeled “Respect But Disagree” and “Convinced By You”.

Naomi says, “Hell no.”
Image: Polemix

This is Polemix, a new, unique app aimed toward selling free discourse amongst younger individuals. As the world’s greatest social networks repeatedly battle misinformation and draw controversial strains between harmful and acceptable speech, the founders of Polemix consider they’ve discovered a higher resolution: a free market of concepts, with selective admission. So far, the app has attracted a younger neighborhood that’s eloquent, outspoken, and passionate in regards to the app’s acknowledged philosophy. But it has additionally served as a microcosmic experiment with on-line debate tradition in concentrated type, and a real-world demonstration of the caveats required to deliver such a lofty superb to life.


“Naomi” is Naomi Panovka, a rising third-year scholar at McGill. “Brian” is Brian Wong, a Rhodes scholar finding out politics at Oxford. The two have been chosen earlier this 12 months as a part of a group that Polemix’s founders check with as “Leaders” — 40 elite younger individuals who have been tasked with constructing the app’s neighborhood whereas driving its early dialogue.

“It was people who are quite passionate about public speaking in general, who cared about discourse,” Panovka says. “People who they thought would be good representatives.”

There was no formal software to develop into a Leader — the founders hand-picked the group by their networks. Per Polemix’s web site, the cadre contains “some of the world’s top thinkers.” The founders describe them as “very carefully selected university leaders.” In follow, the overwhelming majority of the listed group are adorned highschool and faculty debaters. Panovka competed for Canada’s nationwide workforce in highschool and has reached the finals of over 10 university-level competitions; Wong was a semifinalist on the 2020 world championships. The group is numerous with regards to race, gender, and nationality, however well-known universities are closely represented. Cambridge, Oxford, LSE, and Yale all make a number of appearances on the checklist and may declare a majority of the listed Leaders as students or alumni.

College debate was formative for Polemix founder and CEO Ian Sielecki. He competed throughout his time as a scholar at Cambridge and has organized public debates for the Athens Democracy Forum. Sielecki has lengthy felt that social media may be taught from the school debate scene; he sees Polemix as a device to fight on-line echo chambers.

“Social networks, by the way they operate through their algorithms, they only give you content that you already agree with, which means they radicalize you,” says Sielecki. The thought behind Polemix, he says, “was to create, inspired from the magic of debating, a conceptual landscape in which people would hear, listen to the outside by design.”

A screenshot of the Explore tab on Polemix. Three questions are listed: Should human gene editing be legal, did COVID leak from a Wuhan lab, and is Facebook killing people?

In Polemix’s “Explore” tab, you may scroll by varied questions which were debated up to now.
Image: Polemix

A screenshot of the Start Debate tab on Polemix. The user is prompted to “Write a question here.” Below is a notice that reads, “Only leaders are able to start debates,” and a Next button that isn’t functional because the criteria hasn’t been met.

If you aren’t a Leader, you may’t create new questions.
Image: Polemix

Early on, Sielecki and his workforce recognized younger individuals as their audience. Specifically, “young people passionate about something,” in response to Ismaël Emelien, Sielecki’s co-founder. Emelien isn’t a faculty debater, however reasonably a cofounder of France’s En Marche political occasion and a former adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron. But he feels that Sielecki’s frustrations map to the worldwide political panorama. “People just … can’t listen to the other side anymore,” Emelien says. “This is the first thing we need to fix in real life. The way to do that is to target young people.”

Polemix’s interface borrows a lot from TikTook — swipe down for a new video, every little thing capped at 30 seconds — however the content material couldn’t be extra completely different. Every Polemix video options a individual making an argument for or in opposition to a preset checklist of questions, from “Will Federer win Wimbledon?” and “Is Canada superior to America?” to “Does Instagram objectify women?” and “Is physician-assisted suicide unethical?” As a person scrolls, they’re proven movies for every query in teams of as much as 4: a “Hell Yes,” a “Hell No,” a “Hell Yes,” a “Hell No.” They can vote, or scroll, accordingly.

The algorithm takes each “Convinced By You” and “Respect But Disagree” votes into consideration when prioritizing the movies you see. As Sielecki notes, “The Respect But Disagree is quite important for your video to be popular.”


Every social media platform grapples with harassment and outright hate speech, however Polemix walks a notably tough line as a result of its express purpose is to have fun variations of opinion. The app does have an express rule in opposition to hate speech: “Hate is for losers” is its slogan, one which Sielecki emphasizes in pitching the app, and one which was enticing to a few of the preliminary members.

“The idea is to welcome people from every side of every controversial question. We will have people from the Trump administration, from QAnon making videos,” Emelien says. “That’s not a problem for us, as long as it is expressed in respect for the rules of Polemix, meaning it’s not hateful.” He emphasizes that “the people watching this video will be exposed, by design, to the other side arguing against those videos … That’s our remedy.” (Of course, that additionally means a person gained’t essentially see a consultant pattern of opinions. “Has #MeToo gone too far?” has 10 “Hell No” responses and simply 4 “Hell Yes” responses, however a scrolling person will nonetheless see two of every — arguably giving extra contrarian views a better path to publicity.)

A screenshot of the statistics for a question on Polemix: “Do public figures have a right to privacy?” A graph labeled “Convinced votes” shows 64 percent Yes and 36 percent No. A graph labeled “People showing Respect” shows 43 percent Yes. Shane Tully is credited as having started the debate.

For every query, you may view the p.c of viewers who have been satisfied, and the p.c who chosen “Respect But Disagree.”
Image: Polemix

A screenshot of Polemix’s list of debatable questions. Each leader is credited for their question. Questions include: Is it cruel to have a baby today (by Samuel Hvitse), Is Jagger greater than Lennon (by Judith Goldenthale), Should the US be more socialist (by Matt Caito), Should we abolish prisons (by Sharon Chau), Are the Tokyo Olympics a dangerous idea (by Roshan Melwani), and Should NCAA athletes be paid?

When creating a new video, you’re prompted to pick a query from a preset checklist.
Image: Polemix

The different device reining within the discourse is the questions customers are requested to reply to, which set the tone for the conversations that comply with. For Polemix’s first few months, solely Leaders have been capable of create new questions, a main privilege that units them other than the remainder of the neighborhood. Many of the Leaders are acquainted by the controversy neighborhood and talk about new questions behind the scenes.

Sielecki and Emelien agree that some questions are so conducive to bigotry as to be off-limits; debates about “race science,” irrespective of how respectful, could be a no-go. Asked how the workforce goes about drawing that line, Sielecki replied, “It’s relatively clear what racism is.”

But the app has touched on nearly each controversial situation you would possibly consider, and a few questions which have gotten the inexperienced mild would seemingly be in a grey space, if not over the road, for progressive circles on and off the web. “Should Cosby be left in peace?”, “Is Pride Day still necessary?”, “Should IQ tests be mandatory?”, “Is JK Rowling transphobic?”, “Has political correctness gone too far?”, “Is America racist?”, “Did COVID leak from a Wuhan lab?”, and “Did religion get homosexuality wrong?” have all been debated on Polemix because the app’s founding. Even with safeguards in place, founders who endorse these questions are drawing an ideological line, nevertheless unconsciously — one which places a excessive diploma of belief of their neighborhood.

A screenshot from Polemix’s website showing four people beneath the heading “Leaders of all opinions and generations.” Below the pictures appears a question: “Are you afraid to listen to the other side?”

Leaders and their accomplishments are marketed on Polemix’s web site.
Image: Polemix

So far, Polemix has largely averted the right-wing lurch many would possibly anticipate from a platform centered on quick-twitch debating. As of this writing, a “Hell yes” is profitable “Should we tax to eliminate billionaires?” and “Should we have a universal basic income?”; a “Hell No” is profitable “More restriction on immigration?” and “MLB too woke?” A “Hell Yes” is profitable “Should we abolish prisons?” and “Should we abolish the police?” by a important margin. None of the customers I spoke to appear to have remotely right-wing political opinions. Wong describes themself as “a hardcore progressive.” And the customers I spoke to universally love Polemix’s surroundings and discover the neighborhood supportive and interesting.

“It’s Reddit meets Twitter, but instead of Twitter trolls and Reddit downvoters who swarm you, you’ve just got high-quality or relatively high-quality discourse,” says Wong, who spends one to 2 hours on Polemix day-after-day. “I’ve very rarely, if at all, seen any content that’s reminiscent of hate speech.” Sielecki and Emelien say they’ve had only a few issues with trolls to date. “One out of every thousand is a hater,” Sielecki estimates.

Amanda Timerman, who’s not a chief (she realized about Polemix at a occasion), says the app’s mental neighborhood is “therapeutic” for her. “Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, everything there, it’s like the minute you say something … you’re going to be immediately judged,” Timerman says. Polemix, she feels, is “really and truly a safe space … It really makes me feel good, and it makes me feel really self-confident to have an opinion on things that normally I wouldn’t discuss.” She added, “It’s like my own personal talk show.”

The prospect of younger individuals internet hosting their very own discuss reveals on-line isn’t all the time a recipe for enlightened discourse, because the swamp of on-line debate challenges demonstrates. The spectacle of these challenges has confirmed to be a great way for influencers to construct hype and appeal to new audiences on platforms like YouTube and Twitch, however the debates themselves usually take a again seat to clout-chasing. As fashionable Twitch commentator Hasan Piker put it in an interview with The Verge, “[I]t’s just pseudo-intellectual wrestling. It’s sport, and it’s not productive … People just want to beat their opponent, so they’re not necessarily ideologically shifting anyone. Instead, the 20 percent of the audience that is maybe malleable gravitates toward whoever the top-dog debater is.”

For Polemix, the problem is to succeed the place YouTube and Twitch have largely failed: primarily, to construct a platform the place trolls don’t win. Polemix’s founders are assured of their algorithm, and so are the customers I spoke to. “A lot of the social media debates that you see online — vitriolic, bitter, vicious, surly. It’s just not polite,” Wong says. But on Polemix, “It’s just people talking. And people talking humanely.”

But Polemix remains to be invite-only, with solely 2,500 customers (and a waitlist of “a couple of thousand,” per Sielecki), and it’s not clear how nicely the platform will fare if the reins are loosened. The founders are within the means of rolling out question-setting privileges to extra customers, and new Leaders might want to meet a minimal threshold of video views and votes. Emelien and Sielecki additionally plan to start out including extra customers quickly — they not too long ago supplied invites to all individuals within the 2021 college world championships. They don’t, nevertheless, know if or after they’ll be letting the plenty in.

A screenshot from Polemix’s website. The text reads “Convince me if you can: Polemix brings together the world’s brightest youth and global leaders from both sides of any polarizing question. By invitation only.” Below are links to download the app if you have an invitation code, and to join the waiting list if you don’t. To the right are two phones playing Polemix videos.

“Polemix brings together the world’s brightest youth.”
Image: Polemix

“We ensure that we have quality every step of the way,” Sielecki says. “We’re not going to grow massively just to grow, without taking care of the safety that the ecosystem offers to users and the quality of the content that is being created.” In different phrases: there’s no timeline but.

Among Leaders and members, there are some doubts about whether or not Polemix will have the ability to courtroom non-debaters because it grows. Some members are nervous about altering the neighborhood’s character. “Right now, it kind of feels like I’m in a little cocoon,” Timerman says, although she’s conscious that “the only way to grow is to eventually open it up.”

But Wong is assured sufficient in the neighborhood’s ardour and values that they’re not frightened about trolls. For them, the floodgates can’t open quickly sufficient. “I’m very excited,” they are saying. “I can’t wait until we have unleashed the kraken.”

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