Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are ‘above the law’, say founders of Hoof, the British football app taking on the social media giants
British tech start-up Hoof is aiming to “elevate the level of football discussion” with a new app that, unlike Twitter, Facebook and the other social media behemoths, stops abusive posts at source, its founders tell City A.M.
If football and social media had a relationship status it would be “it’s complicated”.
On the one hand they are mutually beneficial, with big matches and news stories driving engagement on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, which in turn allow athletes and brands to grow and speak directly to their fanbase.
But on the other, widespread abuse – much of it discriminatory – towards stars such as Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka and the failure of the biggest platforms to eradicate it has poisoned the well, drawn stern criticism and deterred some users.
Now the British founders of a new start-up believe they have created a solution in Hoof, a free app which is billed as the first football-only social network.
It has a zero-tolerance policy towards abuse and discrimination, using a combination of human moderators and artificial intelligence to stop offending posts before they are published.
Hoof’s ethos is a pointed departure from the laissez-faire approach of the biggest social media platforms, where freedom of speech is king.
“For 10 years we have seen most major governments try to bring effective legislation against them. None has succeeded,” says Hoof co-founder and chief executive Ben Simpson.
“I think unfortunately now they are more or less above the law in the sense that they decide what goes on their platforms.”
Hoof has a list of banned terms and topics that its creators say have no place in discussion about the beautiful game, explains co-founder and chief marketing officer Jake Sorkin.
“Social media likes to pretend that it is a really complicated issue but in football it’s simple,” he says. “We have a proactive approach, whereas at other social media it is reactive.”
Anticipating peaks in toxic posts – for instance when a player misses a penalty, as England stars Rashford and Saka did at Euro 2020 – is key, says Simpson.
“Abuse is very easy to model because people doing it are idiots. It’s a very predictable trend.”
Hoof’s other main selling point is a suite of tools, including live in-game stats, league tables and line-up graphics, designed to ensure users don’t have to switch between their app and others.
Its name is an acronym for Home Of Online Football and Simpson says the company’s mission is to “elevate the level of football discussion”.
“That is by improving the tools and features that people have and also protecting from racism and abuse,” he adds.
“People think it’s just footballers getting it but it’s anyone with 10,000 followers. You are going to be subject to a torrent of abuse any time you put up an opinion.”
Hoof evolved from an idea Simpson had while studying economics at Bristol University, where he met third co-founder and tech specialist Tommy Leasor.
They developed the concept with Sorkin, a football social media expert with an audience of 20m, and raised £450,000 from UK angel investors to build and launch the app.
The trio’s advisors include board member Greg Swimer, chief technology officer at City Football Group, the parent organisation of Premier League champions Manchester City.
Having launched this month, their priority is growing the user base, in part through influencer advertising, and fine-tuning the product before integrating revenue-generating elements.
Advertising is planned, but not for gambling companies as it would restrict the app to over-18s, while a subscription model is under consideration as Hoof incorporates more sophisticated tools, such as live audio and video.
Other social media platforms geared around sport never got off the ground, but Hoof’s founders say they erred by casting the net too wide when only football generates enough discussion and relying on paid-for patronage by footballers who make only perfunctory attempts to join in.
“The reality is that social media is driven by the users,” says Sorkin.
“We want to galvanise the community and bring on those engaged users on different platforms who feel upset with the state of things,” says Simpson.
“We want to grow our audience into millions and show that it doesn’t have to be the way it is. It can be rebuilt in a better way.”