The Finnish developers of a new social media platform aimed at tackling cyberbullying have been surprised by its rapid uptake in Asia.

Cyberbullying has become a global issue in recent, years leading to suicides and human rights concerns.

Launched in 2015, Heimo, which means “tribe” in Finnish, has been creating a new online community where people can meet and help each other. Heimo currently has 10 full-time employees, including psychologists, as well as members with years of experience building social media networks in Scandinavia.

“We have seen how social media services can be a good thing, but they can be a really bad thing as well, with problems like bullying and 'trolling',” Heimo CEO Jarno Alastalo told The News Lens International in Taipei.

Alastalo says it is through past experience the team learned how people behave online and how to start building an online community where there is no cyberbullying and people are supportive.

“Everyone has a story that we haven’t told anyone. We want to be the platform for these stories,” says Alastalo.

People on Heimo can share their thoughts anonymously, and the CEO says because they have been promoting the platform as a peer-to-peer social platform where people help each other, that is how users have been treating the service.

“From the beginning, we have been saying that this is made for peer support, for helping, and it’s a safe place,” says Alastalo. “The strangest thing is that we have seen zero trolling cases on our platform so far.”

Alastalo says he thinks bullying will definitely happen on Heimo eventually, but the team is prepared, and users have the tools to face it when it happens.

Heimo users create discussions called “tribes,” which can be set to public, closed or secret. The person who creates a “tribe” can control the discussion, including deleting messages. Other users can mark posts that should not be in the discussions. There are features like banning users from a discussion, which will not be made public, and people can also report inappropriate users.

“But those who are making hate speech and bullying people are so much lesser than the ones who are not, and that’s what our faith is based on,” says Alastalo. “I’m actually a little surprised because I thought the speech would be harder to control once more people started coming, but they understand the culture of Heimo quite fast.”


Photo Credit: Jarno Alastalo

The Heimo team.

A year and a half after Heimo started in Finland, the team started wondering where to take the platform next, because they knew cyberbullying is a global problem.

“We did some marketing on different platforms, but suddenly, from Twitter, people from the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan, started coming to Heimo,” says Alastalo. “We saw these people really opening up, sharing, and truly helping each other.”

Currently, 70 percent of the platform's users are from Southeast Asia, and the region will have an estimated 100,000 users by the end of the year. The CEO says the Philippines ranks first in the number of users worldwide, followed by Indonesia. Taiwan also ranks in the top 10.

“We had been expecting a lot of users, and our aim is to reach millions of users, but the biggest surprise was Southeast Asia and the amount of 'warm-hearted' users coming from there,” says Alastalo.

One common topic users have been discussing is loneliness, says Alastalo. Social pressure from schools and families along with LGBT discussions are popular. But the CEO emphasizes that Heimo is not a place where people get depressed, and people also share "happy things," such as food.

The website navigation is currently in English, but users can post in any language they wish to. Alastalo says that on Heimo it is more about people coming out and being true to themselves, whether they were the bully or the bullied. He hopes users can support each other and get to know themselves better through posting or reading others' stories.

Regarding the lack of free speech in many Southeast Asian countries, Alastalo isn’t overly concerned. He believes people come to Heimo to talk about personal issues and not political ones.

“I know some governments are blocking certain services, but I believe the people,” says the CEO. “They are clever. They will find a way.”

The biggest challenge facing Heimo currently is getting the word out about the platform. Alastalo says people who are using Heimo aren't not sharing news about the platform in other social networks, which makes getting “the viral effect” difficult.

“People say, for example, they are on Instagram, but they don’t say they are on Heimo,” says the CEO.

But Heimo is growing, and the team is working on additional features, such as one-to-one messaging, and creating an app.

“We want to make something different, something good, and of course we know it’s very difficult. We need help and support from others. Heimo wouldn’t be anything without its users,” says Alastalo. “We are trying our best, and I believe we are on the road of doing something right.”

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole