Digital Publishing Platforms
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Not quite Signal, not yet WeChat: Can Telegram fulfill its ambitious mission?

Telegram has superior user experience going for it. Now it needs to manage abuse by bad actors and monetization

Eight years after its launch, Telegram is one of the five most popular messaging apps in the world. It is especially important for media – while adoption has lagged in the West, Telegram is the app of choice for journalists in lower press-freedom states from Belarus to Hong Kong

One reason Telegram has managed to stand out in a fragmented market is simplicity. You can set up a channel within minutes and start distributing different content formats. It works on and syncs across multiple devices, unlike say WhatsApp or Signal, which often frustrate users. Operating on low bandwidth and unlimited file transfers are just icing on the cake.

There are many more features that put Telegram ahead of competitors (I’ll get to some of them shortly). What is less clear, however, is where the platform is headed next. The commitment to the mission of a freer internet has enabled bad actors. There are also questions about the monetization of the platform itself. 

Founder Pavel Durov is laying out big plans, especially regarding ads in large one-to-many channels and premium stickers. But a previous plan for Blockchain-based monetization was scrapped last year. Importantly, Durov has also ruled out a WhatsApp-style sale to another tech giant, emphasizing the importance of Telegram’s social mission.

Man on a mission

Durov was known across the former USSR long before Telegram. As Mark Zuckerberg was slow to move into Russia, Durov launched VKontakte (VK for short) in 2006. It looked like Facebook in terms of colors and layout, but was better adapted to local needs, with powerful (and largely pirated) music and video content sharing sections. 

VK was eventually bought by Kremlin-friendly Mail.Ru Group amid growing accusations of cooperation with the Russian state and privacy issues. It was a hostile process, which at one point included Durov showing his middle finger via posted photo in response to an acquisition offer.

Telegram first launched in 2013 shortly before Durov was fired as CEO of VK. He continues to have ambitious goals for the project. Broadly speaking, he wants Telegram to become a “financially sustainable project that can serve humanity for decades (or centuries) to come”.

But that leaves the question of how this project will be funded. Up to now Durov himself has been a major funder (he was recently featured as the United Arab Emirates’ richest resident, at over $17 billion in asset value). Finding other sources has been more difficult. 

A plan to sell cryptocurrency coins, named “grams”, was first announced in 2017. It managed to raise $1.7 billion in 2018, but was scrapped when the US Securities and Exchange Commission ruled the sale illegal and banned “gram” sales. Investors received their money back, less 28%.

This year Telegram raised $1 billion by selling convertible bonds, with even Russia’s sovereign wealth fund buying up issues (on secondary markets). It’s also considering an IPO. But neither actually addresses the need for sustainable revenue. Meanwhile, investors are waiting for details about other plans (mainly an ad platform and sale of stickers). 

Trend surfing

With over 550 million users, Telegram sits at number five in the global ranking of messengers according to Statista. Only Facebook’s two platforms and Chinese giants QQ and WeChat fare better. But does Telegram have what it takes to become a super-app that offers commercialization opportunities for publishers and other businesses? 

Continuing to build popular and highly usable features will certainly play a big role. Conscious that many users are based in countries with slow mobile internet, in 2016 the platform launched “Instant Views”. This solution downloads articles, strips them of clutter and hosts them on Telegram servers to allow immediate loading and sharing.

More recently, when Clubhouse was at the peak of its popularity, Telegram was quick to unveil “Voice Chats Done Right” in December 2020, and in March 2021 added ability to save streams – something Clubhouse was criticised for on top of the invite-only start and Android prejudice.

Telegram is always eager to challenge competitors. By making its format more friendly for long-form, the messenger attracted many bloggers that would have otherwise gone to places like Medium. While publishers should be careful with this (it can cannibalize website traffic), it has helped build more loyal fanbases than Facebook or even Twitter communities.

Durov has also taken numerous (and gratuitous) jibes at Facebook and Apple at times when the tech giants came under fire. He first said that “WhatsApp sucked” publicly in 2015, and in 2021 branded iPhone users “digital slaves of Apple”.

Telegram has also made moves towards finance and e-commerce, notably via simplified paying with the support of commission-free credit card payments within chats. That is still a long way off from WeChat, but is a welcome step for all merchants (and potentially content creators).

Flip side of the coin

Because of its ease of use, intuitive channel and group creation algorithm it has opened many doors for all sorts of actors. Setting up a channel takes a few minutes and Telegram gives you numerous options in terms of openness: you can make it easily searchable, have a shareable link or instead choose to manually add members.

At the same time, its tolerance for anonymity makes it easy to trick anyone into anything – whether it’s malware or simple marketplace-type sales. Abusers can immediately block or delete the account without any trace remaining, as there is no mobile number link to the username.

In Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, “anonymous” channels on Telegram are growing in popularity, spreading the agenda of whoever is behind them. Entire networks have been discovered working in the interests of individual politicians (even government agencies were caught spreading alleged insider information before it appears on national media). 

Other abuses include by far-right groups, who have been known to spread personal data of LGBT community members inciting hatred and encouraging online harassment and even offline witch hunts.

Over in Iran, the messenger surprisingly gained traction among right-wing groups, including Daesh members. Official Tehran blamed Telegram for facilitating communication of terrorists and tried to ban it.

But the same features have been leveraged by pro-democracy movements. In Belarus Telegram played a crucial role in the 2020 protests, as it was the only way for protesters to coordinate their actions during internet blackouts.

In a more recent turn of events, the Kremlin tried to block smart voting, a strategy developed by oppositionist Alexei Navalny to consolidate the votes for those who oppose Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. After the state media watchdog forced Apple and Google to take down the Smart Voting apps, Telegram remained the only means to implement the strategy, through a dedicated chat bot. Admittedly, Telegram blocked the bot too, citing election silence.

Looking into an uncertain future

Security-wise, Telegram has room for improvement. Competitor Signal only collects data as to when the account was created and when it was last online. Despite the common belief, Telegram’s metadata includes the user’s IP address and conversation details. Moreover, Telegram demands you share your address book before you can message anyone.

At the same time, Durov has pledged never “to sell the company like the founders of WhatsApp”, as he believes the “world needs Telegram to stay independent”. He aims to make this possible by adding monetisation for public one-to-many channels. This should prove useful for content creators and allow the company to make the first steps towards self-sufficiency.

This should include advertising, even though, according to the founder, users will be able to opt-out of ads. Durov himself views privacy-conscious ads as an alternative to donations or subscriptions, which the Telegram team is reportedly also working to offer in the future. 

What can the media industry expect? At this point, it is difficult to predict, as no specific long-term plans have been announced, but we can potentially expect more Slack-like features, further facilitating communication for teams, as well as cloud storage-based services. 

On top of that having given every Telegram user the “power to run their own radio station” back in March, Durov promised every user a TV station (this is yet to materialise) without adding any complexity to the apps.

According to Durov, the end goal is to establish a new class of content creators – one that is financially sustainable and free to choose the strategy that is best for their subscribers. Telegram founder believes that “traditional social networks have exploited users and publishers for far too long with excessive data collection and manipulative algorithms.”

Today, Telegram finds itself at a crossroads. On the one hand, it is arguably the most user-friendly messenger with dozens of handy features. On the other hand, it makes life easier for bad actors to stay under the radar. Will the platform be able to reconcile these issues, while also building a more sustainable model?

Bohuslav Romanenko

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.