• Vex

Investigating 2nd1st – Deep Dive Into an “Uncensored” Social Network App and Its Developer

Background


While perusing Twitter for interesting topics I stumbled upon conversations about alternative social network apps, namely those that claim to provide an uncensored space largely free of moderation. Such apps have become most popular amongst a subset of Trump supporters, Republicans, Conservatives, and other generally right-leaning people who feel they aren’t able to freely express themselves on more mainstream social media platforms such as the aforementioned Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. One of these apps is called 2nd1st and it is available on the Apple App Store. As of the time of this writing the app had ~2600 ratings at 4.4 Stars average, and was #50 on the App Store’s Top Charts for Social Networking apps.


The app plainly advertises itself as a “free speech platform” with “human moderators”. It also describes itself as “social media without cancel culture”. The app was initially launched two years ago in 2019 but I have no way to know what the app was like at that time. However, given that even during that time period there was controversy over supposed censorship of right leaning individuals in mainstream social media it is not inconceivable that this app was made to take advantage of the furor surrounding the topic. The app appears to require a paid subscription to use and I was hesitant to even download the app, much less buy into it thanks to several red flags I noted while investigating the app and its developer.


The App


The app itself is essentially a generic social networking app similar in layout and function to Twitter. However, it is not free to use. A subscription fee must be paid, and this fee appears to vary. As noted, I did not download the app but it appears the fee structure is broken into weeks, months, and years, with the highest single cost displayed on the App Store page being $79.99 and the lowest being $4.99.


As for the user base, it appears to be made up largely of individuals who support Donald Trump and various flavors of Republican or Conservative persons.


Howly Inc. – Who, What, When, Where, and Why


The app’s developer is Howly Inc., which was incorporated on the date of May 14th, 2019. It seems this date closely coincides with the date of the app’s launch, and indeed Howly Inc. appears to have only one product under its belt – the 2nd1st app itself. Howly Inc. has additionally filed a trademark application for “2nd1st”, with the filing date being the 19th of January, 2021.


The more interesting information about Howly Inc. however is its registered address and apparent owner and sole employee. The company’s registered address is 11310 E 21st St N Wichita, Kansas, 67206. Googling this leads to a PostNet location authorized as a FedEx “ShipCenter”. In other words, Howly Inc. appears to have no proper business location. Given that, it is most likely operated out of the developer’s house. This is a common type of address amongst these small businesses or sole proprietorships that have no physical place of business such as an office space and don’t want to give up their home address. Businesses are required to at least have an address for reception of legal documents, so many who run these types of businesses have their mail sent to shipping centers or P.O. boxes. While this is not in and of itself illegal or fraudulent, it is one element that can point to a business lacking in trustworthiness as the actual owner and their personal location can be difficult or impossible to verify (assuming they have not already volunteered that information, of course). This makes accountability actions by consumers more difficult to enforce. It should be noted that Open Corporates provides a registered agent address for the company that leads to “Kansas Resident Agent” which appears to be little more than a generic registered agent service, again effectively serving to shroud the business owners identity and location.


According to Dun & Bradstreet and Buzzfile however, the owner of Howly Inc. is one Shyam Sawant. Googling this name alone or combined with other relevant terms reveals little about this individual, but it can be assumed they are of Indian origin, either nationally and/or ethnically. If they are indeed a resident of India however, this raises questions about Howly Inc. and 2nd1st. Given the generic shipping center address it is impossible to tell where Mr. Sawant himself actually lives without investigative tools available only to law enforcement or media outlets with the proper resources. However, the lack of readily available information suggests Mr. Sawant has few or no previous activities as a business owner in his past and has seemingly chosen to avoid releasing much information about himself publicly. With all that said the origin, capabilities, and identity of those behind Howly Inc. and 2nd1st remain largely unknown.


Dun & Bradstreet and Buzzfile additionally list a phone number for Howly Inc., but here's where we see another red flag - while Howly Inc. is incorporated in Kansas and would ostensibly operate from within that state, the only available phone number with any apparent connection to the business begins with a New York area code - 929. If this number is in fact associated with Howly Inc., it is unclear why a very small Kansas based business would have a phone number based out of New York, an area roughly 1300 miles away from Wichita Kansas. All searches for this phone number returned no further information, other than that the number is most likely associated with a cell phone.


A link on the Privacy Policy page of the 2nd1st website claims to lead to a contact form on howly.com, ostensibly the official website of Howly Inc. However, clicking the link reveals that the howly.com domain is currently up for sale through a domain broker named Epik. Why the domain is for sale is not apparent. Searching records in the Wayback Machine reveals the site has likely been for sale since at least 2019, meaning that Howly Inc. is claiming the domain is theirs yet it would appear they may never have owned it at all.

Screenshot showing the Howly.com domain up for sale through a domain broker called Epik.
Screenshot of the Howly.com domain up for sale through Epik.

An uncensored… phone?


On the 2nd1st website – 2nd1st.app – I received a popup advertising a 40% discount for a “2nd1st Uncensored Phone” in return for my name, email, and phone number. Upon feeding the input fields the required information and pressing “Get Offer”, nothing happened and I received no email. Whether this was a fluke or the popup exists solely to harvest data is not yet certain, though I am leaning towards the latter. I cannot imagine what kind of phone a company with no actual place of business and no meaningful track record could possibly be offering, and I suspect the phone does not exist. The popup additionally claims the phone would grant the user “unlimited and uncensored access to social media.” What this means and how such a thing would be possible is currently unknown.

Screenshot of popup offer for unknown phone from 2nd1st app
Screenshot of the popup phone offer on the 2nd1st website.

Questions Remain


I have sent an email to the one and only email address found on the 2nd1st website – an email buried in the Terms and Conditions – asking for more information regarding Howly Inc. and 2nd1st. Should a response be received this space will be updated. In the meantime, my determination is that the app should be avoided. The app website is poorly constructed, howly.com is up for sale, and it seems the owners of Howly Inc. and 2nd1st have chosen to leave their identities obscure while taking payments and personal data from their users. The only other outlet for 2nd1st is its apparent official Twitter account @2nd1st2. This Twitter account was created in January of 2021, has one follower (no apparent relation to the app or company), follows no accounts, and has absolutely no other public activity with no tweets or likes on record. Ultimately, I am of the belief that 2nd1st and Howly Inc. is little more than a sole persons attempt to cash in on controversy surrounding social media and claimed censorship of right-leaning voices.


UPDATE - 7/9/21 - My email to Howly Inc's. supposed support email address has gone unanswered and ostensibly unread, as Gmail alerted me to it being unable to even deliver my email. (Additionally, this article was updated with further information, namely about a phone number seemingly associated with Howly Inc.)


For updates and more investigative articles such as this, follow Social Actuality on Twitter @SocialActuality or subscribe to the sites email list. Don’t worry, I promise I won’t offer you discount codes for mystery phones.


- Vex

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