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What does it take to make a social media network that doesn’t exploit users?

A few months ago, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales launched a new platform called WikiTribune Social – or WT:Social for short. Unlike Facebook, the Wikipedia social network isn’t designed to generate profit by leveraging user data. Thus far, it has a modest membership, but Wales doesn’t seem interested in jousting with Facebook. Instead, it sounds like he is hoping to offer a refuge from it.

Some critics have highlighted the ways certain social media sites are purposefully designed to be addictive. That can help make them successful, but it can take a toll on users. On the other hand, if a site isn’t offering people a benefit, no one will use it. Facebook didn’t start out with the goal of becoming the world’s largest social media company — in the beginning it was actually exclusionary. It only opened up to those with non-college and non-university email addresses two years after its founding.

Trying to mimic its success with similar tactics likely wouldn’t work today, but could a new site become mainstream without exploiting user data, accruing antitrust accusations, or fueling conspiracy theories and fake news? Or is the future model a bunch of smaller sites, separated by generation (only 51 percent of U.S. teens use Facebook) or interests?

The Mastodon model

In 2018, Facebook acknowledged it was “too slow to prevent misinformation and hate” in Myanmar after United Nations investigators said the site had been “a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate” against the country’s Rohingya Muslims. Facebook was “totally unprepared” to moderate Burmese content, a Deloitte consultant told Reuters. It faced similar accusations of failing to stop the spread of misinformation in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, as well. “If you can’t get the local-level translators to do the content moderation at speed that makes sure the harmful content gets pulled down, then don’t operate in that country,” said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University.

What is Mastodon?

In late 2019, a report from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that in India, “upper castes continue to occupy the greatest share of two of the most popular social media sites – Facebook and WhatsApp.” Members of these castes — India’s historical, rigid, hierarchical social class structure — are more likely to own smartphones, according to the report. Though protections for lower castes were included in the country’s constitution, discrimination and violence still exists. Activists have said Dalits and other Indian minorities are harrassed on sites like Twitter, prompting some to abandon the platform.

In mid-November, social media site Mastodon saw a surge in new weekly users. Though it purposefully doesn’t track people’s home countries, many news sites said the influx was from India. People were trying out Mastodon after feeling that Twitter wasn’t properly moderating its site, according to Quartz. Founder Eugen Rochko started Mastodon to be a Twitter killer. Instead of a feed that mixes politics, music, and complaints about the subway, there are channels for specific topics. One of Rochko’s biggest goals was to keep the site free from harassment.

Mastodon has banned discrimination based on caste. To ensure newcomers adhere to Mastodon’s code of conduct — which moderates content for racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination — the company recently hired an employee that speaks Hindi.  For now, it will rely on users that speak Bengali, Tamil, and India’s hundreds of other languages to help moderate as well. Rochko said it’s better equipped to moderate content than giants like Facebook or Twitter, because of its moderator-to-user ratio: 5 for 40,000 weekly users, he recently told LiveMint. It took the site two years to reach 2 million users, a far cry from how quickly Instagram exploded.

TikTok breaks out

For those who go months without talking to a teen, sites like TikTok seem to go from nonexistent to omnipresent in an instant. In December 2010, Instagram reached a million users after its debut a couple months earlier. Then its trajectory went as follows: In June 2011, it had 5 million users. In July, Justin Bieber joined. By August, 7 million people were posting filtered selfies. When Instagram changed its terms of service in December 2012, some of its 100 million users — including Kim Kardashian — threatened to leave when they realized they didn’t own their own photos. It was no longer a scrappy startup; Facebook purchased the app for a billion dollars in April 2012. Its rise was rapid but not instantaneous.

“What we see right now is scale, scale, scale, speed, speed, speed,” said Grygiel. “And if you don’t get there, to a hundred million monthly active users overnight, essentially, everyone says, ‘well, you’re a failure.’”

TikTok's Logo
Getty Images / SOPA Images

That goal of growing as fast as possible seems fundamental to TikTok, which uses algorithms to analyze every facet of the videos you watch, then serves you more of what you like. Facebook surfaces what it thinks you like, but with content from people you know. TikTok feeds are full of strangers, but again, the app has found videos that align with your interests.

“Within a day, the app can get to know you so well it feels like it’s reading your mind,” according to Bloomberg. That content quicksand is part of its appeal, but TikTok’s explosion in popularity (it has over a billion users as of June) isn’t purely organic. Its ads are everywhere, including on Facebook and YouTube. Plus, it didn’t wait for a Bieber-esque bump to happen on its own. Before launching in the U.S., TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, paid social media stars to make videos, Bloomberg reports. It would be difficult for Wikipedia to emulate that, said Grygiel. “I’m just not sure that nonprofit will be able to scale now,” she said. “Maybe at the dawn of the internet.”

Part of catering content to viewers involves getting to know them, and that’s where social media sites have run into trouble. When it comes to data collection, Facebook tracks everyone on the internet — even people who haven’t signed up for its services. “Facebook can learn almost anything about you by using artificial intelligence to analyze your behavior,” Peter Eckersley, the chief computer scientist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The New York Times. “That knowledge turns out to be perfect both for advertising and propaganda. Will Facebook ever prevent itself from learning people’s political views, or other sensitive facts about them?”

TikTok paid a $5.7 million fine in 2019 for violating the U.S. child privacy law, according to The Washington Post. The app, which merged with TikTok in 2018, collected information, including names, email addresses, photos, and locations, of children younger than 13. TikTok then said users would have to verify their age, and those under 13 would be shown a “limited, separate app experience.”

Instead of offering their services at no cost — except for data — social media sites like Ello use a freemium model (you pay for perks). The company says it doesn’t sell user data and partners with brands to launch products on the site. Like Mastodon, it’s a more niche service that caters to artists.

The news issue

When it comes to political content, Facebook has been notoriously hands-off. TikTok has been more aggressive, censoring videos that mention Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence, and banning “foreign leaders or sensitive figures,” including Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Kim Jong-un, and Shinzo Abe, according to documents obtained by The Guardian.  TikTok said those policies were outdated, and it now lets local moderators take a more nuanced approach to content. As recently as September, The Washington Post reported it was difficult to find evidence of Hong Kong’s protests on TikTok.


A supposedly kid-friendly atmosphere is central to TikTok’s image, though it’s also been used to make recruitment videos for extremist groups. Such content is against the app’s guidelines, and the company uses a combination of algorithms and moderators to take down content. Some TikTok users have taken matters into their own hands, posting “creepy TikToks” to Instagram to call out people who have sent underage kids inappropriate messages. The company also admitted to having moderators flag “vulnerable” accounts — those of users with disabilities or who used signifiers that might make them “susceptible to bullying or harassment” — so they would not be shown outside their home country.

Even with its staggering amount of users, TikTok still only reaches half the number of people that Facebook does. “As much as people maybe would like to delete Facebook, it’s been integrated and woven into the fabric of our lives,” said Grygiel. “Maybe you don’t want to read the posts anymore, but maybe you have to rent a room in your house or maybe you need to sell a bicycle.”

Those suffering from rare illnesses find communities there. Our friends still send us invites to events through Facebook. To wrench people away from that, a new social media platform would have to offer something new and enticing — trusted news or verified users, for example.

Put a “pin” in it

Both moderators and algorithms can have inherent biases and neither can catch all questionable content. Pinterest would prefer its 250 million users post photos of recipes and home decor, but it has its own misinformation problems. Researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab recently found its algorithm surfaced “politically intense memes” after a single click on a similar “pin.” In late 2019, the site stopped showing users vaccine-related information, saying the results contained too much “bad content.” Color of Change, a civil rights advocacy group, recently asked the site not to promote plantations where enslaved people were held as wedding venues. In response, Pinterest will limit search recommendations for plantation weddings and won’t optimizing the content for search engines, according to The New York Times.

Though its user base is large, Pinterest doesn’t have the features to compete with Facebook, if it wanted to. It’s not where people go to invite friends to a barbeque or share an alarming (if untrue) news alert about kidnappings in the area. Someone planning a wedding might visit Pinterest regularly, then let that frequency slacken after the big day. Facebook upped its notifications to keep people logging on multiple times a day.

Do social media networks need to lure you in with these kind of psychological enticements to succeed? For now, Wales told the Financial Times WT:Social won’t be “massively profitable.” It has around 200,000 members. While they’re not sure if Wales is the one to do it, Grygiel does think a less growth-focused model should be the starting point for new platforms. “I think we can build these social networks, but they’re going to take a lot of investment in sound product design and ethical leadership,” they said.

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Jenny McGrath
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jenny McGrath is a senior writer at Digital Trends covering the intersection of tech and the arts and the environment. Before…
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