Building a Better Social Network, without Profit Pressures
In late 2019, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales launched a new social network — and WT.Social has since grown to 491,326 subscribers. “We are seeing an influx of users from Twitter,” Jimmy Wales posted Tuesday, attributing the jump to disgruntled Twitter users fleeing Twitter’s prospective new owner, Elon Musk.
And Mastodon also reported 28,391 new users joined their service on Tuesday, according to Vice — that being the day Musk’s acquisition was announced. According to The Street, this brings its subscriber count up to 4.4 million.
Yet there have also been smaller acts of rebellion, by developers who are daring to dream their own dreams. Several have built their own homegrown alternatives, lovingly crafted on a smaller scale — proudly lingering on the web as their own individual acts of creation, and some very personal projects.
“I, like many others tend to waffle between loving and hating social media,” went one recent announcement on Hacker News. “So this is my take on what I think a better solution looks like.”
That announcement came from Slow Social, a site embodying its own thought-provoking twist. Its home page promises connection “in a more intentional, sustainable manner,” describing itself as “a social network built for friends, not influencers.”
Its low-pressure premise?
- Post at most once a week
- Read your friends’ posts once a week
There’s no character limit on posts. “Let the memes, hot takes, and transient updates live somewhere else,” reads its home page.”This is a space where friends can share what’s going on in their lives without having to distill it down to bite-sized information.”
Slow Social’s mission has piqued a lot of curiosity. Some users have even suggested also limiting the frequency of reading the site — maybe with something like a weekly digest — but “there’s a sort of solace knowing that I’m only ‘expected’ to write at most once a week,” Andrew Duensing, the social network’s founder, commented on Hacker News.
And he seemed to relish the wave of feedback from other Hacker News commenters. (One even suggested running the site as a co-op, so “every user has an equal stake in costs and profits and an equal voice in decisions.”)
“The post and the site got way more traction than I ever thought it would,” propelling his site to about 1,500 signups, said Duensing said in an email interview with The New Stack. Though only 160 actually published a post, that’s not bad for a site that launched two weeks ago, Duensing noted.
And he pointed out that his targeted growth rate is — of course — “intentionally slow.”
By launching Slow Slow, its creator hopes to inspire an essential question: why did our social networks become profit-driven enterprises?
“I want the product to be something useful to people, something that’s reliable, predictable, and sustainable.”
He’s following that most human of impulses: to be of service to others. “I want it to be something that I can continually build without having to answer to stakeholders other than customers and the users themselves.”
And by setting this example, he’s hoping to inspire an essential question: why did our social networks become profit-driven enterprises?
“We don’t really tolerate it for almost any other centers of community (like book clubs, churches/mosques/temples, running groups, schools),” Duensing wrote to The New Stack. “But for some reason, we tolerate it as soon as it becomes 1s and 0s.
“I want to show that there isn’t necessarily an economic reason it has to be that way.”
The Cost of Social Network Support
While the non-profit American Association of Retired Persons has funded its own social network called Senior Planet Community, other smaller examples are hard to come by — and why exactly is that?, Duensing wonders.
“With today’s tools and technology, the operating costs of running a social network are actually quite low,” he noted.
Duensing estimates he could support 100,000 users for less than $500 a month. “The most expensive thing about it is my time … If you keep the feature set limited and don’t have the expectations of investors to maximize the return on their investment, you can actually build something sustainable that doesn’t sell ads, information, or coerce the user with dark patterns.”
In a mid-April blog post on the developer site Dev.to, Duensing noted that the other major platforms are all publicly-traded companies with “a legally binding responsibility to maximize financial return” — including Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.
“I’m grieved by the toll it’s taken on our society, as well as the lost opportunities we’ve had to leverage the incredible technology and resources we have at our disposal to create something better,” he wrote.
And ultimately, Duensing argues, that business model has failed to provide meaningful interactions, with a product that’s focused instead on metrics like time-spent-on-app and interaction counts (as well as advertising dollars earned, and other revenue streams).
“If you keep the feature set limited and don’t have the expectations of investors to maximize the return on their investment, you can actually build something sustainable that doesn’t sell ads, information, or coerce the user with dark patterns.”
—Andrew Duensing, creator of Slow Social
Right now there’s now much to see on Slow Social. (Before there’s anything to read, your friends have to join the service, create a post, and then also approve your friend request for reading their posts.) But the site’s existence offers inspiring evidence of a dream in progress.
“Slow Social is my idea of what I wish social networks were, and what I think they can be,” Duensing’s blog post stated, likening his creation to a personal mailing list or a small-audience blog. The fledgling social network is for people seeking “more connection, not attention,” according to its home page. “Keep people up to date without giving daily play-by-plays.”
Among Duensing’s lofty goals: remaining ad-free forever — while still offering free access to all of its current features.
‘We’re Building It Because We Want It to Exist’
In the comments on Duensing’s post, Edgar Verona, a backend developer, said he’d been thinking “along the same lines” and even built a prototype of something similar. And on Hacker News developer Alex Ghiculescu posted that he’d also built a site with the identical premise — a social network “designed to be checked just once a week, on Sunday,” according to a January 2021 post by his co-founder/wife, Jillian Schuller.
Posts written during the week on the site, called Sundayy, remain hidden until the big Sunday reveal, Schuller wrote. “You can look back on your friend’s and family’s week as they lived it; day by day, in their own words.” She described Sundayy as “centered around mindful reflection.”
“It’s just my husband and I at the moment,” Schuller wrote in January of 2021, “and we’re just building it because we want it to exist.”
Sundayy’s home page describes it as “the only social network designed to be used less” Or, as Schuller posted on Hacker News, “It’s all signal, no noise,” describing it as the only social network she uses now.
And 16 months later, “it does still have active users,” Schuller said in an email interview with The New Stack. There’s also a desktop version, and “There was a lot of initial growth from Hacker News and a few podcasts I did. One thousand-plus users signed up (often out of curiosity) but as the months passed it leveled out to a smaller amount of ‘core’ users.
“Turns out once people start reflecting and get something real from it, they keep reflecting.”
Of course, there’s also a contingent of non-posting “lurkers,” who read the other reflections without sharing themselves. But then again, “A lot of social media is consumption rather than creation,” Schuller said, “so I think that’s a pretty inherent state that it would take a lot to change.”
“The experience in building it was very cathartic, and the most contented I’ve ever felt, building something that I knew was worthwhile.”
—Jillian Schuller, co-founder of Sundayy
And Schuller describes her and Ghiculescu’s original vision — of daily reflections shared with a small group of trusted people — as “still one that we hold very near and dear … It’s led me to better versions of myself, and has done the same for others.”
Robert Louis Stevenson once argued that to know what you prefer, “instead of humbly saying ‘Amen’ to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to keep your soul alive.” After crafting her own social media platform, Schuller acknowledges that “the experience in building it was very cathartic, and the most contented I’ve ever felt, building something that I knew was worthwhile.”
So like Duensing, Schuller isn’t following an investor-paced rush for a massive subscriber base. “When the time is right for this approach to social media and interaction,” she said, “it’ll happen.”
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