Jimmy Wales, the co-founder and driving force behind Wikipedia, has launched WT:Social, a new social networking site intended to provide a non-profit alternative to the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Mr Wales’s stated aim for WT:Social’s is that it will help combat misleading and ‘clickbait’ headlines as well as ‘fake news’. Without the same commercial incentives, the social media platform will also not collect data on users in the way that for-profit alternatives do to help their advertisers better target suitable audiences.
WT:Social has been set up as a completely independent company but will share Wikipedia’s business model of relying on donations to cover running expenses. It is hoped that, as is the case for Wikipedia, that will provide enough income to keep the service both free to use and free of advertising. At the low key launch of the platform, Mr Wales commented on the business model he sees as the root cause of criticisms aimed at social media giants:
“The business model of social media companies, of pure advertising, is problematic. It turns out the huge winner is low-quality content.”
WT:Social’s algorithm will differ from those of Facebook and Twitter in that it will publish links posted chronologically, with the newest first. Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms prioritise exposure for posts that attract more ‘likes’ and comments. Mr Wales believes this has the side effect of benefiting more sensationalist, often poor quality, content. However, an ‘upvote’ button for users to recommend content they consider quality is being considered.
The platform launched quietly last month, relying mainly on organic growth to drive user numbers and is now approaching a total of 50,000. Mr Wales has said numbers have doubled in the past week. While a modest beginning, the ambition is to grow to hundreds of millions of users. So far around 200 users have made donations to WT:Social and Mr Wales believes that services such as Netflix and Spotify have helped develop a consumer mindset of being willing to pay for quality, ‘meaningful’ content.
For now, due to capacity limitations, WT:Social is operating a waiting list prospective new users can join. However, donors can jump to the front of the queue. Despite the fact WT:Social is far from the first attempt to offer an alternative to Facebook, Mr Wales believes that the timing favours his new project, commenting:
“People are feeling fed up with all the junk that’s around. News organisations are doing the best they can in this difficult environment but it’s actually a problem with the distribution.”
WT:Social is an evolution, or spin-off from the ultimately unsuccessful ‘Wikitribune’ collaborative media site Mr Wales and co-founder Orit Kopel launched two years ago with a high profile crowdfunding campaign. The idea was for a combination of staff and volunteer ‘citizen’ journalists to create high quality news and general interest stories to appeal to a global audience. In the end it failed to attract a large following, something largely attributed to the attempt to appeal to such a diverse readership. WT:Social will attempt to learn from that mistake by building smaller, niche, self-sustaining communities around common interests. These ‘SubWiki’ communities will range from specialist interest subject matters like beekeeping of board games as well as more general news.
WT:Social will rely on its user community to monitor abuses of the site rather than hired moderators. Like on Wikipedia almost everything on WT:Social is ‘editable’. This, believes Mr Wales, “gives a huge incentive for good behaviour because if you say something obnoxious, someone will just delete it.”
It’s an approach that has been successful on Wikipedia but is untested on a social network platform. Mr Wales accepts the platform is an experiment and is mindful of the recent failure of the Wikitribune attempt.
“This is a radical, crazy experiment of mine. I’m happy to say I don’t know all the answers.”