In Depth

WT:Social - Wikipedia co-founder’s ad-free Facebook rival explained

New social media network encourages high-quality discourse and content, but can it take on the web’s big guns?

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has launched a new social media platform that proclaims to be the antithesis of industry giants Facebook and Twitter.

Called WT:Social, it allows people to post massages and share articles akin to its rivals, but promises never to share user information with third-party companies.

Although the network has nothing to do with Wikipedia, Wales has adopted the online encyclopaedia’s business model, according to the Financial Times. It means the platform can operate exclusively through user donations as opposed to advertising deals. 

Wales believes that the model encourages better user posts, as “problematic” ad-driven websites such as those of today’s social media giants usually means “low-quality content” gets promoted, the FT reports.

It’s certainly an unconventional approach to running a social media platform, but some question whether it will be enough for WT:Social to challenge the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

What is WT:Social?

In short, WT:Social is an ad-free social networking platform that encourages high-quality content and discourse, in a bid to combat the spread of disinformation and hate speech.

WT:Social, where the WT serves as a nod to the now defunct fact-checking service WikiTribune, hails itself as a platform that can “empower you to make your own choices about what content you are served, and to directly edit misleading headlines, or flag problem posts”.

The site also says that it will “foster an environment where bad actors are removed because it is right, not because it suddenly affects our bottom-line.” 

It also promises to not sell personal data to third-parties, a practice that came to light in the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year.

Instead, WT:Social will ask users to either donate to the service – but they’ll be put on to a waiting list to sign up – or gain instant access by paying a monthly subscription fee, the BBC notes. 

“Facebook, Twitter and other social networks make revenue based on how long you stay on their site looking at and clicking on advertising,” said Wales in a blog post. “Engagement is prioritised over quality.”

“Our goal is not clicks but actually being meaningful to your life”, he adds.

The approach is already proving to be popular. Wales announced on Sunday that the site had already amassed 160,000 members, double the amount that had been recorded two days previously. 

Can it take on today’s social media behemoths? 

Perhaps. The website’s promise to encourage high-quality conversation is bold, but one that could prove to be popular among users looking for a break from the controversies of today’s social networks. 

“It’s easy to see why some people would want to ditch Facebook and Twitter,” says Big Think. In 2019 alone, Facebook has taken down around 5.4 billion fake accounts, while Twitter removed thousands of profiles in September for spreading fake political information.

WT:Social may, therefore, be seen as “a healthier alternative”, the website says. Not only will it benefit from donations, but the ability for community members to edit articles on the site and “theoretically” tweak headlines provides “unique protection” against the threat of fake news.

Forbes, meanwhile, says the social platform can survive against the likes Facebook and Twitter, but only if it can build a community and deliver on its promise to promote high-quality content.

“People won’t use it because it is WT:Social,” the news site says. “They will use it because it becomes a regular drip-feed of news that presents an objective view of the story. This will gradually build usage and eventually become a powerful place to find news.”

However, social media consultant Zoe Cairns told the BBC that WT:Social will need “a lot of money ploughed into it” to become a viable competitor in the social networking world.

“People are so used to social media being free,” she said. “I think businesses might pay for it, but people are so used to having news at their fingertips for free.”

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