Last month, in a memo obtained by the New York Times, a Facebook executive said that the product is “probably like sugar.” “Sugar is delicious and for most of us there is a special place for it in our lives,” wrote Andrew “Boz” Bosworth. “But like all things it benefits from moderation.”
Concerns over the prevalence of added sugar in foods led to the rise of health food stores, gyms, and any number of other products from the 1960s until today. But equivalent concerns over social media have only recently bubbled to the surface, and the number of wellness-branded social apps is still fairly small.
There are certainly popular apps that seek to improve mental health, though they aren’t typically branded as such. (Think Calm or Headspace, which offer guided meditations through subscriptions.) Or they explicitly seek to improve mental health, such as the virtual therapist app Talkspace, but don’t offer traditional social features. That’s left a widening lane open to entrepreneurs who want to build a more traditional social app, with actual pro-social features at the forefront.
Last week I spoke with Chrys Bader-Wechseler and Sean Dadashi, co-founders of Just Imagine, a Los Angeles-based company working on what the founders call “healthy alternatives” to existing social networks. Bader-Wechseler was familiar to me from his years at the once-hot “anonym-ish” social network Secret, which let you post spicy tidbits to your friends and friends-of-friends without having your name attached to the post. Like most anonymous apps, Secret eventually became a dumping ground for hateful gossip. But at its best, it encouraged a kind of vulnerable discussion you rarely see on the big social networks.
Just Imagine’s first product, still in the early development stages, is called Ikaria. The founders wouldn’t tell me much about the app, but messaging seems to be a core function. One of the app’s big ideas is that the messaging environment should change based on who you’re speaking to. If the app knew you were speaking to your mother, for example, it might offer prompts to start a more meaningful discussion.
“The future of social is bespoke and relationship-focused,” Bader-Wechseler told me. “Instead of one-size fits all networks, we can build more intimate spaces. You should be able to share your inner world in a more authentic way. No two relationships are the same, and the tools should reflect that.”
The company laid out its case in a Medium post, and also spoke with Josh Constine at TechCrunch. The founders say they are working with psychologists in an effort to ensure that their products have a positive effect on well being. (The current research on the effect of social networks on mental health is all over the map; the effects have generally found to be less pronounced than you might assume. You know how every six months a new study comes out asserting that some amount of coffee, or chocolate, or red wine is actually good for you, and then another study comes out a year later asserting the opposite? It kind of feels like that.)
Other products similar to Ikaria are already in the works, and some are even on the market. Cocoon, a private messaging space for friends and family built by a former Facebook product manager, came out of Y Combinator last year. I’ve also spoken with people who have sought to get Facebook to build similar features into the company’s products directly. What if the News Feed, for example, prompted you to meditate? (The idea has been discussed inside Facebook, I’m told, though it doesn’t seem like those talks ever progressed very far.)
For Ikaria, the destination is likely some form of subscription-based app. The benefit is that the company doesn’t have to build a massive data-driven advertising business. The downside is that the company expects you to get your mom to pay a monthly subscription for a messaging app.
Until we see the product, it’s hard to judge whether Ikaria or something like it could pull that off. It’s easy to rail against the excesses of existing social products, and hard to build more nutritious replacements. And even if you do, there’s no guarantee that an audience will show up for them. For all the wellness products now on the market, there’s more added sugar in our diets than ever.
Still, think of everyone who has quit — or threatened to quit — social media over the past three years. Think of the people who turn their phones grayscale and insist on storing them in a different room from the one they sleep in. Right now they’re making do with iMessage and other no-frills messaging apps. But it’s easy to imagine a new kind of app that built on that foundation.
Maybe these apps will do a lot of good. Or maybe, like most gyms, they’ll generate lots of revenue without changing most of the people who use them much at all. But the market for them appears to be large and growing. I don’t know if Ikaria will wind up building the Whole Foods to Facebook’s Wal-Mart. But I’d be surprised if somebody out there didn’t.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: TikTok introduced a new family safety mode to help parents limit the amount of time their kids spend on the app. The goal is to encourage people to develop “a healthy relationship with online apps and services,” the company said.
Trending down: Google is planning to move its British users’ accounts out of the control of European Union privacy regulators, placing them under US jurisdiction instead. The shift, prompted by Brexit, will leave the sensitive personal information of tens of millions with less protection and within easier reach of British law enforcement.
⭐ The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is suing Facebook pver $9 billion in unpaid taxes. The case is based around Facebook’s decision to sell its intellectual property to a subsidiary in Ireland — a transaction that the IRS believes the company severely undervalued. Here’s Malcolm Owen in AppleInsider:
Facebook’s subsidiaries pay a royalty to the US parent company for its trademark, the user base, platform technologies, and other elements, with Facebook Ireland paying its US counterpart more than $14 billion from 2010 to 2016.
The IRS argues the valuation of the IP was too low and should be taxed accordingly. Facebook believes the low valuation was reflective of the risks involved with its international expansion, and predated its IPO and development of its advertising systems.
⭐ US Attorney General William Barr said it might be time for the government to make unspecified changes to Section 230, the law that allows tech companies to moderate content on their platforms without being held legally responsible for much of it. The remarks came during an event on Section 230 hosted by the Justice Department. Here’s Tony Romm at The Washington Post:
Barr’s shot at Silicon Valley offers the latest evidence that regulators in Washington — Democrats and Republicans alike — believe some of the federal safeguards that helped incubate the Internet have become hindrances, preventing law enforcement and aggrieved web users from obtaining justice when people are harmed.
The Boogaloo, an anti-government movement that advocates for a second Civil War against liberal politicians and law enforcement, has moved from the fringes of the internet into the mainstream. It’s now openly organizing on Facebook and Instagram. (Brandy Zadrozny / NBC)
Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign is hiring hundreds of people in California to post supportive messages on their social media accounts and text their friends about the candidate. He’s paying them $2,500 a month. At what point does it become “coordinated inauthentic behavior”?
Two Twitter employees accessed thousands of users’ private information on behalf of the Saudi Royal Family, according to the FBI. The frightening story of how they did that exposes how vulnerable tech companies are to foreign infiltration. (Alex Kantrowitz / BuzzFeed)
Lawmakers in the European Union introduced proposals for a new digital strategy for Europe. The rules are designed to govern data-driven services in order to better compete with the United States and China. (Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch)
⭐ Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos earned many rounds of applause for his commitment to give $10 billion to combat climate change. But he still hasn’t answered many basic questions about when the money will be handed out and whether some of it will go to political campaigns. Here’s Recode’s Theodore Schleifer:
The announcement on Instagram said that Bezos would fund “scientists, activists and NGOs” and that Bezos is focusing solely on charitable giving, rather than for-profit investments. But some advocates feel that the real way to solve the climate crisis is through electing different people to Washington — or at least by pressuring politicians to take different actions once they’re in office. Bezos himself has grown more comfortable with political donations. While that’s not how people traditionally think of “charity,” it could make Bezos into a political megadonor depending on how he defines his terms.
Australia has 17 million Facebook users — and just seven dedicated fact checkers. They’ve completed 220 fact checks on Facebook since April 2019 — about one check every one and a half days on average. (Cameron Wilson / BuzzFeed)
Drama is unfolding in the Instagram knitting community after a woman named a yarn collection after terms she deemed “social justice warrior lingo.” The move was part of a collaboration with a YouTube channel called Unsafe Space, which is dedicated to ridiculing and criticizing actions of so-called social justice warriors. (Tanya Chen / BuzzFeed)
Twitter acquired Chroma Labs, a seven-person startup that was founded by former Facebook and Instagram employees for building photo and video-editing features. The company is joining Twitter to “give people more creative ways to express themselves in conversations,” according to Twitter’s head of product. (Kurt Wagner / Bloomberg)
The phrase “Twitter isn’t real life” has gained traction among elites. But that’s not true, argues this columnist. In an obvious sense, it’s a real-world platform used by very real humans. And it also has tangible impacts. (I’m with Charlie here!) (Charlie Warzel / The New York Times)
Here are the people on Google’s policy team tasked with helping the company navigate the tricky regulatory waters of various government probes. The team reorganized last year to group people around policy issues and along business lines, rather than by geographic location. Note that this chart doesn’t contain Google’s trust and safety team, which operates in a separate organization (that also reports up to Kent Walker.) (Ashley Gold / The Information)
YouTube Gaming has been rising in popularity, but new data suggests the platform has a serious problem with scammers, cheat-makers, and bots. In January, all seven of the most-watched YouTube Gaming channels were recorded videos advertising videogame cheats and hacks. (Cecilia D’Anastasio / Wired)
Chronic illness influencers say they’re hoping to educate and inspire people by sharing truths about what it’s like to live with longterm health issues. But trolls on Reddit continually accuse them of faking it. (Blake Montgomery / Daily Beast)
Influencers on TikTok, stressed with the pressure of having to continually product high quality content, are creating fake accounts to post whatever they want just for fun. They’re called FikFoks because of course they are. (Joseph Longo / Mel)
Here’s how to use TikTok to grow your business. Set the headline aside — this is a fascinating look into how and why videos go viral on the app. (Geneviève Patterson and Hannah Donovan / TechCrunch)
Author Robin Sloan built his family a bespoke messaging app after the one they previously used — Tapstack — went defunct. Homegrown tech — you love to see it.(Robin Sloan)
Rudy Giuliani’s typos on Twitter often turn into links for websites that don’t exist. Hackers have been buying those domain names and redirecting them to pages designed to spread malware, reports Alfred Ng at CNET:
Giuliani, who at one point was named the Trump administration’s cybersecurity czar, meant to send his followers to his website, RudyGiulianics.com, in a tweet on Sunday. Instead, his tweet put a space after Rudy, sending visitors to just Giulianics.com. [...]
The fake website, Giulianics.com, was registered on Jan. 31, and redirects about six times, all through websites that collect tracking data on visitors, until it lands on the unsecured website looking to install adware.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix here: never, ever click on a link from Rudy Giuliani.