Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales has quietly launched a rival to Facebook and Twitter that he hopes will combat “clickbait” and misleading headlines.
WT.Social, his new social-networking site, allows users to share links to articles and discuss them in a Facebook-style news feed. Topics range from politics and technology to heavy metal and beekeeping.
While the company is completely separate to Wikipedia, Mr Wales is borrowing the online encyclopedia’s business model. WT.Social will rely on donations from a small subset of users to allow the network to operate without the advertising that he blames for encouraging the wrong kind of engagement on social media.
“The business model of social media companies, of pure advertising, is problematic,” Mr Wales said. “It turns out the huge winner is low-quality content.”
While Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms ensure that the posts with the most comments or likes rise to the top, WT.Social puts the newest links first. However, WT.Social hopes to add an “upvote” button that will allow users to recommend quality stories.
Since launching last month, WT.Social is approaching 50,000 users, according to Mr Wales, doubling in the past week alone. Still, that is far short of Facebook’s audience of more than 2bn. “Obviously the ambition is not 50,000 or 500,000 but 50m and 500m,” Mr Wales said.
More than 200 people have donated to support the site, he said, pointing to the success of subscriptions at Netflix, Spotify and the New York Times as evidence that a new generation of consumers are prepared to pay for “meaningful” content online.
WT.Social is also operating a wait-list for new users, which donors can pay to skip.
“It won’t be massively profitable but it will be sustainable,” he said. The company only has a handful of staff, including developers and a community manager.
Several well-meaning alternatives to Facebook have come and gone over the years, from Ello to Diaspora. Even Snapchat, with more than 200m daily active users, is considered small by the standards of the giant networks owned by Facebook and Google. But Mr Wales said he believes the time is now right for a new venue that is free from what he calls “clickbait nonsense”.
“People are feeling fed up with all the junk that’s around,” Mr Wales said. “News organisations are doing the best they can in this difficult environment but it’s actually a problem with the distribution.”
WT.Social is a spin-off from Wikitribune, the “collaborative media” site that Mr Wales started alongside co-founder Orit Kopel two years ago.
Wikitribune was launched with a high-profile crowdfunding campaign in 2017 but it ultimately failed to attract a large audience. A year ago, Mr Wales was forced to lay off the dozen reporters and editors that it had hired to work alongside “citizen journalist” contributors, as well as some technical staff.
“I’m really bootstrapping [WT.Social] from nothing. I didn’t raise money for this,” he said. “I want to keep a tight rein on the costs.”
One flaw in Wikitribune was its attempt to cover stories that appealed to readers all over the world. Instead, WT.Social hopes to build smaller, niche communities that can sustain themselves. These include “SubWikis” about beekeeping or board games, alongside more serious news.
That includes relying on WT.Social’s community of users to police potential abuses of the site. While Facebook has hired thousands of moderators to help it tackle manipulation, fake news and bullying, Mr Wales said he believed that model was “not scalable”.
“Almost everything on the platform is editable,” he said. “That alone gives a huge incentive for good behaviour because if you say something obnoxious, someone will just delete it.” However, while this approach has succeeded on Wikipedia, it is largely untested on a social network.
After the failure of Wikitribune, Mr Wales admitted he faces an uphill struggle. “This is a radical, crazy experiment of mine,” Mr Wales said. “I’m happy to say I don’t know all the answers.”