Over 400,000 people have signed up for WT:Social, Jimmy Wales’ news focused social network. The potential is clearly there: I’ve found some high-quality links on WT:Social that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. There’s also a lot of spam and other kinds of noise, along with usability problems and harassment … still, it’s early days yet; these issues may well get addressed over time. And the problem Jimmy’s trying to solve is a real one: a lot of people want a better way of getting and discussing the news that avoids the clickbait headlines and disinformation that are so common on today’s social networks.
There’s certainly an opportunity here. Even though WT:Social’s often been described as an alternative to Facebook, it’s current functionality is very reddit-like: people can share links to “subwikis” (analogous to “subreddits”) that focus on different topics, and discuss them in comments. Some people love reddit, but there are many topics where reddit’s links are mediocre (or worse) and provide very limited perspectives. Not only that, reddit discussions are often toxic. So it made a lot of sense for Jimmy to do an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) on reddit, as a way of getting the word out and recruiting new users.
The AMA was certainly interesting, with Jimmy answering quite a few questions — including one from me, which I’ll talk about more below. I don’t spend a lot of time on reddit, so it was also a vivid reminder to me of just how bad discussions on reddit often are. At the same time, though, it also highlighted one of WT:Social’s biggest challenges.
One of the first questions Jimmy answered was from me, based on an experience I had on WT:Social a couple of days ago, where the software recommended I join a subwiki dedicated to attacks on trans and non-binary people.
My question had two parts. Was that okay? If not, how will keep things like this from happening in the future? Jimmy replied
I’m sure it was deleted quickly – if not let me know. That’s totally unacceptable.
The key to wikis is genuine community control – putting the power in the hands of the quality members of the community rather than having to wait for someone to do something. As we grow, we plan to have more and more tools to allow that kind of control.
It hadn’t been deleted. So I followed up with a link, and Jimmy (or perhaps another admin) immediately deleted it. To me, that’s a very good thing. But not everybody agreed. For example:
Many of us really don’t want to see anti-trans hate speech — I agree with Jimmy that it’s totally unacceptable. Others think that saying trans people’s existence is “unscientific and unrealistic” and “harmful to society” (as this subwiki did) is just a “non-leftist view of gender”, not an an attack on trans and non-binary people; to them. Asking trans and non-binary people to “collaborate kindly” with bigots who think they or their friends shouldn’t exist isn’t a solution. And who winds up getting treated as a “quality member” of the community?
Another question Jimmy answered, this one from sridc, highlights another aspect of the challenge. The question cited my previous post, Why is an “intellectual dark web” site at the top of my feed? , as an example of “victimhood culture” (I feel seen!) and asked how WT:Social would “encourage members to focus on the content, instead of discrediting a news source.” Here’s Jimmy’s response:
My view is that collaboration and kindness as a part of the culture is a big part of it.
One reason we have a victimhood culture (which goes in many directions) on social media is that you typically have only 3 choices to deal with something awful: block the person so you don’t see them anymore (which doesn’t help the broader community), yell at the person (which is why so many places are poisonous), or report the person (into systems that don’t scale and get it wrong quite a lot).
Better is genuine community control in the wiki way.
There was skepticism in the replies. JoeMobley complained that “the anti-trumpers get together and down-vote any message they object to.” Jimmy agreed that voting isn’t particularly helpful in many cases, and talked instead about a technique Wikipedia uses to try to get consensus. In response to that, sridc complained that his Wikipedia updates to the callout culture Wikipedia page had been edited out by three “leftist editors” who rejected his “reliable sources.” sridc also talked gave another example of “leftists,” relating to a page about antifa, and to bolster his case provided a link to an article from … Breitbart.
Looks like not everybody agrees on what’s a “reliable source.”*
Similarly, in the reddit discussion, funknut described Quillette as “a glorified blog for the alt-right to trade misinformation about the humble city of Portland.” Others objected to this message, and got together and down-voted it. It’s not just an issue with voting, though. On WT:Social, the Long Reads subwiki — which everybody joins by default — has featured a series of links from Quillette and other “intellectual dark web” sites, as well as critiques like Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism and 21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis. The discussions there are … very reddit-like. As I said in my previous post:
Y’know, there are a lot of reasons people are looking for alternatives, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard people say “the real problem with Facebook and Reddit today is that there’s not enough arguing about white supremacy and the ‘intellectual dark web’.”
When the community is split on an issue that people feel passionately about, “community control” isn’t a good enough answer. In response to another question, Jimmy shared his viewpoint that “Out of every 1,000 people I think 990 of them are perfectly nice and wonderful.” Whatever the numbers are (your mileage may vary) — and no matter how “nice and wonderful” they are to Jimmy — anti-trans bigots, white supremacists, fascists, and their supporters can ruin a site’s experience for everybody else.
To have any chance of succeeding, WT:Social will to have to pick a side.
* For what it’s worth, Facebook sides with sridc — they’re paying Breitbart a bunch of money for the right include their articles as part of their new “high-quality news” page. But that’s part of the reason that so many people I know are looking for Facebook alternatives, so … let’s just say there’s a range of opinions here, and gab.ai already provides an alternative for people who don’t think Facebook favors the Breitbart’s of the world enough.
Thanks to Deborah and everybody else who gave feedback on earlier versions of this post.
Also published on Medium.