12 Lessons from WT:Social

Lessons (so far) from WT:Social

Growth has tapered off significantly on WT:Social, the news focused social network from Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame.  Usability remains a huge problem.  There’s a lot of spam and other noise.  It’s still early days, and things may well improve over time, but it’s hard to be optimistic.

So now’s a good time to take a step back and look at what can be learned from the experience so far.  Over the years, I’ve done posts like this with Mastodon, Diaspora, Google+, and other social networks.  This time, I’m working on news focused social network software myself, so some of these lessons are likely to be especially relevant for me.

To start with, here’s a few I discussed in my 2017  Mastodon post (where I noted “we’ve seen them before with Dreamwidth, Diaspora, StatusNet, Gnu Social, Pinboard, Ello, and others”)  that are worth reiterating once again:

  • A lot of people want an alternative to corporate-owned ad-funded social networks.
  • A small team of developers can get something usable out quickly.
  • There’s interest across the world, not just in the U.S.

Moving on to some new lessons ….

  1. People like the idea of working together to help fight disinformation.   Perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from the WT:Social experience so far is that a lot of people understand that disinformation is a problem — want to help do something about it.  True, WT:Social’s “everybody can edit anything” approach doesn’t work well; no surprises there.  Still, it’s worth exploring other approaches involving more nuanced collaboration between paid professionals and “the crowd” (with training available, and perhaps some kind of Slashdot-like meta-moderation), all assisted by solid tools. [1]
  2. There’s a good opportunity for a “better reddit”.  Jimmy positioned WT:Social as a Facebook alternative, but as I discussed in Why is an “intellectual dark web” site at the top of my feed? , it’s currently more like reddit … and that’s not a bad thing!  On many topics, reddit’s links are mediocre (or worse) and provide very limited perspectives.  reddit discussions are often toxic. And while there are alternatives with some traction to Facebook and Twitter (MeWe and Mastodon both have millions of users), none of them have the same news focus as reddit.
  3. Design and usability are key.  People understand that a new site won’t be as polished as reddit or Facebook, but if it’s too confusing they generally won’t invite their friends [2] — and are likely to stop coming back.  WT:Social would have been better off starting with less functionality (did they really need hashtags right off the bat?) and putting more attention on design and usability.
  4. Help people have good initial experiences.   My first impression of WT:Social included getting asked for money, seeing off-topic links that happened to be at the top of the default subwikis at the time, and then getting spam in my email.  Hooray!  And pity the new user who found stuff confusing: for quite a while, there was no easy way of asking for help or finding the FAQ. Fortunately, it’s not hard to improve “first use experiences” through techniques like better design, simple onboarding screens, and easy access to resources and support. [3]
  5. Focus on accessibility up front or it will be a problem. WT:Social is a horrible experience using a screen-reader, and has many blatant accessibility bugs like missing alt-text and low color contrast that free site analyzers like Axe and WAVE can detect. Many other social networks also don’t do a great job here either, so there’s a big opportunity for a new offering to distinguish itself and a large audience of people whose needs aren’t being met today.
  6. Focus on harassment up front or it will be a problem.  WT:Social is filled with mechanisms that are optimized for harassers, doesn’t allow muting or blocking, and doesn’t even make it easy to find the code of conduct or anti-harassment policy.  Similarly, Wikipedia, Diaspora, Google+, Mastodon, and Twitter didn’t pay attention to harassment up-front, with the expected results.   Y’know, it doesn’t have to be this way.
  7. Think about how different cultural norms and legal systems will interact, including difficult areas relating to content that different people view as art, “porn”, and/or “NSFW”.  There are opportunities for innovation here: Mastodon worked through some similar issues, and came up with interesting techniques like tailorable content warnings and a mechanism to deal with images that are legal in some geographies but not others.
  8. Design for everybody, not just the kind of people the founder usually interacts with.  Lessons #3-7 are all examples of this (and I talked about another one, the term “subwiki”, in a previous post).[4]  I’ve made the same mistake myself.  Fortunately, it’s not hard to do better: work with a broad range of people, including those who are marginalized in different ways than you, from the very beginning — and listen to their ideas, suggestions, and feedback.
  9. Consider building on an existing discussion platform instead of rolling your own.  WT:Social’s initial discussion mechanism was pretty basic, and even after a couple of months of enhancements the lack of notifications can make it hard to have a good discussion there.  Does it make sense to leverage existing open-source commenting platforms like Coral Project or forum software like Discourse, NodeBB, or Vanilla Forums?
  10. Consider leveraging open standards based on decentralized identity and verifiable credentials.   Decentralized architectures are more complex but also a much better match for the real world.  Credit for this one goes to Kaliya Young (aka IdentityWoman) on Twitter, where she also provided some links to reading material.
  11. There’s a big opportunity for anti-oppressive social networks in general.  Today’s large social networks welcome racists, misogynists, alt-righters, and other bigots; Facebook goes even farther, siding with authoritarians and promoting genocide.  Most emerging alternatives either appeal even more blatantly to fascists (gab.ai) or strive for “neutrality” (WT:Social, MeWe, Minds). [5]   Dreamwidth continues to be a shining exception, and Mastodon’s early positioning as “Twitter without Nazis” is another (and there’s a lot to be learned from its challenges).  Still it’s clear that here’s a very large under-served market here.
  12. It’s time for a different approach. What would a news focused social media site look like if it were grounded in design justice and built on best practices and research into anti-harassment, content moderation, online extremism, and amplifying marginalized voices?  It’s hard to know, because there aren’t any high-profile examples of this.  Seems like an opportunity to me!

One of the things that really struck me as I was working on this list is  really striking about WT:Social is how they’ve repeated a lot of mistakes other social networks (including Wikipedia) have made.   But even though WT:Social hasn’t taken advantage of its opportunities to learn from other social networks, other social networks can learn from WT:Social.

I’m sure there are other good lessons as well – or aspects of these I’ve overlooked.  If you’ve have thoughts, please share them!


Thanks to Deborah, Eve, and everybody else who gave feedback on earlier versions of this post!

[1] As I was working on this post, I stumbled on Amy X Zhang’s thesis, which has some intriguing ideas and prototypes on the tools front.  Starbird et. al.’s paper on  disinformation as collaborative work, is also relevant.  How to apply collaborative approaches to countering disinformation?

[2]  The responses to Jimmy’s recent Why Inviting Friends Is Important highlight this.

[3] Indeed, WT:Social has recently made some progress here, thanks to Linda Blanchard’s excellent work on the Beginner’s Guide subwiki.

[4] Another example: the way new users automatically follow Jimmy Wales.  Jimmy’s said that this is done to make it more convenient for him to broadcast messages for everybody on the site … but there are plenty of other ways to accomplish this.  I get it that Jimmy wants to share the news when Rush’s drummer dies or a Turkish court rules in favor of Wikipedia, but it’s a classic case of assuming that users who haven’t expressed an interest in classic rock or Wikipedia share share his interests.

[5] I talked at length about “neutrality” in WT:Social will have to pick a side.   Jimmy’s comment in the  discussion on WT:Social is illuminating: he thinks people are “yearning” for technology that “fosters the kind of social activity that promotes truth and civil discourse.”  For more on why “civility” is so problematic, see what Ijeoma Oluo, Jamilah Lemieux, Kitanya Harrison, @sassycrass,  and @AngryBlackLady have to say about it.

Also published on Medium.

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