There’s a popular adage in tech critic circles: If you’re not the customer, you’re the product. In the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, the saying has a truthiness to it. We don’t pay for Facebook (i.e., we’re not Facebook’s customers), yet the company makes its money selling targeted ads based on our data. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re products, but the specifics hardly seem to matter to people. The phrase, which Will Oremus explored in 2018 for Slate, is popular because it captures our growing skepticism of big tech companies and how our user data (and its potential advertising insights) is used to prop up their value.
The backlash has arrived. According to a study from marketing research company Edison, Facebook lost about 15 million users in the U.S. alone between 2017 and early 2019. Journalists wrote pieces about how to delete your Facebook account as well as about their experiences trying to leave. On my own Facebook feed, I’ve watched friends announce their departure from the site, leaving their personal email address or asking for suggestions for Facebook alternatives.
There have always been new social media sites hoping to take Facebook’s place the way it took Myspace’s. Diaspora, launched in 2010, is a nonprofit promising users ownership of the site. Ello, created in 2014, vowed to stay ad-free. Mastodon, which is more similar to Twitter, is an open-source and decentralized platform that has been steadily growing since it came onto the scene in 2016. I have accounts on all three, so when Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales took to Twitter to announce his new social media network WT Social in November of this year, I figured I’d join that too. At first glance, the sign-up was typical for any social platform: submit your name and email to join a waitlist. But I also noticed something else. Whereas Diaspora, Ello, and Mastodon are all currently free, WT Social offers an option to buy a paid membership, of a sort. Wales mentioned in his first Twitter thread about the platform that he was inspired to ditch the typical social media advertising model and move toward a system where some users choose to pay, so WT Social gives users the option of contributing $12.99/month or $100/year. To sweeten the deal, doing so allows new users to skip the sign-up waitlist. I am a cheapskate, though, so I joined for free and received instructions about setting up my account just four days later.
Wales told the Financial Times that, as of November, about 200 people had ponied up the money to join WT Social. Wales wrote in a recent Reddit “ask me anything” post that having paying users will force the platform to be driven by different incentives. “You’ll only pay if, in the long run, you think the site adds value to your life,” he says. Other social media sites, he says, are driven by more perverse incentives. “Advertising-only social media means that the only way to make money is to keep you clicking—and that means products that are designed to be addictive, optimized for time on site (number of ads you see), and as we have seen in recent times, this means content that is divisive, low quality, click bait, and all the rest,” he wrote. “I have a different vision.”
Even if WT Social could replace Facebook, that still leaves other Facebook products. Perhaps 15 of my friends use WhatsApp to keep in touch; we have separate chats for topics like politics, general shenanigans, and “adulting” (paint color opinions and recommendations for high-interest savings accounts). We’ve talked many times about migrating elsewhere, but the options are all subpar: Plain texting would get cumbersome with so many people, Slack feels too work-y, and Signal is clunky for group chats.
So when I got a cold email from Sachin Monga, co-founder of a chat app called Cocoon, I was intrigued. I don’t usually review (or even care, honestly) about new apps, but Cocoon—which bills itself as “a dedicated space for the most important people in your life”—seemed like a viable alternative, and Monga and his co-founder Alex Cornell left Facebook to found it. Though the app, which launched just before Thanksgiving, is currently free, Monga told me it was designed to be a paid subscription. That way, Monga said, there’d be more opportunities to build the right incentives into the apps’ design. “There’s be no reason to create profiles, serve ads; no reason to get you to spend a lot of time in the app,” he said. He cites other paid apps like Headspace or Calm as influences, and says that one common thread among successful paid subscription apps that have done well is that they “measurably make you feel better.” I talked with Monga before Wales did his Reddit AMA, and it’s striking to me that both creators had similar things to say about how business models incentivize platform design.
For so long, we have expected things on the internet to be free. But infrastructure, even the digital type, costs money in the form of employee labor, server space, and physical offices. As the internet grows, and our relationship with it evolves, we might consider an era in which we pay for social media in the same way we pay for other communication utilities, like a phone or internet bill. I decided to try out both WT Social and Cocoon for a week to get a feel for how it might feel to pay for use of a different set of social networks.
The first challenge was the learning curve of using both services. Cocoon is pretty user-friendly—it’s organized in a similar way to your phone’s native texting app or WhatsApp—but other functions that are meant to foster closeness with your “Cocoon” work slightly differently. There’s a tab called “now” where you can see your Cocoon-mates’ location, weather, and even battery levels. In the main conversation thread, you can tap on a message to respond to it or tap on a picture to “heart” it. I joined a Cocoon with a few family members who live on the opposite coast, one of whom is a “digital native,” and one of her first messages was, “i’m confused how to use this.” Within a few minutes, though, I think we all got the hang of it.
WT Social was less intuitive. After I signed up for an account, I discovered I already had 12 “friends,” some of whom I didn’t know at all. (My best guess is that because I signed up using an invitation link from another writer, WT Social assumed those who used the same link were my “friends.”) At first glance, WT Social’s feed looks more like the back end of a Wikipedia page than any social media page. It’s predominantly black and white, displays only usernames (no icons), and uses gray arrows for a version of Reddit’s “upvote” feature. If you open Facebook and WT Social side by side, it’s apparent the latter’s designers valued functionality over aesthetics. It took me a few minutes of poking around to figure out that I needed to “join” SubWiki groups to fill my feed; after joining a few, one of the first posts on my feed was from a guy posting in the SubWiki Space. “Hello. Posting this few weeks old link. Exciting I think,” he wrote. But there was no link, and the only two comments below tried to communicate this: “Your post is empty,” read one. “I look forward to this exciting link,” said the other.
Still, like with Cocoon, all the basic functions of WT Social exist elsewhere, so it’s not that hard to figure out. It’s basically like if Facebook was made up entirely of groups and focused on outside links instead of user-generated photos and posts. The first time I made a point of exploring WT Social, that was actually refreshing. The choice not to display user icons, just usernames, meant my focus was turned toward the links and articles that person posted without really registering who was posting. There were no colorful “reaction” icons, and no algorithm anticipating what I’d want to see. Instead, everything is in chronological order.
Once I figured out the basic functions of both services, there was a joy in the novelty of using new apps. I delighted in how WT Social has no clue what I’m interested in, and how it randomly generated suggestions for extremely niche SubWikis to join: Graveyard photography, Death Guild Thunderdome, Japanese Supernatural Creatures. Playing around on Cocoon also uncovered some new features, like “waving” at your fellow Cocoon-mates; my sister-in-law and cousin-in-law entered into a “wave” war (similar to a Facebook poke war, for those who remember the early days of Facebook), and I found myself actually laughing out loud while checking the app.
The crux came around three days into the week. I opened Cocoon, and no one had said anything in a while. I didn’t want to force the conversation, so I closed it without posting anything new. It was the same scene on WT Social, but I craved activity. I settled for posting a link to a YouTube video of a woman singing Sia’s “Chandelier” as Toad from the Mario universe, but … crickets. Facebook has conditioned me to expect the ability to scroll endlessly, to receive pointless notifications about how a stranger in a group has posted something or about an upcoming event it thinks I might want to know about. Both Cocoon and WT Social were momentarily fun to use, but only insofar as people were using it with me. Social media isn’t fun without company. Everyone I wanted to talk to was still using Facebook and WhatsApp, so despite my good intentions, I’d gone back to my old habits by the end of the week.
Even if we did all collectively decide to switch to a paid platform, that’s no guarantee the companies we’re paying will handle data privacy issues or ad management any better than Facebook. Like Monga mentioned, an app created with a paid subscription business model in mind might lead to different design incentives, but it’s still up to the individual company to stick to ethical practices—and it’s up to users, paying or not, to hold the company to them. WT Social doesn’t appear to have terms and conditions at all. There’s a link to them on its FAQ page, but as of Wednesday afternoon, it’s broken, which is not a great sign. I reached out to WT Social for comment but didn’t get a response. (Meanwhile, plenty of people are yelling at them about privacy issues in the comments on that FAQ page. Good old Wikipedians!)
The question at the heart of this is how you get people to change their minds and take action together. So many people want to leave Facebook or find an alternative to WhatsApp, but no one wants to be the one to do it first, only to end up alone on the other side. Paying to make the switch might help people feel more invested in actually using their new platforms of choice, in the same way paying for a gym membership theoretically convinces you to work out more often—but few sane people would switch from a free gym to a paid one with fewer amenities. Until either platform can crack the hard nut of mass complacency, I see Facebook continuing to reign supreme.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.