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wikipedia founder jimmy wales

Wikipedia’s Wales launches ad-free social network

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Jimmy Wales, co-founder of online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, is launching an alternative social media website that aims to avoid making its users the product, the Financial Times has reported.

The social network is based on community news website Wikitribune – which produces and shares news mostly about the Wikipedia community, and therefore has a limited user base – and has been named WT: Social. Wales is positioning it as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter that will address some of issues which have plagued the social media giants, including the spread of viral deception.

Like Wikitribune, WT: Social will continue to share news and will clearly label news sources. However, rather than prioritising content with the most user engagement – as Facebook’s algorithm does – the timeline will be ordered chronologically, making is possible for Reddit-like ‘upvotes’ in the future to encourage users to boost high-quality content. Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm has been criticised for prioritising misleading or sensationalised news and misinformation, as well as for creating political ‘filter bubbles’ unconducive to debate.

WT: Social users will be able to join ‘SubWikis’, similar to Facebook groups or subreddits, that focus on sharing content on specific subjects of interest.

Rather than relying on advertising, WT: Social aims to sustain itself through user donations, like Wikipedia. The network reportedly has no financial association with Wikipedia.

“The business model of social-media companies, of pure advertising, is problematic,” Wales told the FT. “It turns out the huge winner is low-quality content. Instead of optimising our algorithm to addict you and keep you clicking, we will only make money if you voluntarily choose to support us, which means that our goal is not clicks but actually being meaningful to your life.”

At present, WT: Social has approximately 50,000 users and 200 donors. Potential new users are being added to a short waiting list, with the possibility of joining immediately if they donate ($13/month or $100/year) or encourage friends to register. Wales does not expect it to be “massively profitable,” although he does expect this model to be sustainable. He told the FT that his ambition is “not 50,000 or 500,000 but 50m and 500m”; meanwhile, Facebook has more than one billion active users and Twitter more than 330 million.

Wales, who has been an outspoken advocate for an open internet free from intervention by governments or ISPs, also told the FT that he hoped to support groups that can find themselves removed from dominant social-media platforms. However, he added that he did not want WT: Social to become a safe harbour for hate groups in the way that ‘free speech’-based social networks Voat and Gab have.

“We will foster an environment where bad actors are removed because it is right, not because it suddenly affects our bottom line,” he told the FT.

WT: Social has an uphill battle ahead of it, with other challengers to Facebook and Twitter – such as Google+ or Microsoft’s So.cl – failing to gain serious and long-lasting traction among users, even with the backing of influential tech giants. However, it may succeed in maintaining a small and loyal following among internet users willing to pay for an ad-free social media experience.

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