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Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is hoping to solve America's social media problem with his new news-focused social network, WT.Social. The "WT" in WT.Social is for WikiTribune, as the platform is built upon sub-wikis — a forum within the greater wiki engine — that users participate in. As with Wikipedia, users can edit posts in real time, across wiki pages, and not just their own.
"The basic concept of WT.Social is to build a new type of social network that is fundamentally collaborative and that focuses on quality information," Wales says. "So in order to achieve that, we've built a new platform that's very different from social network platforms — almost all the posts are collaboratively editable."
Users on WT.Social can join groups and follow people, diving into sub-wikis like Winemaking, Leadership, or Crash Bandicoot. But it's different from networks like Reddit, Wales explains, in that these threads are not designed to be echo chambers where dissenting voices can be blocked or harassed.
"Each individual subreddit on Reddit is a fiefdom," he says. On WT.Social, he continues, "there are no fiefdoms. It's just like Wikipedia — nobody controls the individual articles on Wikipedia. You have to then face people who disagree with you [and] come to some compromise."
WT.Social remains a completely distinct enterprise from Wikipedia, Wales emphasizes. (Wikipedia is run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.) Still, the basic idea of giving users the opportunity to engage thoughtfully while providing an alternative to fake news and clickbait has fed into his new venture, and community administrators help ensure that everyone is playing fair.
"If somebody posts something that is not substantiated or from a low quote source, you can respond by editing or deleting it — much in the same way that you can in Wikipedia," Wales explains. "It's a very different model that really puts the tools in the hands of the community."
Anxieties about security and privacy that Facebook and Twitter users face will not be an issue on his new platform, Wales contends, because there are no investors, funders, advertisers, or sponsored content. The entire network is donation-based, just like Wikipedia, with users deciding how much they'd pay to spend time engaging on the site.
Jen Grygiel, a social media expert and assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University, says that the increase of options coming to the social media market helps counter the social media monopolies.
"When Wikipedia came to be, it was birthed out of the early Internet and before we had these huge corporations with these walled gardens," Grygiel says. "So Wikipedia came from a different time, and now there's just like a lot of corporate interests that they have to compete with. So that's the struggle."
Since launching in October 2019, WT.Social has attracted 400,000 users — compared with Facebook's more than two billion — all without any money put into advertising or marketing. Grygiel calls it "the difference between a packed gymnasium and two people that show up to a cocktail party," which can be the experience some users want. Grygiel says that WT.Social's commitment not to sell user data is an admirable step up from other social media, but Wales will need to add more value to the product if they want to compete, for example, with Twitter — where journalists and news aficionados already converge to discuss the daily news. It might not be enough to be principled.
"[WT.Social] needs an exclusive draw," Grygiel says, "like when Howard Stern went over to Sirius Radio — any reason why you had to come there."
Luckily, that's exactly what Wales has planned as the next step. He says that this year WT.Social will roll out some VIP features highlighting public figures like politicians and journalists who have joined the network. Some, he says, are already there but can't be found.
"We're not doing a good job of actually exposing the best stuff on the platform," Wales explains. "So that’s kind of our next phase in evolution."
WT.Social will never aim to compete with image- or video-based ventures — the site is text-heavy. The focus will remain on community-supported and -created news, and the kinds of fact-based discussions that he believes the world should and wants to have.
"We're not trying to be TikTok," Wales adds. "It's about quality information, and just as with Wikipedia, the quality of information has to be the real backbone of that. It's about understanding the world, exchanging information."
Trish Bendix is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times, Bustle, and Condé Nast’s them.