Why is an “intellectual dark web” site at the top of my feed? Thoughts on WT:Social

Jon Pincus
Nov 18 · 11 min read
WT:Social - News focused social network (the WT:Social logo)
WT:Social - News focused social network (the WT:Social logo)

On Friday, I signed up for WT:Social, a news focused social network from Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame. There’s a lot of buzz about WT:Social, and membership is soaring — up from just a few thousand users at the beginning of the month to almost 100,000 when I signed up two days ago. The waitlist is long, but if you get a paid account ($12.99/month or $100/year) you can skip the queue.

Since I’m also working on some news focused social network software, and so am interested to see how others approach the problem, I paid for a month. If you’re also developing social media software, there’s a lot to learn here, so it might be worth it for you as well.

Otherwise, save your money. [1]

Update: if you do decide to sign up, keep in mind that the names you give will go into the URL of your profile. If I had known that, I would have signed up as “jdp 23” instead.

Red flags from the beginning

There were some red flags from the beginning, starting with the lack of up-front information about a code of conduct, anti-harassment policy, or content guidelines. As Elisa Camhort Page said when we were discussing this

A site that welcomes any content is inevitably a site that welcomes harassment, hate speech, threats, and misinformation. You cannot stave off one if you will not take a stand on the other.

Yeah really. Eventually I discovered that the Terms and Conditions actually does link out to a Code of Conduct, as well as FAQs on Diversity and Ethics; from the dates on them, they seem to have been written for WT:Social’s previous incarnation as WikiTribune, but presumably they still apply. Still, most people won’t invest the effort to find these, and so won’t know what’s expected of them. It’s much better to make sure that people see these right up front — and explicitly agree to them.

Another immediately-obvious problem: the experience using a screen reader is really horrible. There’s no “skip navigation” link, so the initial experience on the page starts with reading out all the menus and recommended sub-wikis. Then when you finally get to a link, the title of the article is repeated multiple times, and it reads out the complete URL. Yikes.

Also, it doesn’t seem like WT:Social has really thought through about how people might try to game the system, let alone applied structured techniques like “social threat modeling[2] For example, the notifications are all on by default — meaning new posts get sent to you via email. What could possibly go wrong? Here’s a screenshot of some email I got (with the subwiki’s name blanked out).

Email header. From: info@wikitribune.com Subject: WT:Social (wiki name blanked out): Subscribe to Read | Financial Times
Email header. From: info@wikitribune.com Subject: WT:Social (wiki name blanked out): Subscribe to Read | Financial Times

In this particular case it was an accident [3] but you can certainly see how it could get abused. Mechanisms like this make it open season for spammers, harassers, propagandists, and other unsavory types.

If you have an account there, you can turn the notifications off by going to “My Account” and then “Edit Notifications”. The link https://wt.social/myaccount/notifications also works, at least for now … although, as Kathy Gill points out, the way the notification dialog uses red and green is problematic from an accessibility perspective. Here’s what the initial settings look like via Coblis, the color blindness simulator. Are they on or off?

Notifications dialog, with Off buttons in black and on buttons in grey
Notifications dialog, with Off buttons in black and on buttons in grey

Even after I turned all the notifications off, I continue to see some when I check the site. Still, it’s a lot better than it was — at least things aren’t showing up in my email.

It’s more like reddit than Facebook

Even though a lot of people are describing WT:Social as an alternative to Faecebook, it’s really a lot more like reddit. Links get organized into “subwikis”, which fill a similar role to reddit’s “subreddits”. You can browse a subwiki, comment on posts there, or join it (which lets you submit links of your own).

The word “subwiki” doesn’t seem like a great choice to me. Subwiki’s aren’t wikis, and they aren’t part of a wiki. In my own informal survey nobody found it a particularly appealing name. But, it probably sounded good to Jimmy Wales and the people he hangs out with.

Your home page is a “feed” of the most recent posts, along with the most recent comments, from any of the subwikis that you’ve joined. There are also some “global links” that the people running the site decide everybody gets to see (no way to opt out yet, sorry, and no information about how they decide on which links to send out). There’s also the additional twist of collaborative wiki-like editing of posts, although I haven’t been able to get it to work yet. [4]

It mostly works. I was able to figure out how to make a post and share a link myself (although I had to hit refresh to see whether it had succeeded or not). I like exploring new social networks, so I hunted around found the FAQ and Known Bugs list. [5] Putting my civil liberties hat on, I created the Section 215 subwiki to share links about the upcoming USA FREEDOM Act reauthorization battle, and seeded it with a post. Then I sent invitation links to a couple of friends.

This was, in retrospect, a mistake. My apologies. If you’ve also signed up, and are considering inviting other people, please read this footnote first.[6]

How I spent my Friday evening

A few hours later one of the friends I had sent an invitation link to asked me

“Why is there an article from Quillette at the top of my WT:Social feed?”

Good question. I went back to check WT:social again and there was an article from Quillette at the top of my feed as well. WTF?

For those of you who don’t know Quillette, it’s an online magazine usually described a a part of the “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW), which also includes other prominent members like Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Jonathan Haidt. Like others in the IDW, Quillette is polarizing.[7] Some people see it as upholding values of free speech against the onslaught of SJWs and snowflakes. Others see it as … not the kind of content they want to be confronted with unexpectedly on a Friday night.

Most of my friends fall into the second category, so I hurriedly circled back to the people I had shared invitations with and let them know that they might be in for an unpleasant surprise if they signed up. Then I looked to see what was going on.

Before we go into that, though, think for a moment about the effect this is likely to have on WT:Social. Lots of people are looking for alternatives to Facebook et al. When somebody like my friend goes to check out a new site and the first thing they see is IDW content … they’re likely to leave, and not come back.

And people who hear about this and don’t want to deal with IDW content might not even bother to check WT:Social out. When I’ve told other friends that if the sign up for Jimmy Wales’ new social network they they might well see IDW content at the top of their feed, their reaction is generally that they’ve got better things to do with their time.

Then again, there are plenty of people out there who actively like IDW content. They’re ones who are likely to stick around, and invite their friends. By placing this content so prominently, WT:Social is going to attract them — and drive away the people like me and most of my friends, who would rather not be confronted with IDW content on a Friday night. This seems like good news for IDW fans who feel like they’re being oppressed by Facebook, Twitter, and reddit. But as we’ll see, even for them, there are downsides.

Why should IDW fans have all the fun?

Once I looked into it, I realized that what had happened to my friend was fairly straightforward:

  • When they signed up for WT:Social, they were automatically joined to the “Long Reads” subwiki (along with a handful of other subwikis).
  • When somebody shared IDW content to Long Reads, all 16,000 people in the “Long Reads” subwiki (including people like my friend, who were automatically joined when they signed up) saw it at the top of their feed. It’s quite possible some or all of them got it in their email as well.

It turned out that I had been automatically signed up for the “Long Reads” subwiki too. When I left it, the Quillette article vanished from my feed.

But wait a second, why should IDW fans have all the fun? So I rejoined “Long Reads” and shared Jessie Daniels’ Twitter and White Supremacy: A Love Story. When I asked another friend to sign up, here’s what they saw at the top of their feed.

WT Social Feed, with "Twitter and White Supremacy" at the top
WT Social Feed, with "Twitter and White Supremacy" at the top

Of course, criticisms of large tech companies for helping white supremacists are also polarizing. Some people see this as … not the kind of content they want to be confronted with on a Friday night. One WT:social member appeared particularly incensed that this link was in his feed, and replied with multiple comments objecting to this “obvious nonsense” and “BS sensationalist headline”. And when I refreshed my front page, there was also a heated debate on the Quillette post as well.

Since there isn’t any way to hide posts from your feed, or prevent WT:social from showing you the five most recent comments on every post, now there was something for everybody!

  • Conservatives looking for alternatives because they feel like they’re being oppressed by corporate social media sites will be immediately irritated by “obvious nonsense.” Why use WT:Social instead of alt-right fave gab.ai?
  • People looking for alternatives because they feel like corporate social media sites are siding with white supremacists may get a better first impression — but then as soon as they scroll down they’ll see IDW content. Thanks but no thanks.
  • And people from across the political spectrum will get to see bloviating in comments — with no way to turn it off. 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’.”

A good learning experience

People are continuing to flock to WT:Social: 75,000 new members over the last two days, and the wait list is over 100,000. The potential is there; for example, somebody posted a link to a story about sexism in Wikipedia, and there were some really great comments. There’s interesting links on some of the subwikis as well. But judging from the discussion on the site, most people signing up aren’t having good experiences.

WT:Social Subwiki / Spam requests happening, Created about 2 hours ago. Is there a way to block users or delete friend requests? I'm starting to get spam requests already. :-(
WT:Social Subwiki / Spam requests happening, Created about 2 hours ago. Is there a way to block users or delete friend requests? I'm starting to get spam requests already. :-(

Admittedly, it’s early days yet. WT:Social could learn from this, take a step back, and redesign their system yet again to pay more attention to things like harassment, abuse, and hate speech. I’m not holding my breath, but we shall see. I haven’t deleted my account yet[8] , so if you want to friend or follow me, here I am.

More importantly, WT:Social is not the only game in town. Their initial floundering is also a learning experience for other nascent social networks and news-focused social media. True, many of the lessons about what not to do could also have been learned from Wikipedia’s own history, or projects like Mastodon and Diaspora that also set out to provide free speech-oriented alternatives to ad-funded, surveillance capitalism social networks. Still, it’s a good reminder.

And fortunately, there are positive lessons as well. One big takeaway is the huge amount of interest in WT:Social (as well as MeWe, the privacy-friendly Facebook alternative, which is also currently getting a lot of signups[9]). A couple of years ago I wrote about a potential tipping point. Since then, the pent-up demand is continuing to grow — and not just with techies; I’ve seen a lot of activists I know talking about WT:Social.

Another takeaway is that it’s time for a different approach. What would a social media site look like if it built on best practices and research into anti-harassment, content moderation, online extremism, and amplifying marginalized voices?

Hopefully we’ll start to see some examples of this over the next few months.

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Shireen, Kaliya, Shasta, Kathy, Elisa, Victoria, Jim, Vicki, Jim, Soren, Deborah and everybody else for the valuable discussion about WT:Social and feedback on earlier versions of this post!

Footnotes

[1] I certainly don’t mind paying for ad-free social media; I’ve had paid subscriptions to Dreamwidth for years, and support a couple of Mastodon instances on Patreon. But these are all sites that I started using for free and have had good experiences — and they are asking for a lot less than WT:Social. Dragos Ruiu describes describes WT:Social’s approach as a “fee extortion waiting queue” which is pretty much how I feel about it too. Also, Wales’ track record is not encouraging; see for example Mathew Ingram’s Wikipedia’s co-founder wanted to let readers edit the news. What went wrong? and Julia Jacobs’ Wikipedia Isn’t Officially a Social Network. But the Harassment Can Get Ugly.

[2] Shireen Mitchell and I discussed social threat modeling in our 2017 SXSW talk. There’s an overview of related work in The Winds of Change are in the Air. My personal experience is that taking a social threat modeling approach early in a project is incredibly valuable. Like so many other security-related issues, this kind of stuff is very hard and expensive to try to patch in after the fact.

[3] Somebody had shared a link to a story from the Financial Times, quite the one about WT:Social, that turned out to be paywalled. So when WT:Social tried get the title of the article, it instead got the paywall message. The software didn’t bother check for this, but just posted it blithely, and sent out the email update to everybody following the subreddit who hadn’t yet turned off notifications. The person who had posted the link realized their mistake, and deleted it quickly … but it was too late: the email had already gone out.

[4] Implementation bugs aside, I don’t understand how this is even supposed to work. The impression I have is that you can set up posts that anybody can edit and people will then converge on a neutral point of view summary. What could possibly go wrong?

[5] Which has some scary stuff, like not being able to deny a friend request.

[6] Invitation links have some very unexpected behavior: everybody who accepts via the same link gets connected as friends, with no option to approve. Once again, what could possibly go wrong?

[7] For example, when I shared an earlier draft of this on Facebook, somebody took exception to my classifying Jordan Peterson as “a mainstay” of the IDW. So for a while, the Facebook thread — which was supposed to be discussing WT:Social — turned into an argument about whether or not Peterson aligns with white supremacists, how misogynistic and anti-trans he is or isn’t, what some see as a pattern of passing off bullshit as “scientific studies”, and so on.

[8] Of course, MeWe has challenges of its own. See Inside MeWe, Where Anti-Vaxxers and Conspiracy Theorists Thrive. Still, this content isn’t in your face by default on MeWe; and in general, they’ve done a much better job thinking about privacy and user control than WT:Social has so far.

[9] Although I’ve cancelled future payments

Originally published at A Change Is Coming.

A Change Is Coming

Software, culture, social computing, diversity, and more

Jon Pincus

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strategist, software engineer, entrepreneur, activist ...

A Change Is Coming

Software, culture, social computing, diversity, and more

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