Prioritizing privacy and making social media 'social' again [Q&A]
While social media sites like Facebook remain popular, many people have worries about how their data is is being collected and used by the companies behind them.
Bret Cox is founder and CEO of True, a social network which doesn't monetize user information and focuses on people you really know. We talked him to find out more.
BN: How has social media evolved over the past few years?
BC: Social media isn't social anymore. As Anchor founder Mike Mignano told venture capitalist Harry Stebbings in an interview a few months ago, the big social media platforms have turned into recommendation engines. They're no longer about keeping you in touch with people you know -- they're about discovery, which is why you get endless streams of new content rather than seeing posts from friends.
TikTok has said it's not a social network, but an entertainment platform. Realizing it was losing young people to TikTok, Meta did what it does best: it carbon-copied its features in an effort to stay relevant. Now, with the exception of just a couple of apps (ours included), social media might as well just be called 'media'.
BN: Why do we need 'social' social media?
BC: Social media is a powerful tool to connect people across distance and time, to help them remember and share their most important moments together. It's the quality of our relationships, not quantity, that make us happier. People value the friends they've made through school, their place of worship or their hobbies far more than they do random influencers.
Truly social social media gives them a way to do that.
BN: What went wrong with Meta?
BC: Meta runs on surveillance capitalism, meaning it makes its money by spying on you on Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp and using that information to target you with ads.
That's why they used to give third-parties access to your personal information. It's why they tweak their algorithms to keep you scrolling infinitely, so you see endless ads and give up volumes of your data. And it's why they bait you with what matters most to you -- your relationships -- to give big brands matters most to them -- your attention.
This isn't news to anyone who follows the headlines. Everyone knows about the privacy scandals that have rocked big social media companies over the last few years. But despite all the talk about putting privacy first, they're never going to change. There's too much money on the line. instead, they'll just find ever more devious ways to collect your information.
We think this is wrong. Business should never conflict with privacy. Only you should decide how your personal data is collected, accessed and used -- and you should be able to trust that your decision is respected.
BN: How do you define 'privacy' on social media?
BC: On social media, privacy is about control. On a private social app, you wouldn't have to sign away your right to control who can see or use your information -- including the content you post or look at on the app -- when you create an account.
None of the mainstream social apps are private. It's all in the terms of service: You agree to let them collect and use at least some of your data to show you ads when you sign up. They're also allowed to stalk you around the internet, mining the places you search to improve the accuracy of the profile they keep on you.
BN: How does True handle user privacy differently?
BC: True is private by default. You own the information you share with True. We never share it with third-party developers like Facebook did in the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, and we don't use it to make money. Nor do we build a profile on you and fill it with information about the places you go online.
On top of that, nothing you share in a private group on True -- we call them Threads -- can be seen by anyone outside that Thread. Users can't share information from one private Thread to another, and can't they make a private Thread public.
Finally, when you delete your account on True, all of your information is deleted from our servers immediately and it's gone for good.
BN: How does True's business model work?
BC: We're committed to expanding our business in a way that doesn't monetize user information, with quality, function and safety as our top priorities.
We may consider a keyword-based advertising model similar to the one used by privacy-oriented search engine DuckDuckGo. We may also try a 'freemium' model where users pay for access to different features. We're also considering ways to tap into the creator economy.
No matter what, users on True will always be in control of how their data is used, and what they are paying for. A great social and communication experience should not come at a high cost to you or your privacy.