New Apps Aim to Douse the Social Media Dumpster Fire
After Elon Musk’s recent acquisition of Twitter, many habitual tweeters announced their intentions of switching to other social platforms. Some blamed their defection on fears of an increase in hate speech and misinformation on the site. But even before the takeover, social media platforms such as Twitter already had a major problem that was driving users away: they make people miserable.
So some companies are developing new social apps that aim to foster a positive online environment—and they have gained a significant number of users. But despite their good intentions, these new platforms may be interpreted simply as marshmallows toasting over the metaphorical “dumpster fires” of social media: They can make the experience taste a little sweeter, but without a shift in people’s behavior, these alternatives might just melt into the unavoidable flames.
On most social platforms, users can browse through a seemingly endless series of posts, which are ordered by algorithms. The software prioritizes content that will keep people scrolling, so it promotes posts that draw “engagement” in the form of likes, shares or comments. This gives an edge to divisive or outrageous content that grabs attention, whether or not that attention is negative. As a result, many people feel compelled to keep scrolling through their feed, even as it serves up posts that inspire disgust, fatigue and depression. But giving up a platform altogether can cut people off from their friends and even induce anxiety. In an attempt to foster a more positive online atmosphere, apps such as Facebook and Twitter continually adjust their moderation policies, but this has not entirely eliminated misinformation or hateful content. That’s because the very format of these platforms—an algorithm-driven news feed that rewards posters for stirring up negative emotions—incentivizes these types of posts.
Now there are other options. Last year two social apps that eschew this format rose to popularity. These apps, called Gas and BeReal, both eliminate certain elements of other social media platforms: algorithms that spotlight controversial content and an endless feed that encourages people to spend too much time on the app. Gas rewards only positive content, while BeReal sets strict limits on how often users can post. And that’s not the only way they aim to improve the digital experience.
Gas, named after “gassing up,” a slang term for complimenting someone, tries to cut down on toxic social media discourse by amplifying positivity. App users earn digital rewards by voting for the best compliments about their friends in anonymous polls. As stated on its website, Gas’s developers Nikita Bier, Isaiah Turner and Dave Schatz “wanted to create a place that makes us feel better about ourselves.” The app also emphasizes privacy: it doesn’t allow direct messaging—a common channel for bullying and harassment—and the polls are populated with automatically generated compliments and voted on anonymously (although paid app subscribers can view select voters’ initials). This blue-sky approach seems to be working. Though the app is only available in 12 states, and only on iPhones, Gas has already had more than five million downloads since its launch last August, at one point overtaking the popular social media platform TikTok as the number-one download from Apple’s App Store. Amid Gas’s popularity, in mid-January popular social and messaging platform Discord announced it had purchased the app.
Some people may gravitate toward Gas because they know that they will only see good things on it, according to David Bickham, a pediatric medicine instructor and research scientist at the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital. He says a positive social experience comes from “moving toward [app] designs that increase the autonomy of the user, giving them more control over the type of content that they’re exposed to.” But some experts are wary that even apps like Gas, which seem to have good intentions for users, can still create sustained negative impacts. For instance, education writer Alyson Klein pointed out in a recent Education Week article that Gas polls could be used as a popularity contest or even a sarcastic jab, such as by praising someone for a talent they clearly are bad at, leading to bullying and hurt feelings. Last year, social media and technology writer Neil Hughes wrote in Cybernews, “Conditioning our minds and behavior toward constant approval from online engagement or being mentioned in a Gas poll could arguably increase anxiety rather than remove it.” Other critics don’t feel right about using compliments as a type of digital currency, or “datafying” this positive practice, in the words of Mariek Vanden Abeele, a professor of digital culture at Ghent University in Belgium. “What is difficult for me is that you’re commodifying the act of giving a compliment,” she says. “As soon as you start datafying the behavior, you risk losing something.” Gas initially responded to an inquiry from Scientific American but has not provided specific comment at press time.
Rewarding compliments is not the only way applications are trying to foster positivity. The new platform BeReal, for instance, emphasizes authenticity and time limits. It strives for an authentic experience by giving users one random two-minute window daily in which to post an unfiltered photograph. And only after a user has made their daily post can they see what others posted.
Bickham says this more authentic experience “is really important because it’s sort of a requirement for the type of openness necessary for positive interactions.” For adolescents still trying to find their identity, BeReal may offer a safe place to explore. “We have an idea that being authentic is like being your true self,” Bickham says. Like Gas, this app’s positive approach seems to be meeting with some success. Co-founded by Alexis Barreyat and Kévin Perreau in 2020, BeReal took off in popularity last September and gained about 50 million downloads globally in 2022.
BeReal is not without its own controversy, however. Its notifications can produce pressure to post every day. This pressure to participate in social media communication, which Vanden Abeele and others call “online vigilance,” can easily cause anxiety in users. Experts have also expressed concerns that BeReal’s alerts may come at inappropriate or intrusive times. Furthermore, the two-minute time limit adds more pressure to post, especially when users want to view what others have posted. Some may already be experiencing this kind of pressure: only 9 percent of Android phone users who downloaded BeReal opened the app last August, September and October. BeReal declined to comment on this story.
On their own, these apps are unlikely to completely solve many of the problems that plague social media as a whole. But people can still have a better online experience by changing the way they use any social platforms. Nearly all the experts interviewed for this article recommend less passive scrolling and more active connection. “When you think about apps that … lower our sense of well-being, it’s often because the apps either add friction—think tech glitches, digital overload, or cyberbullying—or they pull us away from being our best selves, causing us to be more distracted, less rested, less focused or less connected to others,” says Amy Blankson, CEO of the mental health and productivity consulting organization Digital Wellness Institute.
“Overall, positively and actively interacting with friends—by messaging them, sending them videos, etcetera—on social media may be better than just passively scrolling a central news feed, where you may feel jealous of influencers who appear to have everything,” says Lisa Walsh, a social psychology and happiness researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Although Hughes previously criticized some aspects of these positivity-focused apps, he does note that the rise in their popularity may represent a shift in attitudes toward social media—at least among younger users. “It feels like kids know that obsessing over somebody else’s highlight reel is a waste of time and that nobody has a perfect life,” he says. “As a result, they crave a more authentic experience and collaborate and lift others up rather than making it all about themselves.” That’s a mindset that might make all of us happier socially. Or, as Hughes puts it, “Maybe their parents could learn a thing or two from their kids.”
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