Entertainment

They wanted a ‘less toxic, less problematic’ social network. So they built one.

Tinder’s co-founder and a former Facebook leader discuss the current state of social media and where it’s heading.

Zaven Nahapetyan and Christopher Gulczynski

Zaven Nahapetyan and Christopher Gulczynski have created a new social network.

Photo courtesy: Christopher Gulczynski and Zaven Nahapetyan

Web3 is in a weird place. Some existing platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, are tiptoeing into the internet’s next phase with NFT profile pictures, the metaverse and crypto. But according to Christopher Gulczynski, one of Tinder’s co-founders, a former Bumble CPO and a former Facebook engineering manager, those platforms can’t “ever compete in what Web3 will be.”

“There's so much development happening in Web3,” said Gulczynski, who was responsible for Tinder’s “swipe right, swipe left” on matches. “All the tech startups are based and rooted in Web3. It's stuff that you haven't heard about yet because everyone's building.”

Gulczynski and Zaven Nahapetyan, a former engineering manager and organizational lead for Facebook, left their respective platforms to help build Niche, which lets people form communities around shared interests or topics, like sports or Taylor Swift. The platform is still in beta, with applications opening up on Monday. Gulczynski and Nahapetyan said members of a Niche community will act as part owners, and it won’t rely on ads to generate revenue.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What have your roles at Bumble and Facebook taught you about the current state of social media?

Zven Nahapetyan: I worked on social impact projects at Facebook. I did a lot of stuff with fighting misinformation, building the tools that prevent people from sharing content that we have flagged as fake news or other forms of misinformation. I did a lot of stuff with getting people to go out and vote and civic engagement efforts and voter registration efforts on both Facebook and Instagram. And then I started fundraisers, which raised $6-ish billion for charity.

But over time, I saw the negative consequences of that. And I started to realize that actually, even all of these things that I was doing weren't enough. And there are fundamental issues with the way that social media platforms like Facebook operate, the biggest of which being that the revenue is generated through ad dollars, which means ads need to be highly targeted and people need to spend a lot of time on their phone to see more ads, which means the platform needs to collect as much information as possible on its users in order to build to target these ads and to make the app more addictive. And that's a fundamental tension that is really hard for a company like Facebook to get away from, and Instagram as well. So I realized there has to be a better way for humans to connect, and we need to find a way to do that that doesn't rely on ad dollars to avoid these pitfalls that Facebook has fallen into.

Christopher Gulczynski: During my time at Tinder and Bumble, we made a really sticky product, and people spend a lot of time on it. At Bumble, we were averaging around like 90 minutes a day. That, I think, inherently is a lot of responsibility for what those people are going to do. What's the fallout in their lives, and how does it impact them?

So I think being part of those high-impact, high-visibility platforms has given us a real perspective on what our responsibility is now and what current state of things we're doing to people, how it's affecting our societies, how it's affecting people's psyches, like mental health. It's all a big responsibility for us, and now is the time to put a little intentionality behind it.

At what point during your time at these companies did you say, “It'd be better for me to take a step back and do something else than stick with the company and try to change it from within?”

Nahapetyan: It was after the 2020 election that felt like the culmination of everything that I had done at Facebook supporting that. And I was part of the Zoom call when we were discussing what to do about Trump declaring an early victory. Do we suspend his account? Do we put messages up and stuff like that? And that actually all went fairly well.

I feel like the story of Facebook and the 2020 election was that there wasn't really much of a story, which was a resounding success as far as the people on my team and the people I worked with were concerned. And that kind of felt like, OK, my work here is done; that's about as good as it's going to get. And now it's time to move on and try to do something bigger and better.

How are you defining social media in this conversation, because TikTok doesn't even consider itself a social media platform: It considers itself an entertainment space.

Nahapetyan: I would absolutely consider TikTok to be social media.

Gulczynski: 100%. Even if it is entertainment content, I think more people should be explicit about the things that you see on these platforms for entertainment purposes, but a lot of these people get their news from Facebook or TikTok.

Nahapetyan: I think part of why they might be doing that is because social media has such a bad rap, understandably. And actually for us, we've been pitching Niche as a social content platform rather than a social media or social networking app because it's got a negative connotation. So I would say TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, honestly LinkedIn, to some extent Reddit …

Gulczynski: Discord, Slack, those types of communication models, even if you don't have a network network, or it's not media, you're still connecting with people and talking.

Facebook is moving away from Friends, and Instagram is trying to put more of an emphasis on video, which is less about having a connection with your college roommates or your high school friends than it is about content that Instagram thinks you might like. Is social media taking on a new meaning? How is it defined now?

Gulczynski: We're seeing the turn of what we would call social media, right? Facebook is not going to focus on following people anymore. There's evolution happening. But at a certain point, they’re giant companies, and to switch your whole platform is a gigantic task. We were joking in the office, “Remember when Facebook was a social network?” It might turn into a giant advertising platform in 10 years. Who knows? It's definitely changing now. And people are like, “What's the next evolution of quote-unquote social media? Or what's it going to be called?”

Nahapetyan: A lot of this stuff began with Facebook, and people didn't really know what they would like, what sort of things they would share, how that would potentially be used against them. And I think Facebook was just a giant experiment, a 3 billion-person experiment. And we saw that there's actually some bad stuff that can come out of this, not premeditated. It was just happenstance. And so now we have the power of hindsight. And we can decide how to build apps and sort of what things to capitalize on.

I think a part of why Facebook and Instagram are moving in that direction is because it's less toxic and less problematic if you connect people around shared interests. That's what Chris and I are trying to do with Niche. I saw in Facebook internally, too, there's this move toward more groups and more closed spaces. Because if you connect people that have some hobbies or interests or something in common, that actually could lead to a better social media experience than just connecting people who went to school together or are family members. And so I think just based on those learnings and those trends, companies are moving more in that direction.

You said Niche is social content, not social media. What’s the difference?

Nahapetyan: The goal of Niche is to create communities of people around shared identity or profession or hobbies, interests, anything like that. And then give them ownership over those networks.

Instead of relying on ad dollars, we will be capturing some of the value that people are producing. One example might be a fan club for an artist, so you get all of the closest Taylor Swift fans, put them together in a group, they'll have partial ownership of this group. As the group gets bigger and becomes more popular, more people want to join, maybe they do exclusive events, maybe they do merch drops or something like that. All these people are actually part owners of that community much the same way that employees of a company might have options or stock in it. And so the idea is people can then buy and sell on the platform, and we can collect our revenues through those transaction fees, rather than relying on ads. We think that's a much healthier model.

One of the downsides that I could see happening would be if a community was particularly toxic or dangerous in some way, and they're all talking to one another. How would Niche handle that?

Nahapetyan: That's actually a question we get asked a lot. There's a few things that we've learned from Web 1.0, pre-Facebook and then Facebook days as well. The first is that it's actually better to have people to opt in to what sort of things they see rather than have the algorithm decide and share more of viral or divisive content. And so one example of that is, before Facebook, there were places like 4chan and just really toxic forums. But most people didn't spend any time there, and it kept that content separated and away from the rest of the internet. And what Facebook did is it actually made it really easy for different types of things to spread. So a person would be exposed to stuff that they wouldn't otherwise have seen.

If there are spaces that sort of engage in toxic behavior or shared nasty things, I think it's better to have them be self-contained rather than allow that content to be really easily spread from there to everyone else.

What’s the Web3 element of Niche?

Gulczynski: DAOs. Using that as a model of how to group people together, and that's the shared ownership, distributed ownership, incentivized engagement. So we feel that's the bedrock and foundation technology that we're using for Web3. The blockchain makes all this possible. I feel like we couldn't have done this without blockchain technology.

Do you see these other platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, moving in the direction of your idea of Niche?

Gulczynski: People are moving away from these giant social networks into more close-knit or more intimate spaces usually centered around shared interests. That's where we took our signal. So in a very general sense, I think that's the trend. We want to incentivize that more with the data structures and the Web3 stuff. We think that’s where social is headed.

Nahapetyan: Yeah, I agree. And I think actually, we see that on even existing Web 2.0 platforms like on TikTok, people talk about architecture or baking or something. And this identity around the things they believe in or the spaces that they're a part of, it's what's making social media in the present age more exciting, and more compelling. And so I definitely think things are moving in that direction.

Niche is focused around becoming closer to Web3 standards. Would you say any other platforms are moving in the direction of Web3?

Gulczynski: The big ones are aware of it. And you can tell, they’re doing the NFT thing with your profile picture or whatever. But I don't know if those guys can ever compete in what Web3 will be. But there's so much development happening in Web3. All the tech startups are based and rooted in Web3. It's stuff that you haven't heard about yet because everyone's building. But from what we've seen, and the people that we've talked to, the companies that we see being built, this is going to be the future of the internet.

In five years, what would you say is the ideal user experience for social media?

Nahapetyan: You get stuff that is exactly what you're looking for. If you want to watch comedy videos, things just for the sake of entertainment, you can find it. If you're looking for something more serious or want professional networking, you can find that easily as well.

I think the ideal world is the place where people's needs are met in the way that they want and they have really compelling content. But it's stuff that they're looking for and not not stuff that spreads really easily or what the algorithms determine to be better for ad revenue. I hope that social media five years from now will be a lot healthier and we won't see a lot of the mental health issues we see with social media today.

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