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How to build a better Facebook

MeWe CEO Mark Weinstein comes on the Source Code Podcast to talk privacy, regulation and how to beat Facebook by being absolutely nothing like Facebook.

MeWe

MeWe looks a little like Facebook — but it wants to act completely differently.

Image: MeWe

Many have tried to take on Facebook over the years, and none have succeeded. But Mark Weinstein thinks he might have a shot. Weinstein is the CEO of MeWe, and while he's not crazy enough to think he can completely take down the Big Blue app, he's pretty sure he can win over a few hundred million of its users.

MeWe has some things in common with Facebook — it has a news feed, you can post pictures and status updates, there are lots of groups — but its business model and view of the world couldn't be more different. It has no algorithmic timelines, no personalization and no ad business. It's up to 13 million users now, twice the number it had a year ago, and Weinstein thinks it's only just beginning to take off.

Weinstein came on the Source Code Podcast to talk about advertising, censorship, social networking, regulation and much more. He has some seriously strong feelings, and levied some strong accusations, some of which I don't agree with. But his perspective on the space is fascinating, and after eight-plus years of telling anyone who will listen about the perils of the social networking space, it seems like more people than ever are listening.

Below are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Let's start at the beginning. One of the things we've talked about a lot with Facebook is that you can't sort of change some things about Facebook without fundamentally changing what Facebook is, right? Facebook minus personalization just isn't Facebook anymore. You'd have to tear the thing down and build it again. But you have kind of gone through this process of trying to figure out, what does social plus privacy look like? What was your sense of what it looked like to do social in what you felt like was the right way?

It's fundamentally, to me, very simple. Imagine a social network where the only content, the only thing happening, is you connecting with your friends, with your family and with whatever you're choosing to connect with. Pages and groups that you're in, or following hobbies, philosophies, influencers, et cetera. So your whole news feed is just everything that you're actually truly interested in, because you've made that choice. Is that so radical?

This is the whole idea of social networking. And because you're not Facebook's customer, but the advertiser and marketer is, then they just turn that whole idea of a news feed upside down, because everything now has to serve their business model of taking care of their customer, who is the advertiser, the marketer, the politician, the government, et cetera.

But that's just a totally different thing, right? This has been talked about with Facebook, but they say, look, we could charge people money to use Facebook, and some people would do that. But they believe there's a social good in having something that's free and accessible to everybody. And I'm guessing you don't buy that idea. But I don't know that that's a totally impossible one.

Oh, hold on. With all due respect to you, David, I don't buy for one second Facebook's blasphemy that they're doing social good. And when Mark Zuckerberg stands on a podium and says, "We're the champion and the bastion of free expression" — I mean, give me a break.

Facebook is manipulating people's thoughts and minds. They have thousands of data analysts and psychologists, analyzing everything that's going on in people's conversations so that they can instantly, through algorithmic modeling, identify what your mood is, how to persuade you, how to persuade your mind or your purchase decision about an idea or an object.

It's so massively sophisticated, what they're up to. And it is so utterly simple, what MeWe's up to. MeWe's free, by the way, MeWe's free forever. It says it right on the start button. We do have a freemium business model. Now, will we be as profitable as Facebook? Probably not. Will we be nicely profitable? Absolutely. But Facebook is not a social network. Facebook is a data company. Let's just be clear about that.

So what does it look like to decide to be the privacy option? What does that mean you definitely can't do? It feels so easy to just sort of slowly, one drip at a time, start to do things that get messier. What does it look like to you to maintain privacy?

That's such a beautiful question, because what you just described is what happened to Pinterest, and Snap, and Instagram. And it's because their business models, from the beginning, had the same fundamentals as Facebook. They're ad-driven business models, and at a certain point, you know, Snap decided to turn on the algorithms, Instagram decided to turn on the algorithms. That's the slippery slope. As soon as you do that, then the whole schema of the site and of your experience becomes completely different.

At MeWe, there is not really this drip-drip risk, because we started with a fundamentally different business model. So not only can an advertiser or marketer not target you, but what this also means is that you can't pay us to boost your thoughts into unsuspecting news feeds of innocent people who have no idea what you're thinking about, and didn't ask for that in their news feed.

Remember, it's not just privacy we're talking about. MeWe also doesn't engage in this very bizarre censoring that has become commonplace on Facebook and Twitter, for example, and even on YouTube and Pinterest. And that is so counter to democracy. The idea of social media is: Keep it clean, have your conversations and we're not going to get in the way.

Now, I'm not [an] anything-goes guy, I want to be very clear. This is a clear distinction between MeWe and Parler or 8chan. I think sites where anything goes are terrible, terrible. At MeWe we have strict rules in our terms about inciting violence — you better not do it — about posting hate, about bullying, breaking the law. We have a laundry list. And we have a great Trust and Safety team, we have Report and Block on every post and every profile and every group and every page, and our Trust and Safety team will investigate. We're for the good guys. But we're not going to censor a conversation by conservatives or progressives, or health advocates of one health remedy versus another. Because, you know, their opinion might differ from mine. Why is that any of my business?

Yeah, but couldn't you argue that it's inciting violence to recommend that somebody drink bleach to get rid of coronavirus? That's inciting violence!

Luckily it didn't happen on our site.

Fair enough. But one thing that we've learned over the last few years is, in a funny way, writing a Terms of Service has become way more important than anybody realized. Because I think what we know now is that having a proactive set of rules, that you then can attempt to apply consistently, makes everything better. When people know what the platform is supposed to be, it becomes way less of a problem to try and enforce that, as opposed to saying "anything goes!" and then try to walk that back. That's what Facebook is trying to do, and Twitter has tried to do and Reddit has tried to do, and it's just a mess.

But you do get into positions where you have to do things like define censorship. A lot of the things that you're describing, like hate, people will call those things censorship. If I say a horrible thing to somebody, and you say, "You're not allowed to do that," I'm going to scream censorship, because that's what people do on the internet. To say, not anything goes but we don't censor … there is a middle ground there, but I think it's maybe messier than you're giving credit to.

I didn't say we don't censor. I said that we don't censor based on ideology. And what is clear and clearly evident on Facebook and Twitter, with Jack Dorsey and with Mark Zuckerberg is that there is ideological censorship going on. There has been for a few years.

I don't agree with that, for the record.

That's what I see very clearly. I see when Facebook decides to take down several hundred, or a few thousand, conservative groups, because they're conservative groups, which they've done a few different times in their history. I scratch my head and go, "Wait a minute, a lot of these people are not saying kill the other guy. They're not inciting hate or violence, but you don't like their ideas." Same thing on the Twitter side. As long as you can't boost your thought, I should not be getting in the way unless you're breaking our terms.

You're bringing up something really interesting, which is this idea of freedom of speech versus freedom of reach. We've been talking about that a lot over the last couple of years. There is an increasingly loud idea that one simple way to solve a lot of these problems is just to turn off the algorithms. That if I actually know why I'm seeing what I'm seeing, I'm suddenly in a whole other level of control over what's going on. It sounds like A, I think you agree with that theory, and B, that it's actually really useful for MeWe to not be that, that it suddenly frees you of all kinds of questions that you don't even have to ask yourself, by virtue of you're not deciding what people see.

Absolutely. We're about to launch a feature called MeWe Recommends. If we're Facebook, if it was Facebook Recommends, the thing would be completely algorithmic, based on the analysis of every syllable and every idea that you talk about in your account. But for us, it's very straightforward. There's no algorithmic, deep-state analysis of you and your psyche and what you're talking about. Our team simply looks at those categories and says, here are our best groups on our platform today for, you know, football. So simple. Again, there's no need for a slippery slope.

But that's a step one, right? And then step two is like, well, what if we reorder the list based on what we know people like? And now you're freedom-of-reaching me again, right?

Listen, I don't even know why you bring this up. It's just not needed. We've already proven that a news feed, a completely organic news feed, works perfectly. There's data that says people spend almost twice as much time on our site [compared to Facebook]. Why? Because they're having real conservations. What I always like to say is, Facebook is the facade of your life and MeWe is your real life.

Also, remember, a Google crawler can't get in. What's on MeWe stays on MeWe. You can't Google me to see what I said on MeWe yesterday. If they're members on MeWe, it just depends on your settings inside MeWe.

A lot of the stuff you're describing is just growth hacking, right? That's the game: You get more people to use it more often by having web crawlers and turning on algorithms, so people keep coming back and getting new followers. You can make business cases for all those things. Is it easy not to make those cases?

People are already coming back. Our site data is good, our MAUs, or DAUs. We have almost 13 million members, and we have never paid to acquire a member. Our user acquisition cost is zero. And most people don't know about us. So, you know, the sky's the limit.

What do you make of this moment that we're in? I've read a lot of headlines that include you and Parler, and I get the distinct sense that you don't particularly like that comparison. But what do you make of the fact that you're on the list of places conservatives fed up by Twitter are fleeing to? Do you read that as good news or bad news?

Oh, I think it's great news. Now remember, Parler competes with Twitter. And you know, on the one hand, my hat's off to Parler, because they've done a good job at establishing a beachhead competing with Twitter.

But Parler has two issues, as I see it. Number one is that they're just an echo chamber for conservatives. And a social network is never going to become ultimately successful as an echo chamber for one opinion or another. The second thing is that Parler is anything goes, and I'm completely, completely against anything goes. I don't think a society is based on any kind of civil notion that anything goes is a good thing.

So I understand why the press bundles us because they see Parler as potentially an alternative to Twitter, and they see us as the new Facebook. So they bundle us. And I welcome all the conservatives that are coming, because they understand that we're not going to censor them. Just like we're not going to censor progressives. And we're not going to censor people based on their religion or their political beliefs. You know, MeWe [is] very welcoming. And MeWe has common rules of decency.

As you look around the rest of the social space, some of the things that are going wrong are increasingly obvious. But are there things you see that you feel like other folks are getting right? I mean, some of the stuff you've described sounds a bit like, how Discord thinks about its community as well. And there's like little bits of sort of LinkedIn in what you're talking about. As you look around, are there others who are pushing in the same direction you are?

I think Apple. Now, we're not talking social networking, we're looking at Safari, we're looking at the settings that you have, we're looking at their new fight with Facebook around the ad models. I mean, this is big-time stuff. I look at Tim Cook. I think Tim Cook is an American hero. I think Tim Cook gets it.

I think a lot of people, because we live in such an open and free society, a lot of people don't understand that this is something we had to fight for. That our parents and previous generations had to fight in wars for. And so you know, that we have somebody like Tim Cook, who totally gets it and stands up and says, "No, I'm not giving you a backdoor, you know, even at the risk of that there might be some terrorists harbored. But the greater good is privacy."

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