The original premise of social media was great: Connecting you to friends, family and helping you find information online.
The grim reality is that social media platforms have morphed into entertainment behemoths that have hijacked our attention, and the benefits we once got from these platforms are quickly diminishing. As our screen time increases, social media use becomes problematic for an increasing number of people, which can lead to serious cognitive effects such as reduced attention, increased impulsivity, and increased hyperactivity (1).
At the heart of the issue lies the ad-based business model that social media platforms employ, as well as their need for constant growth. Social media platforms make money by showing us ads. The platforms need to make more money to appease the shareholders. The result? More ways to show us ads need to be invented. More tricks to hijack our attention need to be invented. We need to keep scrolling, so they can keep making more money.
This is not sustainable. Our attention is sacred, and should be treated as such.
Currently, we allow those platforms to use our personal data for free to hijack our attention. We click, scroll and watch so they can learn about our interests, as well as shape them. They can then exploit our interests and wishes by showing us content that would keep us scrolling for as long as possible, to show us as many ads as possible.
The status quo is harmful to our mental health, our society, as well as the collective human experience. The Center for Humane Technology, co-founded by one of the creators of the infinite scroll feature, has long researched the impacts of technology platforms on humankind and believe the following:
“Under immense pressure to prioritize engagement and growth, technology platforms have created a race for human attention that’s unleashed invisible harms to society” (2)
# THE VISION
At Soulie, we attack the core problem — the ad-based business model — head on.
In 5 years, each user will be able to use Soulie to create and manage their own personal discovery algorithm and rent it to social media platforms and other 3rd parties. Each user can manage the settings of their algorithm on Soulie, telling their algorithm what kind of content they want to see, how they want to see it, and how much of it they want to consume. The social media platforms and other 3rd parties connected to Soulie will then use those custom settings to show users content that the users have decided they want to see. To access users’ personal algorithms and show them content, the platforms will pay users a fee.
Simply put — we will no longer give away our data for free to get brain fog, depression and memory failure in return (3). Instead, we will be able to monetize our personal data by renting it out to any platform that wants to show us content from their content and ad inventory. Crucially, we will also be able to tell our algorithm exactly what kind of content we want to see, how long we want to spend online, as well as what our goals are for our scroll sessions.
The personal algorithm will always have the user’s interests in mind, never again will they be less important than the interests of 3rd party platforms.
In this new paradigm, Soulie will act as an intermediary between users with personal algorithms and 3rd parties who wish to access their data.
# HOW WILL WE DO IT?
To achieve this vision, the following steps need to be taken:
Step 1: Soulie Alpha. Building a technical demo of a recommender system that can be influenced by the user. Assembling the team. Assessing the need and readiness of the market. Completed in March 2023.
Step 2: Soulie Beta. A proof-of-concept app to introduce content discovery via customizable algorithms. With Soulie Beta, users will be given 5 different settings to customize their discovery algorithm as well as set goals for using Soulie. Soulie will bring the user text-based content from the Internet. In progress: launching in 2023.
Step 3: Soulie. More customization options to the personal algorithms are added. The Soulie app allows users to connect on the app and consume original content. Soulie offers content from diverse sources. Launching in 2024.
Step 4: Soulie Platform. Soulie is the intermediary platform where personal algorithms are hosted. Personal algorithms can be connected to all big social media platforms. Launching in 20XX.
# SO FAR, SO GOOD
We are at the very beginning of this journey. The chapters of the Soulie story so far include:
- Securing a €500k investment and a €112k grant for applied research from Enterprise Estonia
- Successfully launching Soulie Alpha to 2000 users to conduct research on serendipity in recommender algorithms with Ph.D. Denis Kotkov
- Watching our waitlist grow to 10000+ members and counting
- Truly enjoying every single moment working on this product alongside our users who can’t wait for an alternative to mindless scrolling
But the work is far from over.
# CHALLENGES AHEAD
The road ahead poses serious questions. We have listed just a few below.
- How might we build an app that is engaging without hijacking the attention span of users?
- How might we best navigate the move from engagement-based metrics to value-based metrics as a company?
- How might we build a social component for Soulie that does not promote division and outrage?
- How might be establish a new business model that makes Soulie accessible to many, yet does not exploit user data?
- How might we build a sustainable, high-quality content inventory?
These are just some of the questions we are finding answers for every day here at Soulie.
Mission impossible? We don’t think so.
If you’re driving on a long road at night, there are no headlights in the world that are powerful enough to illuminate the whole way to your destination. We believe that if we have headlights that can show us the next turn ahead, and we know where we want to end up, we are sufficiently prepared for the ride.
And we invite you to join us on this journey.
We can’t wait to build this with you, and for you.
Triin Kask, Ann Margit Järvekülg, Andres Tiko, Robin Kütt, Otto Suits, Margus Engso
(1) Boer M, Stevens G, Finkenauer C, van den Eijnden R. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder-Symptoms, Social Media Use Intensity, and Social Media Use Problems in Adolescents: Investigating Directionality. Child Dev. 2020 Jul;91(4):e853-e865. doi: 10.1111/cdev.13334. Epub 2019 Oct 26. PMID: 31654398; PMCID: PMC7497191. Link.
(2) Ledger of Harms by the Center for Humane Technology.
(3) Sharifian, Neika & Zahodne, Laura. (2020). Social Media Bytes: Daily Associations Between Social Media Use and Everyday Memory Failures Across the Adult Life Span. The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences. 75. 540–548. 10.1093/geronb/gbz005. Link.