Putting the “social” back in social media by rethinking privacy

David Murphy

Bret Cox, Founder and CEO of social network True, explains why, when building the network, trust and privacy were the key priorities.

Remember when social media felt like gathering around the fire with your favorite people? When Facebook was a place you could go to connect with friends and strengthen your sense of community?

Those days are long gone. Between endless ads, algorithm-driven rage bait and the unshakeable sense that you’re being watched, social media today feels like one big creepy commercial.

If you’re tired of surveillance capitalism, you’re not alone. Three-quarters of Americans feel that social networking companies are unjustified in the amount of information they collect to show users targeted ads, according to a survey by the Washington Post. Nearly 80 per cent believe that tech companies don’t provide control over how people’s information is tracked and used, the same survey found.

But when we’ve grown so used to commercial interruptions, is it possible to go back? Back to what matters in life – real friends and authentic connections?

Yes, it is possible. And there’s a simple solution: prioritizing privacy.

That’s why we’re giving users ownership of their personal data, rather than forcing them to give it away for free. This removes incentives that turn every like and scroll into advertising revenue. Surveillance capitalism has had its day in the sun. People are ready for a business model that doesn’t conflict with our humanity and trust, so social media can become a true social space again.

In the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook: “If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform.”

A trust-centric business model
When we set out to build True, we envisioned a social media platform where people could feel safe and comfortable sharing their lives with their friends and family, without the gnawing sense that their data was being harvested so the app could make a buck. We wanted to give people a sense of joy and belonging, to create a space that felt as close as possible to hanging out with friends in real life.

That’s why we dedicated ourselves to prioritizing data privacy? trust and safety. Unlike other big social networks, we’re making ethical choices we can stand by.

True will never make money from targeted advertisements based on people’s behavior on our app or anywhere else. We’ll never track our users’ every move on True or use it to build a profile on them, the way other big social networks do. We’ll never run ads in private groups – we call them Threads – created by individuals. And we’ll never allow third party developers to access user data and build their own products from it, the practice that led to Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal back in 2016.

Instead, we’ll monetize in ways that are transparent and fair. We will soon include ads in Public Threads based on keywords set by the Thread creator, similar to the way ads work on privacy-first search engine, DuckDuckGo. A Thread for runners might include ads for running gear, for instance, while a Thread about hiking might show you deals on boots. Creators and influencers will be able to offer subscriptions and sell products on their own Threads, from which we’ll take a minor cut of the revenue. And we’re considering other options too, like giving users additional public content or features for a small fee.

Building with better intent
Building a business ethically means we don’t take the easiest route to making the most money overnight. Instead, we’re intentional about what we build. It’s tempting to rush into a feature-rich app with dozens of bells and whistles, and yet we’ve invested in quality over quantity.

Privacy controls may seem less exciting than a slick platform for making dance videos, but for us privacy is an integral part of building user trust. Our private groups can’t be seen or shared by anyone else in or outside of the app. Thread creators have complete control over who can join them and can remove any user from the group at any time, without having to jump through hoops to do it. And it’s impossible for content within a private Thread to go “viral” on True, because there’s no way to share it into another Thread.

Besides being a smart way to ensure you have complete control over who sees what you share, Threads also mirror the way you interact with people in real life. We all belong to many different communities that represent different parts of ourselves. Threads help you organize them: You might have one private Thread for your family, another for your college pals, and another for your weekly game night crew.

And for those milestones you want to tell everyone about, there’s your Friends Thread, where you share with all your friends on True at once. It’s an easy, intuitive way to connect with people you care about.

None of the other big social platforms have features that work like this. But they do have 30-day “grace periods” between the time a user deletes their account and when their information is wiped from the server – a way for them to maintain as much information about you as possible for as long as they can, even after you think your account is gone. At True, if you choose to delete your profile, we remove all your data from our servers immediately. And when it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

You might find yourself skeptical that the world really needs a social app with a privacy-centric business model. But from what we’ve heard from the thousands of people who share their lives on True, it’s clear that this is something people want. Our user base is growing by 20 per cent every month with very little marketing, and the feedback we get from users has reinforced what we already knew: People are tired of feeling like they’re being stalked by big companies with an agenda. When given the choice to spend their valuable time on a social app that prioritizes their privacy, they will. 

Truly social social media
Privacy isn’t the only thing people want. They’re also craving truly social social experiences like celebrating important milestones together, getting recommendations on places to visit and sharing inside jokes, which have been all but stripped away on social platforms thanks to the popularity of TikTok.

As TikTok’s head of global business, Blake Chandlee, pointed out, TikTok isn’t a social product. It’s an entertainment platform built for infinite content consumption, driven by an algorithm that knows you better than you do. Its success has spooked Meta so much that the company has converted Facebook and Instagram into TikTok clones, as have the many small upstarts following their lead. The giants have left a wake of fewer options for social networks that allow people to connect authentically.

But there are millions of ways to be entertained on the internet, and eventually, people get bored of watching each other compete for their 15 minutes of cyber fame. That’s why even TikTok is, I feel, having a moment of panic, pushing people to add their friends on the app. They’ve realized, albeit for the love of profit, that establishing interpersonal connections is the key to long-term sustainability.

Personal connections do have deep value. They are why you find it hard to part with Facebook even when you know the platform is making money off your data. The many friends you’ve accumulated over the years and the memories they represent are the reason you’re there, not to see another ad for an overpriced sweater, subscription meal kit or a rhinestone dog collar.

Social media is today’s most powerful tool to connect humans across space and time. It’s where people go to cherish moments together. But it must be built on trust, with privacy at its core, in order to realize its potential and bring good into the world today and tomorrow.

True is available for download now on iOS and Android.