Restoring Healthy Communities

Screenshot 2023 08 31 at 7.29.28 PM

Technology has had a profound effect on our social relationships, including the way we interact with our families, our neighbors and our broader community. Early on, the Web and social networks became tools that helped people connect online, send updates to loved ones, and understand perspectives of people around the world. But as time went on, these platforms seem to be driving us further apart.

In today’s bustling cities, people often don’t know their own neighbors. They use online platforms to order consumer products and food to be delivered to their door. They spend hours on their phones, browsing memes that are pushed by an algorithm that tries to maximize user attention and “engagement” for as long as possible, and perhaps get them to buy something. Nearly three in five teenage girls have been feeling persistent sadness.  Could Instagram and TikTok have something to do it? One in five middle-aged women reported using antidepressants in the last 30 days – perhaps linked to divorces and the dating scene around that age. Among men, there is an epidemic of synthetic opioids, exacerbated by anxiety and isolation. All of this got exacerbated during the coronavirus lockdows in 2020. Can something be done to restore our communities?

That is the vision driving Greg Magarshak, a technologist and serial entrepreneur from New York. Back in 2011, he and his team launched two apps called Groups and Calendars, that have since attracted 10 million users in over 100 countries. The initial goal was to give community leaders a way to reach out and engage their community, without relying on the Big Tech platforms. As time went on, the team reinvested the profits from the apps into an open-source community platform that presents a compelling alternative to Twitter, TikTok and Facebook. The platform, and the company behind it, are called Qbix.

“People desperately need tools to self-organize”, he remarks. “Today, the platforms exist, but they’re controlled by large corporations. Elon bought Twitter. Zuck controls Facebook. Our public forums are constantly under the control of private interests. All around the world we have this amazing hardware, but the software powering our communities is locked behind server farms thousands of miles away.” As a result, he explains, people and their communities suffer the consequences of these systems shaped by market forces.

Magarshak traces many of the problems in today’s online discourse to the way modern corporations work, with shareholders expecting them to generate profits and quarterly earnings. This shapes the policies that filter down to all of their employees and the algorithms they create. The algorithms for online platforms tend to show people more of the kind of thing they readily engage with. On Instagram and TikTok, that tends to be viral memes and, increasingly, AI-generated content. On Facebook that tends to be sensationalism and outrage, as people are herded into echo chambers that further divide the public discourse. On Twitter, it exacerbates the most toxic elements of online spats and celebrity culture. By contrast, Magarshak points to wikipedia, open source software, and science as gift economies without a profit motive, which produces much more balanced content.

At every level, it seems, Qbix has chosen to depart from the dominant approaches in social networks. It’s giving away its software as open source, allowing anyone to launch a community. It doesn’t require downloading an app, making sure instead that all the features are available via a web browser. Rather than trying to get people to spend a lot of time browsing the feed, sharing memes, and building their online profile, Qbix’s apps are focused on helping them get off the site and get together in the real world. They are looking to drive people to attend events, take a class, go on trips together. Qbix puts a unique spin on the advertising revenue model, as well. Qbix plans to introduce group deals, a way for businesses to offer community members a discount whenever they want to fill seats or attract a larger audience. Magarshak describes it as a cross between Groupon and Meetup: “while most social media wants to keep you clicking ads in the hope that you buy something, we help you form a social group and make plans to go out, where otherwise you would stay at home. We make money only when the businesses make money, and help our members save money in the process.”

Rather unusually for the startup space, Qbix has stayed away from raising venture capital. Instead, the company has experimented with a lot of other monetization approaches. Later this year, they are preparing a campaign to sell the company’s shares on WeFunder, one of the largest crowdfunding portals. They also plan to release utility tokens, a way for the community to collectively own and manage the platform. Qbix wants to follow in the footsteps of WordPress, a publishing platform that now powers 40% of all websites in the world, but oriented around social software. On their site, they describe a worldwide ecosystem where communities can choose to host their social networks on computers of their choice, where rural areas can have high-speed access to communication and education, and where certified developers from around the world help develop social apps to serve local communities. It’s a compelling vision. Time will tell if it can succeed in the face of Big Tech companies with far larger resources. But if it does, it just might revive our communities, heal our public discourse.

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