Facebook and Instagram are designed to consume our time and attention, but it is increasingly clear that this is damaging to our mental health, privacy and democracy.
FACEBOOK and Instagram are designed to consume our time and attention, but it is increasingly clear that this is damaging to our mental health, privacy, and democracy.
In response, Ben Grosser, an artist and professor at the University of Illinois, has invented an unusual new social network. Called Minus, it’s a platform that mimics Facebook but discourages constant engagement by giving users 100 posts — for their entire lifetime.
Meant as a provocation rather than a sustainable business, Minus builds on more than a decade of Grosser’s work, exploring what healthier, richer communication might look like on the internet.
Grosser focuses on the cultural effects of social media, particularly the way it preys on users’ insecurities, taps into our desire for instant gratification, and is designed to be addictive. Over the past few weeks, his work has become increasingly relevant as leaked internal documents, and the recent testimony from whistle-blower Frances Haugen, reveal exactly how much Facebook knows about the damage its platform does.
Facebook says it is exploring ways to reduce its negative effects on people’s well-being through features like giving users the option to remove “likes” from posts. This is something Grosser began exploring a decade ago.
In 2012, he created the Facebook Demetricator — a browser extension that allows you to remove the “like” count, shares, number of comments, and other figures from your feed — as a way to explore how what we post might change if we are less focused on our friends’ responses. He later created versions for Instagram and Twitter.
In 2017, when it became clear that Facebook was using artificial intelligence to study users’ emotions to better target them for ads, Grosser launched GoRando, a tool that allows you to react to people’s posts with random emotions, making it harder for the platform to read your state of mind.
The idea for the Minus social network emerged from another one of Grosser’s projects. In 2019, he created a video that spliced together every time Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, mentioned growth in media appearances between 2004 and 2019.
“I thought it would add up to 5 or 10 minutes, but by the time I was done, it was almost 50 minutes,” he says. “As a company, Facebook has been obsessed with more and more growth.” This has become even more evident by Haugen’s comments that Facebook consistently “chooses profits over safety.”
Grosser decided to experiment with building a Facebook-like platform where engagement and growth are not the goals.
On Minus, every user gets a total of 100 posts to use within their entire lifetime, which forces them to think carefully about how they want to use each post. There are no likes, time stamps, or follower counts, so users are not compelled to think about how others might react to a post. Nor do they need to worry about whether they are posting quickly enough.
On the other hand, users have an unlimited ability to respond to others’ posts. “Minus revolves around the question of what would happen if social media didn’t always compel you to participate in it, but actively worked to limit your participation,” Grosser says. “So you don’t feel like you always need to be on it, or feel like you could step away for a period of time without consequences.”
As users signed up and played around with Minus, Grosser got to explore how they responded. One person calculated how long they were expected to live and how frequently they would be able to post within their lifetime. The answer was every 143 days. There were a lot of poems, quotes, and questions. There tended to be little politics or trolling, partly, Grosser says, because posts are not rewarded by “likes” or higher rankings in the feed.
“Polarising speech doesn’t rise to the top,” Grosser says. “Nothing rises to the top. I think the lack of ‘likes’ or algorithmic feed is part of making that different feel.”
Ultimately, the Minus platform is geared toward spurring conversation since users could respond to posts freely. “The only way to gauge the success of your post was if there was a conversation in response to it,” Grosser says.
“That’s how human interaction worked until social media. We didn’t go to parties and walk away with lists of numbers about how we were being seen. We had to listen to someone, think about what they had said, and respond if we felt compelled to.”
Minus is a fascinating exploration into how social media might work if constant engagement were not at the centre of the experience. But how can it inform the design of real social media platforms, like Facebook?
Minus does not run ads to generate revenue, so it does not have the same incentives as Facebook to keep users on the site. But Grosser hopes that it can nudge social media platforms to rethink some of their features to prioritise user well-being.
“I don’t know if we can have an online social network that’s good for society within a capitalist system,” he says. “But I do know that almost nobody has tried.”