This October Wikipedia’s co-founder Jimmy Wales launched WT.Social, a platform that aims to bring the “Wikipedia spirit” to social media. 

WT.Social has been promoted as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter and has already passed the 400,000 user mark. It is yet to be seen if WT.Social will gain sufficient traction. Meanwhile, here’s what you need to know about Wales’ bold new project:

WT Social logo

What’s the general idea?

WT.Social or WikiTribune Social is designed to promote collaboration and quality content. It allows to form “subwikis”, where users can share links and content with others, and features a feed like traditional social media resources. 

WikiTribune Social is designed to be different. The site’s landing page sets the tone right away, juxtaposing WT.Social and other social networks, which have “amplified the voices of bad actors across the globe”, provided an environment for fake news, and kept users “addicted to platforms without substance”.

How is it related to Wikipedia?

The network’s name draws a clear association with Wikipedia, the free online-encyclopedia currently among the top-10 most visited online resources. Though Jimmy Wales is mostly associated with his founding role in Wikipedia today he has little impact on day-to-day operations. 

WT.Social is not affiliated with Wikipedia. The Wikimedia Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit which runs Wikipedia and its adjacent ecosystem, emphasized WT.Social bears no affiliation with Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation. The word “wiki” refers to a website built using collaborative editing software.

What’s the WT Social backstory?

WT.Social is a spin-off of another Wales’ project, WikiTribune. Launched in 2017, it aimed to save journalism through crowdsourcing news and relied on crowdfunding as a business model. 

Like WT.Social it gathered a lot of attention in the beginning; as Wired’s Gian Volpicelli puts it, WikiTribune “was lionised as the future of news, a beacon of hope in the post-truth era”. But it ultimately failed to gain traction, having shut down in 2019 to make way for WT Social.

What challenges does WT Social aim to address?

The initial excitement around social media platforms has now been matched by criticism of their overbearing and detrimental impact on political processes, as well as the general nature of their business model

Facebook has been accused of mishandling personal data, effectively helping spread genocide and hate, doing little to prevent the rise of fake news, and being vulnerable to foreign intelligence interference in the integrity of elections (to name but a few critiques).

WT.Social promises to “foster an environment where bad actors are removed because it is right, not because it suddenly affects our bottom-line.” In his interviews, Wales directly criticizes Facebook and other traditional social networks for their advertising-only business model, which in his view leads to poor quality of content and serious privacy issues.

Why does WT Social matter to media?

One of the sins attributed to Facebook has been its contribution to the incremental death of local media, particularly local newspapers. When talking about the goals of WT.Social, Wales notes this phenomenon and claims that his new brainchild, with its focus on the quality of content and refusal to incentivize clickbait, might be a part of the fix.

WT Social is still in its early days and continues to evolve based on user feedback. The current format appears to prioritize focused and expert articles that can be linked to a specific subwiki, as well as long-reads. Given Wales’ position, we can expect media to have their voices heard whilst the social platform continues to find its voice.

Example of WT Social interface (subwiki on fighting disinformation)

What’s the WT Social business model?

WT.Social relies on user donations and paid subscriptions as a source of income. It is somewhat similar to Wikipedia (even though Wikipedia asks for donations and does not demand to pay for access). 

As of now, all major social networks have chosen the focus on advertising, with greater success than subscriptions. Thus, the model WT.Social is entering uncharted waters and has yet to prove the viability of the model at scale.

Will WT Social succeed?

WT.Social has been growing quickly, passing 400,000 users by late December. Yet, will it come close to the success of Wikipedia? Will the service gather a critical mass of active users to gain traction? Will it amass the popularity it strives for? Those questions remain open.

The network is very distinctive from other major social media and has the charismatic figure of Jimmy Wales to put it in the spotlight. At the end of the day, three factors are likely to make or break WT Social:

  1. Carving a niche in a saturated and competitive market

The social media market is completely different from the online encyclopedia “market” that existed when Wikipedia was founded back in 2001. Competition among social media is huge, the market is mature. To break through WT Social will need to innovate fast and continuously to meet the demands of a core base of users.

  1. Going viral and scaling in specific communities

People log on to social media because their friends are on social media. Getting to 400,000 users in less than three months is impressive (putting it on par with Facebook, which hit a million in 10 months – Twitter took 24 months), but the trend will need to continue.

This does not mean WT Social needs the billions of users of Facebook to be successful. Rather it needs to scale within specific communities that use it as a tool, meaning a reasonable target might be a few 10s of millions, rather than the 100s of millions of Twitter or LinkedIn.

Nonetheless for that to happen WT Social will need to find its viral features. Facebook’s voyeuristic appeal (see what your friends are up), delivered traffic. WT Social will need something, too, which is more difficult given its anti-clickbait values.

  1. Practical use cases

Facebook isn’t just Facebook. Its a phone directory, a messaging service, an event organizing platform… to name but a few. LinkedIn is a job board and place to keep your CV. 

Right now WT Social lacks practical use cases outside of the realm of expert discussions (putting it closer to Quora, a more cerebral Reddit). In order to succeed and drive adoption, those features will be absolutely critical.

The upshot

Overall, it seems WT Social is not likely to succeed just because of its distinct model, which is different from the Facebooks and Twitters of the social media world. Rather, it needs a vibrant community and to make its network attractive to new users.

As Forbes’ contributor Jono Bacon puts it, “people won’t use it because it is WT.Social. They will use it because it becomes a regular drip-feed of news that presents an objective view of the story.” The success of WT.Social hinges on whether Wales and his team will master these questions.