The anti-social media social network
U;Good? looks to break down communication and help with mental health.
The last two decades have been engineered through our connections between the online world and the offline world. Sitting here, in 2021, in the 11th month of a pandemic, we are the product of almost twenty years of the promise of connectivity and communication.
The social platforms, the most dominating social tools on the planet, have created a world that turns people into “users.” We need to tell the world what we’re doing; we need to tell the world how we’re feeling; we need to tell the world that we want to be heard. We are addicted.
And while the modes swing from text to video to audio, the foundation is the same: create a place where people can communicate with each other. Even if that communication is toxic and dangerous.
But what happens when that communication (which is, to oversimplify, what we call the process of information exchange between sender and receiver, with a lot of static in between) is filled with more noise than signal? And what if all you want to do is a quick check-in without that weight of a conversation, but also leaving the window open for that conversation if your friend really needs it?
A new app, U;Good? wants to answer that call.
As the pandemic spreads, and we become isolated, many find that communication has become a burden. Maybe you don’t want to call; maybe you text, but you don’t want a full-on conversation. I want to know how you’re doing, but I don’t want to talk to you. Let’s call this the Pandemic Communication Conundrum.
“Communication is such that people want to say a lot without saying a lot,” Evans Anyanwu, co-founder U;Good? told me. “People don’t want to be over-burdened with communication, and there’s been such a degradation in the way we communicate. So when you hit the buttons it accomplishes that.”
The buttons Anyanwu refers to are the three possible ways to engage on this anti-social media social media app. You open the app up, and you announce to your contacts in the app how you’re feeling; whether you’re good (Green), so-so (Yellow), or no, I’m not good (Red).
The idea is simple: by these colors, I can indicate whether I want someone to talk with. If I hit red, my contacts know to check up on me, and there are a few automated responses so that receivers can take a specific action. If you hit the red button, the app will also give you resources like the suicide prevention hotline to call.
That’s it. There’s no added communication, no rush of endorphin by posting, just the simple form of checking in: you good?
(I’ll do the necessary disclosure here that I am friends with Evans, ever since he was a roommate of one of my childhood friends many years ago in college.)
The impetus for the app, Anyanwu said, was that he hadn’t heard from his friend, Ali Gates for a while. When he did get a hold of Gates, Gates said he was ok, but a little off.
“I said, ‘I’ve had this idea; I get concerned about friends who I don’t hear from for a while, but don’t want to go through the lengthy conversations.’ Life is busy. So I explained the idea to just check-in to people,” Anyanwu said. “Ali was doing stuff with the government, so mental health was in the back of his mind.”
And it all clicked from there. After connecting with a couple of developers, and explaining what it was, Gates and team knocked the app out in 48 hours.
Anyanwu and Gates describe the app as the anti-social media social network, but also as a tool for talking about mental health, especially for people of color, as data shows how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black communities.
A July New York Times article reports:
Latino and African-American residents of the United States have been three times as likely to become infected as their white neighbors, according to the new data, which provides detailed characteristics of 640,000 infections detected in nearly 1,000 U.S. counties. And Black and Latino people have been nearly twice as likely to die from the virus as white people, the data shows.
“I’ve been sitting on the sideline for quite some time with mental health,” Gates said. “Going to the Ivies and working for powerful people, I never had a voice to express my concerns or share arguments around mental health and people of color.”
An October Psychiatric Times article concludes:
The social disruption and losses have generally impacted black Americans more severely than whites due to a host of primarily social factors that cause inequity in the United States. Longstanding effects of racism and racist policies must be addressed in order to improve the mental health of Black people in general and those with mental illness particularly. The pandemic has shed a clear light on these challenges and, with sustained efforts to fight racism, may help lead our society to increased empathy and action to reverse racial bias and disparity.
And there’s concern about how people express their mental health. For many, when you reach out to a friend with a yes or no question, people can respond with a book, which can be a lot to take in.
“People just want a simple ‘I’m ok,’” Gates said. “A lot of that went into the design process.”
On Monday, Anyanwu said that he and Ali had a call with two Nigerian NGOs that deal with mental health, and the two were taken aback when they were told that the nation, with 200 million people, only had 150 psychologists.
“We see this as a big global outreach that addresses the stigma and situation regarding mental health,” Anyanwu said. “It goes with the theme we’re pushing: this is the anti-social media. We don’t want you to stay on the app. We don’t want to sell you anything. We want you to engage the app, open it and check in on friends.”
And that right there is why I find this interesting. When was the last time you saw an app or tech product designed to actually facilitate real-world connectivity? The hot new toy in Silicon Valley is an app that has invented the cross section of 1980s party lines and panel sessions at conferences. It is, by nature, a lot of noise searching for a signal. Why not cut out the noise? Because there is money in the noise.
Anyanwu and Gates both emphatically said that revenue is not the goal. They have day jobs (Anyanwu, a lawyer; Gates, currently leading product at a crypto company after stints as a subject matter expert for the government and product at Google). Gates told me he wakes up at 5:30 a.m to work on the app, fixing bugs, answering emails from people.
Gates said that he rarely checks “metrics,” and hasn’t checked in about two weeks. Since the app’s official roll-out on January 19, Gates there have been about 30,000 downloads across iOS and Android, but he really doesn’t care about that, yet, instead focusing on what he calls “engagement and usefulness.”
“Most important for us, we see at the top of the funnel, 73 percent of people that start an account right away will send a first check in,” Gates said. “I spend measuring how often people check in on one another; we try not to position this as a business. We’re not looking to raise money, it’s purely a labor of love project.”
I see this app as a digital example of Wittgenstein’s Language Games, where the philosopher investigated the core tenets of how we communicate. Writing in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein explores the nature of language:
Let us imagine a language ...The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones; there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words 'block', 'pillar', 'slab', 'beam'. A calls them out; --B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. -- Conceive of this as a complete primitive language.
Wittgenstein ends up explaining how Builders A and B can effectively communicate because they have a shared definition of the words—meaning, context, situation, etc. (Just a note: this was a gross over-simplification of a major work of philosophical importance; I am not a philosopher.)
The psychologist James Hillman writes:
In the modern language games of Wittgenstein, words are the very fundamentals of conscience existence, yet they are also severed from things and from truth. They exist in a world of their own. In modern structural linguistics, words have no inherent sense, for they can be reduced, every single one of them, to basic quasi-mathematical units. The basic fantasy of a number of irreducible elements out of which all speech can be constituted is a dissecting technique of the analytic mind which applies logical atomism to logos itself—a suicide of the word.
Of course there is a credibility gap, since we no longer trust words of any sort as true carriers of meaning. Of course, in psychiatry, words have become schitzogenetic, themselves a cause and source of mental disease. Of course we live in a world of slogan, jargon and press releases, approximating the newspeak of Orwell’s 1984.
U;Good?, by removing the friction between words and meaning, distilling communication to three modes—I’m good, I’m so-so, I’m not good—changes the way we use technology, changes the way we communicate. We don’t need 280 characters; we don’t need video; we don’t gifs. Perhaps all we need are red, yellow, green to signify our feelings and how to prompt our friends that we’re ready to talk.
At the very least, it can draw us together without the toxicity of the social platforms. And we can check-in on one another without feeling like we are breaking some glass. So. You good?
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Blackalicious, “Alphabet Aerobics”
Some interesting links:
For the future of media:
News Corp and Google agree to global partnership on news (News Corp press release)
Hedge fund Alden Global is buying newspaper chain Tribune Publishing (CNN)
Vox Finds Its Next Top Editor at The Atlantic (NYT)
Baltimore Sun Media poised to be acquired by nonprofit from Tribune Publishing (Baltimore Sun)
For media living in glass houses throwing stones:
Former Gimlet Media staffer dishes on the company’s attitudes toward race as Gimlet produces four-part series on Bon Appetite's racial struggles (Eric Eddings thread on Twitter)
For transitioning to first-party data:
After 18 months in the oven, Forbes’s first party data play hits the market (Digiday)
iHeartMedia to Acquire Triton Digital From Scripps (WSJ)
For media criticism:
CNN’s Chris Cuomo is reminding us why conflicts of interest poison the news (Washington Post)
70% of GOP voters support Covid relief —the entire Republican Party opposes it (Press Run)
For privacy issues:
TikTok targeted over ‘misleading’ privacy practices and ‘ambiguous’ terms in Europe (Fortune)