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NCSA Affiliate Ben Grosser’s Social Network Featured in New York Times

Social media companies work on an advertising-based for-profit model. To make that profit, they need more data, which requires more interaction and more sign-ups. If you have more friends or followers, the platforms deem you as more important. Ben Grosser, a co-founder of the Critical Technology Studies Lab at NCSA and associate professor in the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has meticulously studied social media

“User activity on a social platform reflects the values embedded in that platform’s structure and presented by its interface,” Grosser explains. “Infinite social media that centers endless growth gets users focused on growth themselves. Their decisions about what to say and how to say it become driven by a received and internalized desire for more (more likes, more follows, etc.).”

Ben Grosser Headshot
Side Portrait of Ben Grosser

This doesn’t mean the desire to connect with others has disappeared, something Grosser knows well. His work aims to get users thinking about what a healthy social media platform could look like. To achieve that goal, Grosser has spent years disrupting the current social media model. His most recent research focus, the subject of his fellowship at the Institute for Rebooting Social Media at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, rejects the idea that social media has to stay stuck in these old ways.

In the fall of 2021, Grosser was commissioned by arebyte Gallery in London to create a new social network as part of his upcoming solo exhibition called Software for Less. His creation, Minus, helped win him a prestigious fellowship at Harvard and, more recently, piqued the interest of the New York Times. As the Times explains, there’s a trend toward more intimate networks of like-minded people searching for a smaller place to discuss their interests.

In the current social media landscape, a user’s worth gets measured by their follower count. The content they’re sharing hardly matters. What matters is how many people see it and react. Negative reactions have the same value as a positive; only those social numbers count.

Grosser’s research focuses on why people behave the way they do when interacting with social networks. He refers to the big social networks as “infinite” – platforms whose model depends on a never-ending growth curve to achieve success. By creating Minus, he’s offering something radically different and researching what unfolds.

“In an age when big social platforms design their interfaces and algorithms to get users focused on more – more likes, more retweets, more followers – I want to know how online sociality might be different if the platform supporting it was designed for less,” Grosser says. “Would it be disorienting to interact on a platform that doesn’t try to induce endless engagement from our every waking second? What might users say – or make – when freed from infinite demand? This is what led me to create Minus, a ‘finite social network’ where users get only 100 posts – for life.”

Minus users have interacted with the app in vastly different ways than how they interact with networks like Twitter. “Finite social media that centers constraint gets users focused on time, life, play,” Grosser says. “On Minus, there’s more poetry than politics. Its users philosophize instead of polarize. There’s almost never trolling or hate speech or most of the other toxic behaviors we see on infinite platforms.”

For far too long, we’ve let corporations focused on hypergrowth and megaprofits define what “social media” is for everyone, to set the terms for what digital interaction could or should be. It’s time to imagine anew what it means – and what it feels like – to connect with others online. We need strange, radical platform experiments that challenge the status quo instead of reproducing it. I believe Minus’ non-profit focus on the finite is essential, but it’s only one approach. We need many more if we’re going to figure out how to do this social media thing better the next time around.

Ben Grosser, associate professor in the School of Art & Design, UIUC

In Ben Grosser’s social media world, there’s little room for monetizing human interaction. If the next generation of social media comes with limitations like the ones Grosser believes it needs to thrive, people using the platform might not mind the restrictions too much. Those limitations just might foster a return to the time when what you said was more important than how many people heard it.

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