Triin Kask from Soulie: "Social media giants must rethink their business models or face the fate of Nokia.”

Triin Kask is an entrepreneur with over 13 years of experience and a familiar face to the sTARTUp Day audience, particularly from 2021 when she was our Program Manager. We talked to Triin about digital exhaustion, the broken ad-based revenue model of social media giants and how her new venture Soulie tackles the problem.

Triin is an active member of the Estonian startup ecosystem, having served as a board member of the Estonian Founders Society. As a CEO, she built Nevercode, a cloud-based continuous integration and delivery platform. Now her team is building something completely new – a personal algorithm concept that takes into account users’ preferences that lets them control their information feed. Learn from the interview why they are doing that.

This interview was written by Rene Rumberg, a member of the sTARTUp Day communications & marketing team

There is an ongoing trend where people, including superstars who've relied on social media to promote their work, are turning away from social media or replacing their smartphones with "dumb phones." Why do we see it happening? Weren't social media and smartphones supposed to make our lives better?

People are doing that because they are exhausted. We are social animals who want to meet people face-to-face. We've realized that the digital overload does not help us to increase the social element in our lives but instead diminishes it.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is related to the fear of missing out or FOMO. Also, if we talk about social media, it has become "Let me show you how fun my life is and what cool people I'm meeting. I want you to envy my life and give me your like, and leave a comment saying, "Omg, that is super awesome!" At the same time, when we see others’ posts, we feel the same "Omg, this person and their life is amazing, I wish I could spend my time at those nice places with those nice people."

It's exhausting and gives no value to anybody. In fact, it's doing the opposite, draining the energy from us, as we realize now after having used social media for so many years.

The other thing is how content is presented to us. Social media and the content industry

today are based on the infinite scroll that serves the purpose of showing as many ads as possible. The only way to do that is to figure out how to use people's data to keep them scrolling. The algorithms make people feel that they're given the content they want, but at the same time, make it dependent on fast-moving content, like IG Reels and TikTok videos.

It's been scientifically proven that people's attention span has diminished from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, that is, by one-third. It’s awful! After all, our brains are still in the stone age, and we can't digest that much information. This is why we're tired, procrastinating, and come out of infinity scrolling with less energy and productivity. It's the business model of the industry that has done it to us.

So people need to be very self-aware and use tools to overcome that addiction. Some people who are not that strong end up leaving social media and going back to dumb phones altogether.

There's a saying that if a service is for free, then in reality, it means the user is a product because their data is being used to keep you hooked on it. That is why BeReal and other similar apps, without the infinity scroll, are currently trending.

It's good to see solutions that help us understand the current way is not sustainable. We cannot create the social element of the internet based on FOMO, collecting likes and creating content that promotes a fancy lifestyle that isn't achievable or sustainable for most people. That said, I have also heard stories about people trying to look good on BeReal by fine-tuning.

We have this element of wanting to show we’re better than we are – it’s rooted in our mating behavior where we're showing our best features. It is effortless to do that on social media because you can take time off to reveal the best version of yourself. There's no physical, instant appearance or interaction with people, so you can always manipulate time in this sense.

Digital mental health is essential for young people whose brains are still developing. In your opinion, what steps should be taken, by companies, governments, communities, and parents, to protect the most vulnerable ones from the harm of the digital world?

Each of those stakeholders has different goals and activities that they should do, and I would leave the government out of it. The government can only help with the educational part, and they're already doing that by organizing training, lectures, and information hours, where they talk about digital and social media threats for children at school, including cyberbullying, identity theft, etc.

Parents are often themselves paralyzed by smartphones, as they use those devices as babysitters. It's effortless to hush the baby down in a public place and stop the crying, which might seem like magic. In reality, it damages the brain, as scientific research has shown us – the earlier we give the smartphone to kids, the more damage it inflicts on their cognitive abilities.

We weren't always aware of those dangers and consequences. Now that we have learned about them, we can also be more mindful of our kids. This shift is already happening where parents are becoming more reasonable in how frequently and early they give out their smartphones to kids.

Coming to business, then that's a tricky question. Let's take FB, Twitter, TikTok, or Google, whose whole business is an ad-based revenue stream. They’d need to turn around the entire ship and redesign the business model to change it.

It is tough for them to be like BeReal or we at Soulie, doing it from day one – building up trust, being very transparent about how data is used and algorithms are built and giving power to the people about what they want to see in their feeds.

If those gigantic companies with ad-based revenue models want to avoid ending up as Nokia did, they need to implement tough measures. I'm placing my bets on newcomers, though, bringing value to their users rather than using them as a product to sell their data to advertisers.

You also brought up the example of TikTok, which I would say is evil. In the US version of 60 Minutes, there was an episode about TikTok where they talked about two different versions of TikTok – one designed for the western world and one only available in mainland China. The Chinese version of TikTok contains educational content, such as science experiments that youngsters can try at home. Meanwhile, the western version of TikTok is full of dull content that makes you dumber, not smarter. Also, the Chinese TikTok is limited to 40 minutes per day, while in the west, young people have unlimited access to content that can be dangerous to their cognitive abilities.

Exactly! TikTok is evil. I have never downloaded it, but one of my kids managed to do it before I saved them from going down this rabbit hole. The first moment when I heard about TikTok, I thought automatically, "It's Chinese!". China is an authoritarian state and society. A lot of business done there is controlled by the government and then exported to the west, secretly collecting data from users on behalf of the Chinese government, which can then be used to extort or blackmail individuals or companies. So it's a colossal cybersecurity threat. Regular users have yet to learn what's happening behind the scenes and how this data is used in cyber and information wars. We don't know the consequences yet, but we've already seen how Russia managed to polarize the US and UK populations during the 2016 elections and Brexit voting. With TikTok, it's the same. I recommend everyone in the west delete TikTok from their devices and not give them their data.

In Estonia, the Information System Authority even recommends separate smart devices for TikTok because of potential threats.

They mine your data. From the individual perspective, you might think, "Okay, but I'm a regular person. Why would they care about me?" but it's not about you. It's about collective data and knowledge they get and how they can intervene with our society and democratic processes. We must remember that there is always a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. We, in democracy, think that everybody should have freedom, even if they're dictators. In totalitarianism, on the other hand, they don't want democracy to exist, so they do everything to interfere with our democracy and our values.

Let’s come back to digital fatigue. How can one spot the symptoms within self?

The first thing that people notice is that time flies past really quickly. "Omg, where did this one hour go? I just went to check out Instagram reels for 10 minutes, and now an hour has passed!". It's like reading a great book that consumes you – you lose track of time. The infinity scroll does the same thing, but unlike a good book, it doesn't give you fantastic content or context. It only gives you a low value of information because it uses the fast pace of information flow to trick your brain into producing dopamine. You come out without good knowledge, and because you don't have any energy left anymore, you're procrastinating on the important things you were supposed to do.

People are turning their obligations the other way around – first, they want to feel the ease of the addiction to the extent that they are ready to give up their dreams, ambitions, and work-related goals. When a person realizes this is happening to them, I suggest doing a social media detox for a month.

Make an experiment in 2023 – sign off social media, observe what happens to you, and the fear of missing out.

After one month, if you feel this was the worst thing that has ever happened to you, then by all means, go back to social media! But I believe that you will find your life becomes better, and you will find the energy for the important stuff. After that, you can find tools to limit your time on social media and be very conscious about dividing your time between essential things and not important things.

Do you have any other recommendations for overcoming social media fatigue?

Doing 'A day off per week' from social media and smart devices, including computers. Because it's not only social media, it can also be games, Netflix, or whatever consumes your time and feeds the addiction. Using tools to track time – or being a very effective person and choosing only one social media app that you use.

You can leave yourself some time on social media without needing to cut it down by 100%, but being in control and allowing yourself to be away is the way to go about it. It's also important not to feel guilty, not because of FOMO, but because of what other people may think when you’re not present on social media — for example, "Omg, you haven't posted anything for a week, are you okay?!". In my opinion, this needs to be in our school curriculums. We must teach our children that it's all about ourselves and not the expectations of others. We must meet our expectations and be good to others, but not live by others’ expectations.

To tackle the problems we just talked about, you're working on a project called Soulie. How will Soulie help to solve this issue?  

Soulie started from the realization of me and my co-founder, Ann. We are tech-savvy people who want to learn new things on the internet – because this is what the internet is meant for. At the same time, we felt digital exhaustion. While trying to get a particular bit of information, I am given the full pool, and it's exhausting.

So we felt that there is a need for a digital solution that takes into account people’s preferences and only gives them the information they need/want and excludes all extra noise. We understood that the current platforms don’t allow it and we have to turn around the ad-based business model by building up the feeds of information not based on how long we can keep you active in the app but on how much good content we can bring to you. The power needs to be in the hands of the people.

That's how we came up with the idea of Soulie. Soulie is a personal algorithm concept where people can choose their preferences and change them anytime if they have lost interest in a topic so that they control the feed and information they're seeing. We have learned from our community of 3000 members that what they want from the internet is to enhance their knowledge and feel that their time was well spent. The current digital world is not giving it to them. It’s our mission to change that.

Triin Kask is speaking on stage on Day 2 of sTARTUp Day 2023 on 17 March. Check out all the other announced speakers.
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