For many of us, using social media can feel anything but social. Instead, a lot of these apps quickly turn into a time suck of doom-scrolling, FOMO, and anxiety for users.
But what if there was a much simpler alternative? That’s the idea behind Somewhere Good, a new social media platform that doesn’t feature likes or a friend count. Instead, founder and CEO Naj Austin created the app as a way to help connect users of color and LGBTQ users with community in a safe space online through 60-second voice notes. Each day, users receive a discussion prompt on the app. They can respond to that prompt or to other users through a voice note.
“When you open your phone, you're either consuming or you're performing,” Austin said. “There is rarely a place in which you can just hang out, and so we started building Somewhere Good about 16 months ago off of the hypothesis, a question: Can we bring people together in an intentional way through their phones?”
LX News storyteller Ngozi Ekeledo recently sat down with Austin to chat about the app that she says folks are calling the “future of the internet.”
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
NGOZI EKELEDO: What was the idea behind the concept of Somewhere Good?
NAJ AUSTIN: Somewhere Good is all about connecting with people you haven't met yet through voice notes. So it's audio based. You come on to the app, you find different communities that you find yourself attached to. The conversations change every day at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard.
Generally the way that Somewhere Good is designed is to kind of calm you. The first thing you see is clouds. Then you see grass. You don't see people. You don't hear voice notes. You're literally taking a pause. There’s literally a screen that says, "Take a deep breath." It really kind of like resets you a bit, whereas again on other platforms, you open it and you're immediately in it. You're just — (panting), you know, heart rate goes up, pulse is up — from the first five seconds. On Somewhere Good, it does the opposite, and so one's reaction to it is also very different.
NGOZI EKELEDO: When people think of social media as it stands, it's like you cannot be your authentic self, even though it's all built around this idea of authenticity. Instead it turns into anxiety and like you mentioned, doomscrolling and depression. As a platform that you've built, how are you all combating that?
NAJ AUSTIN: There are no likes or followers or friending on the Somewhere Good platform. So we've taken away any aspect that makes a person feel like they have to compete with one another and/or be branded, have to show off. You can really just be your authentic self on Somewhere Good.
NGOZI EKELEDO: And also it's a space for Black and brown faces to feel comfortable, which when it comes to social media, it's not always the safest place for people that look like us. So with this platform, how is that, sort of, mechanism or conversation different?
NAJ AUSTIN: As a team of Black, Latin, Asian, queer people, we understand that fully and wholly. And so when we were building Somewhere Good, from the very first, you know, line of code, we thought, "What does it mean for a person who is Black, Latin, Asian, queer to be on this platform? Will they feel safe? Will they feel seen? Does this bring them joy? Does this make them feel connected to people who look and sort of are like-minded in the way that they are?" And if it does not do that, we don't do it.
NGOZI EKELEDO: As an entrepreneur and as a founder, what does it look like to build something like this? What has the journey been like for you?
NAJ AUSTIN: I think that there is a lot of pressure being a Black woman entrepreneur. It's hard to have people take you seriously in the beginning. It often feels like, you know, people think you have a cute passion project and you're like, "I'm trying to build a business that is going to scale and change how people live their lives and change the habits that people have." I think it's always this feeling of wanting to match identity with community and connection and wanting to just kind of uplift that as much as possible.
NGOZI EKELEDO: Why do you think that's not prioritized so much when it comes to social media or when it comes to these tech startups or tech spaces?
NAJ AUSTIN: They are really, really good at turning us into little machines that take in, and I don't want to build that, you know? I want to build something that is long lasting, but actually is healthy and good and valuable, and I think there is a shift coming in terms of people's experiences online and wanting more for themselves.
We have no algorithms in place that are meant to just trigger your hamster brain of more and more and more and more and more. So it is a test of patience, which some people have said, you know, 'The practice of patience has been lost on me, but Somewhere Good has definitely brought it back.’
There have been people who've said that we have already — in the last six weeks we've been live — have changed their relationship to their phone in a positive way. We've had people refer to it as the future of the Internet.
The thing that wakes me up every day is that I've built a product that people love and that has changed their lives already, and I haven't even gotten started, you know? I'm like, "Give me two more years. You're going to be really, really happy!"