A social media app that is healthy and safe by design

updated on 14 April 2021

This article explores how design can help strike a balance in social media, enabling connection without addiction and encouraging on and offline attention and compassion.

Tech and social media play an important part in staying connected with important people in my life, especially those who live elsewhere. That being said, I've had to make conscious moves over the last couple of years to safeguard my time and energy so that I can focus, get stuff done, and be present with people around me. Now, most of my notifications are off, I use airplane mode at night, and I have fixed appointments for catch up calls with friends far away. Basically, I do everything I can to use social media without it using me. 

Anyone who has made similar moves to take control of directing their attention and energy will know what a chore this is, and that most social media apps have default settings that are designed to draw your attention to them as much as possible. They are purposely designed to form habits that are in their interest, regardless of how that affects our wellbeing. So it’s up to us as individuals to fix it, but should it be

The global Covid-19 pandemic has narrowed down our options to connect when in lockdown. This makes it even more important that the tools we connect with strengthen our wellbeing. Tech companies, designers and programmers share the responsibility to figure out how design can help strike a balance, enabling connection without addiction and encouraging on and offline attention and compassion.

This article explains why and how the Riposte app is designed to be healthy and psychologically safe to use. It is part of a series that introduces Riposte, a new social sharing and wellbeing app in Aotearoa New Zealand that uses data for collective wellbeing response and measurement. The other parts of the series focus on paying people for their data, aggregated analytics for collective wellbeing, using data for good as an alternative social media business model and our purpose and vision.

The design challenge

So far, the trend in social media has been to design for addiction. Anyone who has opened an app to look up something and then lost an hour zombie-scrolling knows that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok are designed to keep you hooked, maximizing your screen time. Giving away our valuable attention (and data) to private companies who use it to feed their advertising-based business model might be easier to stomach if more screen time were better for us, but it’s not.

Although staying in touch through social media can provide emotional support, there is a point at which more screen time is significantly linked to increased depression. I remember one day looking up after an afternoon of scrolling and realising that platform always left me feeling kind of empty. At that time in my life, I was already struggling with my mental health, so I closed the tab and took the app off my phone. I still log on on my computer sometimes to check in with some people, but I avoid the long hours and I can’t say I miss it. It’s not that I don’t want to stay up to date on what my friends and family are doing, but that connection should make me feel better, not worse.

Then there is a question of cyberbullying. Research on young people in the US has linked cyberbullying to suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. That means that for a lot of young people that want to connect through social media, existing platforms do not provide a psychologically safe space. 

So the challenge is twofold: can we design for healthier habits and safe spaces for expression, and can we develop business models that allow it? We look at the business model challenge in another blog post, so for now, let’s focus on the design challenge, and how Riposte has taken it on.

When the Riposte app was built, our team asked themselves: how do we create an environment where people:

1) Can express themselves authentically to people who they care about?; 

2) Can be safe from abuse and harassment?;

3) Are free from being targeted, influenced and manipulated by advertising, propaganda and ‘fake news’?

The result is a social media app that is designed to minimise screen time, limit posting frequency, and not allow anyone to comment on or share your post. These features are the result of conscious design choices aiming to form healthier social media habits that incentivise more intentional connection, both on and offline, and to create safe spaces for authentic expression. The rest of this article explains these design features in more detail. I invite you to imagine you are a contributor on Riposte, and hear how our design choices affect your experience when you post on the app. 

"At every stage in the design process, we thought about how our choices would affect our contributors' wellbeing. We listened to young people about what they liked and didn't like about social media, and we tested our ideas with them. We chose not to add any algorithms or design features that would make our app addictive." 

Debs – Riposte founder

Before we go there, a short note on language. It’s been noted that social media platforms that are designed to be addictive ironically call the people who sign up to them ‘users’. Since Riposte makes a conscious choice to design for wellbeing, we are also experimenting with changing the language around our social media app. In that spirit, we call people who sign up to our app ‘contributors’. This is also in line with the collective wellbeing research that you can contribute to by posting on Riposte. 

Forming healthy habits for intentional connection

As a contributor on Riposte, you build the daily habit of reflection by focusing on your positive and negative experiences. Reflection is an important tool for personal growth and self awareness. It gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the busyness of the day, sort through experiences and observations, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. So how does it work in the Riposte app? You start by choosing whether you want to post a high (fistpump) or a low (facepalm).

Image: The Riposte home screen showing options to post a 'fistpump' or 'facepalm'.
Image: The Riposte home screen showing options to post a 'fistpump' or 'facepalm'.

So how does it work in the Riposte app? You start by choosing whether you want to post a high (fistpump) or a low (facepalm). Then you identify what kind of positive or negative emotion you experienced and how intense the emotion was. After that, you are asked to share what the experience was about with free text and (optionally) a picture.

Image: Screenshots of the emotion selection stage of posting on the Riposte app.
Image: Screenshots of the emotion selection stage of posting on the Riposte app.

There is no option to for others to comment on, forward, share your post, or to direct message you. The only response possible in the app is to ‘support’ a post, which activates compassion.

Image: Screenshots of posts on the Riposte app. Here Debs is able to see how many people have supported her post (and who), and can share or delete her post. Debs is only able to tap the Support button on Pete's post, or report it via the information button.
Image: Screenshots of posts on the Riposte app. Here Debs is able to see how many people have supported her post (and who), and can share or delete her post. Debs is only able to tap the Support button on Pete's post, or report it via the information button.

The goal behind limiting interactions through the app is to encourage you to reach out to others in person or over the phone. This allows for an intentional post that expresses your experience on multiple levels and enables people around you to reach out and support you outside the app. 

Riposte makes a conscious effort to limit your screen time. You can post a fistpump or a facepalm at any point during the day and a reminder is delivered at a set time in the evening if you haven't posted yet that day. Every day, you have a max of seven posts.

Apart from the evening reminder, all notifications are set to 'off' as default, meaning Riposte won’t interrupt your day and try to entice you back to the app.

There are no algorithms to keep you engaged and your newsfeed is chronological. You only see posts of people you follow and posts come in the order they were posted. When you’ve read them all, nothing new appears. You are free to leave the screen.

In short, Riposte is purposely designed not to be addictive, because we value the time and attention you spend posting and respect that you have other stuff to do, both on and offline. 

Creating a safe space where you can be yourself

Posting is about expressing yourself only, not about getting responses from others online. In feedback to the Riposte team, young people have said that sometimes negative posts on social media are seen as "attention seeking" and positive posts like "showing off". Because Riposte is designed for daily sharing highs and lows, youth have reported that they feel they have "permission" to express how they really feel. 

Riposte aims to create a psychologically safe ecosystem for you as a contributor to share your experiences. Besides the absence of options to comment and share posts, Riposte also discourages contributors from including personal names in the topic of their posts. The aim of this is to encourage you to identify the topic, event, actions or behaviours that trigger positive or negative experiences, rather than the people. Through these design features, you can experience individual safety while enabling collective vulnerability, which in turn provides authentic data that can have a greater impact. 

To be clear, Riposte does use your data, because we believe that decision making should factor in the wellbeing of people and the planet. Posts can be directed to specific research groups, providing you with an avenue to connect your experience to issues you care about in society. Data from your posts is only disseminated after it has been aggregated, so that decision makers can never track input back to you as an individual contributor.

When you post privately, your post will still feed into the collective dataset but not be visible to any other contributors. This Private Post feature was built in response to feedback collected shortly after the height of the #metoo movement, when a number of young women wanted to post the hashtag on social media, to help show the enormity of the problem, but didn't want to disclose their experience to friends and family. This is particularly relevant if you want to influence decision makers and to keep up the habit of daily reflection even if you’re not in the mood to share that particular post with others.

Image: Screenshots showing the sharing options when posting on the Riposte app.
Image: Screenshots showing the sharing options when posting on the Riposte app.

As a contributor, you control who sees your posts and collective analytics are anonymised. You decide whether your post is visible to followers, private, public, or in groups. Followers are your followers on the Riposte app. Groups of specific followers can be set up, like ‘Close Friends’ or ‘Family’ so that you can choose to share posts with specific groups only. And if you end up changing your mind about a post and delete it, it is really deleted, also in the Riposte database. 

We at Riposte are excited about the design of our app and how it can contribute to a social media landscape that improves our collective and individual wellbeing. We’re also working on an innovative business model (spoiler: it’s not advertising based) that supports our vision.

We’re keen to hear your thoughts on what we’ve shared so far. Tag us on social @riposteapp or get in touch on info@riposte.app for a good old phone or video call.

About the author: Mariska van Gaalen is a Dutch-Kiwi who moved back to Aotearoa New Zealand after 26 years abroad. Her background is in sustainable development, mostly as a researcher and writer. She has settled in Tairāwhiti and is keen to work more locally supporting positive impact projects and ventures. She currently writes for Riposte, is learning how to grow oyster mushrooms zero waste, and does the occasional stint sanding houses. Mariska is also part of the crew at Tāiki E! Impact House, where Riposte is based.

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