The times of fake news, greenwashing and user data exploitation are over--social media needs to make a 180° turn. That is the message of Greenworlder, a Luxembourg-based start-up. With knowledge, integrity and sustainability at its core, this new digital platform invites users to join a safe space where they can cooperate with responsible partners to address climate change.
Why did you come to Luxembourg with the idea of sustainable social media?
Urban Gillström: Why I came was that I was totally in love with the vision, and I like this kind of big global challenges and change projects. I love the project. Why the company was founded here [is because] we are a European-based alternative to other social media networks. A sustainable alternative based in Europe, [with its] core in Luxembourg. There are no other European-based alternatives. They are predominantly US- or Asia-based.
We selected Luxembourg because it’s a small country, it’s multicultural, it’s multilingual and it’s a very strong ecosystem for what we want to achieve. It’s a strong ecosystem for startups, so we have a very strong element of support and backing. Also, in the area of sustainability, there are very strong organisations and there’s a very expansive policy in Luxembourg that we tap into. We work closely with List [Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology], for instance, in terms of the sustainability, validation and research of the partners we want to bring in.
[There is also] a very strong focus on integrity: a lot of the regulation of the European media landscape is controlled and done from Luxembourg. Big organisations like CNPD [the national commission for data protection] … We work closely with them, because we are completely CNPD-compliant. We are going to do it very differently. I’ve always been in discussions with the CNPD on how we can become a textbook example on how to respect the end-user and how to really do things in line with GDPR… Now we get the testing ground for a multilingual situation in a small community. That will be a very good stepping stone for us when we go out in the surrounding markets in Benelux, and France and Germany and the UK. Obviously, coming from Scandinavia, the Nordics is also very important for our expansion, so the more I look at it, the more I think it’s a very good decision to be here in Luxembourg.
Having been here for a little bit, what do you think of Luxembourg’s digital landscape? Do you think it’s evolved enough?
UG: I think it’s quite evolved in some areas and quite progressive and expansive. We can bring some things such as the sustainability and climate focus we have in the Nordics. That’s something we can bring to Luxembourg with the ambition to drive it further. But in general, it’s very positive. The media [offering] in terms of the digital landscape--there’s still some needed development, but I still see some progress compared to the countries with the highest level which you would typically find in Scandinavia.
What kind of progress do you mean by that?
UG: I think of the whole digitalisation of things and the way you do things. The digitalisation has gone a little bit further in Scandinavia than in Luxembourg and the surrounding markets. I think generally Benelux is quite advanced, but I’ll say that the UK, in terms of the internet landscape, is ahead still…
Regarding social media: using the internet generates quite a high global carbon footprint. Should we not get away from the internet, rather than being more on it?
UG: That’s a very good question. I think that we should use the internet to reduce the carbon footprint, but, generally, as an online company as we are ourselves, we typically have quite a low footprint. But you’re raising an important question when it comes to server capacity and data centres. That’s a clear focus for us--to make sure that we are really sustainable with how we work with data centres when we expand. I think the internet as such will have a positive impact on sustainability and the environment.
Helena Nordström: I don’t think we can go back to not using the internet. It’s just one of those things that we need to deal with and do it in a good way. We were using services; we are dependent on other suppliers right now. We will try with them as much as possible to make it sustainable. And who knows? In the future, we might make something ourselves.
UG: Exactly. We’ve been looking at that and I’m looking right now at those development partners. We will do a lot of development ourselves here in Luxembourg and we’re building a strong team, looking for a lot of people in terms of development and platform management. Some of our partners will also be nearshore and offshore… We’re very careful in selecting from a sustainable point of view the partners we bring onto the network as well, to make sure that anything we do on the network should be beneficial for the environment.
HN: We’re developing the frameworks for which type of partners we allow to use our services. And we’re also going to work together with our advisers to see how we can be ‘sustainable natives’, if that’s even a word, in a really good way, not just to greenwash. We’re thinking about working to do joint research in terms of greenwashing because--although we are a platform that wants to support sustainable solutions, and more content on that--we’re also a communication platform, so we need to make sure that whatever is said on our platform is not [greenwashing]. If a company’s claims are not correct, we will probably not be able to totally avoid that but we will try to see how it can be done.
Helena, as someone who describes themselves as a ‘very addicted social media user’, do you think it’s possible to get people to leave the golden nugget of instant gratification through Instagram likes, etc., for something that makes you think more?
HN: We’re not going to get people to completely leave the platforms that exist. Today, people are opening one app after another. We’re hoping we can pull people more into our platform because of what we stand for, but also, as their awareness grows of what the other platforms are doing… they will hopefully spend more time with our platform. Through that, we hope that we will drive industry change across the board. If you think about Tesla’s mission statement, it’s ‘increasing the speed at which the world is electrified’, so to speak, it’s not ‘bring electrical cars to the market’. Although we hope we’re going to be really big, we also hope that we will have a major effect on other platforms, as they will be forced to change as people become aware of the alternatives in the market.
Do you not think that people who join Greenworlder already want to see that change in the world? Would you not create an echo chamber with your application, because you would only have people in the same mindset of wanting the world to be better?
UG: We want to be unbiased. Obviously, we are biased for some questions. We are biased for making a better climate, for respecting users and having a high integrity network. Okay, we’re going to get some of the users have very clear focus on that, but we target every user. We are a fun social media platform with all the features that you would expect. So no, I don’t think we’re going to create an echo chamber because that goes against the third pillar in our foundation which is knowledge. Today, there is so much… fake news out there and a lot of algorithms that create the echo chambers you’re talking about. That’s what we’re trying to avoid… It’s very important for us to be totally unbiased and transparent.
Another big issue with social media is the mental well-being of users. Facebook and Instagram have recently been revealed as negatively affecting the mental health of young users in the long term…
UG: We had a very important discussion about that even this week because one of our advisors wrote a very distinct piece on his blog on the platform on that exact topic. We think we should also take responsibility to regulate how much people use social media. From the well-being point of view… we should perhaps not increase the number of hours that people are using our social media network. We want some of the hours that are being used today to be diverted and enable them [for] something good. At the same time, for the social good, we are looking at ways to get young people to reduce their time on screens and social media platforms. Which could be seen as counterproductive, but we think that we can do business in the responsible way. We are a commercial company, but we will never overstep those core aspects of integrity, knowledge and sustainability. I think dealing with that problem is very important, and we will not exploit teenagers in that way on our platform. No way.
So less but more meaningful use then?
HN: And algorithms developed for good rather to get you more and more addicted and more and more polarised. Whenever we’re going to implement algorithms, it’s going to be with experts who can guide us with the user’s well-being in mind. Exactly how that could be done is work in progress, but that’s one of our core missions.
UG: Yes. As a user, you should be able to control your footprint and control the information you give away. You should be able to switch off things that you don’t want to see and don’t like. Your user profile should have a toggle where you select for your own benefit. Which you can’t do today.
Do you think they are already changing or a bit slow on the uptake?
HN: Sensitive question. I think they’re slow.
UG: Absolutely. It was well known by some players what was going on in terms of the well-being of teenagers, or that elections were manipulated using platforms, but it was going to limit the profitability so it’s not moving in the right pace. Because it’s not a core purpose of these companies; the companies are about making money. We listened to a very interesting talk [by] one of the investors of the big social media networks who turned from being the coach of top management to become an activist against them because he tried to get them to change. They didn’t change fast enough, and they didn’t listen, so he became an activist and changed not just that company, but the whole industry, and went into politics to do it. We think that by doing it the right way and get[ting] attention, it will stimulate the other players. We don’t see everyone like competition, it’s an ecosystem: some you can partner with, some are just a part of the ecosystem we don’t go to because we want to respect our integrity.
So you think social media can impact the world for the good?
UG: What we really want to do is call out to the sustainable leaders that can make an industry change. And by actually combining doing good and having a strong focus on the climate and environment and doing business at the same time… We wanted to call for action for a big industry change by using a sustainable social media network.
This interview was published in Delano’s Digital & Innovation supplement.