What do we sacrifice when we opt into social media? We exchange anywhere from a modicum to a massive chunk of our mental health — not to mention a huge amount of privacy — in order to connect, to receive the dopamine rush of being quite “liked” online. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook run on users’ feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, providing an endless, scrolling loop of aspiration, virtue signaling, and doom. Our existences online are by nature incomplete and intended for consumption. Is it possible to bring your whole self to a social-media platform? Is it possible to get the connection and conversation we crave without the doomscroll?
Somewhere Good, a new social platform launched last month, intends to find out. The app is like nothing I’ve seen before; it’s voice-recording based, for one. It not only requires users to agree to a set of community guidelines, it also invites them to collaborate and make suggestions to expand and improve them. What is most striking, however, is the way it’s designed.
There are no followers, no likes, no personal feeds or profiles beyond the very basics: name, pronouns, location, and photo. Currently, the app includes four “worlds” that users can choose to enter: Artist Rituals, Communal Care, Radical Library, and Deep Discourse. Every day, a new prompt is released for each world, and users can record their own responses and/or reply to the responses of others. This is all represented in the form of a path that curves back and forth across your smartphone screen. And it was designed by Annika Hansteen-Izora.
Hansteen-Izora, who uses they/she/he pronouns, describes themself as a queer artist, writer, and designer. Her multidisciplinary creative output includes art directing, poetry, a newsletter, memes, user experience and web design, a book titled Tenderness: An Honoring of my Black Queer Joy and Rage, and more. His work expands our imaginations to what the internet can be, and his own personal use of social-media platforms exemplifies that.
Hansteen-Izora spoke with us about how Somewhere Good came to be and how to use the internet for nourishment, community building, and possibly even personal growth.
How are you doing? This month has been particularly intense, in the world and by extension on the internet.
It’s so much intensity after intensity. This year, I’ve been really trying to disengage from the fast noise of social media and actually give myself some time to process away from the screen. So I’ve been kind of offline this week, just holding everything.
When you have been online, has Somewhere Good been a source of comfort for you?
It has allowed me to go to a space that feels quiet and feels like it’s moving at a slower pace. So much of social media is, by design, condensed information — it’s made to be bite-size. So the internet feels faster paced. It’s been really soothing to go to a space where I’m still meeting my desire to connect with people and talk with people, but in a digital realm that’s slower, and that is allowing for a bit more vulnerability, a bit more contemplation, and an ability to hold uncertainty.
I’ve heard you use the term digital garden in describing your work. What does that mean?
I understand digital gardens as online spaces where many people are coming together to tend to seeds, which can be understood as content. The container that digital gardens are held in is a commitment to sustainability, pluralism, and cyclical growth. It entails adaptation and a culture of learning.
How were you able to bring together your tech and design skills with your interest in building community? Did one come first?
I grew up in a household that was also holding different intersections at the same time. My family has really deep roots in Black artistry and Black art communities, and my dad was really into technology, really into gaming. I could see that both things could exist at the same time. When I was growing up, the internet was such a big way that I accessed Black community, Black knowledge, queer knowledge, the queer archive. As my relationship with my art deepened, the internet was always a tool facilitating that.
Social media is designed to make us all consumable, which translates into turning people into brands. Brands have one single message, and they’re always signaling that one specific, digestible message. I’m a multifaceted artist; I’m a designer across web and product and brand. I’m also a writer, I’m a poet, I’m a multimedia artist. In order for the internet to be a tool that brought a sense of learning and joy, I had to hack it in a way that would allow for that multiplicity. That’s how I approach being online right now.
Another term you’ve often used in discussing your work is interdependence. How do you cultivate interdependence, and where did you first encounter the concept?
I came to that term through learning about disability justice as someone who is neurodivergent and who has found that I can’t do all this alone. I don’t think that we’re meant to navigate our lives solo. That is a narrative that Western culture, specifically when it’s at the intersection of capitalism, really loves to hold — the narrative of hyperindividuality. I was in a place with my mental health where I really needed support. Interdependence offered a route that honored the care of the self alongside the care of others and showed how those two are actually in loving relationship. Mariame Kaba says, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” I really stand by that. One of the bravest and most revolutionary things we can do is care for one another.
How does the app align with all of these personal beliefs and practices of yours?
On Somewhere Good, we design around connection. So there are no followers, likes, ads, or algorithms suggesting content. There is no endless scroll. We really wanted to explore what it would look like if we created a social-media platform that moves against hierarchy and making people into brands. We’re also deeply thinking about what care and safety mean when creating online connections that feel more tender and meaningful and not so transactional and extractive. We have a set of community guidelines, which is a living document that our users can add suggestions to. We’re thinking about what it would look like to create a moderation system that doesn’t feel carceral, that actually can be rooted in some of the principles of transformational justice. And we’re thinking about citation, ensuring that creators and people on the platform are properly credited for their contributions.
You were a big part of the inception of the app and the design of it — could you talk about where it came from and the design process?
I was previously on the team at Ethel’s Club, a wellness platform for people of color founded by Naj Austin, who is also the CEO of Somewhere Good. When the pandemic came, we needed to shift to an online approach. We set about thinking, What would it look like to have an online platform that is about meaningful connection, that is also about putting marginalized people first and not treating them as an afterthought?
I led design across all visual touchpoints. I was thinking about what joy looks like to me on the internet, and I was brought back to earlier conceptions of playful online spaces: Neopets, Club Penguin, Microsoft Paint, those early chaotic days of MySpace, customized Tumblr blogs. When I think about the design of social-media apps today, it’s very clean and very minimalist, lending itself to digestibility. The design of Somewhere Good roots itself in playfulness and maximalism with nuance. We’re very color driven. We have a set of icons that were all created by artists of color. We bring in collage work. I wanted this design to feel like you’re arriving at a playground.
Can you talk about the decision to make Somewhere Good audio based and the intention behind it?
Our first values are rooted in deepening connection, and in honoring and supporting Black expression. Oral tradition is deeply rooted in Blackness. There’s a certain vulnerability in audio, and we wanted to explore that intimacy. There is a deepened connection to our selfhood with voice. There is a nuance that voice captures that often isn’t found in other mediums, and a deeper attention.
Black culture runs the internet, but it isn’t respected. It isn’t valued; it isn’t cited. So it’s a powerful thing, building from a place that is honoring Black expression online, when it’s had so much of an impact but not a lot of respect and not a lot of care surrounding it.
What role do you see Somewhere Good playing in the larger social-media landscape? What do you dream of for the app’s future?
I’m excited to see the ways that we can support people in connecting with more intention and tenderness, and the ways that we can encourage people to learn, archive, and connect to one another as sources of knowledge. We’re also thinking more about connecting the online experience to IRL experiences, and what the potentials are in an online platform that is thinking about IRL connection as well. I’m really excited for what that can look like.
I love that — on most social-media platforms, the point is to keep you online. By nature, they cannot encourage you to live a life outside of that.
Exactly. In one of our early tests, we had a “weekend mode.” That meant that the app was not available on the weekend, and instead there was a screen that told users “we are not here. Enjoy your experience outside of this app.” Although we don’t have the weekend screen anymore, we’re thinking about what a social platform looks like when it actually does not want its users to be on it constantly and instead is a tool that can support their lives off of the app as well.