The site, set up by a mother wanting to offer her son an alternative to Facebook, is defining itself against Mark Zuckerberg’s ubiquitous social network, as well as Google+.
But Google+ is experiencing roller-coaster metrics and Facebook’s metrics are levelling out or even falling. So what does the Orwellian-sounding Unthink have to offer that’s different?
Information as users' property
Unthink’s primary pitch is that it allows users to retain ownership of the information they post. New Unthink users are presented with an “Emancipation Deed”.
The deed reads like a national constitution with a preamble, covenants and principles. Unthink, it proposes, is not simply providing one-sided terms and conditions that benefit the network. Rather, it sets great store by a spatial property metaphor as a way to distinguish itself from other social networks, stating:
“Where do you stand? FOR or AGAINST the emancipation of social media? Facebook is a platform of control that takes away your FREEDOM in exchange for giving you a ‘free’ service. […] UNTHINK is an emancipated platform that is ‘free’ and also guarantees your FREEDOM. It is founded on a new legal structure.
“The UNTHINK Deed grants you ownership of the virtual ‘lot’ on which you build your social networking homestead or domicile, enabling you, whether you are an individual or brand, to maintain ownership of your profile, relationships, conversations, and all your content. The UNTHINK Deed upgrades your legal status from a USER to an OWNER.”
In proposing this metaphor, Unthink also attempts to provide users with a more transparent relationship between themselves and corporate use of their data.
Rather than the opaque manner in which Facebook and other social media services sell users as a product to unknown advertisers, Unthink users are given the opportunity to knowingly endorse a brand in exchange for free use of the service.
Currently only Unthink itself is available as a brand, although the company’s introductory video includes references to Nike, Amazon and Macy’s.
This endorsement idea highlights the transactional nature of social media. It attempts to demonstrate the value of this transaction to both sides.
Interestingly, users may also pay a small fee to have an ad and endorsement-free service, but it appears Unthink still reserves the right to collect saleable demographic information. Despite the lengthy nature of the emancipation document, not everything is completely clear.
Freedom through tree-dom
Unthink uses the metaphor of a tree with different branches in an attempt to clarify the relationship between ownership of personal information and self-presentation on their site.
Unthink is pitched as a social media “suite”, not simply a “service”. The difference being that suite implies the provision of a number of services. This is an important key to the Unthink interface and its underlying metaphor of the social tree.
The metaphor represents the user as a trunk and the users' social groups as branches on a tree. Four branches are specified in particular: Public, Social, Lifestyle, and Professional.
The introductory video demonstrates the ways in which users will be invited to deliberately craft different versions of self-presentation for each user group. The suite interface itself reflects this separation.
A user can design self-presentations to align with their social group (the way you want to be seen by friends), lifestyle group (the way you want to be seen by brands and as endorsing brands), and professional group (the way you want to be seen by colleagues).
The difference between this and the kind of granular sharing control of Facebook’s Lists and Google+’s Circles is that Unthink has hit upon a strikingly literal manifestation of Erving Goffman’s notions of face and crafted self-presentation.
Unthink separates the entirety of group talk, photos and so on, much more than Facebook and Google+. This may have the effect of making the different versions of users' presentations not just obvious but almost impossible to circumvent.
In comparison to Unthink, I have wondered why Google+’s Circles (which I find rather engaging) has proved non-intuitive for many people. I believe it’s something to do with earlier systems such as Facebook training us to accept an unrealistically simple model of a single, open tsunami of sharing.
Facebook’s two-way “Friending” automatically gives us access to everything from that person, but that is not like the offline world.
The offline world operates more like Google+ Circles, in that we do not necessarily get or give full two-way access. But while the Circle-defining interface itself is nicely concrete, the actual stream itself does not present as concrete a view of multiple audiences as Unthink.
Unthink’s separation is much less sophisticated than Google+, but perhaps it’s a useful stepping stone to a rethink of selective self-presentation. Unthink also lacks other sophisticated ideas about social connection, such as Linked-In’s “how do you know X?” query and degrees of separation for contacts.
These are early days for Unthink. It has some usability and lag problems to overcome, not to mention a counter-intuitive name: why not “rethink” rather than “unthink”?
It also has an even larger “features aren’t friends” problem than Google+. That said, its simple separation of profiles may end up being a very important driver to adoption.
And for those who are disillusioned with the constant privacy issues thrown up by Facebook, the many faces of Unthink may provide some answers.
Will you try Unthink? Have your say in the comments below.