This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
It’s 4AM on a Saturday morning and I can’t sleep. Instead I’m sitting bolt upright in bed, staring at the bloodshot eyes crying black liquid, faces covered with filters and, thrillingly, the uncensored nipples and dicks that now fill my phone screen. I’m on the largely unknown but strangely compelling app, New Life.AI.
Since its official launch six months ago, New Life has been dubbed “the new Tumblr” by Dazed and attracted positive coverage in Paper and on Hunger. An entirely new social media platform, it claims to offer an alternative to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter in its focus on ‘quality-driven algorithm’ and something called the ‘aesthetics economy.’ Its makers say it has been designed with creatives – photographers, writers, artists, musicians, models – in mind, and aims to be used by the same community.
New Life certainly feels very different to established social media sites. You can’t visit other people’s feeds nor follow anyone, and likes don’t exist. Users interact with one another by ‘voting’ for the images and videos they like by holding down on the screen. The longer you press and hold, the more you’ve enjoyed the content. If you dislike something, you can leave a comment saying why. At present, these comments don’t go directly to the user but instead feed New Life’s artificial intelligence, helping it better understand the content people enjoy seeing.
Alongside learning what users like, Nuvi – New Life’s AI bot with a robotic female voice – gives short explainers on how to use the app and sends encouraging messages that appear as lock screen notifications. New Life’s creator Vector Newman, a self-described ‘tech nerd’, tells me that while AI is often portrayed as a dystopian force, his team aimed to “create technology that’s friendly. Not the cold friendliness from corporate AI.” He adds: “We’re actually going to train the algorithm with Urban Dictionary for example, so it can understand the slang that young people use.”
New Life also differs from established social media platforms in its openness about how the content you see is sorted. No one knows what it takes to get onto the Instagram ‘Explore’ page, or how the list of people who view your Stories is ordered. TikTok’s algorithm is designed to present more of the content a user has previously liked, but its creators won’t explain how this works. New Life, on the other hand, has a Telegram Messenger group where users can ask questions about how the platform functions.
“People are becoming familiar with algorithms because of other social media apps, like Instagram,” says Newman. “We want to create a culture where people understand what they are and understand how they’re designed.”
Clearly, New Life wants to distance itself from the flaws of existing social media sites, but I wonder what potential it has for users. Instagram influencers can now make up to six figures per post, and early adopters who spent years posting their every waking moment are now lauded and criticised like major celebrities. Basically, what I want to know is, how do I become New Life famous?
“The winners of Instagram would be losers on New Life.AI,” Newman says. “People who create good content will be winners of New Life.AI and they can have much more exposure. Some people have just 300 followers on Instagram, but are actually really cool. They’re losers on Instagram, but will have loads of New Power on New Life.”
On New Life, clout isn’t measured by your follower count or how many likes you get – these concepts don’t exist. Instead, it’s measured in ‘New Power’, a user score calculated using three different elements: Vote Power (how consistent your voting pattern is with the rest of the community and also your own past voting); Node Power (how well your content is doing on the platform); and Network Power (how well you’ve contributed to the platform through inviting other ‘valuable’ users).
I start by posting pictures from my camera roll that didn’t make it onto Instagram, which is most of them, and so my New Life feed comes alive with selfies, thirst traps of me lounging about the house, adverts from an old Playboy magazine, memes, shots of my nails and landscapes from my last holiday. After a half-hearted two-day stint on the site, I rank 709th globally, which sounds really low but according to Newman, New Life has 20,000 users at the time of writing, with 6,000 being ‘very active.’ In other words, it’s not too shabby.
I soon find that time isn’t really a factor on New Life. Unlike other social media platforms, which promote their ‘instant’ and ‘live’ capabilities, there’s no way of knowing when content was posted on New Life. All uploads have the same opportunity to be viewed and voted on by everyone, so your selfie can go viral, even if it was posted months ago. This level of visibility for all users is an important feature, according to Newman.
“Mood board culture started on Tumblr and lots of subcultures were born from it,” he says. “Our model is similar, but it will reward creators economically.”
This is another of New Life’s USPs. Users who accumulate Network Power also earn New Coin, New Life’s cryptocurrency. New Coin is still in its development stage, but is intended to work in a similar way to Bitcoin, with the potential to be exchanged for actual cash. For now, though, this is all theory as New Life’s ‘economic model’ hasn’t yet launched for all users. However Newman does believe that New Coin will have a huge impact on those who use the app.
“Most people don’t realise how much they contribute in terms of data or content. There’s a lot of money being made from us, but we don’t see it,” he says. “You just scroll your timeline and tap here and there, you don’t realise that you contribute to a giant pile of wealth.”
A social media site that pays content creators sounds somewhat too good to be true, especially when considering the difficulty of tracking down copyright on image-sharing platforms, so I’m curious to know where New Life is receiving investment from. No information is published about this online, but when I ask Newman, he proudly tells me that New Life has not received funding from venture capitalists. (Newman is currently based in France, while a team of New Life software engineers works from Prague.)
“We refused equity funding from big venture capital firms because it conflicted with what we wanted to achieve,” he says. “No investor is willing to buy shares in our company without asking for some kind of control of the company. That’s completely normal but we want the community to have all the control. We have received some support from people, our friends, who are part of the community. They have donated up to $10,000 dollars, which covers our rent and food whilst we work 15 hours a day.”
After a few more days on New Life, I realise that I’m a lot less mindful about the kind of images I upload, compared to Instagram. I post pretty much anything I've enjoyed seeing: a helium balloon floating by the air conditioning units at work; a photo my boyfriend takes of me in the park. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from doing this on Instagram, other than the very public shame of receiving less than 12 likes. Racking up New Power offers an ego boost similar to Instagram likes or retweets – it’s still people enjoying your content, after all – but it feels like a different kind of hit to the photo sharing app, which has been found to foster low self esteem and body image issues among young people.
Is the mental health of users something Newman took into consideration when developing New Life? “For us, it’s about what you create, not about you. This is something that people have to unlearn,” he says. “We’ve tried to do everything in a way that people won’t take anything personally and see it more as a video game where you earn points. We’ve made it look more like a video game, but at the end you can get real positive outcomes if you ‘play’ well.”
At the end of my week on New Life, I rank 56th on the global scale with 262.8K New Power. Although I’m quite clearly still not famous, it’s a huge achievement considering I have a job and sadly can’t spend all day looking at social media.
For Newman, New Life.AI is only set to grow in the coming months. “We’re constantly learning from users and from data,” he says. “Everything will come together at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.”