Social media provides a unique mechanism for fast communication and all sorts of good things. But it’s not so great for fostering real, authentic, in-person interaction. Thus while the potential upside is huge, so is the downside.
About three years ago, psychologist Dr. Richard Wolman started noticing a troubling phenomenon among many of his tech-using patients. They seemed to be suffering from an anxiety that stemmed from a lack of strong real-life bonds.
After he shared that observation with friend and entrepreneur/techie Paul Schulz, they started working on a concept—a platform that could create what Schulz calls “a digital humanist response” to the interpersonal vacuum and online bubbles caused by social media.
In 2015, they launched Wistla, which is what they describe as a “sociable network”, or an app with which communities of like-minded people can gather and share their experiences, aimed initially at Millennials. The startup is now based in London and New York City.
Basically, the platform allows groups sharing a common interest to engage in an offline activity together. “We create face-to-face interactions around stuff you’re interested in,” says Schulz. “We’re trying to get back to local community-building—creating ways to connect authentically around things you love to do.” So, for example, if you like gardening and volunteering, you can “wistl” or digitally shout out on the site and form a “crowd” of like-minded people. From there, the founders hope groups will expand into larger and, perhaps, global communities.
During the app’s beta test last year, there was a crowd of enthusiasts following a team of five amateur rowers, who traveled from Portugal to Venezuela in 50 days. Supporters communicated via Facebook and Twitter, but also used Wistla to arrange get-togethers and, after the voyage was over, form other groups around shared health and fitness activities.
The startup is now taking part in the PeaceTech Accelerator, a new eight–week program for groups that are aimed at promoting and developing approaches to conflict resolution, stationed at the U.S. Institute of Peace building in Washington, D.C. “Our approach fits naturally with the PeaceTech mandate,” says COO Lexi Willetts. “Technology should augment the best of humanity and help us move forward.” In other words, instead of building platforms that allow unfiltered lashing out, the technology puts back the human element into interactions, thereby fostering bonds that lead to peaceful communication.
Due to be launched at the end of the month, Wistla's initial roll-out is focusing on Europe and the U.S., with three categories of interest—movement, culture and cause. As for the business model, eventually the founders hope to sign on brands that want to involve people in offline experiential marketing events.
The PeaceTech Accelerator is run by lead investor C5 Capital, with PeaceTech Lab and Amazon Web Services. The other nonprofits and for-profits in the cohort include the Global Sleepover, aimed at improving education and literacy through an interactive storytelling platform; Niche streem, which connects people in developing worlds through affordable, curated music streaming; Junub Games, which targets peace-building through gaming; and Crowdguard, which enables crowd-sourcing for preventing sexual and gender-based violence. The accelerator is accepting applications for the next cohort.