What Happens When a Social Network for Teens Tries to Force Positivity

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 13 2014 9:03 AM

What Happens When a Social Network for Teens Tries to Force Positivity

We Heart It
We Heart It offers celebrity, fashion, and a little sadness.

Screengrab from We Heart It

The Internet can be a mean place—especially if you’re a teenager. Our most influential internet companies have been slow to deal with this unfortunate, and occasionally fatal, byproduct of spending time online—see Facebook’s belated response to online harassment or Instagram’s shifting goal posts on problematic hashtags, such as #thinspo. So is there a recipe for online niceness? Is there a place brimful of cute sweaters, Selena Gomez, and earnest exhortations to “never give up on your dreams”?

If such a halcyon place were possible, its closest neighbor would be the social network We Heart It, which is fast growing but little known outside its demographic. Founded in Brazil by Fabio Giolito in 2007, the site and app—part of the new wave of “visual” social networks—essentially allow users to build and share galleries or “canvases” of images they like online by clicking a little heart symbol—this way, you can only tag and “love something,” no down-voting or cruel comments allowed. The site reinforces this positivity by encouraging users to create collections with uplifting themes—most recently under the tag lines “Inspiring Women. Inspiring Change” and “Girl Power.”

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We Heart It has 25 million monthly users compared with Instagram’s 200 million and Pinterest’s 70 million. But according Ranah Edelin, CEO of We Heart It, it’s adding 1 million new members a month and has a strong hold on a much-desired millennial demographic: 75 percent of users are female, and more than 80 percent are 25 and under. (For comparison, he told me, 80 percent of Pinterest’s users are over 25.) We Heart It has the teen girl market pretty well covered—and naturally, that’s appealing to advertisers. The site has partnerships with teen-focused media like Teen Vogue and Hello Giggles, all of which have their own verified canvases. Old Navy, Candie’s, and JCPenney are also now sharing campaign content on the site.

That’s all impressive for a social media upstart, but what’s it like on We Heart It? Well, after spending a week on the site, I can tell you: like Pinterest but with more thigh gap and fewer recipes for buffalo chicken beer cheese dip. I’ve aged out of the period when I spoke fluent teen—I had to Google Ariana Grande, the Disney channel star turned wannabe-Mariah Carey whose pictures dominate the site—but I now feel confident enough to tell you for free: Teens love denim cutoffs. And that of the two recent Shailene Woodley on-screen love interests, the buff guy from Divergent is way more popular than the not-quite-as-buff guy from The Fault in Our Stars.

But despite the best intentions of the site’s operators, We Heart It is proof that you can’t force positivity. There are numerous emotional “inspo” pictures with tag lines like “Don’t kill yourself over a boy, he’ll bring another girl to your funeral,” and you can search notorious eating disorder-related tags like #proana, although a link to We Heart It’s “Prevention Resources” also appears. Edelin told me that the site does employ moderators who can use their own judgment in taking down images—and the terms of service forbid pornographic, racist, or hateful photos. Yet in some ways, We Heart It is more of a crowdsourced fashion magazine than a social network. As such, it faces two difficult questions: How far should it go to protect vulnerable users? Should it at least attempt to steer the network’s imagery in a positive way—like Seventeen, which promises to show “real girls as they really are”?  

And as teen-facing fashion brands begin to add campaign content to the site, issues of diversity also arise. Although We Heart It has an international user base, I was hard-pressed to find a model on its front page who was not white.

We Heart It clearly aims to be a friendly, healthy place for young women to create a visual identity. As it grows, we’ll see if it can do better than most of its social media, and even print media, counterparts, and disprove a much-hearted quote I saw on the site: “No one cares unless you’re pretty or dying.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ariel Bogle is a researcher for Future Tense.