Religion and politics: You just don't discuss them at the dinner table. But even the most polarizing opinions have become fair game on Facebook, and that's why Mark LaFay thinks the world needs his new social media platform, Roust.
Launching in beta sometime this October, Roust is designed to funnel impolite conversation away from the world's most popular social network, and push it toward a new safe haven for disagreement and debate. Indeed, if Roust gains momentum, it could turn into a social media Thunderdome--but with threaded conversations and hashtags instead of battling gladiators hanging from big rubber bands.
"Our meta purpose is creating a place where dissent can happen," says LaFay, who's launching Roust out of Zionsville, Indiana with co-founder Nathan Frampton. "In America, the conversation gets shut down, with people saying, Well, you're just a liberal,' or You're just a conservative.' But we want to create a place where people can have those conversations, and set it up in a way that facilitates discussion on complex topics."
Why this matters: LaFay is quick to share a Pew Research poll that indicates some 40 percent of social network users discuss politics online, while almost 20 percent of users have blocked, unfriended or hidden other users for crossing politics-related boundaries--like posting about politics too frequently, or writing something disagreeable or offensive.
But when the platform goes fully live next year, Roust might offer a little bit of relief for both groups. The gentle 20 percent can tell their politically charged friends and relatives to "take it to Roust" (leaving Facebook a calm, blissful haven for sloth and llama updates), while the rowdy 40 percent can troll each other with impunity (fulfilling that basic human need to enrage others).
LaFay submits that the debate around Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act is proof positive that a platform like Roust is necessary: "For three or four weeks, that was all you saw [on Facebook]. It looked like the Confederate flag got in a fight with a bag of Skittles. And a lot of people went dark for two weeks until it blew over. Because what are you going to do? Are you going to hide your aunt?"
Going on the record
I've been checking out a very alpha, web-only version of Roust for the last few days. The conversation touches on all the hot-button topics you'd expect to find (Donald Trump, the Iran nuke deal, climate change), but the debate is thin, and the user experience looks exceedingly familiar.
The quality of discussion (or invective?) could improve once the user base grows past a small handful of testers. As for the interface, LaFay says the goal isn't to reinvent the social media wheel, but rather to push hot-button political conversations to people who can not only take the heat, but want the heat.
By default, anything you post to Roust will be visible only to your Roust Friends group. So, how, exactly does a user get the troll ball rolling? First, you can flag your post as public, and this will expose your pro- or anti-whatever rant to the entire Roust community. And when the platform is ready for business, you'll be able to do hashtag and keyword searches for any phrase you like. Search for #caitlynjenner, and you'll find every public post on the former Olympian. At which point you can join the fray.
A troll by any other name
I asked LaFay point blank if Roust is the ultimate platform for trolls. He said it's "not built for trolls at all," and will even have a "troll calculator" to put people who abuse the platform into posting purgatory. Moreover, users who make threats and engage in other types of egregious abuse will be dispatched by admins.
Nonetheless, I think he and I have a different definition of the word troll. In my dictionary, troll defines anyone who writes something that's been deliberately crafted to inflame those with opposing viewpoints. And by that definition, trolls will find a happy home in Roust.
"We definitely want civil discourse, but everybody likes a trainwreck," LaFay says. "When somebody loses their mind, we all like to watch and take note. We're not building it so that people can go nuclear, but I'm sure that that's going to happen. Our vision is that people will use this to challenge thoughts and ideas. But we're not going to dictate with an iron fist how you behave."