Photo Credit: Somewhere Good
Somewhere Good was created to be a safe digital space for people of color and the queer community. Here’s how Naj Austin and her team built the platform with intention.
What would it feel like if you left a social platform feeling good? In an age where doom scrolling, followers, and likes have begun to affect users’ self-esteem, there’s a platform hoping to offer something more personal and sincere from other prominent social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter – Somewhere Good.
A primarily people of color and queer-centered audio-centric app, Somewhere Good separates itself from other recent audio apps like Clubhouse through inclusion and intention. Here, you won’t find the more vain characteristics of most social media platforms — followers, likes, comments — or bizarre and unruly clubs centered around problematic topics. Instead, you’ll find “worlds” built from daily audio prompts that range from “How do you sit with your challenging/difficult emotions?” to “Tell us about your favorite podcast” that users can interact with (along with replying to other responses).
The entire team behind the platform — particularly founder Naj Austin and designer Annika Hansteen-Izora — felt strongly about wanting to create something that felt human, resulting in a project designed with interpersonal connections and creativity in mind.
“We removed a lot of egocentric aspects of what it means to be online, this idea that we all need to be walking, talking brands,” Austin said. “I think being online is a very whitewashed experience. It’s not an affirming way to live one’s life.”
When Somewhere Good beta launched in April, users were able to have real-time audio conversations inside of worlds like “Radical Library,” “Deep Discourse,” and “Communal Care,” hopping in and out of them as they pleased. There were no hosts, feeds, or user profiles when it began, with users, only required to agree to community guidelines — including not engaging in any sexist, racist, or transphobic content — and the core tenets of them: “prioritizing collaboration and co-creation” and “practice discernment during disagreements.” Failure to follow these guidelines will result in a user’s account being terminated permanently. It’s through these guidelines that Somewhere Good is able to create an inclusive space for people who are often disregarded on social media platforms.
An invite-only version of the app which launched in early 2021 showed promise, so much so that, that same year it was reported it had raised $3.75 million in a seed funding round led by True Ventures, with Gabrielle Union being one of the platform’s angel investors.
“I always look to invest in businesses that reflect my values and positively feed my soul. Somewhere Good was one of those companies that had everything I was looking for: good people and great ideas,” Union said in an email.
Now, over a year old, Somewhere Good has been rolling out new features every couple of months. By April, users were able to create profiles with a photo and their name, pronouns, and location. Four weeks ago, hosts of worlds were handpicked and vetted by the team behind the app.
One of those hosts selected was Niara Sterling, who oversees a world called “Pseudo-Science.” Considering she’s mainly known as a DJ in Brooklyn’s music community, it may come as a surprise that Sterling’s world isn’t centered around that at all. But over a Zoom call, she shared how the world embodies a side of her that’s deeply interested in bio-science.
“‘Pseudo-Science’ is essentially my media verse where I get to share my insights about health and wellness through the lens of science, as well as other things too,” she said.
Sterling said that she enjoys coming up with prompts ahead of time. One of the more recent ones was about how users prepare for winter, which they had 24 hours to respond to. Sterling feels that the time frame leaves little room for users to criticize, and instead encourages them to express themselves while learning about and connecting with others.
“For me during the day, just being able to engage in these conversations and only [being able to] leave a response for at least one minute, it just makes it really easy to just get to the meat of the conversations,” she said. “I feel like it’s a very intentional app.”
Sterling admitted she wasn’t sure if she had time to contribute to the app when she was handpicked to launch “Pseudo-Science.” But now, she’s grown accustomed to using it. She’s able to engage with it on her own time and enjoy it as both a host and user, sharing that she finds herself listening to the audio on the app when she’s on the train commuting. For her, the experience is more energizing and rejuvenating, in comparison to other platforms like Instagram, which she primarily uses as a business tool for making money.
“I’m just really having fun with it in a way that I haven’t felt with any other app in such a long time,” Niara said. “I have a lot of excitement for what they have in the future, like more people joining and creating their own worlds and facilitating different conversations.”
Austin and her team were also intent on allowing hosts like Sterling to be able to take a break from creating prompts for their world, understanding of how social media creatives get frequently burned out on platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram.
“With Somewhere Good, a lot of people are in Brooklyn, but I have noticed there are a lot of people in other places as well,” Sterling said. “It feels like I could actually meet up with some of these people in real life, which I’m also hoping to do.”
Somewhere Good is helping to facilitate those in-person interactions and meetings through a free physical location in Bed-Stuy on Tompkins Avenue. Opened toward the end of June this year, the space (which also doubles as an office for the Somewhere Good team) was created for “adult play.” When you walk in you’re met with puzzles, free snacks, magazines, teas, crayons, a quiet booth, and comfortable, colorful couches where you’re encouraged to take a break from your day-to-day schedule. There’s also an outside lounge area with turf that’s perfect for a mini-yoga class. To gain access to it all, all app users need is a digital card. Austin’s hope for the physical space is to alter Black people’s idea of constantly doing labor, and allowing them to have a place where they can relax and meet new friends.
Additionally, the location will serve as a meeting place for conversations on the app to take place in real life. Equipped with soft guidelines, Austin and her team will allow users to facilitate their own discussions.
“We don’t need to know what it is, [but] it needs to be a conversation, a workshop, a book club,” she said. “People have come up with the coolest things.”
So far, users have created a Bell Hooks book club, a workshop on how to archive your life through Polaroids, and a trap yoga class — all with little to no guidance, aside from scheduling times and dates.
“It’s been interesting to see self-agency,” she said, adding that not too many platforms and spaces are offering this opportunity to Black social media users.
It’s this, paired with the app and the team’s intention of providing a space for Black folks to connect and cultivate community, that makes Somewhere Good different from only-online social media platforms.
For the future, Austin is trying to figure out how to roll out memberships for specific worlds, which would require more customization within the app (and, potentially, fees). She also shared that brands have been reaching out about hosting their own worlds, with her team trying to figure out what it would look like to have a brand or an influencer take the reins of specific worlds.
“We built the platform and we built it with intention, and it’s working and there are people who love it and use it,” Naj said. “It’s like we started with one block, and now we have lots of blocks that we get to play with, so it feels affirming.”
Even though “community” is a buzzword that’s often overused in the startup industry, Somewhere Good is bringing the natural parts of building a community both on and offline.
“[Since] our online worlds have become substitutes for real-life social interaction – we lose a sense of one another through these sort of empty clicks and the wall that happens with just texting,” Austin said. “We wanted to bring back that human behavior of just talking and sharing with your voice.”