Mental health experts, regulators, and many internet users themselves have called out the damage that social media can do to mental health. Must it addict, inflame, and depress us? A new social network called Maven aims to offer a healthier alternative, inspired by one scientist’s work in artificial intelligence.

The platform eschews likes and follows in favor of letting pure chance play more of a role in what appears in users’ feeds. Maven’s lead investor is Twitter cofounder and former CEO Ev Williams, who also founded Medium. Other backers include OpenAI CEO Sam Altman.

Maven is built around a concept called open-endedness, pioneered by computer scientist and AI researcher Kenneth Stanley, one of the startup’s three cofounders. In most areas of computing, programmers write code or train an AI model to achieve specific objectives, such as driving a car without crashing or generating humanlike text. Stanley creates systems that instead evolve, seeking novelty for its own sake. These systems sometimes discover stepping stones toward solutions that couldn’t be achieved via a direct path of optimization. While working in Uber’s AI lab, he and collaborators used this approach to neural networks that could play Atari games and control a virtual robot better than previous systems.

In 2015, Stanley and a collaborator, Joel Lehman, published a book called Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned that applies the philosophy to life outside the lab, encouraging people to seek serendipity in their everyday lives. It gained a devoted following, and for years readers have been telling Stanley how optimizing for objectives like grades or salaries or grants, which can disincentivize exploration, has marred their lives.

Maven sprang from Stanley’s concluding that the best way to create more serendipity in people’s lives was through a social network—and then by chance crossing paths with Williams. In the middle of 2022, he left OpenAI to get started. Stanley teamed up with Jimmy Secretan, a former grad student who had worked on open-endedness in Stanley’s lab at the University of Central Florida, and Blas Moros, a like-minded entrepreneur. They founded Maven together, with Stanley as CEO, Secretan as CTO, and Moros as COO, and formally announced it on Twitter in January. It’s available for Apple and Android devices, and also via the web.

Stanley argues that most social networks suffer from the weight of objectives, because of the way they incentivize likes, follows, and attention. It turns people into brands and creates flame wars. On Maven, you don’t have followers, so you don’t have to worry about what your followers want to hear from you, or how to gain more of them. If you have a question about, say, washing machines, Stanley says, you can just post it, no stress, and let the platform find an appropriate audience.

On Maven, users follow interests such as computers or consciousness, each of which has its own profile on the service. When someone posts something, algorithms automatically analyze the text and tag it with relevant interests so it shows up on those pages, which also show other users who follow that interest and a list of related interests.

The main feed in the Maven app shows posts from all the interests a person follows. The platform doesn’t simply show the most popular. Posts need to clear a certain bar for engagement—an example of what Stanley calls a “minimal-criterion mechanism” that he says also explains part of biological evolution and increases diversity—and then their probability of appearing is based on how closely they match a user’s interests. The app also has a serendipity slider from “Only show my selected interests” to “Show me everything.”

“It’s really radical,” Stanley told me of Maven, “We got rid of likes and follows. That’s like insanity.” Some early adopters seem to be on board. “I quit all social media about three years ago because of the hostility, disinformation, brain rot, and advertising,” Benjamin Scott, a philosophy student, says. “A lot of this I believe was an unintended consequence of popularity metrics which tended to boost false, inflammatory, and shocking content.” He says he has been “pleasantly surprised” by Maven.

Martin Laskowski, a programmer, says he’s been impressed by how well Maven helps users “find conversations in that valuable space between ‘I know and love this topic’ and ‘this seems adjacent enough to my interests, but new, and I probably want to check it out.’”

Secretan, Maven’s CTO, says that even though discussions of contentious topics can turn tense, they’re typically fruitful. “It’s not just getting in some great one-liner or dunking on the other person, because that just doesn’t get you much on this site.” Without a way to gain personal followers, or an algorithm boosting posts that win attention, there’s not much incentive. Personally, I’ve found conversations to be civil and meaningful on a range of topics—Maven lists interests as varied and specific as “guinea pigs” and “gravitational time dilation”—though one factor is surely the type of person who has joined the network so far, many within a couple degrees of separation from the three founders. (That would also explain why men noticeably outnumber women.)

As for moderation, users can report posts or other users, and they can mute threads, interests, or users. AI also flags potentially problematic content. “We want to make sure that diverse and open expression remains the prevailing theme,” Stanley says, “so we try not to be heavy-handed.”

Maven’s network is still small. Stanley declines to disclose any metrics but says he’s already seen some serendipitous interactions in his own feed, although it sounds more rarified than typical online chatter. One researcher posted a link to a paper he had just published titled “Open-Endedness in Synthetic Biology” that was inspired by Stanley and then posted again to say that he had a hobby of inventing new flavors by mixing amino acids and other ingredients. Another user commented saying they were also inventing new flavors as a hobby. Stanley suggested they team up.

Maven’s cofounders work with a few contractors but no other full-time employees. They say they haven’t settled on a business model yet, but it could involve ads based on people’s declared interests. They’ll need more funding in a few months.

Williams, the Twitter cofounder, got involved in the project serendipitously, through his appreciation of Stanley’s ideas. “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned is my favorite book, and I’ve recommended it to like a hundred people,” Williams says. One of those recommendations led to a meeting with Stanley. The development of Maven was itself an exercise in open-ended exploration, as they tossed around ideas, the founders say. Williams says that although he could have offered advice on building social networks, “my guidance most of the time has just been to help them feel their way through.” Other investors include Rana el Kaliouby, CEO and cofounder of Affectiva, Alex Pall of the electronic music duo the Chainsmokers, and VC firm Lux Capital.

Williams says he doesn’t use X, the platform once known as Twitter, much anymore, as discussions tend to focus on news, which isn’t evergreen. Moros says one of his favorite emergent features of Maven is a phenomenon known as forever threads, in which discussions can span months and keep popping up in people’s feed. One of his favorites collects people’s short, impactful life lessons (Moros’ contribution was “Follow your curiosity”).

Reddit also hosts long-running discussions focused on specific interests, but its subreddits are somewhat siloed, Stanley says. Reddit has separate forums on NYC and urban planning, but if someone posts on Maven about urban planning in NYC, the AI-added tags will bring together people following both interests. “You can think of it as a self-organizing forum,” he says.