Why alternative social media failed intil now
European Digital Right, EDRi, the umbrella organization in Europe that defends digital human rights, states the following in its evaluation of the Digital Services Act, DSA:
“But despite the human rights improvements the DSA can bring to people, real alternatives to the current dominant surveillance business model are still needed. While the ad tech industry often claims to be useful to people by providing more “relevant” ads, it is most of all characterised by an omnipresent system of pervasive 24/7 online corporate surveillance.”
The demand for alternatives is not new. The critical part of the public is asking it for some time, but it is niot a demand of the general masses. The youth has moved from Facebook → Instagram → Tik Tok, but those are all the same vessel, omnipresent surveillance. They are centrally controlled platforms, monopolies or quasi monopolies. There is no room for independent social media. And that’s not because it hasn’t been tried, but because it has failed every time.
(1) Because alternatives tried to take the same route as big tech, centralized control, but without advertising. The main factor in their failure is the network effect. This also applies to the telephone network, for example. It is an economic principle that ensures that a product or service has more value for someone, the more users there are of that same product or service. From a certain moment the producer or supplier becomes a monopolist. But it is not a fatality. For example, it did not play a role in the roll-out of GSM networks. Because these networks are interoperable in Europe, different operators can offer their services and no monopoly can arise.
The cell phone market in Europe is organized differently than in the US. In the US, cell phone networks were not interoperable. As a result, sometimes when traveling from one state to another, you had to change SIM card, because in each state a different monopoly has formed. In fact, it would be better to speak of a ‘lock-in effect’. And it is precisely what the EU demands with DMA, by analogy with its choice for cell phone networks, that the various online platforms can exchange messages with each other, i.e. be interoperable.
James Muldoon notes in this regard:
“Currently, the main obstacle to cross-platform compatibility has been tech giants consciously designing barriers for interoperability into their products.”
(2) The Mastodon social network is not centrally managed. It consists of a federation of independent servers, Fediverse. For an explanation see the Wikipedia. Mastodon, launched in 2016, has just over 12 million users today. Advertising is also taboo. The software is Open Source. It is a federation of independent servers. Your data are safe there, although I have my doubts about that node with 8 782 288 users. The average is 5553 users. But it’s not a software suite like Meta, it doesn’t have a messaging app like Whatsapp. Mastodon is an alternative to Twitter. Twitter recently bought the Signal messaging application. It also runs on centrally managed servers, although Signal claims it does not collect and share user data with third parties. Facebook also once made that promise. Compared with the original Twitter application it has a very complex interface. The real Twitter is a lot more user freindly.
Why Mostadon grows that slowly? No idea. Or maybe anyway. Perhaps the problem with alternative social media is that they dare not embedded in real communities. That was not the case for the telephone network, you will argue. Anyway. The telephone network emerged when there was still such a thing as community life. In the beginning there were very few devices. Doctors and lawyers had one, sometimes there was one in the inn at corner . And here and there you had a public phone booth. So it could be that someone from 200 km away called the inn of the village to reach a resident of that village, then the innkeeper did sent a messenger to go and get that resident. Et voilà, we could talk using copper wire. And gradually – connections and devices became cheaper – the network expanded
When cell phone networks were rolled out, community life had largely disappeared. Meanwhile, visual culture like television, ‘the cool medium’, as Marshall McLuhan calls it, had taken a serious bite out of the citizens’ leisure time. See also the well-known study by Robert D. Putman, Bowling Alone from 2000. But now community life was no longer really necessary for the roll-out of cell phone networks, because after all, a cell phone is nothing more than a replacement of the fixed telephone that is more convenient. You can take it with you everywhere.
The Internet added an important aspect to it, ‘one to many’ and ‘many to many’ communication. And anyone could become a journalist using blogs and be a show host. But those soon turned out to be shows without an audience. Interactive Internet 2.0 was also heavily hyped, but the power-law had not been taken into account. The power-law is a property of a network characterized by a few very dominant nodes and a queue of many “small” nodes, regardless of network scale. For example, Wikipedia has about 80,000 active contributors against a monthly user base (January 2015) of about 450 million, meaning the ratio of highly active to passive is much less than 1%. See here for a short overview. A more detailed history of internet you can find in the book of Ben Tarnoff: ‘Internet for the People’
It is important to note that the Internet has spread much more slowly than cell phones. Initially you already needed at least a computer and a modem. It also assumed minimal knowledge and a bunch of new skills. For example, how do I send an email. It will only really become accessible when you get Internet on your mobile phone. It will now be called a smartphone. But this has not advantaged the skills to use Interenet for one’s own strategic objectives. These didn’t go forward, they rather diminished. Internet became Facebook and Google. Looking up something in the Wikpedia is not seen necessary as the first step to knowledge, let alone checking the reliability of sources.
Two-way communication thus gradually turned into broadcasting. This cleared the ground for the Marc Zukerbergs of this world, they built a communication application on top of a broadcasting protocol (more about that in part 3). Social media was born: (a) although no extra subscription costs you could upload and view images; (b) on youtube you could upload and watch videos yourself, so had to follow facebook, meta added facebook live with some catastrophic consequences, the mosque shooting in New Zealand. (c) Tik Tok also added a new dimension, thankfully less invasive. Short videos with filters, ‘trending hashtags’, ‘challenges’ and ‘memes’ made it a success. Tik Tok is owned by ByteDance. Little remains of the original intrinsic features of the Internet. They become fan networks, ‘many to one’ and the polarization increases unbelievably, ‘many against many’ and the algorithm is discriminating and even stimulates apartheid
In the end you only have one single virtual space but per age group. Facebook for +40, Instagram for +25, Tik Tok for -25. Ideal for the major providers of targeted advertising, which by the way is restricted by DSA. There is no escape any more. Within that you have virtual communities that have no connection at all with real communities. They are a kind of fairgrounds, a circus squared. The virtual world and the real world are disconnected.
Mastodon certainly is an improvement in being a federation of autonomous servers. Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s designer and project coordinator, compares that federation as a whole to email. That is correct in terms of structure, but I would like to add a critical note. There were also numerous problems in the 1990s with email, and certainly with mailing lists, which it is even more alike. Even though emails and replies were not exchanged in real time, as in Mastodon. There was sometimes a lot of friction between the users and conflicts got out of hand. The problems that exist today on social networks are simply a continuation of a problem that existed before with email. Mastodon does not really tackle the problem of ‘morally-motivated networked harassment’. See the research of Alice E. Marwick and also our own research on ‘politically motivated networked harassment’, online lynching.
In 2006 I already wrote a multidisciplinary essay of thirty-four pages about this: “Can we resolve ambiguity by email?” As early as 1998, Paul Stubbs also published a sociological paper based on empirical research: “Conflict and Co-Operation in the Virtual Community: eMail and the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession”. At that time, his evaluation was still balanced. In the mailing lists of Zamir supported by the Association for Progressive Communication such as yugo.antiwar, conflicts rarely occurred. These mailing list were also partially closed. But in the open discussion groups Soc/Culture/Croatia and Soc/Culture/Yugoslavia it was all the worse, there the war just raged on, using words, not weapons.
Another thing that is disturbing about Mastodon is the sheer number of social bots. For example, you can follow Greta Thunberg, even if she is only on the real Twitter. So you can’t tweet to her yourself. It’s also just fake, a bot that pulls in Greta’s tweets on Mastodon.
(3) The third problem is that of course everyone likes to go to the fair and the circus. The ‘society of the spectacle’ the situationists like Guy Debord called it. It is a hypothesis described today by Kenn Orphan in Counterpunch. Kenn Orphan also quotes Edward Bernays:
“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”
Kenn Orphan calls it distraction, censorship, alienation, coercion, adherence to the norms of the status quo and numbing the critical mind, social conditioning as a process that requires mass compliance. Only he forgets the guerrilla, who also went into hiding in masses, without being conditioned. She can even operate “in plain sight”, guerrilla but only with words and images. Withdrawing from the big commercial platforms also means giving the right, far right, proto fascists and fascists free rein.
And even people who then know perfectly how ugly and bad the misuse of data on social media is, feel a certain dependence when they are using it. So just tearing everyone away from Twitter, Facebook or Whatsapp is not possible without also inflicting psychological damage. Switching to another network and no longer having access to the old one, almost everyone thinks it’s too much of a risk.
But maybe if given the opportunity to belong to both, without losing contacts, they’d consider it.
At least that is the hypothesis of ‘La Quadrature du net’, a French non-profit, also a member of EDRi, the biggest European network defending rights and freedoms online. And yes, it is perfectly possible to develop a messaging app that uses end-to-end encryption and can exchange messages with WhatsApp, without Meta accessing the user’s personal data, at least that’s what claims Gustaf Björksten, Access Now’s head of technology. At EEF, they wonder whether this encryption can be implemented securely in time. Now that’s exactly what Björksten shows, it is indeed possible, and he refers to the rapid implementation of HTTPS with Transport Layer Security based on freely available X.509 certificates, which bizarrely enough EFF was so enthusiastic about in 2015. So technical it’s not a problem. But is it financially possible or even desirable as Mastodon has done it?
(4) Another thorny issue is financing, because no advertising revenue. And it must be permanent. Open Source is often programmed with crowdfunding these days, but this is a one-off. Updates are a problem and users cannot make any demands on them. Then there’s the server and router, who’s going to pay for that? Funding again? Who maintains the hardware and software? You are not going to look for that hardware in some American ‘cloud computing’ company, because then you are not safe again, then privacy is not guaranteed. It must be at least a European company within the EU. They are also often volunteers who are responsible for maintenance, to whom – once again – users cannot make any demands. But the most critical point is the permanent moderation. Within the Mastodon federation there are no general rules for this as the EU DSA imposes on the basis of human rights. Users depend on who installed and runs the server. So all users are dependent on a system administrator’s accidental ethical views, which range from the views of Marquis De Sade or Ayn Rand to truly cooperative views such as Sunbeam City. But at Sunbeam you do have to pay a membership fee.
But there is generally no money available for moderation and no minimum standards are set. So there is no guarantee at all. Could that not be a reason for the limited success of the current alternatives? Frances Hagen called Facebook morally corrupt. The Digital Services Act Human Rights Alliance proposed to base the regulation of online platforms on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A minimal collective morals is a must even in our super individualistic society. But Mastodon offers no guarantees for that. And why shouldn’t the users themselves be allowed to lay down those rules for moderation, that’s democracy.
In month of May 2019 Mastodon introduced a server convenant. I quote the most important general rule it contains:
“We thought long and hard about how to best provide people new to Mastodon a safe and friendly experience without compromising the federated and free nature of the project. Thus, we are proud to announce the creation of the Mastodon Server Covenant. By highlighting those communities that are high quality and best align with our values, we hope to foster a friendly and better moderated online space. Any server that we link to from joinmastodon.org commits to actively moderating against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Additionally, servers listed on joinmastodon.org are those that have committed to having daily backups, more than one person with emergency access (“bus factor”) and promise to give people a 3 month warning in case of potential closure.”
But Mastodon has no means to enforce this convenant. The only penalty a Mastodon server can get is not being listed at joinmastodon.org.
There are four issues that we need to explore further: (1) the need for an underlying protocol that is interoperable and offers a surplus on the existing protocols; (2) how can we use existing real communities to set up alternative social networks. And maybe we should also look for simpler interfaces; (3) how do we persuade the public to switch safely without losing contacts and (4) this is the most critical point, how do we ensure permanent funding?
On January 23, 2018, the World Wide Web Consortium, W3C, published the ActivityPub protocol as a Recommendation. Today, with the ActivityPup protocol, you can build a social media platform that uses the same logical architecture as email. That structure is then again a distributed network. And what’s the beauty of that. With ActivityPup you can build several independent social media platforms, also from messaging apps with groups, they will also always be interoperable and can exchange messages across the platform boundaries, as the EU DMA requires.
The full Digital Markets Act can be found here. Its Council approval, here. The interoperability for exchange of messages was laid down in Article 7, its implementation in Article 46. They are both very comprehensive. The details certainly need to be studied by people who really want to take the initiative to set up an alternative. I am not giving a summary of those articles here. It would be careless to summarize those voluminous articles, they must be studied and applied in their entirety. Just mention that interoperability applies immediately for end-to-end text messages between two individual end users and the sharing of images, voice messages, videos and other attached files in end-to-end communication between two individual end users. Interoperability between groups will only be mandatory within 2 years.
Michele Barbero, Italy’s failed digital democracy dream is a warning, 2021, Wired
Mayo Fuster Morell, Ricard Espelt and Melissa Renau Cano, Sustainable Platform Economy: Connections with the Sustainable Development Goals, MDPI – Publisher of Open Acess Journals
Mariana Mazzucato, The Entreprenurial State, Debunking public vs. private sector myths, Penguin Books
Adi Robertson, How the biggest decentralized social network is dealing with its Nazi problem, 2019, The Verge
Jen Schradie, The Digital Activism Gap: How Class and Costs Shape Online Collective Action, Social Problems, Volume 65, Issue 1, February 2018, Pages 51–74
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together, Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Basic Books.