With major social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter showing an increasing enthusiasm for suppressing content and publishers they don’t like (whether by invisibly “shadow-banning” posts, silently culling follower lists, demanding post retractions, de-platforming users outright, or footnoting posts with disclaimers) we seem to be approaching the potential end of an era — or so many of us hope, at least. What the next era might look like, we’re still figuring out, but it sure feels like a good time for freedom of speech to be cherished and championed again.
Back in the day, we had the free frontier of the Internet and its very decentralized array of offerings — forums, websites, blogs, comment sections, and all that. We used tools like RSS/Atom feed aggregators to help wrangle it all into a firehose we could more comfortably drink from (the old-school version of “following” sites and authors). We still have those things, of course, but our focus has moved away from them and toward Big Social. Seduce by greater effectiveness at connecting with others and getting substantially more eyes on our posts, we went all in and moved from a largely decentralized world to one that entrusted our ability to publish to a small handful of companies. With their growth came power over our freedom of expression that we failed to be adequately concerned about, leading to where we find ourselves today — in many ways stifled, suppressed, and distrustful of “Big Social”, and wondering where to go next. It’s an important issue if you feel, as I do, that living under conditions where you aren’t free to speak your mind isn’t living.
In looking around for good alternatives, we find both centralized and decentralized alternatives to choose from, raising some interesting dilemmas. Sites such as Parler and Gab.com have promised to remain steadfast in support of free speech, and to the extent they can be trusted to do so may provide viable drop-in alternatives to Twitter. I’m reasonably optimistic about their commitment to freedom of expression, and have been trying both out (I’m @kulak on Parler, @kulak76 on Gab.com), but having seen the pitfalls of centralized social media, one can’t help but wonder whether sites such as these will eventually succumb to the same pressures to suppress and censor. (I hope not, and I give Parler and Gab much benefit of the doubt, but the concern is hard to escape.) Gab allows for setting up your own self-hosted alternatives to Gab.com, and in that sense doesn’t quite qualify as a “centralized” service, though in practice it will be interesting to see whether alternative Gab sites end up being widely used or even necessary. (If they prove largely unnecessary, that’s a good sign for Gab.com having kept its free-speech promise.)
We can also look to the publishing, reading, and communication tools that have served us in the past: self-hosted blogs like this one, and feed aggregator apps and sites (I used NetNewsWire for years and have been using Feedly lately). While ability to connect with large numbers of readers is likely to be no better than it was before (I’m very interested in ways we might be able to surpass those limits), hosting our own content at least gives us much greater control over our own publishing. If others really don’t like you, they can put pressure on your hosting provider, but if we get to the point where hosting providers are widely bullied into de-platforming customers the world will really be in trouble. As failsafe measures go, the ability to move your site to another host remains a pretty solid safeguard.
This isn’t necessarily an either-or proposition, of course. One can use social media sites together with self-publishing, leveraging posts on the former to help promote your work on the latter, for example. That’s been a key part of how I’ve used Twitter, Parler, and Gab, and I expect will continue to be. Publishing longer-form work here has intrinsic value to me because it’s helped me work through thoughts and develop ideas, so I’ll likely continue to do it regardless, but having my writing reach a more substantial number of people who find value in those ideas would certainly be an appreciated improvement.
Yet another set of alternatives exists in networking sites with focused purposes. BillWhittle.com is one example whose thriving I’ve been glad to be a part of. Ricochet is another that I’ve used in the past. These sites give users ways to publish to and communicate with one another, while firewalling member content to keep comment sections troll-free and enjoyable. They aren’t places to publish for broader public consumption, but they serve a related and very worthwhile purpose to those looking to publish and connect.
One thing I think we’d be wise to do, in weighing our options, is to refrain from underestimating the appeal of centralized social media sites. There are good reasons why the dynamics have worked out well for them, and our effectiveness at developing alternatives will rely on understanding, appreciating, and accounting for their attractiveness to large numbers of users. They include the value of familiarity and name recognition, the network effect, and the convenience of having a single (or a few) centralized service(s) for connecting with the people whose posts interest us. If we want to succeed in developing decentralized alternatives to Big Social, we’d be wise to find alternative ways to satisfy the same wants and needs. This is a subject that’s been very much on my mind, and I expect I’ll continue to think about it quite a bit. We have diverse options and numerous possibilities available to us (some perhaps as yet undreamt of), and it’s going to be an interesting challenge to figure out how to most effectively develop and make use of them.