I’m dipping my toes back into the turbulent waters of social media. Since it first became possible to connect a phone line up to a computer and dial into BBS or MUD and interact with other people from all over, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of virtual communities. In the early days it was just reading posts or chatting with someone, watching the blinking cursor, bathed in the green or amber light of a monochrome monitor. It was spartan, slow and complicated, but magical. The web opened up that experience to everyone, and for a while it was amazing. I had conversations with people from all over the world. For the most part, these weren’t deep discussions, just friendly chats with random people that ended up being online at the same time. Unfortunately, as technology improved and made the experience easier and ubiquitous, things took a wrong turn.
As the web expanded and became more than just a passing hobby, some people started to see it as a way to make money. The costs of supporting the infrastructure, keeping the servers online and paying for bandwidth, was growing beyond what a scattering of dedicated hobbyists could support. Everyone wanted to be online, but nobody wanted to pay for it. So we followed the same model that radio and television had before; enter the marketers. Google, Facebook and Twitter went down the road of providing a service to millions (actually billions for Facebook) for no cost. You can create an account, jump online and begin sharing cat pictures and every meal you’ve ever had with anyone that cared to look. All for the small price of absolutely nothing. Only that wasn’t really the case. It did cost to provide that service, but the money would come from third party marketers that would pay the social media companies for the ability to put ads on the pages of their users. It started small, a banner here, a sidebar here. But as technology advanced and the web became more widespread, the advertiser supported model began to get a lot more sinister. Soon ads were taking over pages, blinking, auto playing sounds and video, trying to get you engage in silly games, and popping up to block the content you actually were trying to view. And if ruining the whole experience of browsing the web wasn’t enough for them, they started to work in the background, tracking you, spying on you. Advertisers could tell what other pages you had visited, what kind of things you had looked at. And the big tech companies were eager partners, doing everything they could to collect data. Privacy was a casualty of this rush to grab up the money the marketers were spreading around. And the strangest thing is, nobody seemed to care.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a capitalist. I think making money is a fine goal, and I expect companies to seek ways to be profitable (Twitter isn’t doing so hot there). I also believe that companies should have some kind of ethical commitment to not pursue profits in ways that damage our society. They shouldn’t build an entire infrastructure designed to harvest your data, disguised as a useful service to allow you to connect with friends and family online. That same infrastructure is designed to constantly bombard you with advertisements, ads that are not only annoying, but also a common vector for malware and viruses. These companies should not be putting profits above the security of those that use their services, but they do. But moreso than that, I expected people in general to actually care about things like privacy and security, to worry about giving faceless corporations and government agencies carte blanche to read all their personal communications, to learn every little detail about their lives, relationships, habits and desires. I expected people to value their privacy and security enough that they wouldn’t just give it away for the ability to share irritating pictures of their kids and make uninformed, dogmatic political statements online to annoy their friends and family. But they did give it away, in droves. And anyone that brought up concerns about privacy or security were met with rolling eyes and comments about tin foil hats.
So we now have a society where all of the major channels for online communication are controlled by a small number of corporations. They all optimize their services to benefit the advertisers that pay the bills, and they all willing compromise the privacy and security of the people that use their services in exchange for profits. And much to my amazement, things have gotten even worse.
Because now these companies have decided it is not enough to merely spy on you and sell your data to the highest bidder, they’ve decided they need to start controlling the tone of messaging and guiding us all towards enlightenment. At first it was just more profit grabbing, doing things to make advertisements look like content. They inserted ads into your timelines and feeds, used algorithms to alter what posts you see. It became very clear that these companies no longer care about the people that use their service, it isn’t about them, it’s about where the money comes from. All they have to do is optimize their services to show as many advertisements and collect as much data as possible, without pissing off the end users enough to cause a mass exodus off their services. A few people might get fed up and leave here and there, but unless enough of their friends jumped ship as well, they would likely be back. And if not, no great loss, independent thinkers weren’t the kind of users they wanted. After years of blurring the line between honest posts and paid promotions, they suddenly became concerned over “fake news” when the US election didn’t go the way they wanted. Companies that entire revenue stream depend on the promotion of clickbait and marketing designed to fool people into believing it was real content, now are decrying how bad it is that inaccurate and misleading stories led to the wrong person getting elected. They must rise up and stamp out this wrongthink before more damage can be done.
Major social media sites now want to label news as being real or not. They want to ban users from their sites that express viewpoints they believe to be wrong. Youtube has begun demonetizing videos that may contain controversial content. In part this is because the advertisers don’t like it. But it also appears to be because Google has decided to push a certain “progressive” perspective and if you don’t toe the line you’re out. What they consider controversial is never solidly defined, but it certainly appears anyone that questions political correctness or liberal progressive views is guilty. Twitter will no longer give verification badges to people that behave in ways they don’t approve of, even if the offending behavior is not on Twitter. So the ability to have your identity verified, now depends on you being a good little citizen and not rocking the boat. All of major social media companies have decided that their users need to adhere to a set of narrowly defined social views, and anyone that disagrees is subject to censure or banning at the least, and more than likely will suffer wholesale destruction of their reputations. I am baffled and dismayed that our society, especially our online culture, has become this Orwellian mess where you must not have any expectation of privacy, and must not step outside the lines, you must conform or you will be punished.
And this long-winded, rambling post all leads me back to the first sentence. I’m testing the waters of a new wave here. Turns out I’m not the only one fed-up with this mess. There are others saying enough is enough, and they are trying to create some alternatives. Minds.com and Gab.ai are two examples of this. Social media platforms that value privacy, security, and most importantly, diversity of ideas and opinions. I’ve been lurking on both for a while now, just watching, not really engaging. It’s a bit strange and scary. There are some racist and vile people, all kinds of sexism and every other kind of ism you can think of. It’s a wild west with nobody controlling what you can say. But there are lots of thoughtful and interesting things being said as well. People that will challenge the status quo, that will not just lay down and accept the oppression of SJWs and progressive right-thinkers. People can actually say what they think on these platforms. If you don’t want to hear them, you can unfollow or block them, you don’t have to listen to those you don’t want to. But you can say what you want without fear of being banned from the platform, without having your voice arbitrarily silenced. And that’s important. Protecting free speech also means protecting speech you may not like. It has to be for everyone, or it’s for no one.
Minds does have promoted content and the option for ads. I’m not thrilled with that, but understand it may be a necessary evil. The company does need to make money somehow. They do offer an option for $5 a month that will allow you to remove all ads and promoted content. This is always how I thought things should work. Imagine if the people that used Facebook actually paid for Facebook. The site could be designed to support the needs and desires of the users and not the marketers, it could be a whole different experience. Only if we are willing to pay for a service can we have any expectation of that service being designed in a way that will meet our needs and respect our desires.
Gab is dedicated to being ad-free, but also offers an optional Pro version for $5.99 a month with some additional features.
I think these platforms are important and worth paying for. So many people I know say that Facebook is their primary way of communicating with friends and family. Surely that is worth more to you than the cost of one overpriced coffee a month or a pack of cigarettes. They offer an opportunity to keep free speech alive, to have a space for engaging in online conversations without having to filter through ads and clickbait, or worry that some faceless algorithm will shadow ban you into obscurity. The Web is this amazing place that enables us to engage with people from different backgrounds all over the world. Right now these free and open spaces have attracted a lot of the extremists and outcasts. People banned from the other platforms. That has led these sites to be viewed somewhat negatively, and branded as wretched hives of scum and villainy by the same online media sources that share a bed with the social media giants and have joined the fight against free speech. But sometimes the outcasts are worth listening too. Even if you don’t agree, you might at least want to hear an opposing viewpoint now and then and expend the energy to think about your own views. And even if there are lots of bad things being said, you don’t have to listen. Once again this is the difference between the open platforms and mainstream ones. The power to block and ban rest with the individual users. If someone says something distasteful or offensive, you are free to block them. Their right to free speech does not trump your right not to listen. However, your right not to be offended does not trump their right to speak. Just because you don’t want to hear them, doesn’t mean they get kicked off the system entirely. That seems to be a concept that has been lost, the idea that people should still be allowed to say things that you don’t want to hear. And that is a scary concept to lose.
If you’ve made it this far into the post, well thanks. I hope you will check out these alternative social media platforms. The more people that get on them, the more useful they will be. That is always the weakness of sites trying to challenge the social media giants, if your friends aren’t on them, then there is little incentive to stay. So give them a try and encourage others to do so as well. And if they won’t come, maybe try to make some new friends. You can find me @shillelagh on both sites. I haven’t really posted much of anything yet, but I’m trying to make a start, feel free to give me a shout.