Last month, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen presented documents to the press that provide further evidence of what is already known – that Facebook profits take precedence over human rights. Information quality, humane standards and the well-being of teenagers on Instagram are sacrificed if they stand in the way of profit maximization.
In everything that Haugen has done by bringing new information to the public, she also formulated the topic in a form that was sympathetic to Facebook. Haugen joined Facebook in 2019 – when it was revealed the company was awful – on the premise that “Facebook has the potential to bring out the best in us.” In her testimony to the US Congress, she continued with this opinion, stating that Facebook needs to be made better than replaced entirely.
What mainstream commentators won’t say is that big social media can’t be pinned into a capitalist framework. Additionally, US intellectuals will not address the fact that Facebook is a crown jewel in the American Empire project, a for-profit company colonizing overseas markets. If we want a solution for Facebook – and the rest of the major social media outlets, including surveillance-based companies like Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok – we need to socialize the networks based on a digital democratic commons. We already have working prototypes such as the Fediverse in use for this.
The Fediverse: Decentralized social media networking
As I fully describe in an in-depth article, Social Media Socialism, hacktivists in the free and open source software community began devising an alternative to freeing users from fenced ones since the emergence of big social media in the mid-2000s Corporate networks such as MySpace and Facebook. The free software community sought to decentralize social media technology so that people are no longer trapped in corporate silos – which then set the language codes, rules, and behaviors that everyone must abide by – with the big social media – Businesses accumulating wealth can be their wealthy owners and executives.
Large social media networks can sometimes keep their users because they do not allow their networks to interoperate. For example, if you are a Facebook user, you cannot befriend or follow a Twitter user and vice versa. You cannot “like” or add comments under another network’s post. So if you want to participate in Facebook or Twitter, you have to create a separate account for each and your interactions are completely contained within the respective network. These dynamics mean that every user who joins your network, the network becomes more valuable, a phenomenon known as “network effects”.
If you want to join a new network, you have to convince all of your friends to come with you, and they have to convince all of their friends to join them too. This dynamic concentrates social networks because people are not often willing to do so: it is only practical to join a few networks as nobody wants to log into fifty different social networks, each functioning as if on a separate island.
Decentralized social networks are designed to be fully collaborative and prevent this type of vendor retention. After a decade of development, social media decentralization has finally made its way with the rise of mastodon.
Mastodon is a Twitter-like social network that allows users to create their own Mastodon sub-networks called “Instances”. Users can also interact with other users of social media networks outside of Mastodon itself, in what is known as the Fediverse, as long as those networks use the same “protocol” to communicate with one another. (The protocol used is essentially a common set of standards for social networking interactions.)
A handful of new Fediverse networks have been built over time, including PeerTube (a YouTube clone), Pleroma (a Twitter clone), and PixelFed (an Instagram clone). To date, Mastodon is the most popular Fediverse network with over two million registered users.
Mastodon offers users the option to join their own Mastodon instances or to form them so that they can manage their user data and rules themselves. For example, a Mastodon entity may only allow cat pictures, or it could be dedicated to sports, politics, or general use. Users are given names that look like email addresses. B. “@[email protected]”. You can then interact with others on the instance of mastodon.social, but also with people in other instances, just as you can send email through email servers (Gmail, ProtonMail, Yahoo, etc.).
Each instance can decide whether it would like to interoperate with other instances. If an instance is undesirable for some people – for example, if it is loaded with extremist content – it can be blocked by network administrators. Individual members can also block other instances from themselves so that they do not have to see the content posted by this network. When a right-wing social media network Gab was closed and its users migrated to Mastodon, many Mastodon users blocked the Gab instance.
Mastodon has three timelines instead of just one. The first is “home,” which shows posts from the users they are following. The second is “local” which shows contributions from the network they are joining (e.g. mastodon.dogs). The third is the federated timeline, which shows posts from all users their network is connected to. Users can view all three timelines on their screen at the same time or view them just one at a time.
The Mastodon platform is also free and open source software, which means that it can be customized by other software developers who might want it to look or work differently. Librem Social, for example, took the Mastodon code and changed it so that there are no timelines – you only see posts from people you follow.
Networks like Mastodon and Librem Social could incorporate algorithmic filtering, but currently don’t. Algorithmic filtering has often been used by large social media networks to maximize user interaction so that users can see more ads and make money for the platform owner. Fediverse platforms do not display ads or seek profit, so they do not engage in user exploitation in order to maximize profit.
Content moderation is left to network administrators and individual users. Many Fediverse networks require users to mark graphical or controversial posts as “unsafe for work” (NSFW) and remain hidden unless they click “Show”. As you’d expect, with so many users instantly communicating with one another, moderating content remains a challenge. Probably the best thing that can be done to reduce social damage on large networks is to hire people to handle it. This could be funded by the public purse, but is quite a costly proposition given the sheer volume of social media traffic. It’s a problem that affects all social networks.
While Fediverse offers privacy from huge centralized actors like Facebook and Twitter, users can still be monitored by network administrators. This is because the technology is built in such a way that user activity is routed through each network server (instance) that hosts the data and creates a record of user behavior. Another product called LibreSocial seeks to improve on this feature by allowing users to host the data and broadcast on their own devices, sharing the data in a peer-to-peer fashion. Data that is not intended for public disclosure is locked using encryption; Only the intended recipient can unlock private content.
Over time, decentralized social media could form a network of peer-to-peer social networks.
Social Media Commons vs. Capitalist Social Media
The Fediverse provides a real-life example of how social media can operate as an ad-free, non-profit, community-controlled system. One of its most important characteristics is that it undermines the for-profit, American-dominated world of social media. This is vital as the people of the world – not just Americans – are exposed to the power of major social media.
Unfortunately, mainstream American intellectuals ignore the fediverse and the option to fully socialize social media as a commons. Instead, these critics overwhelmingly favor the use of antitrust law to split Facebook into three parts: the Facebook network, Instagram and WhatsApp (leaving networks like Twitter and TikTok alone).
They also advocate a limited form of interoperability that only forces the largest social networks to allow others to interoperate. This very partial form of interoperability is likely to give big social media an edge as small networks will continue to have incentives to interact with them so that their users can interact with members of the giants, but less so with the other small social networks they are around compete in market share.
For antitrust law, competitive capitalism is the ideal state of an economy. Still, there are strong reasons to doubt that competitive capitalism will fix social networks. To the extent that social media is privatized, it remains problematic as the same exploitative dynamic persists: in order to maximize revenue, profits, growth, and market share, a network must maximize the number of users and the time spent on the network. Capitalist competition for eyeballs is a problem, not a solution.
The idea of force-feeding canvassing, which fuels consumerism that is destroying the planet, is not addressed by antitrust advocates. Similarly, antitrust advocates fail to explain why social media networks should be owned by companies that put profits above the public interest and concentrate wealth in the hands of executives and shareholders. And in the US they don’t deal with the digital colonialism that American tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google are using to exploit the global south.
A solution that fully socializes the networks would best serve the global public interest. In order to achieve this, large social media networks can be given a grace period before they are released as open source, converted into public ownership and forced to decentralize. Citizens could receive tax-based vouchers and use them to fund networks and content moderation services of their choice. Researchers at universities and publicly funded technology could help develop and maintain network technologies. In South Africa, universities and organizations such as the Scientific and Industrial Research Council could provide resources for developing and maintaining social media infrastructure. User access would be fair and ad-free, while communities would have a real say in how their networks work.
It is time for activists and intellectuals around the world to consider commons-based solutions like the Fediverse and LibreSocial instead of capitalism as the organizing system of social media. Another world is possible, but it takes a radically different approach to get us there.