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Illustrations: Michael Deforge

In Defense of The Small Social Network

Ditch Facebook. Log off Twitter. The path to a better internet is going small.

AA few days ago, I went on Facebook for the first time in weeks. What I saw was a site that is a shell of its former self, one that has become ugly and overcrowded. I no longer use the events feature because the invitations come from people I hardly know, and the events are mostly things I do not want to go to. I no longer use its groups feature because the political groups devolve into unproductive shouting matches. The only groups I ever liked — the ones where queers sent each other nudes — got banned into oblivion, despite being private. And anyway, those too often just devolved into shouting matches.

I have no use for Facebook anymore: What was once exciting and novel is now bland, overly-curated, and filled with anger and disinformation.

I itch for an alternative. I want to envision a better internet, one filled with more adventure and less hate, or at least one where I can post the content I want without being banned. But it’s hard to imagine right now. Facebook is boring — but what lies beyond the safety of its corporate womb is downright scary.

Take 8chan, for example, the preferred platform of the El Paso white supremacist terrorist, and many white supremacist terrorists before him — Christchurch, Charleston, the Poway Synagogue. In every attack, 8chan users cheered them on.

As a Jew and a trans person, I can’t bring myself to mourn for the deplatforming of 8chan in the wake of the El Paso shooting. But as the platform faltered, I also felt a pang of sadness about the fact that there was no left-wing version of it, no queer version of it. There are few alternatives for someone like me, who doesn’t want to choose between a world-devouring platform like Facebook, and smaller platforms filled with Nazis.

I’m sick of barking up the Facebook tree, pleading with it, and Google, and Twitter, to not kick off people posting good content, to not ban my friends for sharing their bodies, to not be so filled with vapid consumerism. It seems as if we have no choice. Beyond the sketchy, Nazi-filled sites, what else is there?

I’ve recently been delighted to find out that there’s already a lot — small networks that are growing slowly, siphoning people off of Facebook into something more interesting. But for these sites to reach their full potential, we need to confront the powers that keep them small.

Over the past three years, I’ve been researching our conceptualizations of free speech — why we afford it to Nazis, how its been influenced by billionaires, and how it can exist in a system in which some people have immense power and influence, and most people have almost none. We tend to think of the internet as a separate entity from the real world, but of course the two are inextricably linked. The internet has come to mirror our economic and political atmosphere writ large: dominated by a few people who are largely unaccountable to the masses, filled with disinformation, surveillance, and a consumerism that breeds complacency and overconsumption.

In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg himself said that Facebook is, “in a lot of ways… more like a government than a traditional company.” Facebook, and a few other companies like Google and Amazon, control nearly our entire online existence at this point. Then let’s treat the internet like we treat the government: Let’s expect it to be a net good, let’s expect it to be democratic, let’s expect it not to enrich a few while providing little value to the rest of us. In other words, let’s call for a revolution.

It’s time to agitate for a new version of the internet, one where our only choices aren’t boredom or fear, one where the internet isn’t a joyless place run by billionaires. It’s time to think small.

AA call to embrace smaller platforms might seem crass in the wake of the El Paso shooting. But not every small platform needs to be like 8chan. Indeed there are hundreds of other social media networks that don’t become breeding grounds for white supremacy. It’s just that the ones that do get all the attention.

8chan turned into a playground for racists and other bad actors. Then, there’s Gab. Founded in 2016 by Andrew Torba, the platform advertised itself as a “raw, rational, open, and authentic” alternative to Twitter (read: right-wing).

Gab was built off the concept of self-moderation and quickly became a cesspool of racism, anti-semitism, and sexism. In 2018, internet sleuths found out that the mass shooter who killed 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh was a frequent user of the site, posting dozens of anti-semitic status updates and memes. Gab’s supporters began to distance themselves from the site. PayPal, Stripe, GoDaddy and other tech companies removed the infrastructure that allowed Gab to run. The site was temporarily deplatformed.

Gab and 8chan are prime examples of small networks at their worst, of what happens when a platform is unable, or has no interest in, moderating for healthy speech. But the bad press they attract shouldn’t dissuade us from pursuing a smaller internet. People have already built better social networks, and many of them are small successes.

Ello, for example, launched in 2014 and aimed to be a better kind of network — one less cluttered and commercialized than Facebook. Did it save online discourse? No. But it was a step in the right direction. Ello still exists, has a little over 3 million users as of last year, and is mostly used by artists and designers. Despite its miniscule size, it’s actually a success story, providing a community where artists can showcase themselves. Contrast Ello with YouTube, where the loudest voice in the room often wins, and only creators willing to accept sponsorships and do whatever gets the most eyeballs can thrive.

Other small social networks, like Mastodon, are flourishing in their own little ways too. Mastodon takes a totally different approach to social media: Instead of one centralized group moderating and curating content, the platform allows users to have their own private groups and timelines, and decide what kind of content is displayed themselves, though its creators will step in if their servers are populated by Nazis. Though Mastodon’s decentralized network of 2.2 million people pales in comparison to Facebook and its apps’ network of 2.7 billion users a month (about one-third of the entire world), it shows that social media doesn’t have to follow the Facebook formula.

“We’re growing, we’re just not encouraging the kind of growth where the drive is to get a ton of people to use it just so we can use your data and sell you advertising,” says Eleanor Stavinoha, Mastadon’s director of communications. “Our hope is that the decentralized internet does become the norm, and that…people move away from the four companies that own most of your data.”

With a little bit of effort, that decentralized internet is already available. I recently started learning about makeup and skincare, and watched a lot of YouTube videos on the subject. But no matter how I crafted my searches, the same kind of content kept popping up: product-friendly reviews, undisclosed sponsored content, tours of influencers’ ginormous homes. (Maybe I should be an influencer — they’re all so rich!).

Hungry for something outside YouTube’s manicured ecosystem, I sought out alternatives. I found Reddit, which still, at least to me, feels like a relatively pure community, far less tainted by algorithmic control than Facebook or YouTube.

And outside the big platforms I found thousands of tiny blogs, forums, and the like that offered a completely different perspective. Eventually, I supplemented my makeup education (ok, fine, addiction) with smaller sites like Makeup Alley and Lipstick Alley, where users talk a lot about makeup, but also about the business of cosmetics. They warn people to not listen to certain beauty gurus, and discuss politics. The discussions are fun, often politically incorrect, sometimes infuriating, and, all in all, feel way more real. They resemble actual communities. An internet filled with Lipstick Alley-sized social media networks would be much more sane, educational, and probably fulfilling for the average user.

Though these communities exist for nearly every topic, they’re of limited size, and constantly at risk of failing because they don’t bring in enough users, or revenue. Much of that has to do with the sheer size of Facebook and a few other companies’ power. It’s the same economic reality that prevents small stores from growing or even staying open when a Wal-Mart moves into town.

“There has to be a holistic approach — changes in the open source community, a grassroots movement, but legislators also obviously need to deal with reigning in the monopoly power of Facebook and Google,” Stavinoha said.

It’s an uphill battle — convincing people to join a movement to push for a different kind of internet, and convincing legislators to make that internet possible, by dealing with the power of some of the world’s largest corporations — but it’s a battle worth fighting.

AA smaller internet cannot only be imagined — it has to be enacted. To do that, we must confront the handful of companies that control almost all internet traffic, suffocating any potential for growth outside of them.

So it makes sense that progressive candidates are now calling for something more drastic to be done. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has suggested breaking up Big Tech by removing YouTube from Google and Instagram from Facebook, amongst other de-mergers. Even Big Tech’s employees appear to be on board with Warren, with one-third coming out in favor of a candidate who has called for breaking up the companies they work for. Several other Democratic presidential candidates have hopped on board too. Kamala Harris has suggested regulating the internet like a utility.

Politicians might be onto something: If Facebook and Instagram were forced to compete, for example, we might get better content, or more unique communities not beholden to a commerce-centered platform where people vie for the most popularity. Facebook could go after its usual I’m-happy-I-got-married-also-I-got-a-new-job-and-here’s-a-picture-of-ramen crowd, and Instagram might be forced to find another niche (Tutorials? Art? Who knows?). If YouTube left Google, it would lose the power of Google’s algorithms, and either have to create knockoffs, or hopefully seek out a different model altogether.

Breaking up Big Tech and regulating its growth could allow smaller networks to take the place of some of Facebook, Google, and other tech companies’ functions. New photo and video apps might be released, new search engines that respect privacy, or center less popular news sources, might gain a foothold. Maybe the best way forward toward a smaller internet is splintering the big internet we already have.

While it’s ultimately up to politicians to regulate and/or break up these companies, it’s on us to force their hands. We’re not quite there as a critical mass. A slight majority of the general population is still against breaking up these companies, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey. The same survey also gave a possible answer to why: we’re addicted to our love-hate relationship with them. Even as most of us dislike our social media use, we again and again check into the same apps daily.

And so we keep barking up the Facebook tree, expecting it to provide us with something else, something less filled with disinformation, blandness, and corporate sponsorship, while the company, and every other massive tech firm, prove again and again their unwillingness to listen. Maybe Facebook is less a tree than an invasive weed, gobbling up and ultimately killing other forms of online life for its own survival. Maybe we can only allow other possibilities to flourish by pulling it out by the roots.

writer, author.

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