Finding The Best Alternative Social Media Platform

Popzazzle | Sunday, 3 November 2019 |

What to look for and what to avoid when switching from Facebook or Twitter to another social network.



Photo by Kyra (@kepreston) on Unsplash. [image modified]

By Bob Leggitt
© Popzazzle
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So you’ve had enough of Facebook’s not-so-secret stalking and force-feeding, and Twitter was never anything more than your stop-gap. You know there are plenty of other huge social networks. But these are either publisher-based (i.e. Instagram expects photos and YouTube expects videos), or niched, like LinkedIn, or glorified discussion forums, a la Reddit. So where do you go as a direct alternative to Facebook or Twitter?

If celebrities are not interested, that platform won’t go mainstream. If they are, it will.


The range of smaller platforms vying to straightforwardly replace the big two is vast. But virtually none of these head-on challengers are directly comparable to the biggies. No smaller network can compete with Facebook or Twitter like for like. They don’t have the money, the userbase or the cultural presence. They know they’re not going to prize people away from Facebook if, for example, their policies are broadly the same as Facebook’s. G+ proved that not even the mighty Google had the clout to do that. So what smaller networks and new entrants do is trade on being “different”. Common marketing points include…

  • Privacy.
  • Decentralisation.
  • Free speech.
  • NSFW-friendliness.
  • Marginalised community-friendliness.
  • The platform “pays you to post”.
  • Combinations of the above.

But there are flipsides to all of these selling points, as described below…

PRIVACY


The mainstream social networks’ business is built on collecting and leveraging personal data for profit. That’s how they fund themselves. So platforms that genuinely offer their users freedom from all of that, will need separate means of generating income. If they’re centralised (i.e. run by one commercially-focused entity), they may consider their users to be the customer. Which in turn means the platform’s goal will be to get users to pay to use its service.

Such a platform may start by applying innocuous charges to small upgrades, which are entirely optional. For example, design theme features, or image upload space. But the danger is that the platform may later spring ‘freemium ambushes’. That is, having allowed users to build a profile or a page for free, they can suddenly demand payment for a core feature. If the user refuses to pay, what they’ve built is taken down.

The investment required to fund a centralised platform is breathtaking, and at some point someone is going to want ROI. You need to look at the provider’s business model and ask yourself if it seems sustainable. If it doesn’t, there’s the danger of a ‘freemium ambush’ at some point in the future.

So worried were the management that the public would lose confidence in the brand, that they actually tried to pretend the entire update was a technical glitch.


Facebook showed incredible vision with regard to public confidence issues surrounding the ‘freemium ambush’. It declared that it would always be free to use. One of its most direct alternatives – MeWe – could not do the same, and many of MeWe's publishers have already found out why. Being “the customer to serve” is not necessarily better than being “the product to sell”. If you’re the customer, at some point you’ll probably end up paying. The question then is: should people have to pay to use social media? I’m not judging in this article. But I am saying it’s important to understand when it’s a possibility.

Privacy is different with decentralised networks, such as Mastodon or Diaspora. These platforms are public-run, as networks of small, federated (and thus collectively known as the Fediverse), component groups on totally separate domains, and typically developed by the open-source community.

So there’s no single entity bearing an overwhelming financial burden. Therefore, the platforms can more easily be free-to-use, with no ads or fees. The privacy policies are typically good too, but the privacy pledges only go as far as the trustworthiness of the people maintaining the data. Any member of the public can run a decentralised ‘instance’ on Mastodon. From a murderer to an undercover police officer. So you’re taking pot luck with privacy. You kind of do with Facebook and Twitter too, but in a different way.

DECENTRALISATION


Decentralised platforms are offputting at the sign-up stage.

Decentralisation is the breaking up of one substantially-sized network into small, localised bases, known as ‘instances’, ‘pods’ or whatever. Each localised base is run by a different person or group – often with different interest biases and different moderation policies. Each group is on a totally separate domain, with a different web URL, which may not reference the mother platform at all.

It won't be a scandal that kills Facebook. It will be a badly-received update to the user experience.


When you join a decentralised platform like Mastodon, you don’t sign up to the overall ‘mother’ platform, as you would with Twitter. You sign up to one of the localised ‘instances’ and become part of that individual group. You can then access and interact with as much of the mother platform as your individual group’s moderation policy allows. Potentially the whole of Mastodon, although some ‘instances’ auto-block a range of other ‘instances’ for various reasons. Because of the group biases on decentralised platforms, censorship can be heavier on the likes of Mastodon than on Twitter. It depends which ‘instance’ you join.

Moderation (read censorship) policies can vary considerably from ‘instance’ to ‘instance’. Some will ban you for doing things that others welcome with open arms. This is why you MUST check the individual 'instance's Terms before you sign up. You may find yourself having to go through several different policies before you find one you’re happy with. That complicates and prolongs the sign-up.

Some ‘instances’ are run in the spirit of freedom vs responsibility. Others are evidently run with an “internet police” mentality, and essentially require every member to share the administrator's views.

Another issue is the size of the ‘instance’. That is, how many members the group has. I wouldn’t feel comfortable joining an ‘instance’ with only a few members. It just feels too conspicuous to be one of a group of, say, 25. However, both Mastodon and Diaspora do quote the membership totals for each ‘instance’ or ‘pod’, so you’re aware of the group size before signing up.

All of the above makes decentralised networks too convoluted for most people. And I imagine a lot of potential users don’t understand why, if they’re supposed to be joining Mastodon, they’re being directed to sign up to a site with a completely different, unrelated domain name. But it’s a shame signing up is so offputting, because Mastodon is fast, lightweight, clean, well laid out and really nicely engineered as a content delivery system. After being beaten about the eyeballs with Twitter’s “ads first” approach, it’s bliss to see a totally clean interface with a simple timeline that just updates on its own when a new post is published.

Hint: a "free speech" platform full of racists is not catering to celebs.


The three major drawbacks on decentralised networks are…

  • The comparatively low volume of the userbase.
  • The woefully limited search capabilities.
  • The dustbin / trash can effect.

The dustbin effect is a publishing issue, in which any content posted is only visible for a very short time. After a brief moment at the top of a busy timeline, it’s buried in a void which, realistically, is never going to be visited. That means it’s not worth anyone spending time on what they post, and therefore much of what you find on these platforms has little inherent value. It’s probably either going to be top-of-the-head opnion/chat, secondhand ‘aggregate’, or links to other sites.

All social networks primarily based on chronological timelines suffer from the dustbin effect to an extent. But some of the bigger networks have features that work around it in varying measures. For example, Twitter has algorithms which artificially enhance and maintain the visibility of content attracting significant public interest. Coupled with a powerful search capability, this can keep content accessible in the longer term. Meanwhile, Tumblr uses header tags for post titling, which can help its content be found via Google and other webwide search engines. I should stress, though, that’s genuine Tumblr – not necessarily the “Tumblr clones”. The “Tumblr clones” are generally nothing like Tumblr under the bonnet, and are typically among the worst dustbins on the internet.

FREE SPEECH


No social network I’m aware of operates a total free speech policy. Allowing people to say or post literally anything at all would be against the law in most places, as well as being widely offensive, harmful and dangerous. So what networks normally mean when they promise “free speech”, is that they profess not to have political biases, or rules against the expression of unpopular (as opposed to legally questionable) views.

The problem is, if you ask Facebook and Twitter, they’ll say they don’t have political biases or rules against the expression of legal but unpopular views either. So alternative platforms promoting “free speech” are really just trying to use the perception of unnecessary censorship on Facebook and Twitter to bolster their userbase. And the problem with this is that it attracts the absolute dregs of the social sphere. The people Facebook and Twitter have silenced or banned. The racists. The hate groups. The trolls.

Many alternative networks cite themselves as having special tolerances, when in fact their policies are broadly no different from Twitter’s.


There’s a weird movable line between people’s desire to speak freely and their desire to stifle views they don’t personally like. Social media users want free speech, but only up to the point at which someone else offends them. Then they want the offender suspended. Because people have different views, that’s clearly impossible for any social network to implement. So all “free speech” policies on centralised networks are a compromise. You can either accept that there are certain things no one can say. Or accept that people are allowed to offend you. It has to be one or the other.

Decentralised platforms have different moderation policies per group, so users can improve their personal digital space by signing up to an ‘instance’ whose beliefs are in line with their own. The ‘instance’ then filters out offensive matter subjectively, by pre-blocking other ‘instances’ which have ‘incompatible community guidelines’, and moderating its own userbase.

But these tailored anti-offensiveness strategies can result in low engagement, as everyone is of the same mindset and there’s nothing to challenge or react against. Environments in which everyone agrees with each other do not make for entertaining or stimulating discussion, so the audience volume suffers too.

NSFW FRIENDLINESS


Not Safe For Work friendliness is to an extent an illusion on social platforms. And like free speech, it’s been overtly used as a marketing tool by many networks. There were virually no directly-designated Tumblr alternatives before the genuine platform outlawed porn in December 2018. Since then, there have been countless offerings – none of which have been in the same league as Tumblr technically, and some of which have already folded.

In December ’18, even MeWe went a-spammin’ on Twitter, presenting itself to Tumblr users as a NSFW-friendly site. It’s just something alt platforms do when they see an opportunity to quickly bolster their membership.

But the reality is that all serious platforms are governed by app store policies, which restrict NSFW content. They’re also governed by public tolerance, model release regulations, and sex trafficking laws, which can extend a lot deeper into content policing than one might imagine. And NSFW content can attract a very high quantity of DMCA notices, because the volume of theft is phenomenally high in sex-themed genres.

"Get paid to post!" is what happens when potential users look at the site and say: "Actually, free is way too expensive for this."


So in an ideal world, platforms will gravitate towards a NSFW-free environment. It’s a lot less risk and potential hassle for them. But it’s not an ideal world, and alt networks often have very little bargaining power to entice users away from the bigger fish. NSFW is one area where technically poor “dustbins” can still build a userbase.

Indeed, NSFW-friendly platforms are often deliberately built as uber-dustbins, as a means of keeping DMCA notices to a manageable level. They don’t want the content getting onto the search engines, because any stolen media that becomes visible on a search engine is almost inevitably going to prompt a DMCA notice. And dealing with DMCA notices in high volume is a labour-intensive, costly task.

Presumably as a solution to this, at least one NSFW-friendly Tumblr clone does not even have post URLs. The posts have database IDs instead, and they display through JavaScript. This does successfully reduce the likelihood of DMCA notices, because no search engine can index any individual posts, and no one can share the posts to more visible platforms. And if any copyright holder does somehow find their stolen content, its location is very difficult to identify in a report. But obfuscating posts to this extent is a deeply flawed strategy. If no links to individual posts can be shared, and nothing can be bookmarked, there's no real chance of viral growth for the site. Imagine a celeb signing up and making a major announcement, and no one can link to the post...

It’s the ultimate incarnation of the digital dustbin. Built-in disposability, and tangible severability from the conventional web. That can only be overwhelmingly restrictive in terms of the platform’s growth potential. But we’re talking about very low-end sites here. They’re flying the NSFW flag because they have literally no other selling points.

And it’s here we should remember that the “NSFW-friendly” policies on most alt social platforms are actually no different from the current policy on Twitter. That’s where the illusion comes in. There’s little or no additional freedom. The differences are only linguistic. So then the question arises: why use a technically grim platform with very limited reach, when you can use a technically sound platform with vast reach?

MARGINALISED COMMUNITY FRIENDLINESS


Most genuinely marginalised communities are now theoretically protected by hate speech rules on major social networks. But theory doesn’t always work in practice, and there are in any case some glaring exceptions that slip through the hate speech net. Obviously there is a problem with discrimination against minority and marginalised groups – frequently aggressive, abusive discrimination, which is not properly dealt with by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. It’s also unreasonable to expect people to spend half their lives reporting abuse.

Whilst the answer to this is NOT telling marginalised communities to sod off to a little backwater where they’re out of the way, decentralised networks do come into their own with regard to providing safe spaces. Because the decentralised fediverse is divided into small groups, each of which can implement different policies, marginalised groups can put themselves first. They can be the gatekeepers.

Unless marginalised communities actually are their own gatekeepers, any assertions of good intent towards them are normally just hot air. So on centralised platforms, which must by nature have a single, standard policy for everyone, majorities are always going to prevail.

“GET PAID TO POST”


This is a very highly suspicious marketing tactic which typically turns out to be a full-on scam. And if it is a scam, you have to ask yourself what kind of criminals are getting your data and what they’re doing with it.

It’s not unheard of for a social platform to have a system that can reward users financially, but always do a thorough reality check. At the end of the day, all money has to come from somewhere, and about 99% of what people post on social media is not worth anything. The rule of thumb is: if no one will pay you for what you post anywhere else online, some social platform you’ve never heard of is not going to pay you for it either.

Ultimately, the more grandiose the offer a social network has to make to attract users, the worse it’s likely to be. One can only marvel at how bad a social platform must be if it thinks it needs to offer people money to use it. “Get paid to post” is normally what happens when potential users look at the site and say: “Actually, free is way too expensive for this”.

It’s the ultimate incarnation of the digital dustbin. Built-in disposability, and tangible severability from the conventional web. That can only be overwhelmingly restrictive in terms of the platform’s growth potential.


LISTS OF ALTERNATIVES


To get lists of the most similar alternatives to the platform you use, a site like alternativeto.net is very useful.

Here’s its list of Facebook alternatives.
Here’s its list of Twitter alternatives.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR


Charges. How does the platform make money, or plan to make money? Will it demand payment from you once you’ve built your presence?

The dustbin effect. What’s the shelf-life of your content? If your posts are invisible after a couple of minutes, is it worth bothering to post at all? As an element in this, what happens when you share your posts to bigger platforms? Can you even do that? Can non-members access the posts you’ve shared? Do any posts from the alternative platform show up on Google? If the only way people are seeing your posts is on a rapidly-moving timeline, you’re just shovelling your energy straight into a bin. And the platform won’t care. It’s your presence they earn money from – not your posts.

Open/closed architecture. On an open platform, anyone can find you and link to you, whether or not they themselves have signed up. On a closed platform, the owners are artificially restricting your visibility to the outside world, to get you to persuade your friends to sign up. Platforms that offer you the choice of whether or not you want to be visible to the wider public are fine. But platforms that forcibly hide you behind a digital wall until you persuade your friends to join, are using you. That mentality is not going to change.

Linguistic and semantic trickery. Many alternative networks cite themselves as having special tolerances, when in fact their policies are broadly no different from Twitter’s. Pay attention to the Terms of Service, Community Guidelines and Privacy Policies. Not the promotional blurb.

Technical incompetence. Try searching the alt platform’s incoming replies on Twitter, by entering to:@AltPlatformUsername into the Twitter search box. And definitely do this with MeWe. If people are reporting a lot of tech problems and not getting them resolved, don’t use that alt platform. If for any reason you lose access to your account, everything you’ve built will go down the drain.

You can either accept that there are certain things no one can say, or accept that people are allowed to offend you. It has to be one of the other.


THE BIG PICTURE


I’ve spent a long time trying to find the right alternative social network, and I’ve never found anything that delivers the value of Twitter. Twitter is strewn with ads, it turns your profile page into a marketing centre for other people, and it blind-eyes some clearly illegitimate practices, such as “cash/prize giveaway” engagement baiting, and worse. There’s so much wrong with it that I could write a whole blog on its flaws alone. In fact I pretty much did before it began to take spam-management seriously in 2017. And yet I still can’t find anything that I’m more driven to use than Twitter.

The biggest problem any alternative network faces is building an influential membership. If celebrities are not interested, that platform won’t go mainstream. If they are, it will. You wonder if any of the alternatives even realise this, because their grasp of what would attract celebrities does not seem particularly good. Most of them are chasing the gutter when they should be chasing the stars. And by that I don’t mean they should be badgering celebs to join. I mean they should be designing the facility so it’s actually worth celebrities' while to join.

The real value of alternative networks at present is not so much what their users can achieve versus what they can achieve on Facebook or Twitter. It’s more the simple fact that the alternatives exist. They serve as a constant reminder to Facebook and Twitter that if they don’t listen to their users, there are other options available. Public tolerance has a limit, and if the main platforms can’t stay above that threshold, they can easily go the way of MySpace.

It won’t be a scandal that kills Facebook. It will be a badly received update to the user experience. Zuckerberg and Co. know that, and Instagram’s immediate, same-day reversal of a wildly unpopular update in December 2018 proved it. So worried were the management that the public would lose confidence in the brand, that they actually tried to pretend the entire update was a technical glitch. That’s the level of damage a poor user experience can do.

Given the knowledge these massive platforms have today, it would require a truly perfect storm for an alternative network to snatch Facebook’s crown. But it could still happen. My own sense is that Facebook’s nemesis is yet to be born. Once it is born, however, it will strike like a bolt of lightning. Rising almost overnight, out of nowhere. Appealing to celebrities, who then drive its expansion without the need for Facebook’s own consent.

Much of what you find on the 'dustbin' platforms has little inherent value. It’s probably either going to be top-of-the-head opnion/chat, secondhand ‘aggregate’, or links to other sites.


So, all ye alternative social media platforms, go after the celebs. Cater to them. Build your environment with them in mind. Because once they join up, the rest of us will follow.

Oh, and hint: a “free speech” platform full of racists is not catering to celebs.
Bob 'Interesting' Leggitt is a print-published writer, multi-instrumentalist and twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, Google-certified digital marketer, image manipulation expert, virtual musical instrument builder, "Twitter detective", and author of successful blogs such as Planet Botch, Twirpz and Tape Tardis. | [Twitter] | [Contact Details]