The Need for Social Media Alternatives

Julie and I have a new article, a short piece in Democratic Communiqué, on the need for alternative social media. It’s a paper that explains some of the reasons why we’re building the S-MAP. It also calls on media justice organizations, including the publisher of Democratic Communiqué, to start using alternative social media systems (such as Twister or GNU social) as part of their larger media practices. After all, we want democratic media, and we’re not as likely to get it with corporate social media.

Speaking of building the S-MAP, we’ve had a relatively quiet summer, but we will be adding more materials to the site over the coming months. A new addition is the bibliography — we expect that will grow as more attention is paid to alternative social media. If you have suggestions for academic articles that explore alternative social media, let us know. Another new addition to the S-MAP will happen soon — we’re going to pay for a certificate and offer an HTTPS connection (please be patient — this takes money to do, after all!).

Going back to Democratic Communiqué, in addition to our short article, there are other pieces relevant to alternative media broadly. First, Sandra Jeppson has a longer research article on “alternative media power.” Second, there’s a review of S-MAP Advisory Board member Victor Pickard’s fantastic book America’s Battle for Media Democracy.

People need a place to share and debate things without fear of prosecution: An Interview with Kyle Farwell and Keefer Rourke of Tokumei.co

by Julie Snyder-Yuly

Why is creating a totally anonymous blogging site important? Why would someone want to be involved in a site like this? I had the opportunity to interview Kyle Farwell and Keefer Rourke, the two high school student creators of Tokumei, an anonymous microblogging platform (see it in the S-MAP).  In this interview, they talk about their background and interest in software and websites, the importance of anonymity, and explain what Tokumei.co is.

JSY: Your website says that Tokumei is run by two broke high school students. Are you still in high school? Also, who is your partner, and how long you have been working together?

Kyle: We’re still in high school. We’ll be studying computer science university next year. I’m building Tokumei with Keefer Rourke. We met in elementary school. Keefer’s been helping out with design and usability decisions since shortly after I started working on Tokumei in November. He’ll be contributing front-end code starting after exams in a couple weeks.

JSY: Tell me a little bit about yourselves and what got you interested in writing and maintaining software and websites.

Kyle: My dad introduced me to video games when I was way too young, and it all went downhill from there. I started learning Logo and Scratch when I was 8 or so, took Visual Basic and Java game development classes at 10-14, and have substituted socialization and real hobbies for programming throughout my spare time ever since. I don’t like playing games much anymore, but I still write some. I started doing web development at some point, probably thanks to VB and Java turning me off from everything else. Thankfully I discovered werc and have been working with it lately to bring sanity to the web.

Keefer: I’ve been fascinated with computers for as long as I can remember, when I was little I would always tinker with things but later discovered I didn’t have the hardware resources to do. I turned to software, figured out how text could have so much more meaning. I started with Python as most young programmers do, switched to web development, followed up with C/C++, and then discovered a large interest in mathematics. Over the last few years I’ve written stuff varying from funny scripts to intense algorithms work.

JSY: What is Tokumei, and how does it work?

Keefer: Tokumei is a simple, anonymous microblogging platform. You visit the site, you read posts, maybe follow some tags so you can keep up with your interests. Posting is easy, you hit a button, type stuff, tag it, and leave it for others. We don’t record your IP address or any other personal information with your post, so you can speak freely without fear of your post being linked back to you.

JSY: What was your motivation behind creating Tokumei?

Kyle: I’ve enjoyed anonymous discussion on sites like 8chan and my own werc-based message board werchan, but comparing them one day to popular social networks it occurred to me that anonymous discussion platforms have gone largely unchanged since 1999 and 2channel. 2ch needs a massive posting guide, and even I screw up formatting syntax on my own message board to this day. I decided to make the real discussion and honesty that anonymity provides accessible.

That, and Twitter pissed me off by requiring a phone number to register.

JSY: Why is creating an anonymous blogging site important to you, and why do you think that anonymity is so important to many social media users?

Kyle: There are two benefits of anonymity. The first is obvious but important: people need a place to share and debate things without fear of prosecution or of being fired for holding unpopular opinions. Edward Snowden wouldn’t have been able to disclose information about the NSA’s illegal spying programs safely with the anonymity provided by Tor.

The second advantage of anonymity is that it allows real discussion. In traditional social networks, people who are famous in real life and who have used the site for a long time amass the most followers. When all information is treated equally, only an interesting post or an accurate argument works.

The second advantage of anonymity is that it allows real discussion. In traditional social networks, people who are famous in real life and who have used the site for a long time amass the most followers. When all information is treated equally, only an interesting post or an accurate argument works.


The first benefit of anonymity can be provided by Tor paired with a simple pseudonym on most social media sites (except some like Facebook and Twitter which demand real identities), but Tokumei is almost alone in delivering the second with forced anonymity for every post. In other words, a pseudonym separates a user from their real identity, but true anonymity separates a user’s posts from each other.

2channel founder Hiroyuki Nishimura explained anonymous posting well in an interview with Japan Media Review. When asked why he used perfect anonymity for 2channel, Nishimura said:

Because delivering news without taking any risk is very important to us. There is a lot of information disclosure or secret news gathered on Channel 2. Few people would post that kind of information by taking a risk. Moreover, people can only truly discuss something when they don’t know each other.

JSY: Who is your target audience for Tokumei, and why do you target them? Do you have any idea of how many users you have for this site?

Kyle: There are some groups that need anonymity like activists and whistleblowers, but I think it does good for everyone. The Tor Project maintains a good list of some people who benefit from anonymity.

Since we don’t store any logs, we have no idea how many users we have. All we know is that there are currently 321 posts and 512 replies.

JSY: You are a member of the Free Software Foundation. What is it and how did you become involved?

Kyle: The FSF is a nonprofit started by Richard Stallman with the goal of promoting software freedom. Free Software is software that can be used, modified, and redistributed freely. Users can share Free Software, study its source code, and make improvements freely. When software is not free, it can hide malware and create vendor lock-in.

Tokumei is Free Software (under the ISC license), so anyone can host their own site with their own rules and improvements.

I learned about the Free Software Foundation through the GNU project’s relentless insistence that it’s “GAHNOO SLASH LOONIX”, not “Linux”.

Keefer: I found out about it from Kyle.

All software sucks, be it open-source [or] proprietary. The only question is what can be done with particular instance of suckage, and that’s where having the source matters.”        — viro

JSY:  Have you had much success in your request for code or donations? What are your plans for the code and donations?

Kyle: No, so far we haven’t received any contributions. For now this isn’t a big deal; the two of us can handle code (slowly) and we have some free credit for hosting through DigitalOcean’s and Amazon’s student programs. The current server is somewhat slow and if we see an increase in traffic we may need donations to cover an upgrade.

Our plans are pretty straightforward: code contributions will be reviewed and merged; and monetary donations will go to hosting and (if they exceed what is needed for hosting) advertising.

JSY: What are the biggest challenges you face in maintaining this site?

Kyle: One time Hacker News drove our CPU load up to like 3500% and most requests timed out for a while, but adding caching fixed it and made the site about seven times faster.

JSY: Your rules for the site are very simple — nothing that violates local or Canadian law. Have you had any problems enforcing this?

Kyle: We have a simple system in place for people to report illegal content in posts, but so far no one has used it to report anything. Should we ever receive a request, the plan is simply to verify that the post it refers to is illegal in Canada and delete it. We don’t store any information about posters so we can’t help law enforcement identify users. Our rules say you can’t post things that violate local law (law where the poster lives) but since we don’t track users’ locations we won’t typically be able to enforce it unless Canada has a similar law.

Our location is the biggest barrier to offering a good platform for free speech. Unfortunately, Canada has harsh limitations on free speech, and service providers (us) are responsible for user-generated content so we have to delete potentially illegal content as soon as possible after seeing it rather than waiting for a court order.

Rules offend me, so our rules are as simple as possible. It’s absurd that most social networks disallow things like offensive comments. I love being offended; makes me think. See this video for more.

“I like offending people, because I think people who get offended should be offended”        — Linus Torvalds

JSY: What are your future plans or goals with Tokumei? Do you see it growing or developing in any particular direction?

Kyle: To start, world domination.

Keefer: That was a joke (I hope).

Kyle: I have no idea whether or not Tokumei will grow at all. I like it personally, but I’m a bit biased. 2channel has been very successful as an anonymous forum in Japan, and 4chan to an extent in the west. As their traffic drops and Internet users become unable to navigate forms with more than two fields or think up messages longer than 140 characters, maybe Tokumei is what people want. Or maybe with increasing surveillance and political correctness, anonymity is dead.

Keefer: Direction-wise, social networks are doing some interesting things lately. Polls, livestreams, current event summaries, and so on. My tech teacher almost solely relies on Twitter for his news. The trouble is that most of these fancy things actually hand-pick news they think is important to determine what you should see and censor what you shouldn’t. Their usefulness is subjective to an audience that is content with being told what to do, what to see, what to act on. Hopefully Tokumei has a place in reducing algorithmic bias in politics and news.

Fibreculture special issue on Activism and Technology

Robert W. Gehl

Fibreculture has a special issue on activism and technology, titled “Entanglements.” Edited by Pip Shea, Tanya Notley, Jean Burgess and Su Ballard, the issue features articles by both academics (including myself) as well as activists.

As Shea et al note in their introduction,

During the 2009 post-election protests in Iran, YouTube proved useful for raising awareness and mobilising people; but later, the Iranian government used these videos to crowd-source the identification of protesters.

Activists used Skype to communicate during the Egyptian uprising thinking it was safer than the terrestrial telephone system; however, when they examined files from the intelligence agency in the chaos after Mubarak’s fall they learnt their Skype calls were being closely monitored by Egypt’s security service .

One of the most circulated images appealing for public sympathy and money following the 2015 catastrophic Nepal earthquake turned out to be a ruse—an old image from North Vietnam—its circulation initiated by unknown people with unknown motivations.

These examples serve to remind us that while digital technologies are now deeply entangled with activist practices that are focused on contributing to social change, the philosophies and capacities embedded within these technologies often contradict, counteract, or challenge social justice and human rights aspirations—sometimes in unexpected ways that could not have been predicted.

Theirs is an extremely important argument: the communication technologies we use are never neutral, and we have to consider their politics carefully. This is a major reason we’ve started the S-MAP, and I’m hoping that more academics and activists cast a critical eye at corporate social media and start to explore alternatives. Moreover, the work can’t stop there: we have to cast a critical eye at the alternatives, as well.

Two new collections in the S-MAP: Voat.co and Ello

Two new collections are now available: Voat and Ello. Voat is an alternative to Reddit. As their About page puts it,

No legal subject in this universe should be out of bounds. Our aim is to build a site that serves the needs and wants of our users; one that strives for quality over quantity, and doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator in return for traffic.

Ello is pretty famous as a social media alternative that promises never to sell user attention to advertisers. According to their manifesto:

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.

You are not a product.

Both collections are now available, with more new collections in store for 2016!

The S-MAP is growing!

Just a bit of an update: Julie and I are adding more and more alternative social media sites to the S-MAP every week! Diaspora, of course, has been documented. Ello is on the way.

Those two are of course pretty well known. Lesser-known projects we’ve documented include Sone (the social network that runs on Freenet) and Evergreen (a social network proposed for Freenet).

We’re continually watching for more. I hear from people across ASM (on Twister, especially) about projects to add. If you have suggestions, please let us know.

Two new alternative social media publications

I have two new alternative social media-related publications.

First, in The New Inquiry, I have an interview with Lameth, the creator and admin of the Tor-based social network Galaxy2. I’m really grateful to Lameth for all his insights into social media and the dark web. Galaxy2 is featured in the S-MAP. Even better, you ought to go to it (Tor Browser Bundle required).

Second, I have posted a forthcoming version of “The Case for Alternative Social Media,” a paper that will appear in a special issue of Social Media + Society. It draws on interviews with a variety of alternative social media makers and users. I’m trying to define alternative social media. I focus on their anti-advertising stances, their pedagogical features, and their experimentation with surveillance and democracy.

As always, feedback is welcome!

Facebook and Activist Pages

As readers of my scholarly work know, I’ve been arguing that corporate social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter present activists with a sort of double-bind: on the one hand these sites have powerful network effects, which basically means that any activist can use them to get their messages to many, many other people. On the other hand, these are for-profit corporations which are largely built to drive our attention towards brand and marketing messages.

As Kevin Matthews of Care2.com argues, this tension between letting people “be the media” and being corporate-friendly has manifested in the form of Facebook shutting down protest pages. As Matthews reports,

For example, this year’s March Against Monsanto events have been popular with people across the globe, but not Facebook. An upcoming invitation for a rally in St. Louis, Missouri where Monsanto is headquartered was wiped clean from the social networking site. The administrator of the event received a very unspecific notice that the event “violated Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities,” yet it is not clear how the event would have violated any terms. What is clear, however, is that Monsanto advertises on Facebook and may have had some influence on the matter.

When the “Boycott Target Until They Cease Funding Anti-Gay Politics” group became extremely popular, employees at Facebook didn’t erase the page, but effectively shut it down anyway by putting severe restrictions on it. Not only was the page’s creator unable to edit or update the page, followers of the page could no longer start new discussions or post links and videos. A similar page that called for a boycott on BP was also rendered similarly useless after receiving the same posting constraints.

Such actions reflect the dangers of relying on centralized social media systems for activism. This is precisely why so many of the alternative social media makers profiled here in the S-MAP do what they do: try to build social media systems that are just as effective, pleasurable, and easy-to-use as the corporate systems while ensuring that censorship and obedience to transnational corporate advertisers cannot happen. The alternative makers use a variety of tools to do this: federation, distribution, free and open source software licensing, and radical democratic organizational structures.

If Facebook, Twitter, and Google continue to remove material that doesn’t comport with their pro-advertising agendas, I would suggest to activists — especially media activists — that they ought to take a serious look at switching to systems such as GNU Social (especially the Quitter.se installation), Diaspora, and Twister. Learn more about them in the S-MAP archive.

Clear and Pixelated

Those of you visiting the S-MAP archive might notice a discrepancy: some of the screenshots are pixelated, and some are not. Specifically, some shots have profile pictures and names pixelated or blurred, and some do not. You might wonder: what gives?

The answer is: I’m trying to respect people’s implicit privacy  concerns. I’ve come up with a set of rules regarding this:

  • If the site in question is open — that is, you can see content just by going to its URLs without having to log in, then there is no need to pixelate. The people posting there are doing so publicly.
  • If the site hides content behind a login page, then the members there have an expectation of privacy. Even if they use pseudonyms, they still likely don’t want their posts or avatars made available in the S-MAP.
  • If the site is open but is hosted on the Dark Web (i.e., it’s a Tor hidden service or an Eepsite), then the members likely care about their privacy and their avatars and posts ought to be pixelated.
  • It goes without saying that if the content is hosted on the Dark Web and there is a log in wall, the expectation of privacy is really, really high.

Since the goal of the S-MAP archive is to get screenshots to show site interface structure, the content the users are creating is not the focus. If any  researcher wanted to learn about the culture  or contents of these sites, the S-MAP won’t help — going to the site and spending a lot of time on it is the best course. Therefore, I believe it’s less important to display user names or avatars if there is any indication site members don’t want that information public.

 

Building a Better Twitter: a study of rstat.us, Twister, Quitter, and Gnu social

I’m happy to announce that my paper on the Twitter alternatives rstat.us, Twister, Quitter, and Gnu social has been accepted to the online journal Fibreculture. The paper, “Building a Better Twitter: A Study of the Twitter Alternatives Gnu Social, Quitter, Rstat.Us, and Twister
,” draws on interviews with social media alternative makers to explore the (productive) frictions that occur when the alternatives make contact with with the mainstream Twitter. I use my previous work on “critical reverse engineering” to examine four points of contact: pragmatic, genealogical, legal, and normative.

I am so grateful to the social media alternative developers who spoke to me: Matt Lee and Donald Robertson (Gnu social); Hannes Mannerheim (Quitter); Miguel Freitas (Twister); and Dave “Wilkie” Wilkinson and Carol Nichols (rstat.us). I’ve published here on the S-MAP my interview with Carol (it’s a great read — check it out), and I hope to publish more interviews with developers and users.

Planting the S-MAP’s Fair Use Flag

As the Social Media Alternatives Project starts taking shape, one of the key considerations has to be copyright and intellectual property. The S-MAP archive will be a collection of screenshots of interfaces drawn from a wide range of alternative social media. These screenshots will thus capture design elements, including navigation, structure, and logos.

We live in what Lawrence Lessig has aptly called a “culture of permission”; that is, we live in a time where we feel as if we have to ask permission to engage with media objects. Is it ok if I quote this source? Is it ok if I share this picture? Is it ok if I post a video of my kid dancing to a Prince song to YouTube?

Alternatively, however, there is another way of thinking about our use of digital media: the Fair Use approach. Fair Use, broadly speaking, is an exception in copyright law that allows for new, transformative, or critical uses of digital media. And the key to Fair Use is that we don’t have to ask permission to use such materials in these ways.

The S-MAP will thus have to be an exercise in Fair Use. I cannot seek permission from each and every alternative social media site to post screenshots of their interfaces.

To think this through a bit further, I’ve consulted with Allyson Mower of the Marriott Library at the University of Utah. Together, we used the American Library Association’s Fair Use Evaluator to assess the S-MAP’s standing as a Fair Use project. Based on this assessment, I believe that the project is on solid ground as Fair Use.

If you want to see the results of the evaluation, see this PDF document.