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.
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.
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.
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.
Why make or contribute to a Twitter alternative? What might motivate someone to work on a social media alternative? I had the good fortune of asking these and other questions to Carol Nichols, an open source software developer and longtime contributor to rstat.us, a microblogging service (see the S-MAP collection on rstat.us here, and you can read Nichols’s discussion of the rstat.us API here). In this interview, she talks about the rise of rstat.us, its organization, and its relationship to the mainstream Twitter. Continue reading Twitter Doesn’t Have My Interests in Mind: An Interview with Carol Nichols of rstat.us
Robert W. Gehl, Assistant Professor of Communication, University of Utah
Welcome to the S-MAP, the Social Media Alternatives Project!
I’ve conceived of this project because of my research interests in alternative social media. That is, sites that are built due to criticisms of mainstream social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Inspired in great part by the Unlike Us network, I’ve been researching sites such as Lorea, Twister, Diaspora, Quitter, and social networks on the dark web. I’ve begun publishing this research in journals and edited collections.
However, I’ve noticed a major problem: many of these sites disappear. For example, the social network I discuss in “Power/Freedom on the Dark Web” appears to be gone forever. Previously, I wrote about TalkOpen, a Twitter alternative, which also is offline. Because I’ve saved materials about these sites in Zotero (screenshots and interviews, mainly), I realize I have a very rare record of these sites, a record that does not appear in the Internet Archive.
Thus I have decided to begin systematically archiving materials related to social media alternatives. I also intend to blog about them here. Below is my overall rationale for doing so. Please watch this site for updates, and watch my Omeka site for materials! Continue reading The Need for Social Media Alternatives