In the aftermath of the issues with the major social media platforms, there have been a number of initiatives to reclaim social networking in a way that makes sense for people, with safety and personal control being at the forefront of a lot of peoples' minds.
However, many of these initiatives which have often showed up out of the blue have a bunch of red flags, and somehow people aren’t noticing them when they decide to commit wholeheartedly to a new platform. I think it’s worth sharing some of those warning signs, as someone who’s been around the block a few times.
One very common thing that happens is that a platform will be promoted as being the effort of a single person, or will have a single figurehead involved, and this person is presented (either by themselves or others) as some sort of savior. Often they will be presented as the only person who’s thinking about these things, or someone who’s going to disrupt “big business” or “surveillance capitalism” or the like.
They also present their solution as the only solution, or that it will be something that changes the world or will be revolutionary in some other way.
These aren’t the signs of someone who actually knows what they’re doing; they’re the signs of a cult leader.
Edit: A colleague brought up some other behaviors that often correlate to the above. For example, if someone offers a differing opinion or has a technical concern or criticism of their work, they will chalk it up to being the victim of a personal grudge. Additionally, if they don’t feel that they are gaining enough recognition in the conversation or the community surrounding it, that’s a sure sign that they are being “erased” or otherwise being purposefully ignored. Essentially, their ideas are always perfection and of paramount importance, and anyone who disagrees must be trying to undermine them, rather than trying to bring their own experience and skills to the conversation.
Many times these platforms will present themselves as being a way of freeing yourself from the locked-in mainstream social media systems, but will then in turn require some sort of all-or-nothing lock-in to the new platform instead. How is this an improvement?
For example, these platforms might require a single, specific, proprietary mobile app to work, or they have no support for open protocols such as RSS or Atom, or an interaction API that allows others to build such tools to work with it. If they do provide some sort of API, it might be provided with extreme restrictions. They might not even provide a means of sharing links to posts or profiles anywhere other than on their own locked-in platform! How can you call yourself social media if you don’t allow people to be social?
Often these social media platforms are being presented uncritically to the world by someone who doesn’t have any proven track record of delivering on software, either in terms of feature development or in terms of security or the like. One particularly visible one right now literally presents itself as being the very first programming project from a college student who only learned to program specifically to build this social network!
When you’re handling personal information and have even the remotest semblance of privacy or operating at scale, you need people — yes, multiple people — who can bring a critical eye to the design of the system and understand performance, stability, and security.
These social network upstarts often share some very lofty goals or assert that they’ll be amazing in every possible way, but then don’t have any details about how they’ll accomplish that. Heck, sometimes their visible aspects are in direct opposition to their claims (for example, insisting that there’s “no algorithm” but then also presenting a “for you” view of things).
Some of these initiatives come from people who aren’t just trying to make the next big thing, but also take a gigantic shit on other people doing similar things, or stir up drama about other initiatives. They also tend to use extremely polarizing language, and present things as a “with us or against us” sort of thing, rather than trying to figure out how to work together.
Invariably, their claims are not backed up with a shred of evidence, and they refuse to explain their reasoning whenever someone in an “opposing team” asks where this is coming from. (The fact that they see these things as “opposing teams” is, in itself, a problem!)
Instead of using existing, time-tested protocols as a basis, they decide to do their own thing with brand-new formats that only make sense within the new social network. They often show a lack of understanding about existing initiatives, and when presented with information about those other initiatives, they immediately try to find reasons to hate the existing thing rather than to try to take lessons from them or consider collaboration/cooperation.
Often they’ll hyperfocus on a single flaw (often one that doesn’t even actually exist) as a reason to not support something at all.
Accepting funding from venture capitalists means that no matter what, a social network is going to be stuck on a trajectory of unsustainable exponential growth and requiring Engagement™ to exist.
Accepting funding from venture capitalists and then hiding the source of that funding is a gigantic red flag.
Community efforts require community funding.
You might think that I’m talking about Hive Social, and you would be right. The moment that Hive launched, I saw nearly every single one of the above red flags, and they were so red that everything else looked cyan for a week. Their security issues are not surprising to me at all and that’s not even the worst of it; even if they made their security air-tight I still wouldn’t trust that platform in the slightest.
But there are other platforms and initiatives which tickle my spidey sense when it comes to one or more of those things. Some of them will likely do well despite having some of those issues (ideally because those issues are merely temporary), but some of them are probably going to crash and burn and take a lot of people and their good will with them.
However, I’d rather focus on positives and direct attention towards initiatives which seem like a good path forward!
I don’t think it’d be any surprise to learn that I feel that IndieWeb is my preference for how social media initiatives should work. It’s a community effort with no figureheads (and certainly no “benevolent dictators for life”), and it’s all about interoperability and learning from each other with humility and respect. There are certainly problems to solve (especially in terms of how to get people participating in the first place and solving some interoperability chicken-eggs), but pretty much everyone in IndieWeb spaces is aware of this, and we’re trying to work together to solve these problems. It takes hard work and understanding, and there are no quick fixes. All of IndieWeb’s protocols are built to be composable (pretty much everything is optional to an extent) and based on existing protocols, as well. And someday I really need to write a proper article about what IndieWeb is and how to get involved in it.
I’m also pretty hopeful about Cohost. The platform as it stands today isn’t one that I’d be willing to buy into, but they do have an eye towards interop and have soft-launched RSS publishing. They also don’t have an API yet but they do plan to add one, and hopefully they use open standards such as OAuth/IndieAuth to make it actually work. Cohost feels like it could become an easy-to-use IndieWeb participant, and I hope that they push their development in that direction. So, Cohost isn’t something I personally want to rely upon yet, but so far they seem to be on a path towards becoming one that I might be able to recommend.
Also, for all the grief I give Mastodon, there’s a lot to like about it, especially since the Mastodon development community as a whole seems to have rejected the notion of its creator being a BDFL. There are definitely some governance and interop issues to address, but none of them are intractable. (For example, I can absolutely see a future where Mastodon is 100% interoperable with IndieWeb, and there’s already plenty of interop which exists already!)
Similarly, ActivityPub-the-protocol is pretty okay. It isn’t a panacea and I have technical concerns with it, but I probably will end up supporting it in Publ someday. (Do watch out for some of the red flags from some of the people involved in it, though.)