Dossier 6: Alternative Platforms

Introduction

At the beginning of January 2021, following the attack on the US Capital, Parler (the Twitter-style social media platform) was banned from the Google and Apple app stores and was kicked off of Amazon Web Services. On top of the free speech questions that this ban brought up, it also clearly showed the power that these companies have to control the online landscape.

Our digital public squares, the places where we meet together online, are now organised and determined by a few commercial companies. These companies decide what the square looks like. They decide what we can and cannot say or share. And they decide the kinds of interactions we can have with content and other users. Like this article from our Power of Facebook dossier showed, these companies do not care about the social atmosphere on the square, and whether they are offering a safe environment to all their users. Their main interest is selling advertisements (on the back of our data and online behaviour), and the only thing they want to avoid is us leaving their square en masse. Although books like Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff make us more aware of the capitalistic underpinning of platforms and tools that Big Tech companies offer us, we continue to use them.

Even the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, wants to go back to the web that he had originally wanted; a web where individuals can have more power and control over their own private data. According to technology and media analyst Ben Thompson we will go back to an open and decentralised internet. More and more of these initiatives are popping up all around us. Out of nostalgia for the old internet, An, an 18-year old from Germany, recently created SpaceHey, a remake of MySpace, where users once again have the freedom to design their own profile pages. The members of Gen Z Mafia, a group of young tech enthusiasts united in a Discord group, are collaborating, networking, and building products that they hope will shape a more positive internet future. You can explore their alternatives to the elitist and exclusive Silicon Valley establishment on their website. Even the news industry seems to be coming undone. Famous journalists like Casey Newton or Haley Nahman have left the news platforms they were working for (The Verge and Man Repeller) and started their own Substack newsletters. Are we heading towards a more decentralised internet: without big mainstream platforms but with smaller niche groups? And is that a good development, or does this kind of fragmentation cause new problems?

Alternative platforms within the ‘passion economy’, that operate on micropayments from subscribers, like Substack or Patreon, still need the power of mainstream social media platforms to get subscribers in the first place. As Reggie James, founder of Eternal, an avatar-based social network, states in a recent New Yorker article about Substack: “As long as writers were beholden to the logic of social-media algorithms, Substack was still playing the game of the platforms.” The most successful Substacks belong to people that already built an audience via traditional social media channels. Another downside to these more niche or closed platforms is that it’s not only difficult to discover new things, it’s also a good place for creating alternative realities.

In this dossier ON alternative platforms we explore whether alternative platforms can fix the internet. What is the right balance between systems that are small scale, homemade and sometimes flawed and systems that are large scale and streamlined? How can we, as users, reclaim power over our digital public squares? Are Big Tech companies causing our broken internet or does the very infrastructure and governance of the internet need to be re-imagined? Lilian Stolk visits the virtual office of Andrew Lin, founder of ohyay, a platform that let users built their own virtual hang outs. Margarita Osipian interviews artist Soyun Park who creatively uses Big Tech tools in her work, but in completely unintended ways. Soyun has also created a very special TikTok makeup tutorial for this dossier. Developer and philosopher Jan Hein Hoogstad shares 10 thoughts about the future of the internet. Mastodon is the biggest decentralised social network, how does it work? And we list some examples of artists who are reclaiming their power on the internet by hacking existing Big Tech platforms.