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My Search for Alternative Social Networks

6-12-19

Giant social network websites like Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, and Google Plus have some significant problems. One is that users have no real control over anything that happens there and, therefore, often zero recourse when they are treated unfairly. The way users are treated is completely at the whims of the companies that own these sites. And, as with nearly all giant corporations, virtually any employee that a user may manage to contact couldn't care less about the effects of the company's actions on individual users. Remember, users are not customers, they are the product. Customers pay to advertise to users and to buy user's data. One alternative social network user, whose post I read recently, called mainstream social network users "the cattle of the internet".



My Experience with Reddit

Here is my personal illustration of what I mean. About six weeks ago, I was shadow-banned from Reddit. This means I could see my posts and comments, but no one else could. Despite Reddit's written policy stating that anyone who is banned be given an explanation for this action, I never was. After my repeated requests over the month after my ban, I finally received this message from /u/abrownn, a moderator of the technology subreddit, "You're not shadow-banned any more it seems." That was his full message. So, the shadow-ban was lifted without explanation. I don't know why I was banned, and I don't know why the ban was lifted.

As a result of this treatment by Reddit, and also as a result of the many Facebook privacy scandals that we've been reading about in the news, I decided to find some alternatives for my social network "needs" (or, more accurately, "wants"). First, I should explain that, as something of an introvert, I have never been interested in using Facebook. So, I have no direct experience with it, and therefore, I can't make knowledgeable comparisons between Facebook and other social networks. Nevertheless, I will do my best to describe the results of my search for alternative social networks.



What I want in a Social Network

In no particular order, here is a list of features that I feel are desirable in an alternative social network. Call it a user's Bill of Rights.


  1. The option for anonymity (pseudonymous user names allowed, and no mandatory collection of user's personal data)
  2. Privacy (no tracking or linking of users to IP addresses)
  3. Security
  4. Users having a significant say in how the network is run
  5. A network that cannot be shut down by companies or governments
  6. Users cannot be banned
  7. All users are "equal" (i.e. the system cannot be gamed)
  8. Ease of use
  9. A sense of community
  10. Works with Linux


Many believe that alternative social networks are doomed to fail. And, as much as I hate to, I have to admit that many of their arguments seem cogent. The crux of many of these arguments is two-fold. First, most users of social networks are technically unsophisticated and just don't want to spend the time to learn how to use alternatives to their favorite social network websites. While I understand this, I have also found that most of the alternatives are no harder to use than the mainstream social networks. They are just different. The second argument, and the most persuasive, is that there aren't many people using alternative social networks. This is true, and this will be a huge problem for Facebook users whose friends are all on Facebook. But for Reddit users, this is not as much of a problem, because Reddit is not as much oriented around individuals as it is around information. If the information pool provided by the users is sufficiently large, and if it is presented in an easily-digestible format, nothing else matters. As a result, in my opinion, Reddit has much more to fear from competitors in the near future than does Facebook.

Over the last month, I have investigated some of the larger and more well-known alternative social networks: Minds, Voat, Diaspora, ZeroNet, Raddle, Mix, 4Chan, 8Chan, and Slashdot. I also investigated Steemit; however, my consideration of Steemit ended when I learned that I either had to pay $4 to join Steemit (plus another $2 fee, if I paid with bitcoin) or hand over my phone number. In my mind, a major point in the favor of alternative social networks is the level of anonymity they afford their users. Regardless of the ostensible reason, being forced to reveal a phone number vaporizes even the pretense of anonymity. The rest of this article details what I learned about the other social networks in my above list.



Centralized and Decentralized Social Networks:

Social networks fall into two broad categories, "centralized" and "decentralized" ( AKA "distributed"). Centralized social networks are housed on the computers of the organizations that run them. Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus are centralized social networks. Centralized alternative social networks potentially suffer from all of the problems of the major well-known centralized social networks. The only difference is that the alternative social networks are not currently large enough to be throwing their weight around and ignoring their users. But, if they ever grow enough to dominate their market, that will most likely happen. The major advantage of centralized networks is that users don't have to install any software on their computers to use them. Usually, you just point your internet browser to one of their websites, create an account, log on, and you're in.

The centralized alternative social networks that I tried were Raddle, Voat, 4chan, 8chan, Slashdot, and Mix. As I've said, I also investigated Steemit, but did not create an account. I also looked at other centralized networks that I won't mention, because they either have too few users or don't meet enough of the wants that I listed above. However, there are so many altenative social networks that I didn't try to experiment with them all, so you may explore the outskirts of the internet and find a good one that I missed.

Decentralized alternative social networks are housed on individual user's computers. This means that, in theory, they cannot be controlled or shut down by some central authority, like a company or a government. In theory, they are run by their users. However, practice and theory may be two different things. On some decentralized social networks, users can still be banned and their posts blocked. Sometimes this can be accomplished by a single hosting user, and sometimes it takes a concerted effort by several major users. In addition, social network software could conceivably be written to reside on individual users' computers, yet be controlled in some esoteric ways by a central server. Without being a knowledgeable programmer who is willing to wade through tens of thousands of lines of code or more, there is no way for the individual user to have a clue about who is really controlling a network, or who could control it in the future. Future versions of code can always be subverted if the financial reward is high enough. What I am trying to emphasize is that there is really no way to know for sure if a particular decentralized network is as free from interference as it claims, perhaps until some big company or government tries.

Speaking of being shutdown by a government, there is some good news where ZeroNet is concerned. Journalists reported recently that ZeroNet was shutdown by the Chinese government. However, this is not actually true. What really happened, at least according to my understanding, is that the Chinese government blocked ZeroNet's website on the clearnet (the internet we are all familiar with). However, the functioning of the ZeroNet network and its accessibility by all its current users in China are not affected. At least, Chinese users are unaffected until they need to use a newer version of the ZeroNet software. Until then, their connections to the ZeroNet network should work just fine. And, current Chinese users of ZeroNet should be able to pass (via sneakernet) their current ZeroNet software to as many of their friends as want it. So, ZeroNet appears to have passed its first test, at least so far.

The two decentralized social networks that I experimented with were ZeroNet and Diaspora. Despite China's failed attempt, knowledgeable users of ZeroNet claim that users can be banned and have their posts and data removed from the network. If this is not true, I urge someone smart at ZeroNet to explain this to me, and I'll change what I've written here. I'm talking about more than just having a list of "bad" websites published where users can refer to it. This seems completely reasonable to me. I'm talking about preventing users who desire to access specific content from accessing the content of banned users.



The Most Promising Centralized Networks I have Tried:

The following centralized social networks do not require users to sign up for an account to see their content: Raddle, Voat, 4chan, 8chan, Slashdot, and Mix. Both 4chan and 8chan allow unregistered users to post content, but on Raddle, Voat, Slashdot, and Mix users must have an account to create posts, up-vote content, and make comments.

Minds and Steemit are the two centralized networks I investigated that require users to create accounts just to see content.


Summary of advantages and disadvantages of each alternative centralized social network:

Raddle: Similar to Reddit. Long list of forums on specific topics. Perhaps only five to ten thousand users. Doesn't seem to have a problem with self-promotion, if the content is relevant. Significantly easier to use than Reddit.

Voat: Similar to Reddit. Maybe one to two hundred thousand users, but most don't seem to be active. Doesn't seem to have a problem with self-promotion, if the content is relevant. Lots of swearing and hate speech, but on the flip-side of that coin is the fact that users are definitely able speak their minds. Long list of "subverses" (forums on specific topics).

4chan: Geared for those with very short attention spans. Most posts are pictures or memes. Very little in-depth discussion. Posts seem to have very short shelf lives.

8chan: Much like 4chan.

Slashdot: Similar to Reddit, but far fewer users. More geared to the scientific and technical crowds. I received the distinct impression that there is heavy moderation here. My account stopped letting me log in after about 10 days, so there may be software or database problems.

Minds: About a million users. Most content is of the picture and video variety. Fewer substantial news stories than on Reddit. Content sometimes seems slow to load. Limited number of forums. There appears to be a medium-sized learning curve here. I had trouble locating and following content in the fire hose of posts. Maybe that is just due to my lack of experience here.

Mix: Doesn't appear to have forums on specific topics. Apparently, Mix will only let users login with their Google, Facebook, Twitter, or StumbleUpon account. That killed Mix for me. As far as I am concerned, the point of alternative social networks is to avoid mainstream social networks, not to integrate them into my alternative social network accounts! I would have liked to have put another ten exclamation points at the end of that sentence.

Steemit: Influential users known as "whales" can control what everyone is seeing by displaying their posts in the most prominent locations and relegating the posts of less influential users to outlying areas where no one will see them. This is no better than the situation at mainstream social networks. And, as I've said, I will not give my phone number to Steemit.



The Decentralized Networks I have Joined:

As I said previously, the decentralized networks I've tried are ZeroNet and Diaspora. I could also include Friendica, because the Diaspora "pod" on which I created my account runs Friendica software.

ZeroNet

I think ZeroNet comes the closest to complying with my above list of desirable features for alternative social networks. I wrote an entire article on my impressions as a new user of ZeroNet here. One of the ways ZeroNet protects users' privacy is by letting them use the TOR browser to hide their true IP addresses. And, users don't have to give away any personal information to join ZeroNet, not even their true names. Users can also create their own websites for free, in fact the ZeroNet developers encourage everyone to do so. In a way I only vaguely understand, ZeroNet uses bitcoin technology to assign IP addresses to user's websites and distribute them across other users' (or peers') computers. This is supposed to make ZeroNet less subject to interference from those who might desire to control or kill it.

I can't begin to describe the flexibility that ZeroNet enjoys, thanks to user's ability to create their own websites. Did I mention that users can create websites on ZeroNet for Free? As anyone knows who has read much on cheapskatesguide.org, free is very important to me. The ability of users to create their own websites on ZeroNet makes ZeroNet like a whole new internet, though currently on a much smaller scale. Unfortunately, although ZeroNet websites can run Java, they can't run PHP code. This is the major reason that I have not mirrored this website on ZeroNet. Okay, perhaps it's also due to my uncertainty about whether I would need to have my own dedicated, 24/7 server. And, there is the fact that ZeroNet sites can be accessed from the clearnet. I know because I have found some of my postings there in Google searches. I'm not sure about the effects of that on SEO ratings. Honestly, though, Google doesn't bring enough traffic to cheapskatesguide.org to pay attention to. I talked about this issue in an earlier article. Technically, the fact that Google searches ZeroNet websites means ZeroNet is not part of the dark web.

The downside of ZeroNet is that, at any given time, there are only in the neighborhood of a thousand users on line. This means two things. First, you won't find anywhere near the number or variety of postings that you would on Reddit. Second, since ZeroNet is hosted on the computers of its users, few users on line means much of the data in individual websites may not be available at any given time. This is most noticeable in book and movie download sites, as most book and movie files are not available a large percentage of the time. I haven't experimented with downloading music, but I assume the same applies.

Diaspora

Diaspora is a GNU-AGPL-3.0 open-source social network that is much like a stripped-down version of Facebook. With Diaspora, you open an account on a Diaspora "pod", which is a computer that is running the Diaspora (or similar open-source) software. Pods are run by a subset of individual users who host other users on their computers for this purpose. Any user can create his own pod. To use Diaspora, you open your internet browser and go to the clearnet website that corresponds to the particular pod on which you have an account. Then, you log on, and you are connected to Diaspora. You never need to use any software other than your favorite internet browser to access Diaspora. The pod I signed up with is social.linuxlusers.com. Diaspora has a website on the clearnet that displays a list of currently-available pods and their URL's.

Diaspora is globally linked to the following other open-source, distributed social networks: Friendica, Mastodon, Activity Pub, and Pleroma. In fact, the Diaspora "pod" I happend to open an account on apparently runs Friendica software, so technically, I joined Friendica without knowing it. There may be other, less-well-known, linked networks also, but the afore-mentioned ones are the ones I saw for myself on the network. A Linux Magazine article claims that Friendica is also linked to Facebook and Google Plus. I have seen no evidence of this, but I still have a lot to learn about Friendica, so it is possible that I've missed this. Regardless, thanks to the linking with other social networks, from Diaspora you can see posts that users of the other linked, open-source social networks have chosen to make visible to every one on all the linked networks. The ability to link to other open-source social networks appears to mean that the growth potential of open-source social networks is unlimited. This is a brilliant solution, I think, to the problem of a large social network becoming unresponsive to its users. Since many open-source software programs can run on the conglomerate social network, intelligent users should see the value of switching away from programs that become unresponsive to their needs. This should mean that unresponsive open-source social media networks should die off and be replaced by more responsive ones.

Due to the collection of a small number of users on each pod, which is in turn linked to all the other pods on a particular open-source network, which is in turn linked to the other open-source networks, this whole arrangement reminds me of the old bulletin-board days before the internet. That system, though technically still in existence (it's being reinvigorated by some of the old-timers with the original hardware and software), was very effectively replaced by the modern internet. Only time will tell whether this new system of linked, open-source social networks will be replaced by something else. Whatever happens, it should be fascinating to watch.

I found Diaspora (technically, Friendica) to be somewhat difficult to use. The documentation didn't go beyond simple explanations of the basics, and I had no idea how to contact a system administrator to ask questions. Perhaps with more perseverance or help I might have solved these issues.



Summary

My search for alternative social networks over the past month has lead me to some realizations. First, many alternative social media networks exist. Some seem difficult to use, but many are no more difficult to use than the mainstream social networks, some even less so.

I liked Raddle, Voat, and ZeroNet for their content, ease of use, and general sense of community. The rest I didn't care for much. I might have liked Diaspora, if I could have solved my posting issue.

Another problem with alternative social networks is that, with the exception of minds, they are small. This means the content is limited. And, it means most people will not want to move there.

I see the most potential in ZeroNet, due to its decentralized network, active developers, ease of use, and flexibility (anyone can create their own website). I can only explain the small number of users as a result of the mainstream news media's anxiety surrounding the "dark web". If you are one of those who are afraid of the dark web, I urge you to overcome that fear and get a taste of the freedom that can be found there. Personally, I find ZeroNet's potential exciting, but I am also okay with the fact that millions of people have not flocked to it and turned it into another commercialized Reddit/Youtube/Google/Amazon network. It seems that, with enough money, anything is corruptible.

If you want to move to an alternative social network, don't expect to follow your friends there. You will have to be the trail blazer. You will have to put forth the effort to convince your friends of the wisdom of following you. With the vast majority's lack of concern about privacy and security, that will be an extremely tough sell. Perhaps, feeling a kinship with the likes of Lewis and Clark, you will have to strike out on your own and wait for "the cattle of the internet" to catch up, if they ever do.



Related Articles:

ZeroNet and the Future of the Internet

What I Learned about the Internet by Creating My Own Website

How to Avoid being Tracked and Spied-On while on Line

There's no Such Thing as a Secure Computer--How to be Relatively Secure

Why I Love the Idea of Community File Sharing and Mesh Networks

7 Neat, Free Things You can get on the Internet

What's the Point of Cryptocurrencies?

Comments


Anonymous coward
said on Jun 14th 2019 @ 11:55:01am,

Interesting overview! (I've viewed a little content from some of the centralized networks you've mentioned but never participated, except a bit on slashdot many years ago.) Re ZeroNet, it's more of another web that can have anything on it, including any number of social networks, forums etc. What did you actually use while there? ZeroMe? ZeroVoat? ZeroTalk? Other? Here are a few more decentralized / federated networks (maybe you know them already, maybe they don't meet one of your criteria): + Mastodon - https://joinmastodon.org/ + Secure ScuttleButt (SSB) - https://www.scuttlebutt.nz/ + RetroShare - http://retroshare.cc/ + Friendica - https://friendi.ca/ + Movim - https://movim.eu/ + Twister - http://twister.net.co/


Cheapskate
said on Jun 14th 2019 @ 09:06:12pm,

Anonymous Coward: I did explore all the sites you mentioned on ZeroNet, as well as many others. There are several blogs on ZeroNet that I looked at--most are small. And, as I said, I tried several of the download sites--for books, movies, etc.--with limited success, due to the small number of "peers" online at any given time. As far as the other decentralized/federated networks you mentioned, I did not know about Secure ScuttleButt, Retroshare, Movim, and Twister. Thanks for that. I'll look them up. [UPDATE: I looked into these four. The problem these four have in common with a lot of other software for distributed social networking is that they began strong after the Edward Snowden revelations, but despite great ideas and good intentions, they never gathered enough support from other programmers to become mature. Most development died in the 2013-2014 time frame. In the case of Secure ScuttleButt, there does seem to be some ongoing development, but it is slow.]


Anonymous coward
said on Jun 15th 2019 @ 08:40:08am,

Look forward to reading your take on them. -- By the way, do you offer an RSS newsfeed so I'd know when you've got a new article out?


V
said on Jun 15th 2019 @ 03:11:03pm,

Seconding the request for an RSS feed.


Cheapskate
said on Jun 15th 2019 @ 06:23:10pm,

Anonymous Coward and V: thanks for the advice on the RSS newsfeed. I'll look into what would be required for that and consider it.


Cheapskate
said on Jun 16th 2019 @ 07:32:09pm,

Cheapskate's Guide now has an RSS feed. The link is at the bottom of the home page. Please let me know if you have any problems with it.


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