Modern on-line social media are a continuing large-scale social experiment as much as we want to consider them a norm of modern life.
Whenever the debate on the effects, drawbacks or benefits of on-line social media arises, there is always an attempt to draw analogies with physical social spaces, such as a public square or perhaps the village community centre. Social media, as they exist now, are far from being either of these. If you show up in those places, or behave in an abusive or anti-social manner, you’ll be abruptly escorted away by the community. Existing social media are more akin to the squares all being privately owned, advertisements everywhere, and cameras recording everything that’s said and done. The owner is all too happy to leave people to make a scene and shout abuse if it draws the attention of the crowd to their square and to the advertisements.
Lately some of the owners have seen fit to clean up a small amount of the abusive behaviour they see as the worst—and some of those abusive users complain of “censorship.” All the while everyone else still has to try to avoid the raving lunatics and racists as they navigate the square. Shouldn’t it be up to the community to keep their square in order, not the capitalists who enable and even encourage these sorts of spectacles?
The analogy with a public square is lacking, but there are truths to the comparison. We have certain expectations of social interactions in public spaces: an ability to moderate what occurs, an ability to defend or intervene. With existing social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and so on, all this power has been privatised. The power has been taken away from the community; the only power left is to politely ask them to remove a few of the most egregiously offensive individuals and groups, and cross our fingers that it isn’t too unprofitable for them to permit it.
Community-owned social networks
Perhaps social media can align more with our existing social norms and be like a community centre. Certainly there are people making efforts in this space—perhaps in a more techno-anarchist approach than a state-supported public structure, but they do exist.
An impetus for these alternatives was created a few years ago following Twitter’s refusal to prevent continuous hate speech from the far right, especially that which targeted members of the transgender community.
The most well-known and most successful of these approaches are Mastodon and Pleroma. These gave communities the ability to create and moderate their own social networks, and a way to keep the far right out and prevent them spreading their poisonous bile, but also to co-operate and communicate with other communities sharing the same values.
A sample of these communities can be found at https://joinmastodon.org/communities, but more exist besides these: communities for LGBTQ+ activists, leftists, hacker communities, and so on. They can each choose to permit communications with other communities that share similar values or exclude those that don’t. Of course the ability to independently create communities and to moderate them as they wish also allows the far right to set up their own. But every other community still retains the power to keep them out.
Clearly this is an improvement over privately owned social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, having absolute power to choose what is permitted; but these communities have remained niche and not well known without the capital to grow these networks that comes from advertising and investors. Just like any community endeavour, these community-controlled social networks rely instead on the labour of volunteers, the donation of resources, and the dedication of a community working together to succeed.
We can’t expect that local government grants will be forthcoming for community social networks in the way they are for community halls; but putting social life back under the control of the community is a step in the right direction. The far right has benefited from the immoderation of private social media, just as private social media have profited from the attention the far right has brought to them. Communal control can take that power back to the people.
- Information on how these networks work, and how a community can establish their own server, can be found at Mastodon, “Social networking, back in your hands” (https://joinmastodon.org).
- Or to see how it works on a general server provided by the main developers go to https://mastodon.online, or see a sample of communities at https://joinmastodon.org/communities.