We, each and every one of us, need to make the decision to move to free, open source, and decentralized online services. It will be painful. It will be difficult. It may mean giving up some comforts, like sending money instantly to friends without fees. It is also the only way to prevent some seriously bad things from happening.
In recent weeks, two major things happened:
- Facebook’s business model - gathering as much information about you as possible, then selling it - was used in a totally predictable way that, nonetheless, nobody seemed prepared for. Cambridge Analytica paid 270,000 users and ended up with data from 50 million, none of whom consented to that data being used. They then targeted vulnerable individuals in a (successful) attempt to play on their fears and get Donald Trump elected president.
- The United States government passed two laws, FOSTA and SESTA, which are completely ass-backwards attempts to combat sex trafficking that actually severly harm victims and sex workers. In response, many web services are cracking down on any sexually explicit content, including articles written about the porn industry and its issues.
These are not good things, but, and this may be hard to hear: they are entirely our fault, as Web users.
How Could This Happen?
A lot of people are running around with their hair on fire, wondering, “how could this happen?”. The answer is simple: we trusted large, centralized, profit-driven services with everything we care about - our photos, our messages, our opinions, our livelihoods, and even our relationships.
Had Facebook not been the primary way for hundreds of millions of people to communicate and express their opinions, Cambridge Analytica could not have used the fears and anxieties expressed in those communications to manipulate voters.
Had we not become reliant on Skype and Google Drive to carry out business and pleasure, FOSTA and SESTA would not be hitting sex workers and survivors of rape so hard.
Had we interrogated, for even one instant, what it was that funded and powered the “free” online services we entrusted with our social and professional lives, we would have glimpsed the writhing horror we were building, and turned away in disgust.
Is There Any Hope?
Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Those of us who did understand the true nature of “free” services like Facebook have been building a solution.
This solution is decentralized services. This means that anyone - any organization or individual with Internet access - can participate, not just as a user but as a service provider.
One of the key pieces of software here is called Mastodon. It is a microblogging platform, like Tumblr or Twitter, but rather than every user handing over their data to Twitter-the-company, there are thousands of “Mastodon sites”. There is cyber.space and witches.town, mastodon.social and pawoo.net. The crucial feature is this: if you have an account on mastodon.social (or any other Mastodon site), and I have one on cybre.space (or any other Mastodon site), I can talk to you and you can talk to me.
If you want to see a sample Mastodon profile, check out mine: email@example.com.
Let’s say I join mastodon.social with all my friends, but the people who run the site don’t agree with me - perhaps they don’t adequately protect me from harassment, and I want to move to kitty.town which is more aggressively moderated. With a traditional, centralized model, I would have to convince my friends to come with me, or be resigned to losing contact. With decentralized social media, you stay connected even if you move service providers.
That means that the problems mentioned above would be very, very short-lived. One Mastodon site (or “instance” as they’re called) starts doing shady things with user data. All the users can simply move to another instance with practically zero effort.. The network of instances can also cut off instances that are sources of spam or harassment, and that decision is up to the moderators and admins for each instance. If you don’t like the decisions the moderation team of your instance makes, you can move to another, more agreeable one with almost no effort.
Remember, there have been massive issues with moderation on Twitter. Those issues are largely solved by smaller, more tailored moderation teams, which Mastodon enables.
While Mastodon is modelled after Twitter, the same underlying systems are being applied to Facebook-like and Tumblr-like sites. Even more interestingly, these will be able to talk to each other. Imagine being able to see Twitter posts in Facebook, or Facebook posts on Tumblr. This further reduces lock-in. Don’t like the Mastodon format? Move to Aardwolf or Pleroma or … wherever. You will still be connected to your friends.
What You Need To Do
There are a few things you can do to help.
Make a Mastodon account. joinmastodon.org will help you get started. Then, aggressively convince your friends to switch from Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. Be “that person”. It’s painful at first but the benefits are worth it.
Use other decentralized software. E-mail, for instance, is better than Facebook Messenger, even if you use GMail or Yahoo! Mail or another large e-mail provider, because there is the option to move to another.
Share this post. Share it on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and everywhere. Or write your own and share that. Make it resonate.
Together, we can build an internet that’s not just safer, but more enjoyable. Thank you. Your effort and struggle are valuable.