We must own our tools
Social media has come to play an important role in our society. It’s a way for people to get news and to discuss it with their peers as well as a tool for education. For better or worse, social media has become an invaluable tool and an integral part of our society.
There are a number of popular platforms out there. Some of the best known being Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. These platforms have the most users, and are increasingly being used for political organization. This is a natural development, since organizing always begins where the people are.
However, we must remember who owns these platforms and whose interests they ultimately represent. These are not neutral and unbiased channels that allow for the free flow of information. The content on these sites is carefully curated. Views and opinions that are unpalatable to the owners of these platforms are often suppressed, and sometimes outright banned.
Some examples include Facebook banning antifascist pages and Twitter banning left-wing accounts during the midterm elections in US. When the content that the user produce does not fit with the interests of the platform it gets removed and communities end up being destroyed. This is clearly a problem for any meaningful organizing.
Another problem is that user data constitutes a significant source of revenue for corporate social media platforms. The information collected about the users is referred to as metadata, and it can reveal a lot more about the individual than most people realize. It’s possible for the owners of the platforms to identify users based on the address of the device they’re using, see their location, who they interact with, and so on. This creates a comprehensive profile of the person along with the network of individuals whom they interact with.
This information is shared with the affiliates of the platform as well as government entities. A recent RCMP leak shows how this kind of information is used to spy on Canadian citizens.
It’s clear that commercial platforms do not respect user privacy, nor are the users in control of their content. While it’s important to participate on such platforms in order to agitate, educate, and recruit comrades, they should not be seen as a safe space for people on the left to organize.
Luckily, open source platforms provide an alternative to corporate social media. These platforms are developed on a non-profit basis and are hosted by volunteers across the globe. A growing number of such platforms are available today and millions of people are using them already.
Mastodon is an alternative to Twitter, and it’s currently home to over two million users. This was the first open platform to get serious traction, and has been growing steadily since its debut.
While Mastodon retains a similar user experience to Twitter, there is one major difference—it is a federated platform. Instead of all users having accounts on the same server, there are many Mastodon servers that all talk to each other to create the Mastodon network. If you have the technical expertise, it’s even possible to run your own.
Mastodon is built around an open standard allowing other platforms to integrate with it. This led to a number of open platforms being created and joining the network. Collectively these platforms are referred to as the Fediverse. One important aspect of the Fediverse is that it’s much harder to censor and manipulate content than it is with centralized networks such as Facebook. There is no single company deciding what content can go on the network, and servers are hosted by regular people across many different countries and jurisdictions. Some of the other platforms of interest are Pixelfed, PeerTube, Plume, and Lemmy.
Pixelfed is an alternative to Instagram that caters to artists and photographers. PeerTube is a YouTube alternative, Plume is a blogging platform akin to Medium, and Lemmy is a news aggregator forum inspired by Reddit.
All these platforms are developed in the open, and the developers themselves are often left-wing activists (as is the case with Mastodon and Lemmy). These platforms explicitly avoid tracking users and collecting their data. Not only are these platforms better at respecting user privacy, they also tend to provide a better user experience without annoying ads and popups.
Another interesting aspect of the Fediverse is that it promotes collaboration. Traditional commercial platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube have no incentive to allow users to move data between them. They directly compete for users in a zero sum game and go out of their way to make it difficult to share content across them. This is the reason we often see screenshots from one site being posted on another.
On the other hand, a federated network that’s developed in the open and largely hosted non-profit results in a positive-sum game environment. Users joining any of the platforms on the network help grow the entire network.
Having many different sites hosted by individuals was the way the internet was intended to work in the first place, it’s actually quite impressive how corporations took the open network of the internet and managed to turn it into a series of walled gardens. Marxist theory states that in order to be free, the workers must own the means of production. This idea is directly applicable in the context of social media. Only when we own the platforms that we use will we be free to post our thoughts and ideas without having to worry about them being censored by corporate interests.
No matter how great a commercial platform might be, sooner or later it’s going to either disappear or change in a way that doesn’t suit you because companies must constantly chase profit in order to survive. This is a bad situation to be in as a user since you have little control over the evolution of a platform.
On the other hand, open source has a very different dynamic. Projects can survive with little or no commercial incentive because they’re developed by people who themselves benefit from their work. Projects can also be easily forked and taken in different directions by different groups of users if there is a disagreement regarding the direction of the platform. Even when projects become abandoned, they can be picked up again by new teams as long as there is an interested community of users around them.
It’s time for us to get serious about owning our tools and start using communication platforms built by the people and for the people. This is the only way to guard against corporate threats to worker organization.
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