It feels a little surreal watching #DeleteFacebook.
On one hand, despite how hard it is to keep an issue trending in today’s fast news cycle, this issue has managed to continue burning for a while. Somewhat recently (March 21), we got two high-profile Facebook account deletions from Brian Acton (WhatsApp cofounder) and Elon Musk. Other apparent examples include Playboy and Cher, or see Time or CNET for a few more. Facebook’s U.S. and Canada user base declined for the first time last quarter.
On the other hand, for me and for a lot of people, the scandal just doesn’t seem that qualitatively different from things we’ve known about Facebook for a long time — its stance on privacy, its psychological effects, its willingness to manipulate the user experience. Why is this time different? (Here’s the /r/NoStupidQuestions thread. I don’t actually know which answer I believe the most.)
Is this time really different? I’m not optimistic. The decline could simply be Facebook running out of potential users to add and space to grow. According to a recent Raymond James survey, about half of surveyed users did not plan to change how much they used Facebook, while only 8% would stop using it, and this may still be an overestimate of people who will actually leave or delete their accounts.1 Mark Zuckerberg himself told the New York Times, “I don’t think we’ve seen a meaningful number of people act on [the #DeleteFacebook campaign]”.
I myself have to admit upfront that, even though I barely use Facebook any more and have carefully contemplated deleting my Facebook account for a long time, I still haven’t pulled the trigger.
Why? What will it take to change this?
If you search for discussions of deleting Facebook, you’ll find endless reasons why you should do so. It violates your privacy — in fact, its entire business model is built on violating your privacy. It makes you less productive. It isn’t real socializing, and will make you sadder. There are also many articles about how to actually do it, which is not as obvious as one might hope; here’s the official Facebook help page, and see Page Flows for some UI/UX-perspective discussion.
Most people don’t seem to handle the natural follow-up question, though: “What do I use instead?” As if most Facebook users would just be better off in every regard if they dropped everything and walked away.
It could be true. Perhaps more of us are harmed by Facebook than we realize. But even if some users aren’t getting anything out of their Facebook usage and are just giving their data away for free, they might find it easier to fix that by using Facebook more judiciously with stronger privacy options than by leaving the platform altogether. Whatever you think of the costs and even the negative externalities2, Facebook still provides real benefits to many of its users — benefits beyond the superficial gratification of likes and reacts or of presenting a strategic image of yourself; benefits that are currently often irreplaceable.
Many people seem to ignore the benefits. Some exceptions include TechCrunch, which offers a “#deletefacebook” article mentioning some supportive connections the author formed on the social network in dark times, albeit as rare occurrences —
Out of the Facebook swamp sometimes surfaces a pearl. But it sinks just as quickly.
And see “Hating Facebook” (2015) for the serious, important connections and events the author has missed by not having a Facebook account.3 Personally, I have not experienced any supportive experience on Facebook on the same order of magnitude, or missed anything comparable by not checking it, but I have missed a few invitations to alumni gatherings until after the RSVP deadline, so I have experienced some of the costs of not being on Facebook.4 For a more scientifically rigorous approach with data and studies, see, for example, FiveThirtyEight:
The biggest reasons people give for why they use social media are about social connection […] Those are real effects, Kaplan said, not just some perceived impact we’re manipulated into believing is real.
So Facebook provides a real service to many people, and it’s not just the people in remote countries for which Facebook is the entire internet. Yes, there are great privacy-related drawbacks to using Facebook, and there are some psychological drawbacks masquerading as benefits, but there are heavy costs to leaving too.
Okay, not everybody is so defeatist. Wired very optimistically offers alternatives to Facebook features:
Facebook actually provides useful services sometimes, and there’s no one-for-one replacement.
Fortunately, you can pretty easily cobble together anything you might miss from Facebook with a combination of apps and services.
It’s a long list, but given the previous articles, I would draw your attention to their claim that you’ll be fine without Facebook invites to events:
If your friend or family member doesn’t realize you’re not on Facebook, do they really value your presence at the event they’re planning? If someone genuinely wants you somewhere, they’ll find a way to invite you, Facebook or no.
It’s a lot easier to write these sentences than to actually commit to taking this hands-off approach to all your relationships, and be fine with the fallout.
The New York Times is more realistic: “There is no real substitute for Facebook if you’re looking for a social network that includes virtually everyone you meet in real life.” Snapchat is their first suggestion, due to its large user base (relative to all the other social networks), but, as they acknowledge, it operates very differently and its user base has very different demographics.
Still, if we are to look for a Facebook replacement, having a large user base is a good criterion to consider — it scarcely needs mentioning that Facebook’s network effects are the primary reason people stay on it. What are the other big social networks? According to Wikipedia, YouTube is the second-biggest. Skipping social networks that are related to Facebook or with user bases mostly outside the U.S., the runner-ups are Tumblr, Twitter, Skype, Snapchat, Reddit, and Pinterest.5
But being a compelling alternative with Facebook isn’t just a numbers game, it’s a matter of purpose and functionality. Fairly unusually among the popular social networks we just listed, Facebook is for connecting with people you already know, especially those people that you don’t share major interests with.
Many of the other social networks are chiefly interest- and discovery-driven, and primarily feature fairly asymmetric creator-consumer relations. On YouTube, Twitter, Reddit, or Pinterest, you usually find a creator, community, or tag based on topics you’re interested in, and follow or subscribe to get content related to that topic.6 I do not know enough about Tumblr to do it justice, but it’s something like a blogging service that’s image/art-focused, heavy on reblogs and anonymity, and with a strong “internet culture” in areas like fandoms, social justice, and memes. I would also classify it as interest-focused as well.
Contrast, for example, where Facebook first started amassing its user base — at Harvard, the United States’ oldest institution of higher learning, where people will study and learn about every field and subject imaginable,7 and whose housing system is primarily randomized, so that the people you meet and the social connections you make are far more likely to cut across fields of interest.8
There are several reasons a social network that’s interest-focused or primarily features asymmetric creator-consumer relations might have trouble serving as a social network for personal connections with people you already know:
An interest-focused social network can get away with fewer, more specialized features, because users can choose a social network with features that suit their topic of interest. For example, people interested in graphic art might be on Tumblr, and people interested in animations or music might be on YouTube. The former won’t miss Tumblr’s lack of video annotations and the latter won’t miss YouTube’s lack of support for uploading albums of images. On the other hand, if you imagine, say, two siblings who went into graphic art and animation, respectively, wanted to connect on a social network, they would want it to let them share both kinds of media somewhat adeptly.
Incidentally, you can also see this phenomenon in a lot of platforms for chat.9
A social network with asymmetric creator-consumer relations can also get away with less flexibility, because creators will often be willing to spend more effort or resources to make their content fit the constraints, say by reformatting it or hosting it offsite. As an example, Twitter’s microblogging format is fairly strict, but if you’re a journalist or author and can’t fit your article or book in a tweet, you can still use Twitter by by having a separate blog or website and tweeting links to it. Having a separate site also gives you more control over its appearance; you could add a paywall or advertisements to get some revenue, or you could build an audience by showing your readers links to all of your other works. Meanwhile, how many of your long-winded Facebook friends have a separate site or blog that they regularly link to? Do they have incentives to maintain a separate site instead of just posting directly on Facebook?
An interest-based social network may have fewer privacy issues, because people often don’t need to discuss sensitive aspects of their lives in order to share their interest, nor would they feel like doing so.
Privacy is likewise a little less of an issue for creators. This is again not to say that creators don’t have anything they’d like to keep private, but that when they use their social media platform to share their work or things they enjoy, they’re more likely to just want to spread it as far as possible, and less likely to want to carefully control who can see them.
That leaves Skype and Snapchat. But Skype is primarily for one-to-one chats or variations, considerably simpler than the Facebook share-things-with-friends model. and if you’re hoping to replace Facebook for privacy and security purposes, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it, which has had its share of privacy controversies. I do not think I know Snapchat well enough to reasonably evaluate it as a Facebook replacement, but I think the broadcast-updates-to-friends part is there, so it’s not completely unworkable. The NYT’s lukewarm recommendation of Snapchat might be the most plausible Facebook replacement on this list. Having said that, I think it’s still a long shot. Plus, if you’re looking to escape the advertisement- and monetization-driven facets of Facbeook, I don’t think Snapchat gets you much further.
What are we up against, again?
Even ignoring the network effects, Facebook still has features that are hard to find among all the other social networks we’ve looked at. Here are a few off the top of my head:
Effortless albums. You can drag 200 photos into a Facebook window, type in a name, and forget about it (until the likes start rolling in). Based on scrolling through my news feed, I believe a lot of people use Facebook this way.
Meanwhile, Twitter only lets you add four photos per tweet. Posting photos on YouTube makes no sense. Reddit is too public and interest-based for this kind of thing. I imagine Tumblr, being image-based, might let you do this, but for a lot of typical Facebook albums, throwing them on Tumblr would seem fundamentally at odds with the culture.
Compared to other features, this feature can also demand a lot of storage space of the social network, since image filesizes are pretty large compared to textual posts, so that also favors big social networks with many resources.
Event invitations. Set a date, time, and place for your party or concert, and spam-invite all your friends with the click of a button. They get it on their calendar in a place that’s easy to look up, and maybe even a few reminders if Facebook thinks they’re forgetful or something. The scourge of people who want to quit Facebook while preserving their social lives is events that are only advertised on Facebook.
Threads in groups. You can create multiple Facebook groups of multiple users and start multiple threads with independent discussions, instead of just a single indiscriminate stream of every message in that group, which would be what you’d get with group chats on platforms like Skype, GroupMe, Signal, or Telegram. This is indispensable in any group that’s moderately active and complex. Even if a community is not active enough for there to be more than one conversation at a time, having threads still really helps you get a handle on the mental organization of things.
Twitter has separate threads for separate tweets, but you can’t put them in groups. You could create multiple accounts, and this is often done if you have multiple strongly unrelated interests, but for a lot of simple groups, it’s a disproportionate hassle. Facebook groups are cheap; imagine trying to get everybody in your high school class to create a new Twitter account exclusively for keeping that class together. Reddit has pretty reasonable threading, but I think subreddits are not commonly used as exclusive groups. I could be wrong though. I do not know if Snapchat has threading, but it seems unlikely for a platform focused on ephemerality.
Extended, civil discussion. Any kind of remotely interesting where people may have detailed opinions that are more than a few words.10 Oh boy. To be sure, discussion is also not that common on Facebook and can devolve into shouting matches just as bad as those found anywhere else, but where the other platforms allow lengthy discussion on anything, they seem designed to stoke the flames of everybody’s worse nature.
A lot of people actually do hold extended conversations over Twitter (or at least they try), which is, to me, one of the most tragic Twitter developments. When they try to stick to the character limit and get their point across in a single tweet, they frequently sacrifice a lot of nuance, making a lot of arguments turn ugly. Otherwise, they send a barrage of tweets at once, each linked to the previous, which kind of works but is sad in some twisted, darkly humorous way. How did we get to the point where we ended up on a “microblogging” platform, twisting and undoing its flagship “microblogging” feature and signaling that we are writing a “thread” of tweets instead of a single one, so that we can write things we could trivially have written if we just had a non-micro blog? This aspect got somewhat better after Twitter raised its character limit, but still, tweets with 20 or more parts are not at all unusual.
Tumblr could be pretty reasonable if you could reply to posts, but instead, as I understand it, your only option is to reblog and add a comment, resulting in long and alarmingly public back-and-forths. Some of the resulting conversations are amusing to read, but imagine trying to hold a weighty political discussion this way, with every step inviting a bandwagon from all your followers.
To be fair, if you stick to subreddits of the right size or with the right moderators, Reddit can provide this. So can a lot of old-school forums, if you know where to find those. Still, I think the public-ness of most such platforms also makes candid discussion harder.
Why does this matter? Every feature missing from an alternative is a big chunk of Facebook users who depend on that feature and won’t want to leave the platform because of it, even if you got all their friends to switch. Many users could get by while missing a few of them (I personally don’t really care for albums any more, but I listed it because empirically a lot of people do), so it’s not the case that every single one of these features is essential to a Facebook replacement. But there are enough of these missing features to make a massive exodus to any of the potential competitors doubtful. The reason is that a lot of important personal connections are between people with substantially different interests who want different features. Personal connections matter to people. In order for any sizable number of people to move to a new platform and stay there, the move would have to leave enough personal connections intact to make the new platform a viable replacement, which would require it to accommodate many types of people by supporting most, if not all, of Facebook’s features.
How did we get here? It’s certainly not that nobody else has tried to make other social networks with competitive features happen. There are definitely tools that cover individual bullet points above. One plausible explanation is that Facebook has been good at buying out competitors.
On the other hand, maybe you’re not so worried about popularity and network effects. Maybe you want to be more forward-looking and look for social networks that are built from the grounds-up for privacy and security, designed to be free of advertisements and corporate meddling. I’m in a bunch of communities who are really into this kind of stuff, so let’s get a little less mainstream, shall we?
The fediverse is the loose name for a set of decentralized, privacy-conscious social networks, the most popular of which is currently Mastodon, a decentralized microblogging network first released in 2016. “Decentralized” means that people don’t all use the social network by going to one big website controlled by one person or corporation, like facebook.com. Instead, different people can set up their own “instances” of the social network on their own websites by running the (public) code for the social networks, sometimes with their own customizations or policies. Users can then sign up for the social network on any instance they like, and (crucially) users on different instances can still interact on the social network just as if they were all using the same website, because instances are designed to pass messages to each other smoothly (which is the “federation” part).11
Decentralization has lots of benefits; by spreading the costs of hosting and moderation and frequently using a crowdfunding model, there’s less reason for server admins to monetize their users’ data or attention. Moderators are per-instance, so users can get more direct moderator attention, and they have more freedom from the get-go to choose which community or which moderation policies they want to socialize under. Being decentralized also makes the networks less vulnerable to server shutdowns12 and to external meddling like censorship.
For various reasons, Mastodon has succeeded in gaining traction, popularity, and media coverage to a degree that none of its predecessors have reached.13 There are many possible reasons, a combination of solid and familiar user design (heavily based on a popular Twitter interface14), fortunate timing with controversy on the parts of its direct competitors, and good publicity efforts. Whatever the reasons, it now boasts more than a million users.
I like Mastodon a lot. It gives you a fair bit of control over the permissions and presentation of your posts (called “toots”), including detailed privacy settings, accessibility features, content warnings, and all the emoji.15. There are many interesting communities, including a lot of people and things often underrepresented on Twitter. It is explicitly designed to make the kind of harassment and harsh environment on Twitter harder.16 But to come back to the topic of this post, consider the #deletefacebook article by Gargron (the primary Mastodon developer).
I wish a social network with the ethos of Mastodon could replace Facebook, but hopefully I’ve convinced you by now that for most people, it takes a lot more than good founding principles to make a viable Facebook replacement. As a contender for such a position, Mastodon has a lot of the same shortcomings we’ve already seen, mostly in Twitter. It’s maybe two or three times as effective for extended discussions, but the toot-chain pattern is still common, and the toot is still the primary unit of Mastodon browsing rather than the thread. Non-text media is not so prioritized or easy to work with. Possibly most importantly, the nature of many smaller instances and the reliance on hashtags makes typical Mastodon usage very much an interest-focused endeavor, at least if you are starting out. And to be perfectly clear, these are all fine attributes for a social network to have, and I want Mastodon to succeed as a federated microblogging platform, but they do not get it any closer to being a general-purpose Facebook competitor. Microblogging is not for everybody.
We’re not completely out of options. Feature-wise, the closest federated to Facebook seems to be either Friendica or Hubzilla. But neither has anywhere near the required publicity or traction right now; I don’t even know any of my privacy-focused friends who are remotely active on one of them. If you are more familiar with either of these networks or would be willing to switch to them, drop me a line.
There are also quite a few non-federated non-mainstream alternatives I haven’t covered, the most notable of which is perhaps Vero17, which was released in 2015 but has grown in a few viral spurts since then. Vero professes a user-centric manifesto, wanting to “let you be yourself” and operating on a business model based on subscriptions rather than advertisements.18 I think it’s too early to tell if Vero will succeed (in becoming and staying popular, or in following its purported mission), but my first impressions of it are annoyance that it’s mobile-only (but then, so is Snapchat) and that it doesn’t want to let me post text.19 Meanwhile, Vero has also been dogged by the discovery of sinister labor practices by its founder, leading to users who wanted to #deletevero discovering its confusing and unreliable account deletion process. On the other hand, maybe the founder wasn’t tied to the company at the time the bad labor practices occurred. It’s a confusing matter and I will limit myself to this paragraph. See also the Guardian on Facebook replacements, which includes Vero and more options.
Of course, the apps I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of other apps and platforms that somebody has suggested, and we’d be here for days if we wanted to check each and every one of them out. Some of the examples we looked at were never really plausible in the first place; I don’t think anybody seriously thinks users who are leaving Facebook would consider replacing it with Tumblr. However, I think the general point still holds. It’s a lot easier to create or design a platform with features for people interested in a few particular topics, or people who want to interact in a few particular ways. It’s a lot harder to compete with Facebook, which sort of just does everything. Facebook doesn’t care whether you and your high-school friend, your new coworker, or the random person you met at a party both love art or music, selfies or vlogs, candid self-expression or cynical memes, deep conversations or witty one-line snark; or even if you have nothing in common at all. It just sits there, assumed to be available by default because it has something for both of you, and lets you connect.
All in all, we’ve gone through a lot of potential Facebook replacements with varying degrees of plausibility, but among all of these I don’t think there is one obvious choice that’s the single most compelling. So perhaps it’s not surprising for me to reflect on the fact that the “networks” that actually have replaced Facebook in practice for me are none of the above.
My Facebook Replacements
Before I start, I need a big disclaimer. You might be wondering why I didn’t start talking about what has actually mostly successfully replaced Facebook for me earlier, before listing a bunch of things that mostly don’t work. The reason is that, by and large, I don’t think these things that have worked for me will generalize. The most common reason is that I am, extremely fortunately, an undergraduate student at MIT, which provides certain cultural and technological advantages for certain non-Facebook platforms to provide Facebook-like connections; but I’ll talk about the specific reasons in each item.
If these things won’t work for most people, why am I talking about them anyway? I think they suggest directions for finding new social networks that people who may want to delete Facebook or persuade others to delete Facebook don’t often look in.
With that in mind, here are my Facebook replacements today:
Email. Now, it’s older than Facebook and will hopefully outlast it, and it’s quite possibly the only online contact method that’s more universal, which is nice. But a mere contact method does not a social network make. Email functions as a much better social network for me than average because I happen to be an MIT undergraduate. The reason is MIT’s strong mailing lists culture. Every student has an MIT email address and access to mailing lists right off the bat20; they’re easy to create and use, and are frequently used for social activity. My student groups and social circles almost all have mailing lists, and many events, gatherings, or merely interesting links are sent out to these mailing lists. Big events are also “dormspammed”, which means they are sent to several large dorm-based discussion lists that people can easily subscribe to if they want to receive dormspam.
Why is this not generalizable? First, I believe the rest of the world considers email much more a medium for serious business and productivity, and rarely organize social events through it; if they do, it’s for events that are a lot more formal than impromptu weekly food mobs to places. I would love to be wrong, though. Secondly, even if I were, I don’t think we have common tools in the “real world” that would allow people to use mailing lists for informal socializing. It seems that mailing lists are primarily used by advertisers and marketers, or for serious technical discussion.
How could we generalize it? You’d need to change the culture around emails, and also provide a comparable ecosystem of tools for making and subscribing to mailing lists. Seems hard, but not actually that harder than creating any of the new social networks we’ve been talking about. And there surely are more public mailing lists and tools that exist, with which people who have been using the Internet for longer still congregate and discuss.
Zephyr. This one definitely requires explaining. Zephyr is an ancient chat protocol that’s older than IRC, something that’s still present only in MIT and a handful of other places.
Somewhat aside the point, but Zephyr has a nice but rarely used threading model. In Zephyr, every message belongs to a “class” (which roughly behaves like a channel) and an “instance” (which is like a topic). You can subscribe to and view a class so you get every message in the class, but by convention, messages in independent conversations are sent with different instances, so that you can also narrow to all messages in a specific instance to view and respond to a particular conversation. This allows you to hold parallel conversations in the same class without much confusion, or even reply to earlier conversations easily.
In addition, the culture and context Zephyr has developed at MIT has actually made it very conducive to personal rather than interest-based connections. We have evolved a strong “personal class” convention, in which you use your own username as a class name to talk about anything that has happened to you or that you are interested in. Some people lament this and wish that more discussions happened in topic-based classes. After writing this post, I think it’s become fairly clear that what we need are more social networks for personally connecting with people you know, rather than networks for meeting or connecting with people with similar interests, of which we have plenty. So the personal class convention is pretty cool. I post about my life fairly regularly to my personal class and subscribe to more than a dozen active classes, where my friends post about their lives, and interesting spontaneous discussions happen often.
Why is this not generalizable? Well, first, you need to be somewhere where the Zephyr protocol is in use, which is chiefly just a handful of universities like MIT. Second, even among MIT students, Zephyr has quite high technical barriers to entry. The fanciest and most featureful Zephyr client that people use, BarnOwl, is terminal-based and requires you to SSH into an MIT server, set up a
tmuxsession, and juggle some credentials to use properly. Many people have tried to write more accessible web-based clients, and they may yet succeed, but for now, Zephyr is not that easy to sell. Finally, Zephyr is decidedly a text-focused protocol, so it requires external links or support for any other form of communication and may not appeal to the photograph-lover who uses Facebook albums.
How can we generalize it? Unclear. There are a lot of chat platforms and protocols, like IRC, but IRC communities are almost universally interest-based and there is also a barrier to entry. I think that, to replace the personal connections of Facebook, somebody would need to carefully create a culture with something like the “personal class” convention. If you do that, please also consider Zephyr’s class/instance threading model.21
Blogs & RSS. Like, the blog you’re reading right now.
I argued earlier that dedicated or professional creators are more likely to have the resources to maintain a separate site or blog, but the amount of additional effort you need in order to start a blog is actually very small. WordPress.com22 is a fine platform, which I blogged on for years. Of all the social networks in this post, I think it’s the closest to Facebook in terms of letting you make big effortless albums (unless you run out of the free storage space) — just drag a bunch of photos into the right spot in the page, and you’re done. I have also heard good reviews of Dreamwidth, a journal service forked off LiveJournal. If you want to be more technical, blogging on GitHub Pages is only getting easier from here. This is only the surface; there are many more blogging platforms and static site generators under the sun, like Hugo, which this blog currently uses. Pick whatever sounds best. With WordPress or Dreamwidth, you can make a blog in a few clicks, and get so much more freedom to format your post on a blogging service than anywhere else.
Unusually among “social networks”, though, when it comes to blogs, writing and reading are somewhat asymmetric. For reading and following blogs, I offer only one word: RSS. The great thing about all these blogs — of nearly any blog that’s not part of a large, monolithic social network — is that you can subscribe to any of them with your favorite RSS reader. They all interoperate! This also applies to nearly every webcomic, so if you follow at least one comic, RSS should be easy to integrate into your web-surfing flow. I can still point you to the post I made when Google Reader shut down so many years ago; I’ve continuously used TheOldReader since then, and even become a paid member. If you’re tired of hearing me defend RSS, here’s Wired on RSS readers, mentioning alternatives such as Feedly and Inoreader. If you don’t want to juggle an additional service, both WordPress and Dreamwidth come with built-in RSS readers.23 RSS is decentralization at its finest and most established. If you’re interested at all in keeping the internet open and prevent it from becoming dependent on any one service, you should use RSS.
There are downsides, of course. Although blogs and RSS readers are so common, they’re probably the least popular form of “socializing” on this list. I know far fewer people read my blog than my emails or zephyrs. Likewise, the number of blogs I follow by people I personally know is also small compared to the number of famous blogs or webcomics I have in my RSS reader. But I value those connections particularly strongly, because they tend to be deeper and more illuminating than almost any other form of social media I’ve used. I’ve also often enjoyed reading many blogs of total strangers while stumbling across the internet, for the same reason. So I think it is a low-frequency but high-value form of social media.
Why is this not generalizable? Well, first I want to say that on the reading side, I think RSS is generalizable. You should find a reader you like and use it.
Blogging, though, just probably isn’t for everybody. Blogs are typically fairly public, which could prevent fully candid expression. On the other hand, you can create unlisted blogs on WordPress that search engines will ignore (assuming they follow
robots.txtprotocol) and share the link of your blog, if security by obscurity is enough for you. I have an unlisted blog where I throw less polished thoughts than this blog. You can also create private blogs and invite readers by WordPress accounts individually. I imagine Dreamwidth would have similar access controls. Not GitHub Pages or other static sites, though. The downside of that is, of course, that your readers would need to get WordPress accounts and you would need to add them. RSS and its decentralization benefits don’t work with strict access controls.
I think blogging also has some of the same formality issues as email, which may be part of the psychological advantage of microblogging platforms. See: the writing of this post, and the dozens of half-written posts languishing in my drafts folder. More generally, there may be a strict upper limit to how many people are interested in the form at all. Not everybody likes reading or writing this much. Not everybody values “owning” a space online or getting to tinker with its layout.
How can we generalize it? It might help if more people had blogs and regularly linked to them from their other social media. Beyond that, uh, maybe we can improve our education system so that more people like reading and writing? I don’t know.
Discord. This is a voice- and text-chat application marketed to and designed for gamers, and probably deserves detailed explanation too. I don’t have a convincing explanation for how I lucked into being part of so many Discord-heavy communities, even though I’m not a heavy gamer and none of the Discord servers I’m involved in are primarily about gaming, and based on (admittedly very few) conversations with high-school friends, its usage is nowhere as common among my generation as, say, Snapchat. Maybe I just happened to be adjacent in the right demographic. Or maybe I am overestimating how targeted Discord’s marketing really is, and underestimating its adoption from other quarters.
In any case, many of the servers I’m in are variants of ✈✈✈ Galactic Trendsetters ✈✈✈, the puzzlehunt team loosely affiliated with my dorm floor. Different servers are used depending on exactly which puzzlehunt we’re doing or writing. This means lots of puzzles, but also lots of personal connections to students, alumni, and friends who I already know.
But the server I’m most active in is a different general server for puzzlers, named Puzzlers Club.24 Despite being interest-based, it’s small and tight-knit enough (and I knew enough people going in) that I got to know many people and talk with them on a more personal level. A particular channel on this server has the distinction of being the only place, real or virtual, where I have had a civil political conversation with other clearly conservative individuals.
I should also briefly differentiate Discord from the other group chat solutions. The biggest feature is that Discord has channels (unlike Skype, Signal, and Telegram), so that multiple conversations can actually be held concurrently. This makes it just seem like Slack with a different market, but they differ in that Slack workspaces are a lot more separate than Discord servers; you usually create a new account for every Slack workspace, but you use one Discord account to join as many servers as you want and easily switch between them. This makes being active in more than one Discord server and maintaining connections with individual Discord users a lot easier. (I’m also in one Discord server for a group project class, and might create “temporary” servers for things like coordinating during an IPSC.)
Why is this not generalizable? Honestly, I think I just got very lucky here and entered a community with the right size at the right time, in which I already knew a few people. There are many other servers that I’ve briefly been in, but left soon after because they were just too large and too active for me to get to know people in, e.g. the Slate Star Codex discussion server, those of a couple music/art fandoms, and a server for doing ARGs. So perhaps I haven’t been that consistently lucky in finding suitable servers, but I only needed to get lucky at least once to become part of a community.
How can we generalize it? I think the lesson to take from this is that personal connections can form in communities built around common interests if their size is controlled well, which often means they can’t be too public. But I think you also have to get lucky. I’m not sure. Growing and moderating a community is hard.
And let’s not forget Real Life, the greatest
fanfictionsocial network of all. Score three for being an MIT student. The freedom MIT students have to choose dorms and form cultures is incredibly valuable for personal connections. I think the question of how to obtain satisfying social interactions in real life still warrants discussion, though. It’s not obvious and I am not good at it. This school year, a few people on my hall started a tradition called Tea Time, which happens on irregular nights, and is a designated time for deep, candid, serious conversations about things like dreams and aspirations, childhood memories, the future, friendships, and mental health. It’s a really good tradition, something I didn’t know I was missing and don’t know if I’ll be able to replicate outside this dorm.
Why is this not generalizable? Living arrangements in the real world are hard. Most people do not live in a place where they can walk out of their room and instantly access a handful of friends, not even in all college dormitories. A lot of my friends here worry about how they can find a similar physical community like the one they had here after college.
How can we generalize it? No idea. I think that in the real world, most people have a hard enough time finding livable housing before worrying about whether the place they live can provide them with human connections and a sense of community. Housing is a thorny political problem.
This list does not include Twitter or Reddit, which I almost exclusively lurk on without tweeting or commenting because they feel too public to me. It does not include a lot of chat services, like Google Chat or Hangouts or whatever it’s now called, because those are primarily for contacting people and less for general socialization.25 It also excludes Mastodon — I still think it’s a great platform, but I would not call myself an active Mastodon user because I’m still trying to explore the culture and figure out where my niche of tooting might be.
Thanks to these sort-of replacements, it’s possible for me to barely use Facebook any more (I used it a few times while writing this post, to investigate what my friends posted and remind myself how it worked) without feeling that I’ve missed out on much. But I still have a Facebook account, because there are still things for which Facebook is still irreplaceable for me.
First, what are some things I don’t miss? The entirety of my News Feed. For whatever reason, Facebook’s algorithm for populating it completely fails to engage me. I have far better places to look for news and for memes, and I can ask for life updates from people on my own time when I meet them (which would be even easier to justify if I completely left Facebook.) Nor do I miss the interest-based communities, like the sizable mathematics discussion group I joined at some point — it is fungible, because I don’t know the people active in the group well, and if I wanted to discuss mathematics, I could easily list a dozen places on the internet other than Facebook I could go.
Facebook Messenger is in a gray area. If I could no longer initiate a conversation with anybody on Messenger, I don’t think I would miss this ability at all. It is mostly a tool to contact people, but I don’t think there’s any individual I personally know that I couldn’t reach in a few minutes of research, digging through emails, or the like (unless they cannot be reached at all over the Internet, or actively do not want to be). However, me leaving Messenger would make certain coordination efforts considerably less convenient for everybody else, and I would expect to be excluded from some irregularly forming groups I might otherwise have been included in, just because they would choose to contact each other by making a Messenger group chat. It’s the same ever-present network effects. But if this were the only downside, I might be willing to take it to escape the other issues.
The most irreplaceable parts of Facebook for me right now are the groups of people I personally know, but do not share a unifying interest with. Even if I can reach most individuals semi-reliably in a few minutes, if you multiply those few minutes by the couple dozen people I knew best in Taiwan’s olympiad community, or the fifty-odd members of my high school class, and aggregate the risks of an outdated contact method somewhere in the pool, it adds up. It would take a lot of time and effort for me to reach out to the entirety of such a group of people without using Facebook. There’s also a different quality to broadcasting by posting to a group, compared to reaching out to people individually through whatever means possible. Frequently, I don’t want to contact a community per se, I just want to post something where they can check it when they have time. Most of my non-Facebook contact methods would be email, which, as before, I think suggests too much seriousness and possibly urgency to most people.
This is where I am. I can reduce my Facebook usage to near zero, but I’m not giving up these personal connections with groups that easily, and there really isn’t an alternative to the last mile without convincing dozens of people I know to form a group somewhere else. Even if I were that convincing, without the support of any of the contexts outlined above (having access to the same university’s ecosystem of tools, having enough of an interest group in common, or living in physical proximity), I actually do not know where I could honestly recommend my friends move to, because the platforms they have access to just don’t seem to have the right features.
Ah, the hardest part of the essay since middle school.
#deletefacebook cannot succeed if we don’t take the benefits people would be giving up more seriously. No matter how anyone tells you or how they pitch their idea for a social network, there really isn’t a viable alternative to Facebook for a lot of people. You cannot just haphazardly list a bunch of tools and platforms, each of which replicates one Facebook feature, and get a Facebook replacement.
At the same time, we can and should take simple steps to use Facebook more effectively and with better privacy. Review your privacy settings. Be aware of Facebook’s psychological effects and what patterns of usage will actually make you happier. Use a tracker blocker like uBlock Origin (not uBlock of
ublock.org, which is different!) or Privacy Badger so you have control. If you use Firefox, install their Facebook Container to isolate your web activity from Facebook.
We should also make it easier for each other to use Facebook less or even delete our accounts. Stop assuming that people are on Facebook. Avoid doing things that could socially exclude people solely for not being on Facebook. Don’t upload photos of people who don’t want their information on Facebook, and definitely don’t tag those people. Make sure you have more than one way to contact everybody who is important to you, and that they have more than one way to contact you. Find other tools and platforms that you can use to find or form communities, and do that.
If you want to create a new platform, one that has a chance at replacing Facebook someday, think carefully about what kind of interactions and connections you want to allow and encourage. There are a lot. Facebook probably has at least one feature that you’ve never used, on Facebook or on any other platform, but that some of your friends will consider indispensable.
I would only add that this is all good advice for any social network, would still be good advice if Facebook didn’t have the privacy issues it does and wasn’t going through the current scandals it is now. The Internet, and the bonds that span it, should be more than any one service or website. Facebook’s stated mission is apparently to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”26 But we don’t need Facebook, or any other platform, to give us this power — we have always had it.
I haven’t found enough sources to be confident in this survey’s results or legitimacy. Some references to it include MediaPost, Yahoo! Finance, and MarketWatch. According to these sources, 48% of surveyed U.S. internet users will not change how much they used Facebook, 26% will “use somewhat less”, 19% will “use significantly less”, and 8% “will stop using”; N = 391, which could be enough given sound survey methodology and sampling, but I have no way of telling. In addition, I can’t find a good primary source and am not even sure it was actually conducted by the cited firm at all, instead of just being numbers somebody made up somewhere. In particular, I can’t find a Raymond James page that acknowledges this survey, although this may be as expected because it was only distributed to investors. While we’re adding caveats, MarketWatch also passes along this quote from an analyst: “While the data appears negative on the surface, we believe the Cambridge story is still fresh in the mind of many users and likely will not have as large an impact as our survey data suggests.” So consider this information with caution.
TheNextWeb also corroborates that few people have taken action, although usage has decreased. Other surveys include this Blind survey of tech workers, of which 31% said they would #DeleteFacebook, but tech workers are an extremely nonrepresentative sample of the population.↩
The most prescient of which is that, given the recent revelations, when you use third-party apps on Facebook, you may be giving your friends’ data to those apps. In fact, even if one of your friends doesn’t have a Facebook account, Facebook may be using you to collect data about them to building a shadow profile of them. Generally, by staying on Facebook, you’re making it harder for your friends to leave.↩
However, there is also the counterargument to be made that Facebook’s current algorithm is opaque enough that even for those who do stay on Facebook, there’s no guarantee that the algorithm will show them everything they don’t want to miss. See this thread about a Facebook user who missed signs of a friend’s hospitalization, or unrolled version. This makes sense given my understanding (or lack of understanding) of Facebook’s algorithmic shenanigans, but it is only one anecdote.↩
But to raise another caveat, I haven’t been that proactive in telling people to contact me through non-Facebook methods. Having a Facebook account but not using it could mislead people into contacting you over Facebook and not trying any other method; not having an active one would be a better signal for people to try other methods of contact.↩
Google+ is somewhere down there. It’s actually a pretty plausible Facebook substitute, and actually not as inactive as I assumed; a couple news articles suggested a few specific communities (beyond, you know, people who work at Google) that had latched on to it. Still, I think that if you’re leaving Facebook due to the privacy concerns, Google has enough of your data to not be a particular contender. (This would also disqualify YouTube, but there are also other reasons to do so, which we’ll go into. Some of them are probably pretty obvious already.)↩
Of the four, Twitter is the one I’m the least certain fits this description. Some people use Twitter chiefly to follow and actively interact with their friends instead of with celebrities and such. Maybe the number of such people is much higher than I’m thinking. But even if this is the case, I think most of the following points about its design, and about the difficulties a generic user would face in trying to replace Facebook with Twitter, still apply.↩
There is an entirely separate debate to be had over whether randomly assigning roommates is a good idea. Here’s an article arguing for such a policy because it would improve exposure to different cultures, interests, and backgrounds. Back in the day, my Harvard interviewer spun this as a good thing, noting how he still had contact with his roommates years after graduation.
My thoughts are that giving people choice greatly enhances building community and socialization; see later in this post, or contrast Evan Chen on transferring out of Harvard. But there is a tradeoff to be made here. It is very plausible that many more MIT students (including myself) have formed social or political monocultures around themselves. My suspicion is that there are policies that could expose students to differences without sacrificing so much community-building potential, but I haven’t given this very much thought.↩
Lots of chat platforms have flourished in different niches. Some examples:
Slack is not traditionally considered a social network, but it can be used as one; it’s designed for and marketed towards workplaces, with its serious integrations with all sorts of tools, and has dominated in the area.
While Discord has a similar feature set and layout, it is instead designed for and marketed to gamers; you can tell from the “Now Playing” and streaming integrations.
Signal, with its gold-standard message encryption, is for the hardcore privacy/security nerds and whichever friends they can persuade to join them; I suspect that, for many Signal users, the act of scanning QR codes or comparing security numbers provides at least as much value as a ritualized form of social bonding as it does as an actual security precaution.
Telegram has custom stickers, ergo, furries.
If all you want from a social network is one-on-one or group text chat, you could use any of these platforms. They could all be okay but not great as a general-purpose social network, because they would have features for some chats between some kinds of people but not others.
Of these, I do like Discord a fair amount, however; see later in the post.↩
This could be a fairly localized phenomenon. When discussing Facebook and social media in general with a friend, I vaguely described the idea that I saw in-depth discussion on Facebook, but only rarely, and he named the same community I was thinking of where I saw this happen: the rationalist community.
I’m kind of on the fence in considering myself a rationalist, but I read a lot of that stuff and know a lot of people who are solidly in the community. In hindsight, the fact that the rationalist community has such a heavy Facebook presence is kind of strange. It’s an interest-based community that could find a social network with features that suit what it wants to discuss, and ought to be especially good at recognizing the externalities involved and overcoming the coordination problem required to do so. Maybe they are worrying about problems bigger than what Facebook is doing with their data.↩
Okay, it’s a bit more complicated than that, because instances can refuse to communicate or “federate” with one another if, say, one instance doesn’t like another instance’s moderation policy. See Mastodon is dead in the water for an argument that this is very bad. Also see the Mastodon WTF timeline for more background on Mastodon’s cultural development and an earlier notable clash between U.S. and Japanese legal/cultural norms that played out onto Mastodon federation policies.
As an aside, federation also implies giving up a little more control over who can view your posts in practice, as any admin who runs an instance that your message goes through could see it in principle. Even though you can protect your account to prevent new follows and send toots to only your followers, like on Twitter, for each instance where at least one user can read one of your toots, that instance’s admins can read the toot as well in principle. (This is not completely theoretically necessary, but implementing the end-to-end encryption to make it not the case is really damn hard. End-to-end encryption is hard enough to make secure and usable without having to worry about federation and maliciously set-up instances. Even if we could do this, it’s not clear if we’d want to; many Mastodon users want stronger rather than weaker moderation, as compared to Twitter, which means giving admins permissions.) It’s up to you to decide whether you trust instance admins, or whether you trust your friends to pick instances with trustworthy admins. (Whereas on Facebook, you can set privacy settings on most things and don’t usually need to worry about malicious Facebook clones, but it’s up to you whether you trust the One True Facebook to respect the settings you suggested.)↩
One Mastodon admin announced very recently that they were going to shut down their instance in a month. Many helpful toots ensued, telling users of that instance how to export their data and what other instances they might join.↩
As far as I can tell, the only federated social media service to come close is Diaspora* (since 2010), which has something like 600,000 users. Although it seems more flexible than Mastodon, its organization and typical usage patterns seem to be similar.↩
To be honest, having rarely used Twitter and never used TweetDeck myself, I don’t enjoy Mastodon’s choice of overall layout that much in terms of efficiency, but it is polished and fairly learnable.↩
Not only does Mastodon come with a huge range of emoji, Mastodon instances can also add custom emoji, and there is a fairly vibrant custom emoji scene. Granted, there are a couple specific emoji whose existence I’m sad or even upset about, but that’s very much beside the point.↩
In addition to the hopefully improved moderation balance, there’s no functionality to quote toots to comment on them and invite your followers to attack, full-text search is not supported so you can’t find and angrily reply to toots that aren’t looking to be found, and content warnings are readily available and encouraged to allow safe and welcoming spaces to form, although of course policies around such things are still something instances and cultures can decide for themselves to some degree.↩
Coincidentally, the namesake of this domain, but this is a reinterpretive domain hack of something from a long time ago. I have no relation to Vero.↩
At least, it has been planning to, with the pitch being that the first million users could have Vero for free, and users after that would have to pay the subscription. Its unpredictable growth has led to major server issues, though, and as of time of writing, it’s past one million users but the site has announced that sign-ups are still free, because probably nobody would want to pay for a social network with huge server issues.↩
When I try to make a post on Vero, the post formats are Camera, Link, Music, Movie/TV, Book, and Place. I know that people like me who heavily rely on 7,000-word walls of text to express themselves are rare, but we do exist. Text can probably be appended to any of the other formats, but I don’t want to have to think about it.↩
Although I’m told that whether people will learn and be culturally encouraged/expected to use these mailing lists varies a lot depending on where you live.↩
I am referring to the hosting service, not the self-hosted installation of WordPress.org, which is liable to security vulnerabilities and requires either constant vigilance or a good deal of technical trickery if you do not want to be hacked into.↩
This seems to rarely be discovered or mentioned, I assume because sites like WordPress and Dreamwidth primarily (and justifiably) bill themselves as blogging and journaling services first and foremost. I did not realize that WordPress’s reader would subscribe to arbitrary RSS feeds until recently, when a friend who used to follow my WordPress blog along with many others mentioned to me that he wasn’t sure how to subscribe to this blog after I moved it, and might try to figure out how to subscribe to it via email. I also cannot vouch for how good and feature-complete their readers are, but an RSS reader doesn’t need that many features to be useful.↩
It’s a bit more complicated than this because this server actually evolved from a Skype group and has a fairly complicated backstory involving a server split, but that’s for another post. Also, we have spent a long time brainstorming possible names for our server that are less generic than “Puzzlers Club”, but have not come up with anything that enough of us prefer.↩
My most social-network-like usage of chat groups (other than Discord) is a certain Telegram group chat with friends, whose topic you may be able to guess, but said group is not that active and I don’t think the lessons to be learned from it are too different from my Discord servers.↩