The rise of corporate-owned social media raises many flags about our online security and the future of the digital commons. The solution, says theorist Michael Albert, is a different kind of network altogether.
In many ways, social media seem almost designed for activism. Efficient, user-friendly, and above all, inexpensive, sites like Facebook and Twitter are invaluable communication tools for any activist. Planning a rally outside a college president’s office? Create a Facebook group. Find a nifty guide to protesters’ rights online? Share it on Twitter. Worried about police brutality at an illegal march? Live-stream from your phone so more people can see what you see.
No shock that, “Twitter revolutions” aside, social media have undoubtedly played an important role in activism and social change over the past decade. In Egypt, the revolution in some ways began with Facebook groups like the 6 April Youth Movement and “We Are All Khaled Saaed.” Here in the U.S., it was a “We Are the 99 Percent” Tumblr page that gave many future participants their first glimpse of Occupy Wall Street—more than a full week before the first encampment in Zuccotti Park. Achievements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street were of course about so much more than Facebook or Tumblr, but without social media they would likely have been very different movements.
Which, when you think about it, is probably the exact opposite of what the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world thought social media would do. So much of what sites like Twitter or Facebook are designed for, how they’re organized and governed, and how they make money, could not be further from ideals like social justice or goals like ending student debt. Many sites, like Facebook, even have a history of giving private data over to government agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
But here’s the good news. It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s no law of nature that social media need to be run by giant corporations or that users need to put up with government spying and manipulative advertising. So, what’s the alternative?
Michael Albert, social theorist and co-editor of Z Magazine, has come up with one solution—and it’s worth taking a close look at. It’s called FaceLeft, and it embodies the very best of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, but emphatically without the spying, concision, and commercialization users have long put up with. Ad-free, substantive, and as open or private as users want to make it, FaceLeft is the first social network designed by and for activists—or anyone who feels uncomfortable with corporate-owned social media.
“Can social networking itself better reflect and address needs of people who are trying to improve the world?” Albert asked in an email exchange. “I think the answer is of course it can.” It’s just a matter of creating an alternative space, one that “allows brevity but emphasizes substance, that rejects ads but enhances mutual aid, that protects privacy and of course also seeks to subvert spying.”
For a first time user, the site may look and feel a lot like Facebook. Users can set up profiles, connect with others, join groups, and follow stories through a news feed. There are also spaces for events and easy ways to share photos, videos, and links from other sites.
But that’s where the similarities end. In countless ways, FaceLeft delivers more substance and more genuine interaction than a typical social network. News feeds include your contacts’ updates, but also RSS feeds from media outlets like Democracy Now! and Al Jazeera. Groups are built around actions and topics like Food Not Bombs and Indigenous Activism, and facilitate informed discussions that would be unthinkable on a more typical social media platform. Users are encouraged not only to interact and comment, but to stay informed and ask deep questions.
Even more importantly, with FaceLeft, there’s no hidden agenda. The site’s hosts won’t catalogue your private information and sell it to advertisers, or allow the government to spy on its users. To that end, users are asked to subscribe to the site for no more than $3 per month. The idea, says Albert, is to be upfront about how the site tackles operating expenses, as opposed to a “free” site where users pay with their private data.
At the same time, FaceLeft is by no means meant to compete with sites like Twitter or Facebook. Rather, it’s about creating more diversity in an increasingly homogenous internet. When the web started, Albert recalls, users relied on platforms like America Online to do pretty much everything. But within a few years more people figured out how to navigate for themselves and the internet began to blossom. With low costs and few barriers, users created a uniquely free landscape to interact and share information.
The problem with sites like Facebook and Twitter, Albert says, is that they’re “trying to get everyone back under one umbrella,” meaning Facebook and Twitter. And they’re succeeding. Countless organizations, from local restaurants to immigrant rights groups “now see their most important web presence as their activity on and within the confines of Facebook.” What this means is that more and more of the web is being mediated by private, commercial hands. It’s as if the web itself has been suburbanized: Where once friends and colleagues could meet in fairly public spaces—chatrooms, message boards, independent sites and blogs—now the most important online meeting place is the equivalent of a digital shopping mall.
“The issue is, do we want our own ways of doing important things,” Albert asks, “or do we want to settle for what we can eek out of corporate offerings?” It’s an idea that’s starting to take off. Already Utne Reader, Z Magazine, and the widely popular Greek party Syriza have created their own sub-networks on the site (where users can create a profile and join the larger FaceLeft system)—and Albert hopes there will be many more. For now, it’s worth considering the potential of a social media alternative, of a more public online space.