Social Networking for a Better World

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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

“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.

For a quick how-to on getting
started with FaceLeft, click
To join FaceLeft as part of
Utne Reader‘s sub-network, called UtneSocial, click here.

Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight
, licensed under Creative Commons.

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