By Marissa Lang
San Francisco Chronicle
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A group of Twitter users and investors who believe the company would be better off as a user-owned cooperative gained a confidence boost last month when the #BuyTwitter push earned enough support among shareholders to resubmit its proposal at next year’s investor meeting.
San Francisco Chronicle
Maybe it was the algorithms that did it — software that turned social media timelines from a chronological, serendipitous flow of ideas to a smattering of posts filtered by bots to show you what computers think you want to see.
Maybe it was the lack of control over users’ own data, the monetizing of their eyeballs. Maybe it was the proliferation of hateful comments and violent videos. Or the role many believe social media played in the 2016 presidential election.
Whatever the reason, a backlash is brewing.
Facebook and Twitter users tired of opaque and, at times, controversial company policies have begun pushing for change.
Some hope to work with the industry’s giants — and maintain their existing social media accounts, carefully crafted over several years — while others have decided to start anew.
What both groups have in common is they want to wrest control of their social media lives back from Wall Street investors and big-name tech executives.
A group of Twitter users and investors who believe the company would be better off as a user-owned cooperative gained a confidence boost last month when the #BuyTwitter push earned enough support among shareholders to resubmit its proposal at next year’s investor meeting.
But not everyone believes Twitter could be transformed into a truly democratic company — even if it tried.
The founders of Mastodon and Minds, two of the biggest user-owned social networks seeking to unseat Facebook and Twitter, drew different inspiration from their own frustration.
For Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko, it was Twitter’s refusal to listen to the requests of its users, its nonexistent relationship with third-party developers and “the whole not banning Nazis thing.”
Minds co-creator Bill Ottoman had similar gripes about Twitter’s closed-down relationship with developers and apparent refusal to take longtime users’ desires into account.
But he also disliked Facebook’s algorithm-based timeline, how it built a system in which content creators have to pay to assure that their work is seen, and the practice of banning users accused of posting violent, obscene, offensive or hateful content.
“We take much more of a free-speech stance,” Ottoman said. “Once you get into the weeds of censoring this or blocking that, it’s hard to remain credible. … We allow users to flag mature or explicit content and you have to opt in to see anything like that, so it maintains a safe zone without censoring anybody.”
Facebook boasts 1.94 billion users each month. Twitter has 313 million.
Mastodon, which began in August, has nearly 703,000 users — total.
Minds, having been around for two years, sees 3 million users a month.
“I’d like people to someday say, ‘Follow me on Mastodon,’ and not get a weird look,” Rochko said. “That’s pretty much the biggest thing you can wish for: widespread adoption and acceptance.”
Both Minds and Mastodon are open source, meaning anyone can find, inspect and use the code they built to run the social networks. The idea behind publishing code openly is it can help make networks more secure — by allowing users to verify and test the programs — and also allow third-party software developers to more easily incorporate the social network into their own products. And if you don’t like how they’re running things, well, you can freely take the code and start your own network.
Reddit, a popular collection of discussion boards, has been open source since 2008, but it’s very much the exception among its social-media peers.
“Honestly, when I started (Mastodon), I thought this would be a niche thing,” Rochko said. “But I think more people than I thought are looking to quit commercial social networks. They’re tired of being treated like the product instead of the customer. … People who use Twitter like it because it’s never been Facebook. They want to see posts in chronological order, they want everyone to be treated the same, but Twitter is doing everything it can to turn itself into something different.”
Mastodon, besides being open source, has taken user-ownership to a new extreme.
Instead of one social network, Mastodon runs on what is known as a “federated network,” a disjointed group of different networks that can talk to each other and transmit information seamlessly. Email is the most widely used example of a federated communications network.
Users on Mastodon can join instances, servers owned and run by Mastodon users, or start their own. There are dozens of instances with names like “witches.town” and “ohmygod.social.” In addition to following people in their own instance, users can follow other people using other servers, as long as it is public, and send “toots” instead of tweets. Messages are capped at 500 characters, instead of Twitter’s 140.
The project was funded by users who donate money to the Mastodon effort through Patreon, a service that allows individuals to make small recurring payments for a product, service or creative project.
“We’re less brand-oriented and more person-oriented,” Rochko said. “You don’t have to pay to join, but people who enjoy it want to support us, and that’s a nice arrangement. It means we’re not tied to advertisements, which I’m really, really against.”
Down the line, Rochko said, Mastodon may offer subscriptions or let users buy more features, control or help running their own server.
Minds has recently taken its mission of user involvement one step further: The company has allowed its users to become part owners through a crowdfunding campaign on Wefunder that brought in $1 million, the current limit on solicitation of small equity stakes from a wide range of investors.
Ottoman said he reached his point of no return with traditional social media sites over how they treat content creators and advertisers.
Amid complaints that feeds were flooded with corporate messages and news headlines, Facebook adjusted its algorithm to favor posts from friends and family. Some small businesses and artists felt left in the lurch, forced to pay up to promote their posts.
Minds, meanwhile, offers its users points in exchange for views, shares and other forms of engagement. Those points can be redeemed for cash or used to boost posts on the network. The company also encourages users to transfer money to each other as a reward for posting content they like. Any channel on Minds may reserve certain content for paying users, who subscribe and pay monthly dues.
Minds has not raised money from venture capitalists. “It’s not to say we’re opposed to formal investors, but we’re very concerned with the philosophy of our investors,” Ottoman said. “We want to protect the company, and that means not allowing someone to come in and dilute our mission of Internet freedom.”
The fact remains, however, that Twitter, Facebook and other social media juggernauts will not be easily displaced.
App.net, founded in 2012 by Dalton Caldwell, an entrepreneur and now partner at Mountain View’s Y Combinator incubator, was an ad-free, subscription social network that was open to third-party software developers who felt pushed out by Twitter.
It sought to lure people away from Twitter, offering many of the things critics sought: an ad-free experience, an open platform, a user-supported and responsive social network. But it wasn’t enough.
App.net shut down in March due to lack of funds after spending the last three years in what Caldwell called “maintenance mode.”
“We envisioned a pool of differentiated, fast-growing third-party applications would sustain the numbers needed to make the business work,” Caldwell wrote in a blog post announcing the service’s demise. “Our initial developer adoption exceeded expectations, but that initial excitement didn’t ultimately translate into a big enough pool of customers for those developers.”