The intense political battles over Facebook and the other giant social media companies mark the end of the empire-building phase of those companies’ history.
Now they’re a mid-20th-century European power, agonizing over the inevitable loss of the colonies and trying to stomp out insurgencies. No longer finding new frontiers and markets to rule, they’re instead figuring out where the boundaries of their empires ought to be and building tall walls on those borders.
Nobody thinks Facebook, YouTube, and the like are going away. But now, it’s becoming clear that they can’t replace the whole internet either, as once seemed their destiny — and, indeed, that no executive in their right mind would want to swallow it whole.
And so for the first time in years, there are viable new social networks being born on the margins, and the great questions have to do with what comes next.
“It’s a really different world post-2016. The election may have helped fragment us more than we were fragmented,” says Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, who has grappled with the questions of a new, decentralized social sphere. “Maybe we’ve reached the point where it’s not even possible to have Facebook in common.”
There are concrete and at times uncomfortable signs that the social oligopoly may be ending. The same sorts of groups that, in the past, would stomp their feet and threaten to leave the big social networks and then fail are in small ways starting to succeed.
The big social networks have always really been broadcasters whose most valuable asset is your time. By centralizing distribution they assured there was always something worth your attention. But having grown unprecedentedly large, they became toxic and subject to manipulation. The attempts to rein in the ultimately ungovernable has meant that the platforms may become more like launching pads, spinning off niche networks of the disaffected. And while once it seemed like there was no more room for new social networks, there are a lot of recent indicators that they can again be born.
Here are just a few:
• A recent federal crackdown on prostitution — the shutdown of Backpage.com — and a new law that holds platforms responsible for human trafficking birthed, with remarkable speed, a new alternative to Twitter for sex workers. The network, Switter, was started by a company in Australia and runs on the open-source social platform Mastodon at an Austrian domain.
“Mastodon made it easy for a niche group of users to defect en masse when the risks inherent to their original platforms of choice became untenable,” BuzzFeed News’ Caroline O’Donovan reported last week.
Perhaps the most striking lesson here was the technical ease of spinning a big, functional new social network up in just a few days: Mastodon’s client is, for all intents and purposes, a functioning copy of the Twitter interface known as Tweetdeck, slick and functional on desktop and mobile.
• On the far right, outright racists and more complex trolls who found themselves unwelcome on Twitter moved over to Gab. And while the New York Times sneered a few months ago that the site is “buggy and confusing” and “doomed to fail,” the interface has cleaned up a bit and some of Twitter’s most notorious and banned voices — from the bot master Microchip to the self-parodic white supremacist @wifewithapurpose — are now gabbing away over there. The site’s founder, Andrew Torba, tells my colleague Joe Bernstein the service now has more than 455,000 users after purging a wave of (Russian!) bots.
(A challenge: Can they really thrive with nobody to troll?)
• And as YouTube faces advertiser pressure to slicken up its act, some of its communities are taking the hint and moving to the wide open likes of BitChute. Leticia Miranda reported recently for BuzzFeed News on the departure of “guntubers” for a new set of gun enthusiast sites like Utah Gun Exchange, whose introductory video got 500,000 views. “The Top Ten Guns For Teachers” video has more than 50,000.
"Anybody, any content creator, that has experienced demonization or some unfair treatment from YouTube, is going to be able to come over to our home and exercise their first amendment rights," Utah Gun Exchange co-owner Bryan Melchior told Miranda of plans to launch a stand-alone video site, UGETube.
I should pause to note that forecasting the success of new social networks sounds, by now, extremely dumb. You may have read hopeful coverage of Plurk, Peach, Yo, App.net, the twee Ello, Yik Yak, Whisper, and the gorgeous but doomed Path — and then watched them quietly die. Even the mighty Google crashed and burned with its technically perfect, and unloved, Google Plus.
And there are good reasons that Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram were able to hang on to their hegemony over the global social network. They have the network advantage that all your friends are already there. They have the technical advantages of all the data and product insights they draw from their users. They have money. They have media companies cheerfully sluicing in free content. Until recently, they were seen as new and fun.
When a dreamer alienated by the big social networks would start a new one, the internet would make fun of them for a while and then let the thing die in peace. In my own case, I’d occasionally get tricked into having a cup of coffee with someone who thought BuzzFeed should see itself as a competitor to Facebook or Twitter, and I’d feel like the politician whose constituent concern turns out to be chemtrails, and would politely extricate myself from a conversation with the lunatic.
But Switter, Gab, and the guntubes are green shoots and leaves. There are big forces pushing us toward fragmentation. These are not attempts to take over but instead to carve out an independent territory. And, as Mike Cernovich wrote recently, “several high consciousness people I’ve spoken to independently told me they felt a shift in energy.”
(Can I write this whole article without selling you on blockchain, which has no obvious connection to this decentralization despite the frequent linkage of the words? I can.)
In all seriousness, the times have changed, mostly because the platforms’ advertising business forces have changed. Massive scale turns out to have special disadvantages. Bad actors take advantage of that scale, bringing associated bad optics and regulatory scrutiny. And when that crosses over into, for instance, Sinhalese or child exploitation videos — forget about it.
So the toxic politics, the controversy, the edge are all bad for business. And meanwhile, the forces of fragmentation in tech and the culture have opened new doors for small new rivals.
Facebook, predictably, saw this fragmentation coming long ago, which is why it has pushed so hard into Groups. But ultimately this was the territorial congress, still beholden to the laws and taxes of the larger empire, when all that will really do is a new nation.
It’s a truism in Washington that Congress typically gets around to solving a problem only after it’s too late. We were riveted by the Facebook hearings last week. But it is possible that scale and centralization are just yesterday’s and today’s problems in this landscape of media and politics. Tomorrow’s may involve the birth of a fragmented new ecosystem with no Silicon Valley headquarters and no executives to grill. ●