DigBoston to move away from Facebook, help build democratic social media alternatives
A decade back it seemed only natural for news publications like DigBoston to stake out turf on Facebook. After all, it provided an easy way for us to reach our audience on a regular basis—via a social media platform that was well on its way to becoming the ubiquitous global behemoth it is today.
But now it seems like a particularly good moment to discuss this publication’s evolving thinking on our use of corporate social media. In the wake of the huge and growing Cambridge Analytica scandal that cost Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg $6 billion of his net worth after that story broke last week, according to Fortune.
Because Facebook is not working for us anymore—as individuals and as the staff of a metro news weekly.
What was once a fun way to keep in touch with friends and co-workers has turned into a huge drag. Every moment of our time on the social network is completely controlled by Zuckerberg’s minions. Who work to make it ever more addictive. To keep users like us on Facebook for more and more of our time—thus spending less and less of our time on any possible competitor’s network.
Yet the company also carefully limits users’ access to our own connections. And it continues to make repeated changes to its “algorithm” (the code that governs, among other things, what content users see) and other structural changes that are seriously damaging individuals’—and to our point, news outlets’—ability to reach our own audiences.
It is now no more possible for individuals to communicate with even a fraction of their connections on the platform than it is for DigBoston to reach more than a handful of our 24,000 followers. Even if we pay a bunch of money for the privilege, which page managers like us are forced to do. On our two branded pages that Facebook refuses to let us merge… because one page has a blue check mark and one page has a gray check mark, you see. And blue check mark pages may not be merged with gray check mark pages. Facebook “help desk” has spoken. And once Facebook makes a pronouncement, however cryptically and episodically, it cannot be challenged. By conventional means, at least.
Not that we’re surprised that Facebook has its own agenda. Like many reasonably technologically savvy journalists, we understand how the company works. Digital marketer Mitch Joel explained it succinctly in a helpful Maclean’s piece on the Cambridge Analytica affair: “Facebook’s business model is not based on content, marketing or advertising. You—the consumer—are the product and the money that Facebook generates is based on how well they can monetize your data and target you to their brand partners.”
The problem is that we understand all too well that Facebook does what’s best for Facebook—first, last, and always. And my DigBoston colleagues and I have had enough.
Like the staff of tens of thousands of other news organizations around the planet, we know that we have been complicit in Facebook’s rise to power.
We have posted all our content to Facebook. Which has provided free high-quality information that helped attract our existing audience and many others besides to Facebook’s “walled garden” social network. The vast conglomerate then monetized that audience as described above. Used the vast array of personal data at their command to steal the entire news industry’s digital advertising base away—including ours. And has the temerity to charge us to reach the audience we helped bring to them.
Adding insult to injury, according to the Guardian, companies like Cambridge Analytica have found ways to acquire and weaponize that personal data at the behest of operatives like Steve Bannon. Who then use it to help throw elections like the 2016 presidential contest to the political faction of their choice. To name but one of a myriad number of ways that rich and powerful interests—including Facebook itself—are using this “surveillance capitalism,” as it has come to be called, to attempt to control the behavior of entire populations for their own gain.
Given that state of affairs, DigBoston has no choice but to start to move away from Facebook. As our editor-in-chief Chris Faraone so colorfully put it in a related context a couple of months back, “… fuck Facebook. With a big, blue middle finger.”
But move away to what? All the major social networks are owned by big companies doing basically the same thing Facebook is doing. Though none have its reach and market share. Some, like Instagram, are even owned by Facebook.
In the short term, we’re starting to focus more on Twitter—a social media giant that’s slightly less mercenary and slightly more responsive to public pressure. The Lyft to Facebook’s Uber, if you will.
In the longer term, we see no ideal alternative on the horizon.
So we’ve resolved to help create that alternative.
Think this through with us: DigBoston, like legions of other news outlets, has to find a social media solution that meets our need to control and monetize our own data in a platform that our audience is willing to use on a regular basis. Our audience needs a social network that won’t exploit them.
There have been numerous attempts to start standalone “less evil” social media platforms in opposition to Facebook et al—Diaspora, Ello, and Minds to name but three. None of them have succeeded. Why? Because no one knows exactly what causes people to abandon existing social networks for new ones. Sometimes people just bail. Friendster, Orkut, and MySpace were once hot, and now are not. So every prediction of Facebook’s demise at the hands of a new entrant over the last many years has proved to be premature. And every claim to have the magic solution that will cause millions of users to jump ship from Facebook and other major social media has proved to be a pipe dream.
It is true that Facebook’s audience growth is slowing. Usage in the key US and Canadian markets is dropping, according to the LA Times. And the current scandal has already caused the company to lose more than 6 percent of its value on Monday—over $35 billion—according to Fortune. Yet it could easily bounce back. It remains an immensely powerful multinational. And if it convinces its shareholders to stay the course, it can weather almost any conceivable political storm.
What will it take to essentially pull the rug out from under Facebook and companies like it? Returning to the promise of the early internet to democratize global communication, and giving more control over the means of that communication to individuals and the full array of human institutions alike.
There are interesting experiments going on in new grassroots social networks that DigBoston is keeping an eye on. Decentralized federated microblogging systems (think an agglomeration of Twitter-like networks that talk to each other) like Mastodon. Fully decentralized social media projects like IndieWeb—a network of “creators” who have developed tools that allow the owners of independent personal websites to interact with each other. Like a Facebook without the Facebook. Without a central control hub of any kind, really.
Projects like these are great ideas. But they rely on volunteers, and sometimes a handful of low-paid staff, to function. Meaning they can achieve an initial burst of success, only to suffer a long decline to irrelevance as their evangelists move on to other ventures. Plus you typically need to be someone in or around the tech scene and affiliated subcultures to know about their existence. And they tend to require a fair amount of technical expertise to use.
Which is to say that these carefully thought out super democratic social media experiments are not likely to provide the alternative DigBoston and like-minded folks the world over are seeking to build. Not anytime soon. Mastodon had just over a million users last month, according to Mastodon User Count—largely due its community deploying functioning phone apps like the nifty Amaroq for iOS. But that’s obviously a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.4 billion active daily users that Facebook reported in Q4 of 2017. Even allowing for the fact that a nonzero percentage of those accounts are fake, according to Yahoo Finance. And not including many more inactive accounts.
Still, we can but soldier on. For our part, we’re calling a meeting of journalists and techies later this year. Specifically, editors and publishers of Boston area news outlets and high-level coders associated with thoughtful social media projects like Mastodon and IndieWeb. We’re going to compare notes and see if we can start working together to provide better communications solutions for our news organizations and our audiences that will go at least some small fraction of the way to providing a democratic alternative to Facebook and other corporate networks.
We’ll definitely let you all know how that meeting goes. But those of you who think you need to be there, drop me a line at [email protected] and tell me why.
Executive editor and associate publisher, DigBoston. Executive director of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Former founder and editor/publisher of Open Media Boston. 2018 & 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Award Winner.