Exodus: Reviewing Alt-Tech
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
The walls of social media censorship are closing in. Every user further left than San Jose's tech moguls are under threat of being banned from Twitter and Facebook for sharing stories about the recent Hunter Biden scandal. Take just one example: Cassandra Fairbanks, writer for The Gateway Pundit with over 270,000 followers on Twitter. This is her pinned tweet right now:
First: How bad is it?
Censorship has been here for a while, but it's becoming more apparent that it's dividing us into miniverses, colloquially known as "bubbles," of individuals that have like-minded ideas. A social media company may refer to this as your "network" or your "reach." Many people on Twitter refer to their audience as "conservative Twitter" or "socialist Twitter;" these are miniverses. "Miniverse" is a taxonomic term I use to describe categories of things that exist within the same universe but have specific independent features that differentiate them, and still encompass a wide array of information above the next layer of taxonomy. In the colloquial "universe" this would be equivalent to groups of galaxies. In the world of social media, your "miniverse" is the accounts that can see your posts, tweets, and comments. I put together a chart to describe this taxonomy a bit better using space as an analogy.
In perhaps the most damaging form of censorship, social media segregates users into different miniverses by sampling their post history, their interactions, and the interactions of nearby users. Effectively, the "miniverse" you are in is entirely dependent on how you use social media and inversely, social media algorithms are used to place you there. That is how they censor you: the algorithms. Social media giants been using the above model to mine your data for market research. Search engines traverse the entire model and log data for every user in every post in every network, etc. They take this data and sell it to each other using identifying information for you and your friends, without asking for your permission. They don't have to. You already gave them permission to do so when you clicked "Yes, I agree to the Terms of Service." The legalese in TOS documents is designed to be ambiguous and difficult to understand, and most of us, including myself, never thought they would take it this far when we were 11 years old and just trying to message friends about the new Marvel movie.
They've been using all of this data to create these miniverses for everyone who uses their platforms. They have started preventing you from even seeing the posts from people outside of your miniverse. Twitter does this with reply deboosting and search bans. Facebook does it by not running your recent post in your friends' news feeds. And there's more to these algorithms too. You may retweet one of your favorite Twitter accounts' posts, but if their content has been deemed "offensive" then your retweet won't be show to your followers who don't already follow that account.
Now that you know how the hidden censorship is affecting you, there is a solution.
STOP. USING. SOCIAL MEDIA GIANTS.
We need to break out of their algorithm-controlled miniverses and once again return to the website level of differentiation. Clearly these businesses have no intention of allowing public discourse to continue freely, as they are directing the conversation by squelching those in one miniverse while promoting those in another. Miniverses aren't necessarily a bad mechanism of the internet, but if the company wants to be excepted from the consequences of Title V of the The Telecommunications Act of 1996, that company needs protect the speech of all individuals who wish to use their platform, regardless of their personal beliefs. Otherwise, that company is given impunity to alter the perception of public opinion, which is what they are doing right now: censoring journalism about Hunter Biden that is protected as freedom of the press.
In other words, we need to start using alternatives to our technocratic hegemons. I've reviewed three platforms that are gaining ground and protect freedom of speech. All of them are good, and all of them have been smeared as "far-right" on Wikipedia, so they must be doing something right.
Option 1: Parler.com
Parler.com, launched in 2018, gained ground at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when it was promoted by politicians like Rand and Ron Paul for being a place where people can discuss issues about the pandemic that were being removed by Twitter and Facebook.
As of July 2020, Parler had 2.8 million accounts compared to Twitter's 330 million. It's a start for a freedom of speech platform. But what concerned many users is when CEO John Matze strayed from the website's Community Guidelines with this post to his Parler account:
The enforcement of Matze's above claims still remain to be seen, which may indicate that he was not accurate or later changed his mind. Parler did elaborate on their policies in this document, contradicting Matze's claim about banning pornography but specifying that all NSFW content must be held behind a sensitive tag. While pornography is certainly an issue of freedom of speech, censoring it in the ways described wouldn't necessarily limit the ability to disseminate information about politics and elections. Like most Community Guidelines, the rules are ambiguous, and this may or may not be intentional.
Now to the meat of the website: how it works. And I have to be honest, so far I'm not impressed. While I understand that the employee count for this huge platform is only 30 people, the platform leaves a lot to be desired and its layout make it difficult to use. My biggest issue with platforms, other than free speech, is the way it handles threads. Here's an example thread up on my Parler right now. See if you can spot what the issue is:
It's enormous. Spanning my 4K monitor's vertical, I had to zoom out to 80% just to screenshot this thread. I understand that white space is a pleasant design feature, but in this case, it's detrimental to the readability of the site. The Parler team really needs to fix their design so that replies are more condensed, but also so that I can tell which reply tree I am in. The last comment in the thread above is two levels under the original comment. I'm the one who posted it, and I still had to use context clues to figure it out. Each reply is indented something like 10 pixels from the parent comment. Did you notice?
I'm hoping that Parler figures out their design soon. Their user base will grow, and we can start seeing how Parler enforces their ambiguous Community Guidelines.
Option 2: Minds.com
Launched in 2015, Minds is an open source social media platform that rewards user engagement with Minds tokens, an Ethereum-based cryptocurrency. Minds describes themselves as the Anti-Facebook as they end-to-end encrypt all direct messages and their open-source code can be seen by anyone.
I first heard of Minds.com in the outro of videos from Tim Pool, the milquetoast fence-sitter who is well-known as one of the last real journalists still using YouTube. Somehow he avoids Google's bans and instead just gets demonetized. Tim recently added Ian Crossland to his podcast. Ian is a co-founder of Minds. Tim still uploads videos to Minds, but no longer actively promotes the platform on YouTube.
Being open source, Minds can be audited by anyone. In 2015, auditing firm known as Voidsec determined that the recently launched website had many vulnerabilities, including exploits that would allow attackers to modify every article on the site. Additionally, an assistant research professor at the John Hopkins Information Security Institute said that the "encryption is definitely weak" when referring to the the proprietary encryption Minds uses.
Well, that was 5 years ago, and Minds has had plenty of time to improve their codebase using input from open-source programmers. In July 2020, Minds had over 2.5 million users, barely fewer than Parler. They also claim over 300,000 monthly active users.
The design of the site is very clean and easy to read. The threading is nicely laid out with comments of different tiers easily distinguishable from one another. It looks a bit like Facebook, but cleaner and allows more than just one level past a comment in thereply tree.
So, it's not a mess like Parler. Why aren't more people using Minds, then?
It's conjecture, but I think the cryptocurrency part of the site turns potential users away. There's a lot of new technobabble around cryptocurrency that confuses users looking for the convenience of Facebook. Minds has also integrated the ability to "boost" posts with Minds tokens so they appear to more users. But you earn Minds tokens from getting attention. Theoretically, this would create a feedback loop: you get tokens from an outrage post, you use those tokens to promote your content to more people, who then give you more views, which generates more tokens for you to promote your next outrage post. Accelerating further, users have the ability to donate these attention tokens (ahem; Brave) to whomever they like the most. There would have to be token distribution balancing for this to work against outrage culture, and anything I can think of sounds like censorship.
Minds claims to be against censorship and so far, I haven't found evidence that they aren't.
Option 3: Gab.com
Gab is... Twitter for the Far Right, according to The New York Times. They got the first half right: it's definitely similar to classic Twitter in its layout.
Gab launched in 2017 for open registration by users. It has faced numerous stories of backlash, from being a place where alleged shooters can post threats to being endorsed by well-known alt-right white supremacist Richard Spencer. Gab created the Dissenter add-on for web browsers that would allow its users to comment on anything on the web. Dissenter was banned from the Chrome Web Store two months after release. Gab also created mobile apps for iOS and Android, but both were banned from their respective app stores. Since then, Gab has resorted to using a home screen app that opens Gab in the default browser of the phone.
In July 2019, Gab forked the open-source social network Mastodon to circumvent the app store ban and became the biggest node on the Mastadon network, known as the Fediverse. In response, Mastodon banned all Gab users from using the rest of the Fediverse, which proved that Mastadon is not to be trusted as a true free speech community.
What makes Gab difficult to adopt is the history associated with the name. Gab is supports the first amendment to the letter. Because it is so welcoming to all opinions, the types of people that have extreme viewpoints have come to Gab to find shelter. This makes it easy for jealous Silicon Valley companies to slander Gab as a far-right platform. And, there are many actual far-right users on Gab. But there are also a lot of normal people, and like Twitter, you don't have to follow the accounts you don't want to.
The threading on Gab isn't quite as compact as Minds, but it's very clean and easy to distinguish reply levels. It doesn't have a dark mode, but that's not too much of a problem unless you're like me and use your computer until 5am.
Update 10/28: Gab has a dark mode now. It's wonderful.
If you can get past the history of Gab, you'll find that it's a pleasant platform to use and that it's easy to sign up compared to Parler and Minds. The more normal people that join Gab, the less "far-right" it will be. And you can follow big time personalities banned from other platforms such as Alex Jones and Carl Benjamin (Sargon of Akkad). I couldn't find a reference for how many users Gab actually has, but this Tweet from January 2019 indicates they had over 850,000. I would guess that after the acquisition of the Gab.com domain in July 2019 and recent phenomena in social media that Gab has grown significantly.
A great indicator of how a social media site is doing is its Alexa rank. This is a score aggregated from website visits, time spent browsing, pages visited, and much more. Here's how the three alt-tech platforms compare on Alexa Ranks internationally, in the US, and the time spent on each website:
Parler is the clear winner. Parler beats Gab in daily user time by a whopping 28%. Minds trails behind by 9%. Minds has a low Alexa Rank internationally and not much better in the United States. Gab is beating Minds in Alexa Rank. Despite Gab's app is banned in both app stores, Gab is pulling in a lot of traffic.
All three of these platforms have serious potential. Right now, I'm betting on Parler taking over as the most successful, and with a few design updates it will be even more usable that Facebook or Twitter. You should make an account on all three to reserve your spot in a website that could go viral at any time. But also, start using these platforms. Follow your favorite journalists on Parler. Start watching news videos on Minds, or start posting memes to Gab. If content creators stop using Twitter to host their content, people will flock to other platforms. Then Twitter will go the way of Reddit: an irrelevant echo chamber with terrible moderators, desperate for the slightest bit of attention. They'll get what they effing deserve.