Facebook can’t seem to do anything right.
The social media giant has been the subject of countless negative headlines since the 2016 presidential election and the proliferation of “fake news.” With November’s midterms rapidly approaching, Facebook has taken steps to course-correct.
Earlier this month, for instance, Facebook deleted 559 pages and 251 accounts that it claimed were in violation of its rules against spam and inauthentic behavior. As Reason‘s Scott Shackford pointed out at the time, a number of libertarian and police accountability pages were included in the purge.
Some saw this move as a silencing of independent voices. To be clear, Facebook is a private company and has the perfect right to exert full control over its own platform. Even if the social network has a liberal bias—which CEO Mark Zuckerberg denies—Facebook is well within its rights to act on that bias.
It’s not just Facebook. Twitter has been accused of leaning too far left as well. Back in July, I reported how the platform was allegedly “shadow-banning” some conservative leaders, meaning their accounts didn’t show up when users searched for them in the dropdown bar.
Again, social media companies should not be obligated to treat all political viewpoints equally. Twitter can impose “shadow bans” if it so desires, just as Facebook can ban whichever pages and people it wants off the platform.
In that same vein, unhappy users are more than welcome to leave either social network in search of greener pastures. And many have, with alternative social platforms boasting millions of combined users. None of those lesser-known platforms has anywhere close to Facebook’s 2.2 billion active users or Twitter’s 335 million. Instead, those platforms say they shine in the areas where Facebook and Twitter fall short, whether that be privacy, decentralization, or a lack of political bias.
With those things in mind, I signed up for accounts on five alternative social networks: Mastodon, MeWe, Minds, Gab, and Vero. I’m not quite ready to delete my Facebook or Twitter yet, though that doesn’t mean there weren’t things I liked about each site. But no social network is perfect, as my experience with the five platforms highlighted.
Here’s what I discovered:
1. Mastodon is all about decentralization. It’s also a hassle to use.
The main practical difference between Mastodon and Twitter is that Mastodon is powered by open-source software. It’s comprised of many different servers, or “instances,” each one catered to a particular interest. The servers are all run independently, and none of them look exactly the same. Since the platform is so decentralized, there’s no official mobile app, though intrepid developers have released a variety of “client” apps.
Though each instance is different, the basic four-column layout—at least on desktop—is often the same. On the far left is a column where you can write a status and choose who can see it. To the right is the “home” timeline, which is the feed of content (status updates, boosted toots, photos, articles, etc.) from people you follow. Next is the notifications columns, which alerts you to what others are saying to or about you.
The final column lets users toggle between a variety of options, including the toots they’ve favorited, direct messages, and their “local” and “federated” timelines. The local timeline is simply a feed of all the posts from a user’s particular instance. The federated timeline, meanwhile, includes public posts from everyone that users in your instance follow.
Mastodon is probably a lot of fun if you’re tech-savvy, which I’m admittedly not. With over a million users and a handy function that lets you find people you already know from Twitter, making connections isn’t all that hard.
But the decentralization part doesn’t really appeal to me. At first, I thought one main account on Mastodon.socialwould let me join as many different instances as I wanted. But my Mastodon.social account ended up only working for that one instance. You can follow users on other instances and see/interact with the content they post. But to fully experience separate instances, you need multiple accounts.
After coming to this realization, I found an interesting instance called Liberdon.com and signed up with a new username. Liberdon is exactly what it sounds like: a community of users posting liberty-themed content.
Here’s a screenshot of the Liberdon instance:
I genuinely enjoyed Liberdon, but probably not enough to come back with any sort of frequency. I go on Twitter in large part because I can switch rapidly between trending topics. With Mastodon, it’s much harder to do that. The platform is probably great for developers and those with niche interests. To me, the separation of the instances made that too much of a hassle.