April 6, 2018

Alternative Social Media Platforms

Pepe the frog
I have been spending a little bit of my free time over the last several months exploring places on the Internet that I am still not sure what to label. I have heard some refer to an "alt-web," but I'm skeptical that this is the best description. Essentially, a number of alternative social media platforms have been created to replace some of the big ones (e.g., Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Reddit). Some have been around for awhile but are becoming increasingly popular now that so many of the big ones have decided to ban users, remove content, or selectively de-monetize ads. And why are the big platforms doing these things? I'm not sure, but the fear is that they are attempting to eliminate content which expresses views they find objectionable (i.e., they want to create online "safe spaces").

What are the alternative platforms? I've mentioned Voat (Reddit alternative) and Minds (sort of a Facebook alternative) previously, and they are the two with which I am most familiar. There are others I may get around to eventually (e.g., Gab as a Twitter alternative); however, the purpose of this post is not to list alternative platforms, encourage you to check them out, or even to describe my experience using them (although there will be some of that). No, the purpose of this post is to pose a question: Are people gravitating toward these alternative platforms out of a genuine desire to expose themselves to diverse views or because they are seeking their own "safe space?"

From what I have observed at Voat and Minds, the average user is likely to be on the right side of the left-right political spectrum and more than a little hostile to progressives. While there are some more traditional conservatives and libertarians, there seem to be more of what many progressives would call "alt-right." On Minds, in particular, the constant barrage of Pepe memes was inescapable for awhile, although it seems to have died down a bit recently. Liberal-bashing is almost as common as conservative-bashing is on Facebook or Twitter.

In one sense, it seems absurd to ask whether the people using these platforms are looking for their own "safe space." After all, some of them only came to the alternative platforms after they were banned from the mainstream versions. These users are merely seeking a platform where they are permitted to express themselves. Of course, this only applies to some of them. Many of those using alternative platforms were not banned from the mainstream ones but sought alternatives for other reasons. And based on what I have seen on these platforms, I have to wonder whether one of these reasons might be the desire to shield oneself from encountering opposing views.

Users of Voat and Minds can be every bit as close-minded and tribalistic as users of any of the mainstream networks. The critical difference is that this is happening at the user level rather than coming top-down from those running the sites. From what I have seen on these sites, some users are there because they want an alt-right platform free from exposure to awful liberals like me. Others are freethinkers who simply want a level of viewpoint diversity that is not available on the major platforms. And so, the answer to my question appears to be "both." Some users are there to encounter a broader range of views; some want a right-wing "safe space."

What about me? I started visiting these alternative platforms out of curiosity. I stuck around on Voat and Minds because I liked their commitment to free speech, finding it a sharp contrast with some of the big players. But the main reason I am still there is because of the diverse views I encountered. I still use Facebook and Twitter, but the content I find there skews so far to the left that it feels like an ideological bubble. Voat and Minds feel like an ideological bubble too - just a very different one. By using all of them, I seem to get a far more balanced mix of viewpoints.

What I have not yet found is one platform that offers genuine viewpoint diversity without lots of hostility being directed at those who do not share one's views. Something like Minds could gradually morph into that, but I have a feeling that this might not be well-received by many of the current users. They'd likely protest the influx of liberals that would likely be required to bring about more balance. And of course, the liberals joining would have to give up their authoritarian tendencies when it comes to policing speech. In the meantime, I suppose I'll continue to split my time between left-wing platforms and right-wing platforms in my efforts to understand the views of both groups.