Why Facebook and Twitter alternatives are exhausting, but still do well

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Social media without hate speech, without false reports, without a stream of banalities, instead with social formulas, constructive exchange and well thought-out posts – how nice would that be? But the reality is different: Through social media and their algorithms, we forget how to determine what interests us. That can be very convenient, but it is massively externally determined.

And: it is dangerous. After all, it is becoming increasingly clear that the mechanisms behind social networks such as Facebook and Twitter lead to hate speech and false reports being intensified. In view of the Facebook paper, it also became clear that the group doesn’t really care, despite assertions to the contrary. On the contrary: Facebook’s focus on growth means that Facebook cannot be good.

Eva Wolfangel is a journalist, speaker and moderator. She writes on topics such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, cybersecurity and social media. In 2019/20 she was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT in Boston.

So how does a better Facebook go? What could it learn from alternative social networks? Again and again there are initiatives to create “good” social networks in a societal sense that do not polarize, do not allow hate speech to grow and instead enable a healthy culture of discussion.

The US artist Ben Grosser, for example, has that Network “Minus” whose users only have a total of 100 posts available. So the idea is to think very carefully about what is posted – because with every post one less is available – “for the whole of life,” as Grosser emphasizes. There is no limit to the number of replies to other posts. In addition, there are no likes or numbers about followers and the like. So what is posted does not depend on any idea how others might react to it. In the ideal case, minus rewards well-thought-out posts that promote conversation. This is how human interaction worked before social media existed, explains Grosser. You didn’t go to parties and end up leaving them with a list of numbers that tell you how others have seen us. “We had to listen to others, think about what they were saying and react when we felt like it.”

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Ben Grosser has also developed a browser extension, the Facebook Demetricatorwhich removes all metrics on Facebook, i.e. information about how many likes a post has, how often it has been shared, how many have replied to it. “The focus is no longer on how many Friends you have or how much they like your status but rather who they are and was they say, “writes Grosser.

Anyone who wants to try out measures like these, which apparently make social media better and healthier, can also have it easier – and switch to the “Fediverse”. No corporation there earns money from our communications, there the decisive things are different. Anyone who wants to know what a socially healthier Facebook could look like can observe what changes here if algorithms do not intervene in communication.

What is the Fediverse? Fediverse is a suitcase word from the English term “Federated Universe”, ie “federated universe”, which consists of the bundling of alternative social networks. It is a world of its own made up of many different offers, the most famous of which is surely Mastodon, a decentralized social network made up of “instances”. To stay in the picture of the universe, they represent many different small home planets on which people gather who have something in common: topics or interests. They have their own so-called local timeline, where all posts of their own instance appear. Then there is the “federated timeline”. All posts of all instances with which your own instance is federated, i.e. linked, appear there. There are usually a lot of them, mostly they are selected according to the principle of exclusion: no Nazis, for example. And there is your own timeline – i.e. all the posts of those you follow yourself.

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If you ask around Fediverse what is better there, you will hear in unison: No data on Facebook, nice communication, it’s about content and the question “What on earth would you like to have an algorithmic timeline for?” It is the main difference to other social media – and that prevents their main problems at the same time.

I still remember when Twitter changed its timeline from a chronological one to one that was sorted by algorithms. I created a lot of Twitter lists back then, because they are still chronological. Even today I still use Twitter a lot via lists and interact less with posts in the timeline. Similar on Facebook. But that means that you can “feel” the algorithm even more directly: it becomes downright intrusive. As soon as I interact with a post, I get “more of the same”. The algorithm clings to every like like a straw.

Christian Pietsch, one of the administrators of the Mastodon instance digitalcourage.social, says that he understood later than others how serious Twitter’s departure from the chronological timeline was. “Today I see it as an unacceptable patronizing of users by Twitter. I want to decide for myself what I think is relevant.”

In addition to patronizing an algorithmic timeline, there is another thing that is missing: the sometimes rather rough tone of voice. And this can also be partly explained by the fact that algorithmically controlled communication in social media “rewards” conflicts because they generate more traffic. “The company seems to me here [auf Mastodon] often friendlier, especially when there are differences of opinion, “explains Leah Oswald, administrator of chaos.social. This is also due to the moderation and the fact that the individual authorities decide for themselves with whom they federate – or, above all, not.

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However, the problem of the filter bubble remains. Mastodon is completely a filter bubble, at least that’s how it feels to me: After all, most of them are here because they reject the algorithmic control of communication, because they don’t want to sell their data to Facebook and Co. and because decentralized projects are important to them . Would the concept also work if the masses entered here? “It works well as long as they are distributed decentrally and the moderation is still possible,” guesses Leah Oswald.

The question of what Facebook would do better must honestly be answered by abolishing itself. This is actually nothing new. But if you look at the alternatives to Facebook that do something better, you quickly see: The Facebook concept itself is the problem. Without algorithmic control, we have to think for ourselves again. The news doesn’t find me – I find it myself. It can be exhausting, but it’s good. Ourselves and society.


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