In the wake of Facebook’s recent behavior, I see people once again saying they wish there was an alternative.
Well, there is. There’s a social network with 4.7 million users that’s free and open and not controlled by any single company. I’m going to tell you how to join it.
What have Facebook done wrong?
In case you have missed the major news stories about Facebook’s misdeeds, Facebook has…
…continued to promote posts it knows are “bad for the world”, because it increases engagement.
…allowed popular right-wing web site The Daily Wire to break Facebook rules and set up sockpuppet accounts to boost its readership.
…allowed another right-wing site PragerU to publish false information about climate change without getting fact checked.
…prevented medical establishments from running pro-vaccination ads, while allowing antivax ads to run.
…been criticized by the UN for allowing incitement of genocide in Myanmar.
…obstructed investigation of the genocide it incited.
…donated to Steve Scalise, who described himself as “David Duke without the baggage”, and other far right politicians.
…put three lifelong Republicans in charge of Facebook policy on political speech.
…allowed the spread of dangerous misinformation about diabetes.
…brought in The Daily Caller to fact-check articles.
…lied outrageously about how many people were watching their video channels, causing many independent publications to pivot to a largely nonexistent video audience.
…algorithmically marked children as interested in gambling and alcohol.
…announced that political ads from politicians will not be fact checked, and that politicians are basically exempt from Facebook content rules.
…refused to take down Trump’s first Facebook ad containing a blatant lie.
…allowed Australian politicians to lie throughout their 2019 elections.
…taken in $1.6 million from anti-LGBT and anti-Muslim hate groups.
…been found guilty of allowing employers to target job ads so that women and older workers wouldn’t see them.
…automatically generated fan pages for Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
…launched a fake “clear history” tool that doesn’t actually clear anything.
…used data from Facebook apps to track users the company considers a threat.
…allowed Trump to run over 2,000 ads comparing immigration to an “invasion”.
…refused to delete a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi.
…attempted to dismiss a lawsuit by stating that you have no expectation of privacy on Facebook.
…tweaked their algorithm to increase engagement, boosting Fox News to the top.
…blocked people of color from talking about racism.
…uploaded 1.5 million users’ e-mail address books without their consent.
…paid teenagers to install VPN software that spied on them.
…backed an event denying climate change.
…blocked transparency tools designed to monitor what ads are being shown to users on Facebook.
…help people to brainwash their partners using targeted ads.
In addition, Mark Zuckerberg has hosted a series of dinner parties with far right pundits, and not invited any left wingers. In leaked audio, he said that he considers Elizabeth Warren an existential threat to Facebook.
And all of that is only the stories I encountered in 2019.
So what’s the alternative?
There are dozens of interconnected social network servers running right now. They’re federated. Instead of a single company like Facebook owning and controlling the entire network, anyone can set up their own server, and the servers all talk to each other. The system is known as the Fediverse.
Think about how e-mail works. You might use Apple Mail on your iPhone to connect to the mail account from your ISP, Time Warner. Your friend might use Gmail in a web browser and Google’s servers. Perhaps your dad still uses a Yahoo! web mail account. Millions of companies have Microsoft Exchange mail servers, and access mail using Outlook.
So there are many places you can get an e-mail account, and many different interfaces to e-mail, yet all these different systems are able to talk to each other.
The Fediverse is like that, but for social network posts and replies.
You might use Diaspora. Your friend might use Mastodon. Another friend might use Pleroma. Yet you can all subscribe to each other’s feeds, reply to each other’s posts.
Because anyone can set up a server, you can choose a server whose policies reflect your values. You can also switch server without losing contact with your friends. There’s no corporate censorship team, and there’s no algorithm messing with your feed of updates from your friends. If they post it, you’ll see it, in chronological order. And of course, there are no ads.
Sound good? Read on to find out how to get started.
Because there are multiple different pieces of software that make up the Fediverse, the first thing you need to do is decide what kind of social network experience you want, and pick software accordingly. It’s like picking whether to use Apple Mail, Exchange, Thunderbird, or web mail.
The good news is, I’ve basically tried all the open social network software, so I can make some recommendations.
One reason I like Friendica is that it has a feature to let you set an expiry time on your posts — you can have everything automatically delete itself after a certain number of days. It also has events, photos and videos sections like Facebook; Diaspora currently lacks those.
Since this is about leaving Facebook, for the rest of the article I’m going to assume you’re picking Friendica or Diaspora.
Picking a service provider
Once you’ve picked your software, you need to pick a service provider. This is like deciding whether to get your e-mail from Microsoft, Google, Apple, your ISP, fastmail, or whoever.
As mentioned before, you can always change your mind later and not lose track of all your friends, so don’t feel like you have to agonize over the decision.
There is one warning I feel obliged to give you: One of the biggest Mastodon instances is Gab, which offers a safe haven to neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and other right wing extremists. It has been blocked by many other Fediverse servers, so if you sign up for Gab you will likely have trouble interacting with non-Gab users. Of course, if you are a Nazi, you’ll want to head over to Gab and sign right up.
The web site fediverse.party can help you to find a server. Click on the software you’ve chosen, and you’ll get a page of information about the software. Scroll down to the Join The Network section and there are links to lists of servers, and a button to bring up a “wizard” to help you choose a server.
Things to consider:
- Where is the server located? What language is the server in?
- Does it have any special policies? (For example, does it allow nudity?)
- How many other people are on the server? Do you want to use the same server as your friends?
- How reliable is it? (Check the heart icon badges on the Friendica server list.) Remember that there’s no rich corporation running these servers, they’re maintained by volunteers on a low budget, so you might see a little more downtime than with Facebook.
- Has it been around for a while? Is it running the latest stable version of the software?
- Does it allow open signup, or do you have to ask?
- Is the identity of the admin public?
The next step is to sign up. Unlike Facebook, there’s no “real name” policy, but maybe pick the name your friends know you by?
Telling your friends
Once you’ve got an account, you’ll want to tell all your friends how to find you.
Because the Fediverse is like e-mail, addresses have two parts —
email@example.com, not just a username.
In Friendica, you can find your Fediverse address by going to your profile page. Click on your profile icon, and in the drop-down menu choose Profile.
On the left hand side of your profile page, you’ll see your user icon, and your Fediverse address underneath.
In Diaspora, the procedure is the same — click on your user icon to get the menu at top right, choose Profile.
Your Fediverse address will be in the main column, after your name, in gray.
Adding your friends
When your friends give you their Fediverse addresses, you can add them.
On Friendica, you can either use the same top right menu and select the entry Contacts; or you can click the icon of people on the top row of the page.
On the contacts page itself, there’s a box on the left site labeled Add New Contact. Paste your friend’s address in there and click the Connect button.
In Diaspora, click the same top right menu and choose Contacts. Above your list of contacts, on the right side of the page, is the contact search box. Paste their address into there and hit return, and Diaspora will guide you through adding them as a contact.
You are now on the Fediverse. There’s a lot more to learn, but at this point you should be able to post updates and have your friends reply to them.
Replies to assorted objections
My friends aren’t on the Fediverse.
So invite them. Or make new friends.
Do you really expect me to leave Facebook?
Of course not. I’m just suggesting that perhaps you should post your own updates on the Fediverse, and only go to Facebook as a last resort. Maybe post a link to your Fediverse profile on Facebook periodically to remind people where they can go to read your updates.
Why not just stay on Facebook?
Please consult the list of reasons at the top of the article. Your continued use of Facebook will be taken by Zuckerberg as consent for everything he’s doing.
If you care about democracy, no longer providing all your content to Facebook for free is about the easiest, least painful thing you can do. It’s literally free, you can do it while sitting at your computer, and it can actually have an impact.
This Fediverse software is too complicated.
Facebook’s settings area is a complicated rat maze of confusing things to tweak in comparison. You weren’t born knowing how to use Facebook groups, pages, friend groups and status updates either, you had to learn. I’m sure you can still learn.
Unlike Facebook, it doesn’t have a team of paid graphic designers working on it, and it isn’t carefully design tested to optimize clicks and engagement. But on the plus side, it isn’t carefully design tested to optimize clicks and engagement.
If we all leave Facebook it’ll just turn into a bubble of far right propaganda.
Good. Nobody will be fooled into thinking they’re getting balanced news, and Facebook’s position will be indefensible if we ever get another Democratic government.
What about free speech?
Facebook is already censoring, I’m just pointing out that they’re doing so with a particular agenda, and making bad choices.
You’re just trying to censor anyone you disagree with.
Not at all. I’ve no problem with the Wall Street Journal being considered a trusted news source, for example. My issue is with publications that publish lies, conspiracy theories, trolling and propaganda as if those things were news. And if you like those things, go sign up on Gab like I suggested.