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Alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram 2021

Alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram 2021

An Intro to the world of Alternative Social Networks

Since the rise of tools like Facebook and Twitter in the mid-2000s, there have always been alternatives to the big social networks. Back then, most of the alternatives were me-too products trying to achieve the same fame and fortune as Twitter and Facebook. Tools like Friendster, iTunes Ping, Jaiku, MySpace, Orkut, Friendfeed, Plurk, Pownce, Google+, and others tried to offer variations on the social network formula, but most are now in some state of death or decline.

Understanding the Problems

As we’ve lived with social media sites pervading our lives in the past 15+ years, we’ve seen how their persistent issues with privacy, misinformation, manufactured outrage, bullying, and hate have led to geopolitical disasters like Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic, the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, climate denialism, political radicalization, the global spread of authoritarianism, and more.

The new breed of alternative networks are designed to correct the biggest problems we see with big tech. Briefly, those include:

  • The surveillance and sale of personal data for private profit
  • Public debate and free speech being censored or manipulated by a central authority
  • Policies and terms of service at odds with the values of the user community
  • Lack of controls over children’s experience online
  • Amplification of extreme, outrageous, and untrue content over accurate material
  • Anti-trust concerns as mega-corporations buy up or starve out their competitors

That’s an incomplete list, but let’s start there.

Many of these issues are tied to the fact that Facebook /Instagram/WhatApp, Twitter, and Google/YouTube are massive, for-profit corporations that give away their product for free and then make money by selling advertising based on our personal data. These sites have figured out that more extreme content keeps users on the site longer, generating more data, generating more profit. They have adjusted what you see in your news feeds to amplify the most extreme, outrage-inducing, and false content to drown out more rational and measured discourse.

How new-breed networks address the problems

To address the problem of for-profit corporations at the center of our social lives, there is a movement called the fediverse that seeks to create free, open source software protocols that let independent “nodes” talk to each other without any central authority (like a corporation or government) to interfere. In the list below, Mastodon is the most well-developed example (see description below). Other sites exist but are less fully-realized alternatives to the user experience we expect from social media.

Signal is the best alternative to Facebook’s WhatsApp private messaging app or Apple’s iMessage. It’s not technically fediverse but it is open source, encrypted, and fully funded through a nonprofit organization entirely supported by grants. Its privacy practices are even better than SMS, so should be considered the best solution for voice, text, and video chats.

Another problem some seek to correct is the specific policies of Facebook and Twitter have imposed that don’t reflect the values and norms of their communities. MeWe and Vero are of this type — they’re still for-profit corporations but they do not sell ads, share personal data, censor content, or amplify extreme voices algorithmically. They make money from user subscriptions and micropayments for enhanced services. They claim this is an improvement over Facebook’s approach, but there are still questions about what will happen if these companies ever go out of business or pivot to another business model.

Lastly, I just want to mention the elephant in the room. Many of these alternative social networks have attracted a large community of fringe conservatives and Trump supporters seeking to escape Facebook and Twitter’s policies of “censorship” of “free speech” (which often includes hate speech, conspiracy theories, misinformation, and calls to violence). Conservative-only social sites like Gab and Parler sprung up after Donald Trump was kicked off Twitter and Facebook for inciting the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. MeWe, Minds, and Telegram claim to be neutral sites for everyone but the fringe conservative communities that have adopted those sites are highly visible on those platforms. My hope is that, if mainstream and leftist communities discover alternative networks, we can crowd out (or at least coexist comfortably) with those who promote low-quality content. But be warned — if you explore MeWe, you will probably see some fringe conservative stuff in there.
Interestingly, Gab and Parler are actually powered by the same open source software that powers Mastodon, but the wider Mastodon community has practices for blocking or routing around hateful content, so you can choose to never see what goes on in Gab or Parler from your own instance. My hope is that a similarly decentralized tool that looks more like Facebook will be developed

I believe it’s time for mainstream social media users to explore ways that they can take greater control of their data, their attention, and their relationships. By actively exploring and using alternative social networks, we send a signal to the market that we want social to be better.

The leading alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp

MeWe – Alt. to Facebook

  • Which app is it most like? Facebook
  • How’s it make money? No ads, Users can pay for Pro access, emoji, and themes
  • Privacy Practices: Good
  • Algorithmic News Feed? No
  • Community Issues: Biased content, misinformation, lacking mainstream brands, centralized

Ted’s Take

MeWe has a very similar look, feel, and feature-set to Facebook, and could easily replace Facebook’s place in your life if you could get your friends and family to follow you there.

Like Facebook, it’s centrally owned and operated by a for-profit corporation, but unlike Facebook it has no ads and only makes money through user subscriptions and micropayments, not by selling your data.

The content in the site (and the site’s community overall) seems to lean to the conservative low-information voter, with an uncomfortably high ratio of antivax, anti-science, medical misinformation, and other fringe content. The “Me We Recommends” page prominently features a juice cleanse guru, an antivax activist, a leftist conspiracy site, and some D-list influencers and musicians. This stuff is widespread in Facebook as well, but there is also a large variety of more mainstream and established content sites on the platform we can use to drown out the fringe crazies. In MeWe, it’s mostly just the fringe crazies.

I think that, if a critical mass of Facebook users moved over to MeWe, you could very nicely keep up with your friends and family with fewer privacy problems than with Facebook. But if your friends don’t come over, it gets a little lonely in there TBH.

Even though it would be nice to recommend an open source, federated alternative to Facebook here, there simply isn’t one feature-rich enough and easy enough for my Aunt Sally to use yet. If you’re desperate to get out of Facebook while keeping contact with your social networks, your best bet is to convince your group of friends to switch to MeWe. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than Facebook.

Independent Reviews

Mastodon

  • Which app is it like? Twitter
  • How’s it make money? No ads, Open source, community supported
  • Privacy Practices: Excellent
  • Algorithmic News Feed? No
  • Community Issues: Still in early stages of development, like Twitter ca. 2009

Some people think the real problem with social networks is that they’re fully controlled by privately-owned companies whose intentions might not align with yours (or, y’know, democracy, human rights, privacy, accurate information, etc.)

An alternative is the federated internet, where separate instances or nodes can all talk to one another, no matter whose server you’re using or who you get your internet from. Upon this open, interoperable vision of the web, social networks can talk to each other without being controlled by the same organization, enabling communities to decide their own internal rules and norms themselves. This is the same distributed model that has made email the most popular and enduring communication tool on the Internet.

Mastodon is a federated internet alternative to Twitter that looks and feels very much like the real thing. Instead of “tweets” you make “toots”, and you can follow people, brands, and hashtags much like Twitter. There is a good collection of recognizable news outlets on the platform so you can follow the New York Times, ScienceDaily, TheOnion, and others.

Anyone can download the Mastodon software and start their own “instance” of Mastodon that connects to the larger global network. In fact, conservative-only social networks like Gab and Donald Trump’s Truth Social run on re-branded Mastodon software. Instances of Mastodon can choose to join or block others based on the user community’s wishes, so you can choose to see or block what happens in networks you don’t agree with.

The biggest instance of Mastodon is mastodon.social where you don’t have to mess with running your own server, you can just sign up, access it from the cloud or a mobile app, and have a Twitter-like experience.

The community is still on the small side — it feels like the early days on Twitter circa 2009 when only “early adopter types” were in there.

Vero

  • Which app is it like? Instagram
  • How’s it make money? No ads, Users can pay for Pro access
  • Privacy Practices: Good
  • Algorithmic News Feed? No
  • Community Issues: Small, new, lacking mainstream brands, centralized

Ted’s Take

This is a very slick-looking photo sharing app that could give Instagram a run for its money if a critical mass of users adopted it. It strongly features creators who take photography seriously, and all content is #hashtagged to help you explore the site by your interests.

Vero is a corporate-owned network that is currently free but may monetize with user micropayments in the future.

Independent Reviews

Vero – True Social

Signal

  • Which app is it like? WhatsApp
  • How’s it make money? Grants and donations
  • Privacy Practices: Excellent
  • Algorithmic News Feed? No
  • Community Issues: Limited to those who know about it and are willing to switch from SMS or iMessage

Ted’s Take

Signal is an open source instant messaging app, similar to the experience you get in Facebook’s WhatsApp or Apple’s iMessage. You can do 1:1 text chat, group text chats, as well as voice and video chats in 1:1 or small groups. You can share images, files, GIFs, emoji, and outgoing links. All messages are encrypted end-to-end, so your messages cannot be spied on by an intermediate party.
The encryption that powers Signal was actually licensed to Facebook for their encrypted chat in WhatsApp. However, while Facebook cannot see the content of your messages, it can spy on WHO you talk to, how often, and for how long. Signal can neither spy on the content nor the metadata of your communications.
Unlike the apps above, your experience will not include the posts of strangers who also use the service. You can only communicate with friends and family you intentionally want to chat with. The only challenge is getting your friends and family to download the app, sign in, and use it alongside their other messaging apps.

Considering that Signal’s level of privacy and security is higher than SMS, iMessage, WhatsApp, or any others, I’d recommend you seriously consider convincing your friends and family to use it instead of those other solutions for private messaging.

References

Gehl, 2015. The Case for Alternative Social Media.

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