A Guide To The Free Internet

This is a shortened, more conversational version of The Free Internet. If you want to read more on this topic, the original article might interest you after reading this one!

What is wrong with the internet?

We are putting more and more of our lives in the hands of huge corporations who do not have our best interests at heart. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, Reddit, Discord, these are not public services, they are private products. They are not necessarily bad products, but as users we have absolutely no control over them. This would be fine if we only used them sparingly and occasionally, like any other product, but we have let them integrate into our lives so much that they have become – to many of us – an essential part of day-to-day living.

The more time we spend within these products, the less control we have over ourselves and over society. This is not about conspiracy theories or about these corporations acting badly (although they often do), it’s about how it’s a terrible idea to let any single actor affect so much of our lives.

Why should I care?

Most likely, you already do care. Most people feel that the way they use the internet has some negative effect on their lives. It’s not that we don’t care – we just don’t think we have any options.

Now it’s easy to argue for the harmful nature of some of these services, like Facebook, since they have very real and observable downsides. But surely products that are purely practical are fine, such as Discord, Teams, FB Messenger or WhatsApp? In reality this is far from the case.

Let’s use Discord as an example here. At this point it has become so ubiquitous in areas like gaming or technology that the vast majority of those communities use it as their sole means of communication.

To read more about the problem with Discord, see this article.

This is a huge problem, and to explain why, imagine that you have one reason or another for disliking Discord as platform. Maybe you take issue with their (horrendous) privacy practices, maybe it doesn’t run well on your computer, maybe you simply dislike the way it works, maybe you disagree with their terms of service, and so on. There are many valid reasons to not want to use Discord – however, since it’s used by virtually every online community out there, if you don’t want to use it you are now effectively cut off from almost everyone.

This is a huge change from how communities on the internet used to work. Yes, you can say the same about any platform, but when there’s a greater diversity of different services you can usually consider communities on a case-by-case basis. It’s not really about Discord (or anything else) being functionally good or bad, it’s about the dangers of a single, private service becoming the gatekeeper of every community on the web.

What can I do?

We tend to approach this problem from the wrong angle. We can’t expect these huge corporations to change their products, nor should they – it’s their product, they can make it anything they want. Once they are used at such an enormous scale, the entire concept of privately run products are at odds with a free internet. Since we only think about it in this way, it feels hopeless and we don’t see a way to change.

We can’t change Facebook, but we can change where we spend our time on the internet. And here is the great news: the internet is full of social media and discussion platforms that embrace the idea of an an internet run by the people, for the people. Some have been around for decades, others have been created as a response to new issues we now face. Some are small in scale, others used by millions of people. What they all have in common is that they are designed specifically to not be owned and controlled by a single entity, but rather be as decentralized as possible. By using these platforms we are in control of our own communities, and the internet becomes a democratic extension of society.

Facebook remains the largest example of taking centralized social media for granted.

It may not be realistic for you to switch to all these alternatives for everything. But most likely there is at least some social media or messaging service you use, where you can consider one of these alternatives instead. And that’s all it takes – step by step, we can contribute to a free internet.

What that being said, here is a guide to some of the things that you can do!

I want to be part of a community, interest group, or circle of friends.

Rather than Reddit, Facebook or Discord, consider a traditional internet forum! Independent internet forums have been around for a long time, and many are still very active. If you’re looking to find a new community to discuss something specific, simply search the web for your topic adding “forum” at the end – you are very likely to find one or several communities dedicated to it. What’s great about internet forums is that they are independently run by the communities who use them, contributing to a diverse and independent web. You or your community can also start your very own forum – make a space that is truly yours!

Tree of Souls, a forum created by and for fans of James Cameron’s Avatar.

If you would rather have something more chat-oriented – like Discord, Teams or Slack – take a look at Element. It works very similarly to those services, but uses Matrix, which is completely decentralized and therefore in the hands of its users. Simply make an account, join or create a chat room, and you’re all set!

I want something that works like Twitter or Facebook.

You are looking for Mastodon! Mastodon is basically lots of small, independent social media sites that are run by different people – and all of them talk to each other. Sign up on one, talk to anyone on any of the others – use it like a single huge social network, when it really is a diverse collection of independent, decentralized ones. Although it is smaller in scale compared to Twitter and Facebook, more people are joining every day. To join, just go to the Mastodon signup page and pick a server – don’t worry too much about which one – and start talking to people!

Mastodon looks and works similarly to Twitter.

I want content-focused social media like Instagram, Youtube or TikTok.

How well this will work out for you depends a bit on what you value in these services. If you use them for their large audience, the ability to connect with lots of people you might know from real life or the media, and keeping up with the latest trends, the alternatives might not be quite there yet for you. If, however, you are happy with a smaller audience and want to simply share photos and videos with people who might appreciate them, there’s a few places you can check out!

What Mastodon is to Twitter, Pixelfed is to Instagram and PeerTube is to Youtube. In fact, all these three networks can talk to each other, too! Audiences will be smaller, but also more personal. Count on an atmosphere that is a lot less commercial and a lot calmer than you what you are used to – depending on your preferences, this might be a great thing, or it might be a reason to instead try alternatives for other services for now.

Pixelfed is a decentralized alternative to Instagram.

I want to follow people of public interest, celebrities, or internet personalities.

This is where no direct alternatives exist yet, for somewhat obvious reasons. None of these platforms are big enough yet to be used by many people fitting into these categories – that being said, just because you move your activity to free platforms it doesn’t mean you can’t still use the big social media sites just to catch up on what you want. If this is a deal breaker, it’s better to find a compromise that makes things work than not trying anything at all!

I just want to talk to my family or close friends.

Good old texting is an often underappreciated way! That being said, if you want something a little more sophisticated, check out Element which was also mentioned above. It fits just as well for talking to family members as it does forming communities.

Element is a fantastic way to talk to both communities and family members.

Change just one thing

Even after reading all of this, you may still feel inclined to stick with what you are currently using. At the end of the day, it is usually more practical, more functional, and everyone you know is already there. Most people will stick to what they know, it’s just a human quality.

But someone has to take the first step. And as pointed out above, you don’t have to change everything. Do you find a social media or messaging service particularly important to you? Keep using that for now, and look for alternatives to the ones you consider less indispensable. Maybe you really can’t do without Instagram, but you’d be open to using Matrix to stay in touch with your family. Maybe Discord is where all your friends are, but you’d happily explore internet forums as an alternative to Reddit.

My message is this – just check things out, especially the things you might not have known existed. Change just one thing. Maybe you will end up seeing it as a matter of ideology, maybe not. But you will have made one tiny step towards a free internet.