Also see A Guide To The Free Internet – a shorter, more conversational version of this article which focuses more on practical steps to take.
There is something wrong with how we use the internet. We all know this; we didn’t at first, we do now – but we have gone from ignorance to resignation.
We all say we need to use social media less, or we feel we should – at the very least we feel it probably does some harm to society as a whole – but we don’t try to change how it operates. We use other privacy invasive services such as Discord or TikTok, we may lament their practices – but we don’t try to change them.
Obviously not. You can stop using Facebook, but you can’t actually change Facebook. Right?
Well, no, but the entire premise is backwards. Facebook shouldn’t have to change – they are a private business, have every right to design their product in whichever way they wish. We can nudge things in certain directions through monopoly laws or broad regulations, which do serve a purpose, but the fact remains – the social media and other big tech services we use are private products, not public utilities.
We can’t simply make these products into public utilities, the way of the electrical or telephone grid. These were based on physical infrastructure, and adaptable into a democratic framework. Today’s huge online platforms are self-contained, private products that by definition are non-democratic and commercially run. Again, this is not the problem – the problem is that we treat them as if they weren’t.
What we need to do is use platforms that we can change. That we can shape and grow and improve as a community, as many communities, in small groups and in large ones. Platforms that by their very design work like democratic utilities, not opaque commercial products.
And here’s the thing – they already exist. Many existed long before the arrival of today’s monolithic social media platforms, and others have been emerging recently, built by communities of people as a response to these exact trends we have been seeing.
In fact, you are using one every day without really thinking of it: email.
Email is free (as in freedom). Email is a method of interaction, not a singular product. Nobody owns email. There are monopolistic email services, absolutely (Gmail in particular comes to mind), but at the end of the day anyone is free to run their own email server and manage their own email.
Now imagine such an equivalent of Facebook, Twitter, FB Messenger, Discord, Reddit, Slack, Instagram… this is already here. Every step of the way, the tools for a truly free internet are right in front of us – we need only use them.
This is what the free internet looks like.
The first cornerstone of a free internet are independent internet forums that are managed and run by the same communities that use them. Internet forums, or message boards, have been around since near the beginning of the internet itself – websites where people can talk to each other through public messages, usually categorized into sections depending on topic, and usually easy to browse by everyone.
Defining an internet forum may seem obvious to some, but I want to highlight what makes them special. Because internet forums can be independently hosted and managed by their community, it puts the platform in the hands of those who use it. They can be continuously improved and made better by their users, and each individual forum can be managed in exactly the way the community wants it to be. Anyone can create new forums, entirely on their own terms. A portion of a community who disagree with the direction it’s taking can easily move on and create something new. Internet forums are exactly what we make them.
Over time, internet forums have been slowly overtaken by services such as Facebook and Reddit – and lately, even instant messaging platforms such as Discord. These can be more convenient – join a single Facebook group and you know how they all work, make one Reddit account and you can browse any subreddits you’d like. However, this also creates a monoculture where every single community works the same, looks the same, and is run by a single central authority.
Because of this gradual shift towards large social media networks, internet forums have a reputation of being essentially dead in the water – this, however, is not the case at all! A countless number of forums are around today and cover every imaginable conversation topic or kind of community. I run one myself!
Internet forums do face challenges, contributing to their perceived decline. Many older communities are awkward or outright impossible to use on mobile devices, which account for a huge proportion of internet use today. They can also be difficult to discover, since there is no central network or inventory of forums. However, these are not insurmountable obstacles – modern forums can be perfectly usable on phones (and run as apps), and the challenge of discovery is really only a matter of coming together to make things more approachable.
When considering where and how to host a community, it is tempting to look towards Big Tech. Creating a subreddit, or a Discord server, or a Facebook group, is easier than figuring out exactly how to host your own forum, what software to host it with, how to manage all the little details. But by relying on huge social media, your community is also never truly yours. It is put in the hands of a larger authority, and if that authority changes its practices in a way that you disagree with, there is nothing you can do. Taking the time to set up a place of your own – or joining with another independent community that shares the same direction – supports your long-term freedom.
That’s not to say self-hosted internet forums are always the answer. Sometimes there really is no need to manage an entire website, sometimes all you really need as a community is a few chat rooms. Thankfully, this is where Matrix comes in.
Matrix is a way to communicate online, most functionally similar to something like Discord, Teams or Slack. Unlike those, however, Matrix is not a specific service, website or app. It is a method to communicate, just like email. Many people have made different Matrix apps or websites you can use, and different servers you can join, but they can all talk to each other within one large community.
What this means is that Matrix is not controlled by a single large corporation – it is broken up into many tiny parts, which are constantly growing, evolving and improving. The most popular way to use Matrix is called Element, which exists as both an app and website, on both computers and phones.
Using Element is simple – make one account and it will work everywhere, since Matrix servers can talk to each other. Use the app or website on your computer or phone, and you can join chat channels and talk to other Matrix users. If you want to host your own chat room or collection of chat rooms, you can either create them on any of the many existing servers, or set up your own.
The beauty of Matrix is that is easy to use, but at the same time is in the hands of its users. You don’t need to run a server yourself to use it, but through the people who do, it is ensured to be decentralized and free.
Today, services like Discord are so ubiquitous that in some areas they have become the de facto means of communication – in Discord’s case, tech and gaming communities use it almost universally! Meanwhile, messaging through huge social media platforms have also become the default way many people talk to each other online. These might be functionally very useful, but putting the majority of all human communication into the hands of just a small handful of actors is an incredibly bad idea.
Switching to Matrix for communication is a much easier leap than any other services mentioned here, even for an existing larger community. It is easy to get set up and instantly start talking, and you are now doing so through actual communities rather than a big corporation that does not have your interests at heart. Check out Element, join a few chat rooms, and see if your friends (or workplace!) are willing to try the same – especially if you are already using a service such as Discord, Teams or Slack. You might find it far more comfortable to use a platform that respects your privacy and freedom, and reassuring to know it will remain exactly what you need and want it to be.
Mastodon & The Fediverse
This is all great, but what about one of the biggest genuine strengths of modern social media – globally connecting everyone? Today we tend to see this through a more dystopian lens, but remember that this was a genuinely idealistic goal of early social media, and is in itself an admirable ambition.
There was really never an equivalent of this in the early days of the internet, apart from the internet itself, but passionate people have worked tirelessly to provide an alternative that can be both globally connecting and support your freedom.
Imagine that you could easily create your own social media site. Run your own website or app that everyone could access and use just like you would something like Facebook or Twitter. Now imagine lots and lots of people doing the same, resulting in thousands of independent social media sites all run differently and by different people – and then imagine all of them talking 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.
This exists, and is known as the Fediverse. What Matrix is for instant messaging, the Fediverse is for large-scale social networks, and the largest and most well-known part of the Fediverse is Mastodon – often described as an alternative to Twitter.
Anyone can host their own version of Mastodon. If you don’t like the way one works, just make your own – or find that someone else shares your idea of how it should be and join theirs. If you sign up for one of them, you can easily talk to people on any of the others, or even move to another if you would like. And if you don’t care about any of this, you can simply sign up on any of them, start using it, and it simply works.
Apart from Mastodon, the Fediverse contains equivalents of Instagram, Youtube, Facebook and more, all operating along the same model. The premise really is genius, and the biggest challenge here lies in getting enough people to use it that we can see its full potential.
The road that remains
Indeed, it is no secret that the biggest challenge all these platforms face is user adoption. By far the greatest obstacle to people considering switching away from big social media, is that all of their friends, people they know, and people of public importance would be left behind.
Smaller-scale communities have an easier time making this switch – a workplace, people in a Discord server or Facebook group, a family – these are cases where it’s easy to make the leap. In cases where the main appeal is the sheer amount of people, however, a very long road remains. Thankfully, by starting out small, we can at least begin to make a difference!
Another challenge are services that require a lot of resources. A good example would be Youtube – as mentioned above, alternatives do exist, but there are great challenges to making things run smoothly when lacking large-scale centralized resources.
Finally, it’s worth touching upon the issue of moderation and extremism. Smaller, decentralized communities are by definition managed independently, and therefore can more easily become a breeding ground for extremist and hateful actions. Although yes, this can sometimes be subjective, there is still no doubt that such lack of general oversight have caused some very real harm in the world.
However, it is hard to argue that the net damage here is any greater than that of the big social media platforms. It is an issue, and one that we as a society need to work towards addressing, but platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Discord and more not only frequently causes the same problems, but in a way that is systematically perpetuated by their very design. Adapting free platforms do not automatically solve these issues, but it gives us by far the best fighting chance to make a positive difference.
Change just one thing
All of this may come across as overly idealist. At the end of the day, sticking to the well-known social media monoliths 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 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.