In response to the Australian Government’s proposal to force search and social media companies to negotiate payment with news publishers, Google threatened to leave the country and Facebook decided to remove news content from its service. The latter decision in particular left a lot of organisations scrambling for what to do.
An enormous body of academic literature discusses the social, economic and political impacts of the technology giants, and what if anything ought to be done about them. My own little contribution (2016) outlined how the major social media platforms came to be treated as "essential" and suggested a few simple steps that individuals and organisations might take in order to keep communication open without requiring everyone to sign up to a monopoly platform.
More recently, I looked at how A Little Research and like-minded organisations might implement a "social media strategy" without requiring their connections to commit to a particular social media platform. Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like do actually have competitors, such as MyOpportunity, Mastodon and Bing, respectively, but these services would themselves become monopolies if everyone simply switched to them instead. So here I want to look at participating in social networks (in the pre-Internet sense of the term) without centralised platforms at all.
Masinde and Graffi (2020) identify the core features of a social media service as
- identity, that is, profiles and global identifiers;
- sharing (of images, documents, and so on);
- presence, that is, knowledge of where network participants are physically located, whether participants are on-line or not, and so on;
- relationships between participants; and
The remainder of this article considers how each feature in turn might be achieved using existing software without a requiring participants in the network to sign up to a common platform.
Identity. The humble e-mail address remains one of the most popular ways of uniquely identifying individuals across all sorts of Internet services. Domain names similarly serve to uniquely identify organisations. Organisations can easily post profiles to their web sites and, while personal web sites are not so fashionable now as they were in the 1990s, individuals can do so as well. While the tools for creating web sites and searching them may require more effort to use than those available on dedicated social media services, modern content management systems and search engines do make it easier than it was in the past.
Conversation. Again, the humble e-mail service remains a popular and effective form of person-to-person and organisation-to-person communication where real-time responses aren’t required. Organisations can also support multi-party conversations with mailing list software or discussion boards on their web sites. The traditional telephone service, of course, provides real-time person-to-person communication, though videoconferencing typically requires committing to Skype, Zoom, Discord or a similar service, at least for the duration of a call. At least the software required to join calls using each of these platforms can be installed free of charge.
Sharing. Of course individuals and organisations can share documents, images, and so on by placing them on a web site, and even make them available to "feeds" using Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and/or Atom. In the simplest case, posting something to a web site makes it available to anyone willing to look, but content management systems do also allow site administrators to restrict certain items to users willing to create an account on the site.
Presence. If you really want to people to know when you’re online or where you are, you could of course post a message to your web site every time you connected to the Internet. I don’t know anyone who actually bothers to do this, or would be bothered to look up someone else’s web site just to find out if they’re online—which arguably says something about how important this particular feature is.
Relationships. In the physical world, relationships are typically implied by the fact we know each others’ names, phone numbers, addresses, and so on, rather than stored in a mammoth database with neatly enumerated "followers" or "connections". The Internet has similar constructs including e-mail addressbooks, e-mail list subscriptions, RSS feeds, and so on, even if these lack features like searching for friends of friends.
Groups. Again, in the physical world, groups are largely implied. Internet tools similarly imply groups like the subscribers to a particular e-mail list, members of a particular web site, and so on. To my knowledge the Internet has no easy way of defining a group that exists across several communication tools in the way that social media platforms do. But then again social media has no way of defining a group that exists across multiple social media platforms, either.
Many of the options considered above might require significantly more effort than using well-known social media services, and cobbling together e-mail lists, addressbooks and personal web sites might seem a bit back-to-the-1990s. But the point is they do exist, and many of them remain popular even in the face of competition from newfangled social media services. Tim Berners-Lee himself (2010) has made the point social media services have departed somewhat from the original vision for the World Wide Web as an open and widely-accessible tool for sharing and communicating, and from this point of view maybe going back to the 1990s isn’t such a bad thing.
Tim Berners-Lee. Long Live the Web. Scientific American 303(6), 2010, pages 80-85.
Newton Masinde and Kalman Graffi. Peer-to-Peer Based Social Networks: A Comprehensive Survey. Pre-print available from ArXiV, 12 January 2020.
Nicholas Sheppard. Social Network Neutrality, Anyone? IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 35(2), June 2016, pages 28, 45.