Vast numbers of people have decided “social media” are their preferred form of communication on the Net. They provide many advantages: Someone else decides which items you should see, your feed gets stuffed with items you never asked for, and the people running the service can arbitrarily cancel or suspend accounts. Repeating what some stranger has said is effortless by design, so you don’t have to express any thoughts of your own.
Some of us, though, regard these “advantages” as disadvantages. We’re the weird ones who want to communicate without a gatekeeper, to choose what we read, and to keep control of what we say. I once had a Facebook account. I’ve deactivated it. The last straw was Facebook’s claiming credit for my friendship with people whom I’ve known for decades. My Twitter account is useful for posting links but not much else. I’ve found better alternatives.
The tools for communicating online while keeping control exist. They existed before there was a Facebook or Twitter.
Email is the oldest of these tools. Person-to-person email allows you to send your friends updates as you choose. I subscribe to several mailing lists and co-administer the lists for an organization.
It’s not so good for one-to-many communication. If you send messages to a long list of people, they could be flagged as spam. People’s addresses change, and you might lose track of them. Still, it’s a viable option for sending occasional information to your friends.
Specialty discussion boards
Many sites have their own discussion boards. They’re a way to talk with people who share your interests, but they often attract idiots. The more popular they are, the worse the level of discussion is likely to be.
Some of them aren’t moderated at all; others won’t allow any difference of opinion. The best ones allow a range of opinions but boot people who are chronically off-topic or insulting. Boards that have a clear focus and aren’t well-known enough to attract a lot of random strangers are the best bets in general. If you have a Web server, you can set up your own board.
Reddit is the giant among message boards. It has subreddits on vast numbers of topics, and you can create your own. Users can upvote and downvote posts and comments. Downvoted items get lower placement or are hidden from view. The original idea was that users would downvote spam, off-topic posts, and rudeness. Unfortunately, in today’s factionalized society, people will downvote you simply because they disagree with you.
In 1980, people began using a set of cross-network message boards by the name of Usenet. Newsgroups started appearing on just about any topic imaginable. Some of them developed huge followings. Anyone with an Internet email address and some simple software could post. Many copies of the boards existed and still exist all over the Internet. This made it a little like today’s blockchains; no one party could control the content. Unlike blockchain tech, though, there’s no technical protection against willful or accidental alteration.
One consequence of Usenet’s distributed nature is that once you post something, you can’t unpost it. There’s a protocol for recalling a message you posted, but it doesn’t work well. People who posted crazy things in the eighties may find themselves haunted by the record of them.
In 2008, Andrew Cuomo launched his political career with a smear campaign against Usenet. He demanded that Internet service providers stop making it available. By that time Usenet was already in serious decline, and it was more a burden than a benefit for the big ISPs. Cuomo’s distortions gave them an excuse to ditch it.
This just means that you’ll probably have to get your Usenet service separately from your Internet connection. The donation-supported Eternal September is a popular source. Several mail clients, including Thunderbird, support Usenet access.
Be careful when shopping for Usenet reader software, though. Some so-called Usenet readers don’t even perform the basic function of letting you subscribe to groups. Their idea of Usenet is scouring old newsgroups for binary attachments. If the description talks only about NZB, be careful. If you want to download binaries, be even more careful; nothing stops people from posting malware.
Blogs, podcasts, and RSS
Blogs are a wonderful tool for distributed communication. They’re easy to set up, respectable zero-cost options are available (with ads), you can customize your blog’s appearance, and you can say just about anything that’s legal. WordPress.com is the most popular option among many.
When you create a blog, you need to tell people about it. Use your existing channels to tell people it exists and what it’s about. Remind them occasionally. Recommend your friends’ blogs on yours, and ask them to return the favor.
You’ll also need to tell people when you’ve got a new post. Even your most dedicated fans aren’t going to check your blog every day. Your existing social media accounts are helpful. WordPress and other hosts let you automatically publish your posts to or links to them to Facebook, Twitter, and social media sites.
Be sure to set up an RSS feed and make the link available. People can follow you from an RSS aggregator, which can be either a website or a local application. Mail clients such as Outlook support RSS feeds. (Some feeds use the Atom protocol, which is similar. I’m being sloppy and calling them both “RSS.”) It lets your readers see what you’ve posted at their convenience.
Podcasts are simply audio or video blogs. The same points apply, except that you need a client that can play streaming media.
Some sites let you write posts and follow friends without being as obnoxious as Facebook and Twitter. Are they “social media” if they don’t try to control what you read? Call them what you want. LiveJournal was once a leader among them, but in 2017 it moved its servers to Russia without telling the users. LJ is still alive, but it’s never recovered from the massive loss of trust.
LiveJournal is built on open-source code, and many sites using the same software have appeared. The best-known one is Dreamwidth. If your friends have Dreamwidth accounts, you should too. If you don’t know anyone there, though, you’ll be lonely.
Mastodon takes a distributed approach, but not in the same way as Usenet. Anyone with a suitable server can set up a Mastodon instance. All the instances are networked together, so you can usually follow someone on a different instance. A lot of operators exercise strict control over what you may say, and they’re quick to block any site that lets its users say things they don’t agree with. Some instances are very open (and they’re the first to get blocked by the nannies). I use Liberdon, a libertarian-oriented instance, myself. But because Mastodon is fragmented, you’ll have to work to find your friends or let them find you.
Take your pick
As you can see, there’s no lack of alternatives to the big social media sites. You can take back control of your interactions with your friends and discover what celebrities are saying online. Which tools work best will depend on your situation, and most people will need a combination of several. Cross-link as much as possible across your places of presence, so the people you know can keep track of you. Then you can close the book on Facebook and give Twitter the bird.