What is happening outside of the digital town square? A glimpse into the street corners and alleyways that also make Internet social

Author Ashwin Nagappa
Date 1 December 2022

The recent rollercoaster of changes to Twitter have inevitably made it the most discussed topic on social media, in our daily conversations, in traditional press and in academia. There are obvious speculations about the future of Twitter. There is also an experience of mass grief and despair for many who benefited from it. And the question looming large is — if not Twitter, where else? This blogpost is not about quitting Twitter or finding a suitable alternative. Many handy resources[1] have already been authored in relation to these issues. Generally, there is a lot of chatter about and on the so-called digital town squares. This has turned attention toward other smaller gathering around street corners and alleyways such as Mastodon. Hence, this blogpost is a brief overview of alternative social media (ASM) platforms (Gehl, 2015) and what it could mean for the future of the Internet or social media as we know them.

The desire for alternative media is not new to social media platforms or the Internet. Before the world wide web (the web) became a commonplace, there were various initiatives across the globe to develop alternatives to dominant broadcast media systems at the time (Rennie, 2006). Community media or alternative media[2] initiatives aimed to create alternative media systems that decentralized decision-making and provided access to the production and circulation of media (Sandoval & Fuchs, 2010). The web[3] had all the capabilities of an alternative media and provided space for user-generated content (Van Dijck, 2009). However, commercial interests transformed the web into a platformized web, where digital platforms became central entities (Helmond, 2015).

Alternative social media (ASM) platforms emerged over a decade ago when commercial social media platforms and platform companies had already established dominance in the digital media ecosystem. ASM platforms aimed to create platforms without advertising revenue and algorithms for content curation or recommendation. And to shift the concentration of power from platform companies into a community of users. However, while the promise and aspirations of ASM platforms invited many users, it was a complicated task for users to operate or govern the platform; especially to understand the nuances of content licensing and the challenges that arose on a large network of users.

The earliest ASMs, such as *diaspora, Twister, and Ello, gained momentary popularity as the Facebook or Twitter killer apps (Zulli et al., 2020, p. 1189). However, they failed to scale up or find viable business or economic models. At the same time, little or no content moderation attracted hate speech or far-right actors to the space. Additionally, the technocratic characteristics of these platforms increased participation barriers (the platform design required new users to learn new technical skills) (Gehl, 2015).

Despite many challenges, ASM platforms did not disappear. Rather, decentralized platforms such as Mastodon were worked on to make them relatively user-friendly. Furthermore, several (open source) ASM projects came together over the years to develop a protocol[4] allowing users to participate across a range of decentralized platforms. This led to the birth of a “Fediverse”, a network of user-run social media platforms. While the “Fediverse has existed since 2018, the recent turn of events have drawn attention to it.

Fediverse (Senst & Kuketz, 2021)

With the development and adoption of blockchain technology across different industries, the discourse of decentralization has accelerated under the term web3. Web3 ‘suggests a progression from web2.0,…characterized by peer-to-peer transactions and an ability for users to decide who they share information with’ (Rennie et al., 2022, p. 5). Blockchain social media (BSM) platforms could be considered second generation ASM platforms. Many BSMs follow similar principles as ASM platforms to subvert platformization, ads and algorithms. However, the decentralizing characteristics of blockchain make it suitable for developing social media platform alternatives. Like ASMs, most BSM platforms insist that the community of users will govern all aspects of the platform, and no one will have a central authority, which is easier said than done.

Misuse is one of the many possible scenarios for ASM platforms. Gab is a prominent example of a Mastodon instance being run as a platform for far-right supporters. Although Gab was defederated from the “Fediverse”, it has become a part of a fringe platforms ecosystem. Similarly, DLive, a live-streaming BSM was used to broadcast Capitol hill violence on Jan 6th, 2021 (Browning & Lorenz, 2021). The DLive team had to intervene to take down the video since community members did not see the need to moderate the content.

These examples are exceptional cases that discredit ASM platforms. There are many instances of ASM platforms that provide space for marginalized communities or spaces that are not highly radicalized. For example, ASM platforms were sought after by transgender and queer users when Facebook restricted their profiles for violating the real name policy (Gehl, 2015, p. 8) and by thousands of Indians when Twitter blocked several users protesting the citizenship amendment bill in 2019 (Outlook Web Bureau, 2019; Bhargava & Nair, 2019).

ASM platforms are not magic silver bullets to the issues enveloping mainstream social media. However, they can help us understand the tensions between centralizing tendencies of digital platforms and the urge to decentralize power structures. They also expose the difference between automated or algorithmic systems of corporate social media platforms and user-driven platform governance. Finally, ASM platforms hint towards a public service internet or public interest internet as a possible future of the Internet. While digital town squares may serve corporate interests, communities also socialize on ASM platforms that can be perceived as street corners, alleyways, parks, markets, bus or train stations. These public spaces may be complicated to navigate. However, they may also bring relief from the chaos of town squares.

[1] Thinking of breaking up with Twitter? Here’s the right way to do itHow to Get Started on Mastodon
[2] There were several terms to refer to media initiatives led by non-institutional individuals or collectives. Community media was a popularly used term.
[3] The growth of technology along with the increased accessibility to devices and network.
[4]‘ActivityPub is a decentralized social networking protocol .. that provides a client to server API for creating, updating and deleting content, as well as a federated server to server API for delivering notifications and content’ (ActivityPub, n.d.)

Bhargava, Y., & Nair, S. K. (2019, November 8). Mastodon happening in IndiaThe Hindu.

Browning, K., & Lorenz, T. (2021, January 8). Pro-Trump Mob Livestreamed Its Rampage, and Made Money Doing It. The New York Times.

Gehl, R. W. (2015). The Case for Alternative Social Media. Social Media + Society, 1(2), 205630511560433.

Helmond, A. (2015). The Web as Platform: Data Flows in Social Media.

Senst, I., & Kuketz, M. (2021). English: The diagram shows the common Fediverse platforms with the underlying protocols. Here it is also shown in color which platforms can communicate with which and what functions are implemented. The platforms are illustrated by the predominant sense and purpose in the pattern of the Fediverse logo. File:Fediverse_small_information.png

Outlook Web Bureau. (2022, February 14). “Better, No Trolls”: Why Some Indians Are Boycotting Twitter And Switching To Mastodon.

Rennie, E. (2006). Community Media: A Global Introduction. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Rennie, E., Zargham, M., Tan, J., Miller, L., Abbott, J., Nabben, K., & De Filippi, P. (2022). Toward a Participatory Digital Ethnography of Blockchain Governance. Qualitative Inquiry, 28(7), 837–847.

Sandoval, M., & Fuchs, C. (2010). Towards a critical theory of alternative media. Telematics and Informatics, 27(2), 141–150.

Van Dijck, J. (2009). Users like you? Theorizing agency in user-generated content. Media, Culture & Society, 31(1), 41–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443708098245

Zulli, D., Liu, M., & Gehl, R. (2020). Rethinking the “social” in “social media”: Insights into topology, abstraction, and scale on the Mastodon social network. New Media & Society, 22(7), Article 7. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820912533