I’m old enough to remember the text-only internet, as well as some of the initial forays into media. Advertising has been ubiquitous from almost the beginning of the mass market adoption of internet as a service – but I remember the days when it was generally banned! I was still a kid then, but it was a thing for a good while.
Nowadays, advertising really is ubiquitous! In the larger sense, even I engage in a mild form of advertising, by linking to sites I enjoy, or to my webhost -although, now that I mention it, my affiliate link is so far expired that it wouldn’t get me anything if someone clicked it… I digress.
We all know the sorts of things that chap our hide. Adwalls on websites, with those little shamey messages that try to justify their business model by attempting to make you ashamed for using an adblocker. I mean, it’s not like their ads have tracking enabled in them or anything… right? If you believe that, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona… but let’s just be honest here. If your business model requires ad clicks, that business model is not stable. We’ve known that for a very long time now. We knew it within a year or two of the introduction of online ads. The reason that we still have ads, even though they are very low percentage, is because those ads are more and more targeted. How do they get targeted? By mining data. Where is that data mined from? The gigantic corporate sites, with millions, even billions, of users.
That data is mined from the users of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and a selection of other sites – and their penumbra of tools, integrated with other websites all over the world, contribute to that data mining. Why can you “log in with Facebook”, Google, or a variety of other corporate accounts? You can do so because when you do, you contribute to those data mines, maintained by those companies. That data is sold to other businesses, or used by the corporate giants, for a fee, to target you, the user, with ads “relevant to you”.
Ad-driven consumption models, which use those large data stores to build algorithmic targeting, are what drive the corporate internet. The corporate internet includes the social media giants – Facebook and Twitter. The news sites are all dialed into these monoliths, and all of the legacy media has been essentially tamed to work in tandem with the social giants to target you. Why? Well, to rephrase the old saying – if you’re not paying for it, you’re probably the product. Open Source software doesn’t necessitate you being the product, after all! However, here’s a good rule of thumb to follow:
If the service or software you are using does at least two of the following:
- Operates as a for-profit entity
- Sells user data
- Makes money by selling advertisements
Then you’re probably the product. On Facebook and Twitter, you are definitely the product, as an end user. On some of the adwall-enabled sites mentioned earlier, you are the product – unless you buy a premium subscription, at which point you revert to being a normal paying customer. They are a sort of hybrid model. That doesn’t make ad content any less annoying if you aren’t a paying customer, however.
Here’s a couple more examples. On network, over-the-air television and radio, you are also the product. Television delivers people. They use the content to draw your eyes and ears – because the real customers are the advertisers. You, on the other hand, are the product being sold. Why don’t radio stations play uninterrupted music? They have to make money. Why do TV stations have commercials? They have to make money. How do they make money? They sell you to advertisers. Free tiers of streaming services do the same thing – they sell you in exchange for the advertisers having access to you. The content you watch is what you are selling yourself in exchange for. This happens on Spotify, Hulu, and YouTube, to give a few examples.
When you pay for the service directly, those ads magically disappear. What’s the difference? You’re the customer now, not the advertisers. The service itself has changed. You no longer have to listen to advertisements, because you’re the one paying – not the advertisers. If you’re not paying, you’re probably the product.
So, let’s get to the reason I brought all this up. With alt-tech popping up to compete with these business models, you have a wide variety of choices. There are pluses and minuses to all of the various platforms – but there are, in general, several choices available to you.
- A centralized (usually corporate) subscription service model
- A decentralized (usually community-managed) federated model
- A decentralized (usually individually managed) peer-to-peer model
Gab, Parler, and MeWe are variants of the first model – which is usually a business model. Additionally, most of the legacy media sites and networks use this model. They are often referred to as “walled gardens”. They use proprietary software to “lock you in” to their platform, and you are allowed to interact only with the content generated on their platform. You may or may not be able to view the content – or there may be limits on the amount that you can view – but there will be some limitation on your interactions, as a non-paying customer – and there will be limitations on functionality for non-paying customers, even if they allow most functions as a “free” tier subscriber. Once you’re a “premium” member, you unlock additional functionality. See: Spotify Premium, Gab Pro, MeWe Premium, Newspaper subscriptions, Hulu (NoAds), etc.
Mastodon, Pleroma, Pixelfed, Matrix, IRC, and PeerTube are variants of the second model – which is usually a community-managed, voluntarily supported non-profit model. There might be a “main branch” for the code contributors that is supporting employees, but the project itself is FOSS (Free Open Source Software). Typically, individual server operators host their own servers because they like to, or with the support of voluntary contributions from the community served by that host. They tend to be nerdy folks, and are not in it for the money – or your data. They tend to know the members of their community, and their community members are there specifically because those server admins are known quantities.
Peer-to-Peer networks are probably most widely known from filesharing – things like Napster, Limewire, or Bittorrent (Or Gnutella, Kazaa) – other famous current examples of peer-to-peer networking are Bitcoin and Tor. However, there are a number of social protocols built using similar means. PeerSocial, Aether, and WeYouMe are examples of this.
The route I’ve chosen is option 2 – primarily because I am a longtime web selfhoster (usually by means of commercial hosting companies that I pay to rent space/bandwidth from).
I’m a server host for an IRC and Pleroma server and the accompanying website. Our network also runs a Matrix server, as well as another IRC server linked to mine. In all, we use 4 servers in total, between us, as volunteer hosts. I also host a group theology/apologetics website, a church site, a game project site, and my own personal site(s). I do so, in all of these cases, because I feel like it, and I enjoy doing so.
The flipside to this coin, of course, is that anytime I don’t feel like it, I can click a button and anything I want to purge is gone. This is always the problem with community hosted projects. What mitigates this risk is the very thing I mentioned earlier, however – knowing your admin(s). My personal website has been up, without much downtime to speak of, since 2003. The apologetics and gaming project sites, since 2006. That’s a very long time, when it comes to the internet! When your community manager/host has a track record of commitment and stability, there’s a lot higher than normal chance of that community being technically stable. Both of those websites, for example, are as old as Twitter. My personal site is older than Facebook! However, I have never had to advertise to make money, and have kept them up and viable for well over a decade now. I don’t say this to toot my own horn – just to offer an example.
While you might not be able to find a community admin you trust, or a community with similar interests, you can always roll your own – at a very reasonable price! Many server hosts offer very inexpensive VPS packages that are capable of running small, or single-person federated instances, or P2P servers. Further, if you have a spare computer at home, you can often run something via one of a number of dynamic dns services – some of which may be packaged in your router right now! Whatever you choose, you don’t have to be the product, or stuck in a walled garden. It might be fun to learn something new while you’re at it, no matter which solution you go for.
One thing is for sure, though – unless you like being a commodity for some big tech company, why wouldn’t you switch to something that doesn’t sell you to advertisers? I’m not a fan of walled gardens, but the tech barriers to using federated social media aren’t all that high. If you’d like to talk it over, hit me up via any of the means listed to the right, and I’d be happy to talk options with you. I don’t have anything to sell, I just don’t like the way big tech commodifies us, and would be happy to help you make a change in your online behavior.