This is an unoffical translation of "Die Sozialen Medien am Kipppunkt" (Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2022)
The growth of the major social media platforms has been so rapid that it's hard to imagine our daily lives without them. Yet Facebook, with 2.9 billion users, is not yet 20 years old. Twitter, which is used by 330 million people, was created in 2006, and Instagram, which is used by 1.2 billion people and is now part of Facebook's parent company Meta, was created in 2010. However, their spectacular rise makes it easy to forget that the practice of digital community goes back much further. The desire to be in touch with like-minded people, whether they live in the same neighborhood or on another continent, has been one of the drivers of the Internet's civic development from the very beginning.
Even before the emergence of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, mailing lists, Usenet groups (thematic discussion forums) and bulletin board systems (local computers that could be accessed directly via modem) provided a variety of platforms that enabled technically savvy users to exchange information and to network. The commercial service providers from Silicon Valley merely made this practice socially mainstream by creating user-friendly offerings that were enormously profitable for the investors.
But now the business model has stalled. Facebook's parent company, Meta, has lost more than 50 percent of its stock market value in the last eighteen months as user numbers, while still very high, decline. Advertising revenue, which in 2022 still accounted for 97.5 percent of revenue, is falling. The new idea that is supposed to give fresh impetus, the virtual reality platform Metaverse, is swallowing up huge sums in development, but is hardly finding any users in practice.
The reasons for the crisis are manifold and mutually reinforcing. After a series of scandals, the platforms have lost their friendly image and are increasingly viewed critically. In 2018, whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed how data analytics company Cambridge Analytica used social media data to try to manipulate elections in Democratic states. Donald Trump's electoral success and erratic style of politics, deliberately mixing truth and lies, are closely linked to the way Twitter functions.
The inscrutable algorithmic filters lead to loud cries of "censorship" from a wide variety of parties time and again - an accusation that can neither be convincingly proven nor disproven. In such a climate, conspiracy theories thrive. In recent years, entire industries for surveillance and disinformation have sprung up in social media; and the Chinese government continually demonstrates that there is little left of the utopia of the Internet as a means of information freedom.
The negative perception is reinforced by the ever-increasing pressure to monetize as many aspects as possible and run more and more advertising to generate profits despite the flattening growth curve. This in turn has a negative impact on usability. It's less and less fun to scroll through your timeline when you're inundated with ads or "sponsored" content; this has also made private television unbearable for us.
The environment in which companies operate has also become harsher, and significantly so. Not only are advertising budgets being cut compared to the days of low interest rates, but access to customer data is also being increasingly restricted. Improved privacy protection on Apple's iPhone through ATT (app tracking transparency) alone reduces Facebook's revenue by an estimated $10 billion per year. Further complicating the data-hungry business model is the fact that the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is also slowly taking hold. In January 2023, Meta was fined 390 million euros on the basis of it, and in November 2022 the group already had to pay a fine of 265 million euros.
And new ideas? Completely absent. Mark Zuckerberg has maneuvered himself into a dead end with his version of virtual reality. Getting him out of it will be difficult, because he holds the majority of voting rights in the group. The same structural difficulties are evident at Twitter, only more extreme. Advertising revenues have plummeted dramatically, and users are leaving the platform or limiting their activities.
The debts accumulated in the course of the takeover by Elon Musk have increased the financial pressure enormously, and the new sole owner is acting erratically, egomaniacally, open to extreme right-wing positions, but without a recognizable plan. The fact that Twitter, like Facebook, is now trying to tap new sources of revenue through subscription models is just another expression of its lack of ideas. Because instead of offering new functions, existing core functions such as identity verification or two-factor authentication are now tied exclusively to a subscription. Is this still desperation or already blackmail?
What keeps users on these platforms nonetheless are the large costs that would be associated with a change. All of us who have been using these platforms for years have put a lot of time and effort into building personal networks that play a major role in our private and professional lives. A lack of interoperability ensures that these contacts are lost and have to be rebuilt when we switch. This involves a lot of effort and only succeeds if the others also switch platforms.
Young people who are just starting to build up their network don't have this problem. And that's why many don't go to the already established platforms, but to the new rival Tiktok, which has already gained one billion users in just over four years. Tiktok is a copy of the Chinese service Douyin designed for the foreign market. Both platforms function technically very similarly, but are completely separate from each other and incompatible. Thus, the Chinese version (Douyin) can be heavily censored without the international version (Tiktok) suffering.
While Tiktok clearly stands out visually from Facebook and Twitter with its focus on short videos, it has the same problems structurally: A totally non-transparent algorithm determines which content is displayed and is optimized to keep users on the screen for as long as possible. Huge amounts of data are collected. What they are used for is unclear. Money is earned primarily through advertising.
Tiktok is still in an early phase in which expansion takes precedence over monetization, but this will not last indefinitely. In other words, Tiktok does not solve any of the problems we know from the other commercial platforms, but possibly also adds new ones. That's because the group, like all major IT companies in China, is closely tied to the state political and security apparatus.
In the U.S., a general ban has therefore been under intense consideration for years. Employees of all US federal authorities and also those of many states are already no longer allowed to install the app on their official devices. The main reason given for a possible complete ban is "national security".
This suggests that the primary issue here is not privacy protection, but the increasing rivalry between the U.S. and China, in which the technology sector plays a central role. Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner responsible for the internal market, recently raised the possibility of a Tiktok ban for Europe. The timing is no coincidence.
The situation is very different with Mastodon, an alternative social network that is still vanishingly small with 10 million users, but is attracting a lot of attention due to its radically different focus. Mastodon has been developed as an open source project since 2016 by Eugen Rochko, originally in Jena and now in Berlin. Behind it is a small, non-profit company and a large, global community of developers and administrators. Mastodon's interface is similar to Twitter's, but structurally it differs from the other platforms in three ways.
Second, the software is open source, which means that a wide variety of groups can use it without cost or restriction and also adapt it technically to their requirements. Third, Mastodon is principally non-commercial, i.e., it is not optimized to increase the time users spend on the platform, be it through viral content or design decisions that increase the addiction factor - such as constant new notifications ("10 new messages!") or the quantification of "likes".
These technical structures alone do not solve any of the many problems we are familiar with from the major social networks. But the conditions are much better for ensuring that they don't get completely out of control. First, because the instances are not operated with purely commercial goals; second, the tools for moderation are more subtle and can also be used in a decentralized manner. The possibility of changing providers without problems or losses also shifts power back to the users, at least in part.
The need for horizontal communication, which has had a major influence on the development of the Internet since its beginnings, is unbroken. What has fallen into crisis, therefore, is a very specific model - albeit one that has been extremely influential in the last decade - of how this need is organized. With Mastodon, there is now, for the first time in a long time, a chance for a non-purely commercial infrastructure for everyday communication. And that is very welcome in terms of democratic communication.
Whether Mastodon can grow out of its niche and become a real alternative remains to be seen. That depends on whether the software itself becomes more user-friendly, for example in terms of a consistent interface or better-designed mobile apps. But government actors are also needed here. The European Union must interpret or, if necessary, adapt its regulations, especially the General Data Protection Regulation or the Digital Services Act, in such a way that they promote (or at least not hinder) non-commercial providers.
Instead of simply continuing to rely on the market somehow sorting it out, public funds must be invested in the development of software and the operation of instances. If, for example, universities were to provide their students and employees not only with e-mail addresses, but also with Mastodon accounts, this would have an enormous impact across the board. For Europe in particular, which is in danger of being left behind technologically, this offers a rare opportunity for independent development that can have a global impact.