Freedom News

Social media is dead, long live social media

This week Microsoft will stop users of its social media management tool from posting and viewing engagement on Twitter.

One tech giant is moving to cut another tech giant out of its system. The Microsoft digital advertising platform was responsible for revenue worth $12 billion for last year.

This marks another blow for the Twitter microblogging platform since billionaire Elon Musk bid for it almost a year ago. But the chaos at Twitter could mean the end of an era of enclosure of the digital commons.

Companies such as Microsoft, Twitter, Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) and TikTok all work in similar ways. They seek to keep hold of their hundreds of millions of users and keep all eyeballs focused on their own little walled enclosures, so they can direct advertising and extract revenue. This business model is seeing diminishing returns. After a boost when Covid restrictions ended in 2021, last summer we saw “the slowest global revenue growth in the history of the social media sector”.

Recent lay-offs of thousands of workers at social media companies like Facebook are a sign of this crisis of profitability. The chaotic and cack-handed takeover of Twitter by a far-right billionaire is just an extreme version of a fundamental problem afflicting all the big social media companies.

As well as a fall in revenue the experience for us when we use social media is becoming worse, in a process that tech writer Cory Doctorow has explained as ‘enshittification’:

“Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.”

In other words, the ‘free’ social media platforms tried to be as open as possible at first, to gain their billions of members. Then they lock the door and make the advertising more intensive. Then they try to squeeze as much money out of the advertiser companies themselves. After this process has gone on long enough both members of social media and the advertisers are all feeling exploited and abused.

We can see this process as a kind of enclosure of the commons. That which people produce every day: conversations, art, jokes, cat pictures, is concentrated into these private areas of the internet and exploited and deformed from the basic purpose, which is the expression of essential human needs such as sociability, empathy and storytelling.

As Cory Doctrow concludes his article about how platforms die, “[tech businesses] make more money when they take away our freedom – our freedom to speak, to leave, to connect”.

It is the community we create together that makes any ‘platform’ worth being on. It’s not Facebook people like, it’s not Instagram people are addicted to, it’s the pictures of our friends we want to see. This is why there’s reason to be hopeful about a new era for the internet and for social media, one that is based on human connection.

In order to break out of the walled gardens of enclosed private social media we would have to be able to connect on our own terms. Cory Doctrow says “policymakers should focus on freedom of exit – the right to leave a sinking platform while continuing to stay connected to the communities that you left behind”.

The good news is that social media based on horizontal relationships can be built from the ground up, rather than waiting for policymakers.

An example that already exists in miniature is the ‘Fediverse’. It’s a federation that makes a social media system, hence fedi-verse. It’s a system of decentralised internet servers that host people’s individual social media accounts.

If you like science fiction you can visualise this Fediverse as a federation of planets connected by a series of teleportation gates. There’s clusters of planets who all use the same kinds of languages and systems, but each planet is free to open or close its gates with all the others, because communication is based on decentralised nodes connecting peer-to-peer, rather than all going through one centralised hub. And each planet has its populations. That’s the users, you and me. We’re free to choose which planet we want to live on, and we’re also free to talk to people on any of the other planets, and even to move to a different one if we want.

The most popular system for accessing the Fediverse is called Mastodon. It’s become known recently as an alternative to Twitter, and in many ways it looks the same; a series of small posts by users.

So who controls Mastodon? That’s the good part, no one can. Although the code which underpins it was created by one particular person in 2016, it’s open source. That person can’t stop you using it.

Likewise you don’t have to use his server,, you can make your own – or you can join that biggest server and then leave for another one. Unlike the enclosed systems of Facebook or Twitter you can take your community with you if you leave.

Currently there are a number of political projects ongoing within the Fediverse; there are servers started as user cooperatives, there are servers started as interest groups, or based on particular politics. The main current problem with the Fediverse is it is small, with only around 12 million users, compared to Twitter’s hundreds of millions or Facebook’s billions.

This means it’s hard to find out about this alternative to enclosed social media. It also means, paradoxically, that this decentralised digital commons can be less accessible for marginalised people. The Fediverse started as a technology project, and using it still takes more knowledge and time and energy than just signing up to Facebook with a click or two. Lowering this threshold for new users is something I’m personally trying to work on.

What makes me excited about the Fediverse is its potential to be part of the end of an era of enclosed social media. We can make the Fediverse more accessible by grassroots organising and talking to each other. The enclosed forms of social media are not at all open to change via direct action in the same way.

If you’re interested in being part of the Fediverse please get in touch and I’ll try to help you.

Loukas Christodoulou

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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