How alternative apps aim to fix social media problems

Quitting or reducing social media use could be a great New Year’s resolution. Studies suggest that physical and mental health benefit, and many who have done it, permanently or temporarily, report increased productivity, concentration, and happiness.

But the so-called digital detoxing is not that easy. Many of us use social media because it is a convenient way to stay connected with friends and family and keep up with news and online debates. The problem is that the algorithms of all major platforms, designed to increase the time users spend on their apps, tend to drag us into a vortex of commercial and entertaining images and videos.

The solution for Elselien Kuepers, a 33-year-old Dutch physician, was to switch to a non-commercial, less popular app. “It gives me a relaxed and more authentic experience,” she told DW.

BeReal, the app Kuepers uses, allows people to post one snapshot of their lives every day. It sends out daily notifications at random hours, giving users two minutes to capture and post a picture of themselves.” Two minutes is not enough time to stage an artificially good-looking photo,” she said. “The app won’t even allow using filters either, so what you post is a real demonstration of what you are doing at the moment.”

On her timeline, pictures of people are seen while playing board games, walking, or eating. Some pictures are crooked, and some people have half of their faces cut out of the frame. “I find it even more exciting than Instagram, which is filled with edited and perfectionist images,” she said.

BeReal exploded in popularity in the summer of 2022, ranking as the 10th most downloaded social media platform, highlighting a widespread appeal for a different, and less problematic, social media experience. In response, countless start-ups have mushroomed in recent years, with varying degrees of success, or chance to compete with big tech giants.

Solving typical big tech problems with innovation

The controversy that surrounds most classic platforms such as Tiktok, Facebook, or YouTube, arises from the way their algorithm or business model works.

The time an average user spends on a social media app is fragmented and sold to advertisers by social media companies. Platforms analyze their users’ data to optimize the apps and occasionally sell it to third parties.

This business model is the main driver of the most well-known social media problems: the deteriorating impact on mental health and its addictive potential, data privacy issues, the spread of misinformation, and the formation of echo chambers, where users are mainly exposed to ideas and users that chime in with their own views. A research paper, published in December 2022 by Christian Montag, professor of molecular psychology at Ulm University in southwestern Germany and his colleagues, points out the links to Big Tech functional models.

“As long as users pay for the usage allowance of a social media service with their own data, I think that these problems will not be solved,” he told DW.

How new apps try to fix typical social media problems

Alternative social media initiatives attempt to avoid this problem by designing decentralized network structures where, instead of algorithms, users or user communities control the flow of content across the platform.

Mastodon is one of them, where instead of one main server, a federation of interconnected servers host the accounts and what they publish, with each server having its own rules and protocols.

This formation, known as Fediverse, allows users from one server to interact with users and groups from other servers. Compared to a platform like Twitter, communities on Mastodon have more freedom in establishing their own guidelines. But their content is exposed to the public via their users, who are mostly members of multiple communities, preventing them from turning into closed circles like the existing echo chambers.

Like many other apps with similar formations, Mastodon also tries to delegate the decision to delete harmful or abusive posts to the users’ vote. Some apps leave the decision up to juries of randomly selected ones.

After Elon Musk took over Twitter, Mastodon made headlines as one of the apps that users began to sign up for, after leaving Twitter.

Some other alternative apps, such as Steem or Mind, have incorporated blockchain technology into their monetization functions. For rewarding or commissioning a post, users can use crypto tokens, which are traceable and therefore often more transparent than regular transactions. That means all transactions occur within the platform, and it is clear how a post is sponsored and by whom.

Some experts have raised doubts about whether Fediverse-based apps could be sustainable. The decentralized nature of these platforms can make it difficult to moderate content and address inappropriate or harmful posts. With no central authority overseeing the Fediverse, it can turn into a less safe and welcoming environment for users.

However, Montag is optimistic about the future of these experiments: “I think that Fediverse could be the future,” he said while pointing to the fact that competing with the current major platforms won’t be easy.

New apps have complex systems with usability issues, while the current giants have been shaped by years of testing and offer a more convenient and immersive experience to users, Montag added.

Treating social media as a public good

As start-ups strive for creating better alternatives, some groups and initiatives are pushing to hold the current big tech accountable. The Center for Human Technology (CHT) is one of them, which has been campaigning for stricter policies to control social media companies, as well as pushing them to their business model, and eliminate their destructive functions.

Regulating social media giants and mitigating the damage they cause is as important as market innovations, Montag noted. Besides mitigating the damage of big tech companies, introducing regulation could make competition possible for new start-ups. We need protocols that enable users to communicate across platforms, like the way two people are on the phone with each other with different providers, he said.

“Among scientists, a debate is going on over whether social media is best characterized as a public good. In such a scenario, we would have to imagine paying a subscription fee for decentralized platforms that respect our privacy.”

Breaking social media away from a business model that relies on users’ data and time, is the only way we could come up with “healthier” social media, he emphasized.

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