It's a story as old as the commercial internet. Sites fail and are closed all the time. But surely popular sites with tons of engaged users will stick around, right? That's what many of us thought before Digg fell.
When that happened, we could write it off as a one-off occurrence. This sort of thing really didn't happen much. Well, there was Google, closing down reasonably popular services even back then like Wave… but that can easily be ignored because Google seemingly shuts down 10 services every month. They're an anomaly.
Late in 2022, we saw Elon Musk take over Twitter and start gutting it, dismantling the few protections users on that platform had against harassment (e.g., killing its "safety board") and misinformation (e.g., no longer enforcing their COVID-19 misinformation policy). Employees who expressed concerns were fired and journalists who said things he didn't like were banned in the new "free speech absolutist" era of Twitter. But this was one disenfranchised billionaire taking his proverbial ball and going home. Right? Then, Reddit started on it's own death spiral.
As it turns out, this will keep happening forever because it's all part of the playbook. I'm certainly not an expert on economics nor business, but I'm seeing some connections — maybe some that aren't actually there — between what's happening here and the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, the economic climate that caused it, and this new big tech ethos. It looks to me like we're in a moment right now where the pressure is on tech companies to become profitable. This may be because interest rates are high, inflation is high, and the economy is in a bit of flux, causing investors to hold onto their wallets tighter than usual. The way I understand startup investment is this: your put a little money into a lot of different startups to spread out your risk. You keep putting more money into the ones that are seeing results. You keep doing that until you've pumped up its value as much as you think you can. Tech companies do this by whispering sweet nothings into their users' ears. It's the "free lunch" period, when the company is giving you a great product and not charging you what it's worth so that, by the time they do start charging you, you're already hooked.
Then, investors cash out by selling the company to another company or by offering an IPO that will allow anyone to buy stock in the company. When investors aren't going to invest more to try to grow, they're probably ready to cash out. That time is coming for many of these tech companies. This is when the sweet nothings stop and the company is ready to extract anything they can from their users, so long as it has a dollar sign in front of it. In this uncertain economic climate, profitability is what people want to see, so that will ensure the most lucrative exit for investors. It's at this point in the life of a social media company's lifespan they inform their users to stop talking to each other and start buying things.
That's why all the protests in the world won't help. The "best" you could hope for is that a company "capitulates" to your demands by delaying the inevitable and/or disguising it as something else and/or rolling it out in a graduated fashion, possibly more quietly if they can find a way. Maybe they'll find some different way to separate you from your money. Whatever the result, you can bet it's not going to be good for you. This is because your goals are mismatched with the goals of the corporation. You want one thing; they want another, and the two are pulling in opposite directions. In terms of Reddit: you want community; they want profit. The community will continue to exist so long as it makes the greatest profit it possibly can. Your protests will be ineffective because the people who care are a small minority, and for every mod that's ready to hold strong, there are 100 who will gladly cross the picket line for a taste of the sweet power that comes from ruling over a subreddit with an iron fist.
This will erode trust in Reddit, and it will experience a brain drain as a result. A lot of its free moderation workforce will need to be replaced. Many of its best contributors will flee to other platforms like Tildes and Lemmy. Eventually, the site will collapse. If it does survive for a long time, it will begin to look like a husk of its former self. But the profits will already be realized at this point, so the people making the calls now that will desstroy it in the future couldn't care less. This is what being an "adult" looks like under capitalism.
Some of us have now fled to federated alternatives where we have more control, like Mastodon and Lemmy. Others have found smaller generalized communities or more specialized forums. Sometimes, we've done both. They're not perfect. These communities are having growing pains. They're not a one-to-one replacement for the platforms we left them for, but they can be a two-to-one replacement for the needs we satisfied on those platforms by allowing us to build more authentic relationships with other people online without constantly wondering what bullshit we're going to have to endure next and by allowing us to own our spaces online. We're opting out of profit-driven communities since that's what's burning us now. We're tired of opting in to being corraled so we can be efficiently monetized.
But the real lesson of this whole situation is that it won't stop here. It's time to take a look at where you hang out online. Which of those see you in true alignment with the owners and operators? Which are just still whispering sweet nothings before they betray you to fulfill their own needs a few months or years down the line?
This isn't just a rhetorical question. I have created a handy list! 😁 Here are a few that came to mind for me, in no particular order, as well as some alternatives you might want to start exploring! Note that, you'll almost never be able to match the commercial behemoth in features or user experience — they just have so many resources, it's impossible for the small fry to keep up — but you'll gain advantages if you can tolerate what you have to give up. Someday, when they start squeezing users, you'll be ahead of the mass exodus!
Fidelity has been marking down its value (that is, lowering its estimates of the value of its holdings) in two well-known social media companies. One is Reddit, and we've seen how they decided to handle it. The other is Discord. How will they respond?
Matrix is decentralized and federated like Mastodon and Lemmy, meaning anyone can run a Matrix server and you can talk with people across servers. Here, I'm using "server" in a more traditional sense, not in the way Discord uses it. What Discord calls a "server" really doesn't represent a real server at all but is instead an organizational unit that can contain channels. In Matrix, this is referred to as a "space", but channels can also exist detached from any space.
To quickly get started, you could try Element, the most popular Matrix client. This will, by default, funnel you into account creation on the official instance.
Revolt is a more blatant attempt to clone Discord, although it's definitely not there just yet. It's still pretty slick though. The main features lacking are Discord's video features. You can host your own instance, but they aren't federated like Matrix. You can also join the official instance, but they themselves admit to not having a business model (as of June 2023).
GitHub is now monetizing your open source software without compensating you by selling it back to you and others as GitHub Copilot: a generative AI for developers trained on the work of other developers. Maybe it's time to start giving them free training data…
Forgejo is a self-hosted open-source GitHub alternative with a terrible name (Seriously, how do you pronounce it? 😅) that, as is usually the case with these things, has most of the features of the software that inspired it and misses some of the more complicated stuff. Best I can tell, it doesn't have CI, but it does have a lot of the other ancillary features like wikis and kanban boards. Codeberg is both the official instance and where development of Forgejo happens.
Gmail probably isn't going anywhere, but Google is struggling right now to keep up in the face of an AI-shaped existential crisis. It's easy to switch search engines. Email providers? Not so much. When the time comes to juice profits, you can bet they'll come for the users that will have the hardest time leaving them.
I'm not going to recommend any self-hosted alternatives here because I think email hosting is hard to get right, but there are still some solid alternatives.
I use this one because it works within the workflow I was already using with Gmail. I would like encryption, but it makes everything too complicated for me to deal with right now. This service works great, and I never miss Gmail having switched. I'm running basically all of my personal email through them at this point, and it works like a dream. They even let you generate forwarding addresses for when you need to register an email address somewhere but don't want to reveal your identity.
This is the encrypted service I would probably recommend, although I haven't used it myself.
Same as the story with Gmail. They've already made user-hostile changes in the past, and you can bet it will happen again in the future. Dropbox is a whole other set of problems.
NextCloud is a self-hosting Swiss army knife. It has plugins to do just about anything, most important in this context, file sharing and document collaboration.
Photo Stuff (Imgur, iCloud, Whatever photo thing Google has, Flickr... does anyone use Flickr anymore?)
We've already seen bad things happen to photo services, so why would the future be any different?
Pixelfed is to mainstream photo hosting as Mastodon is to Twitter. It's self-hosted. It's federated. It has a slick UI and a mobile app. Since it's part of the fediverse, you can even use it to follow Mastodon users (and Mastodon users can follow your Pixelfed account).
They've just laid off a bunch of employees. When cost cutting measures have been exhausted, they're going to want their users to part with more cash.
Jellyfin is just a pleasure to use. It's like Plex without all the cruft and upsells. Wonderful interface and a reliable, full-featured media center you can host yourself!
I like to think Valve has been a pretty good steward, and part of that I attribute to their private ownership, but all good things must come to an end.
The pitch for GOG is that the games you buy are DRM-free. This would protect you in the event the platform decided to start being evil.
Itch isn't quite competitive with the others. The Itch pitch is that the barrier to putting up a game and selling it is very low, so you tend to get more experimental stuff. They offer a very generous revenue split too compared to other platforms.
Twitch has already been monkeying around with their revenue split, and streamers are not pleased. If they leave, there'll be nothing to watch. If Amazon decides to leave the streamers alone, they may come for viewers instead.
Peertube is really more like YouTube than Twitch, but it does allow for streaming content.
Owncast is more directly comparable to Twitch. It is self-hosted live streaming with chat. It's part of the fediverse, so it can interact with other services that are, like Mastodon.
YouTube has begun penalizing users for using ad blockers. Next, the privacy-focused front-ends will go away. Then they'll sell even more ads… unless you pay them $10 a month for YouTube Premium. But just think how much more they would make if they charged $15/month instead…
Peertube is Mastodon, but for YouTube. Anyone can set up an instance. Instances are federated, so you can subscribe to anyone on any Peertube instance from yours. It's very cool, but it hasn't had the spotlight shined on it like Mastodon has yet. Its day will come…