Open source alternative social networks: empowering users or same old?

Stijn Peeters

The word “alternative” in “alternative social network” already suggests that the network has a specific purpose: namely, providing an option that is different from the one offered by mainstream networks. In the case of social networking this option often seems to entail user empowerment. For example, the website of alternative socialising social network Diaspora greets visitors with the promise that Diaspora is a “fun and creative community that puts you in control.” Likewise, GNU Social states that “Social networks should … allow you to control what you put into them, and you should be able to keep control of your own data.” User empowerment as a theme is also reflected in many common characteristics of alternative social networks. A decentralized network architecture allows for more user control over data; a not-for-profit business model is often expected to lead to more attention to users’ needs and desires; transparency of data and open source development supposedly allows for user involvement with the software the social network runs on.

User empowerment and the bottom-up approach

User empowerment often goes together with a “bottom-up” ethic, where the network is not shaped based on the wishes of a single, often corporate entity, but by the users themselves; a commonly used way to achieve this is an open source development model. Such a model (which most alternative social networks employ) theoretically allows anyone to contribute to software projects and thereby would allow any user to have his or her say in the features and possibilities offered by the social network software in question (Dixon 2). This sounds empowering indeed, and appears to fit the bottom-up label quite well; instead of Facebook, Inc. deciding what your social network experience will be like, on many alternative networks there is an opportunity to shape it yourself.

Yet it has been shown that even in an open source development model the vast majority of users do not get to contribute to the software; in a power law-like distribution of labour, usually only a very limited amount of people make by far the greatest amount of contributions to open source projects (Krishnamurthy; Ghosh and Prakash; Mockus et al 321). Moreover, in open source development models the process that determines which features get implemented often in practice amounts to most developers implementing primarily those features they personally would like to see (von Krogh et al. 1230; von Hippel & von Krogh 216; Mockus et al. 310-318). Combined with the fact that only a fraction of a product’s users are developers this means the ordinary user often has limited hopes of seeing a desired feature implemented.

While theoretically a great way to ensure user empowerment, an open source development model in itself therefore shares many of the problems of “traditional” top-down development models – most prominently having only a limited amount of people with “real” power over the software – and can thus not really be considered a true bottom-up approach. Though it could be argued that this is a moot point as the availability of multiple alternative social networks in itself has bottom-up characteristics, since people have a meaningful choice in what network they choose and where they establish their social graph, this would be at odds with the primary purpose of most social networks – social communication (Thelwall  23). After all, a fragmented ecosystem of social networks prevents people from actually connecting and communicating with each other, because social networks usually are not interoperable (Yeung et al 1).

In a similar vein, it is possible for people to “fork” an open source project – that is, create a separate project based on the openly available code – if they are not satisfied with the direction its development has taken, which would seem to alleviate some of the concerns having a small group of developers raises. However, this is hardly practical in the case of social networking, as it would again lead to fragmentation and separate networks which in turn inhibits creating social relations between the people on these separate networks (cf. Lerner & Tirole 212, 222). Therefore, especially in the case of open source social network platforms most meaningful decision making power in the end rests with whoever has been authorized to make changes to the code (cf. van Krogh et al. 1229). So in the end, even if a user has both programming skills and good ideas, he or she may in practice still be barred from directly contributing, creating a hierarchy within the project’s management with the authorized developers having final say.

In spite of these characteristics that seem to be at odds with user empowerment, as mentioned before several smaller alternative social networks still have respectably-sized user bases that obviously appreciate the features these networks offer. Alternative networks can carve out a niche for themselves by offering certain combinations of features not offered by other networks: while the “market” for this may be small, it can often be big enough to create a sustainable community, as is the case for Lorea. The power of such networks lies in specialization and offering features tailored for a specific group of users rather than catering to as many people as possible. In this way, they do empower the users: they allow them to express themselves in ways not possible on other networks; a simple example would be Diaspora’s usage of a text-field rather than a multiple-choice selection for a user’s “gender” setting (McNicol 202). In the end, however, users are still at the mercy of the developers even in such cases.

How to involve the user?

It seems that even these alternative networks are in some aspects still stuck in the ways of those other networks they attempt to offer an alternative to. In an ideal world, every single one of a network’s users would be able to contribute to the network’s software and add to it so that it suits their needs perfectly. This is unfortunately not the case for any network at this point, though not without reason: not only does working on the network’s software require certain programming expertise, but one user’s wishes may not always align with other users’ wishes, and to prevent the social network ecosystem from becoming too fragmented it is necessary to only allow the implementation of new features that benefit a majority of the users; for example, on the basis of consensus. This paradigm, common to open source development, attempts to find a balance between an individual user’s interests and the interests of the user base as a whole.

This is, though, a compromise, and the question remains whether in the case of (alternative) social networks another approach with a result closer to the ideal would be feasible. After all it seems curious that, even in a context where a bottom-up approach and user empowerment are often considered core values, most development decisions are in the end still made by a relatively small group of developers that do not always have an incentive to give the end users’ most pressing bug reports or feature requests priority. It would seem desirable to empower users in a more effective way, so that the bottom-up approach in turn becomes more prevalent.

There are several issues with the way most contemporary alternative social networks are set up that prevent such empowerment. One of the issues with giving users increased influence over software is the technological learning curve; software development naturally requires a familiarity with certain programming languages and paradigms that is out of grasp for a lot of people. While this may be less of a factor in certain communities – many technology portals offer their users an option to change the site’s layout using the CSS mark-up language, for example – there are still other related issues that would prevent users from contributing in a meaningful way.

To some extent this arrangement is borne out of necessity: having no restrictions on who can contribute and make changes to a social network’s software is a recipe for disaster, as people can easily sabotage the network or expose user data this way – which is exactly what many alternative social networks are trying to prevent. While direct access to the code may be limited, many open source social networking projects still have facilities in place that allow users to contribute ideas and feature requests in an organized and meaningful way. For example, Elgg, a popular general-purpose social networking software package from which Lorea was forked, has a public “bug tracker” in which people can submit problems with the software, which can then be commented on by other users and adopted by developers. Other platforms, including Diaspora and Crabgrass, offer a similar system.

Some projects adopt a less formal approach. Lorea, for example, primarily collects user feedback through a user group on the social network itself, which it calls the “Permanent Assembly” on the N-1 network pod after the anarchist practice of achieving consensus through a meeting where every single member of the group is consulted. Similarly, it holds monthly “virtual assemblies” in which everyone is invited to share ideas and suggestions. While this obviously tries to invoke the spirit of egalitarianism in the end the power structure is still the same: a small group of developers has the final say in what contributions get accepted and which feature requests are implemented to the main software platform.

Towards an alternative

It could be concluded that to achieve true user empowerment, one not only needs alternative social networks but also alternative development models for these networks. With the current approach, there is a somewhat higher degree of “openness” with regards to software development but ultimately the same power structure that is often criticized in mainstream networks repeats itself. From a user empowerment point of view, this is limiting and may even inhibit innovation, as users may have solid ideas that are not implemented due to them having direct influence on the software development process.

The big problem with any development model that puts more immediate power in the hands of the ordinary user is that it could lead to fragmentation and disruption of the social network. Common features of social networks that follow the “Facebook model”, such as friend lists, time lines and group pages rely on every user using the same software to make sure data is consistent across the user base. Hence, an alternative development model in turn would require the software developed through this model to be radically different as well: giving users more power unavoidably means that it is no longer possible to rely on everyone having exactly the same experience. It would be necessary to maintain some level of interoperability, as otherwise the network is no longer a network, but as users adopt different software configuration the social network would unavoidably become more insular. A move towards a true bottom-up, user-empowering development model will, therefore,  always be a trade-off to some extent.


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