THE PROMISES, PROBLEMS, AND POSSIBILITIES FOR ALT-NETWORKS
Keywords:alt-networks, social media, activism, methods
The Promises, Problems, and Possibilities for Alt-Networks Introduction Social media has become a central facet of contemporary life and that centralization has narrowed our perspectives and lessened our possibilities (Pariser, 2011; Vaidhyanathan, 2018). This centralizing of social media networks happens for their individual users, but also at the level of how social media informs our discourses through journalistic practice, government institutions, industry sectors. Because of the role that social media now play, we have become acutely aware of their shortcomings. Their platforms not only host but actively cultivate toxic and abusive environments for many of its users. In addition to their functions of interaction, they also provide avenues for increasing governmental control through surveillance or gatekeeping. Given the lack of adequate response from tech companies to these long standing issues, it was inevitable that something had to happen. In response to these conditions, tech advocates, activists, students, and scholars have launched numerous alternatives to mainstream social networks. These networks rethink what social media can and should do in times of over reliance on monolithic digital platforms. Some networks redesign the user’s experience to lessen or eliminate harassment; some networks focus on data privacy responsibilities; some create spaces where non-centralized networks can persist even against oppressive governmental regimes. Given the rise and differentiation of alt-networks, there is a need to study and examine the proliferation of alt-networks. This panel offers four presentations varied in objects, different in methodological approaches, and diverse in their claims. In examining alt-networks, this panel will explore how these redesigned digital platforms respond to demands of scalability, how political activists develop and deploy alt-networks for protests, how researchers could cultivate a games theory approach to studying alt-networks and, finally, how the lack of certain features in alt-networks may doom their survival. The methods being explored will include critical theory, social science research, methodological discussion, and critical analysis through a rhetorical lens. Ultimately, our panel hopes to join in on emerging conversations about the ecology of networks and contribute valuable insights for internet research. A Network of Alt-Networks These papers have been carefully assembled to represent a substantial spectrum of the promises, problems, and possibilities for Alt-Tech today. In the first presentation, the paper develops a games theory approach to studying alt-networks, in this case, Mastodon instances. This is an important development as mainstream social media networks have benefited from years of research approaches, new networked objects create new networked questions requiring new methodological considerations. Related to this problem, the second presentation examines how and when alt-networks engage or resist the inevitable need to scale their operations. Such a study is important because mainstream social media impose a will to scale in ways that make it seem natural and unstoppable. The third presentation engages activists and how ad hoc alt-networks allow for platforms that avoid and leverage themselves against oppressive regimes. Finally, the fourth presentation will explore why alt-networks have so far failed alt-right political actors. This argument will look at how micro-interactions on platforms inform and drive a dangerous cycle of political antagonism. As a set, these presentations will give AoIR attendees a comprehensive survey of sites, methods, and sources for engaging and analyzing alt-networks. While the papers all draw heavily on critical theory and analysis, each differs in how they approach their objects of analysis. Using technical approaches, social science methods, speculative means, and rhetorical analysis the papers also demonstrate a wide swath of ways to encounter the alt-network. Finally, the sourcing and discourse engaged by each presentation activates multiple academic discussions while also sticking close to shared themes and concerns. The Possibilities of Alt-Networks This panel builds on recent work concerning the disappointment with mainstream social networks but also the promise of alternatives (Gehl, 2015, Tufekci, 2017). The adherence to tech industry’s unfair labor practices, the inability to respond to users’ needs, the lack of clear and consistent privacy responsibilities, the weak submission to governmental control— these concerns with social media have all been written (Noble, 2018; Roberts, 2019). The rise and proliferation of Alt-Networks is an important development for internet researchers because those innovations rekindle the earliest aims of the internet itself. Namely, the construction of a system whose topological configurations resisted centralization and allowed for its users to develop multiple ways of communicating knowledge to one another.