Monday, November 9, 2020

Leaving for Parler and MeWe? Here's What to Expect, Plus Some Alternatives

I'll get right to it: There's a lot of talk on my Facebook feed about leaving Big Tech behind. Most people have said they're going to Parler. I just wanted to take a moment to run down some of the alternatives to Facebook and their Big Tech cohorts, with some pros and cons of each. I spent a good part of September kicking the tires at a number of alternative platforms, because I didn't want to give these censorious digital tyrants my business anymore. Based on my experiences, here's what you can expect.


Pros: Unless you post porn, make violent threats, or harass other users, you're not going to be censored.

Cons: By design, it lacks most of the features of Facebook.

Parler (not Parlor; it's the French word for "to speak") is not a Facebook replacement. It doesn't have pages or groups. It's meant to function like Twitter, using short messages to communicate your thoughts to others. With Big Tech coming down hard on anyone questioning the election outcome, people are flocking to Parler as I write this -- and the influx appears to be taxing Parler's servers. If the site is acting funny, give it time. 

Contrary to rumors, Parler is not owned by Google. Its founder and CEO, John Matze, is a computer scientist who just wanted a place where people could speak freely. 

Right now, Parler is a conservative echo chamber -- because conservatives are the ones being silenced and banned on Facebook and Twitter. Matze wants more diversity of views at Parler, but at least for the moment it's become a safe haven for folks on the right, Trump supporters, and people who value free expression.

Now, let's consider four Facebook replacements:

Pros: As one of the world's most visited websites, VK isn't going anywhere.

Cons: It's based in Russia.

VK, short for VKontakte, is basically Russia's Facebook. It looks like Facebook and functions like Facebook. It has a news feed, groups, pages, and messaging. Most people coming from Facebook would experience no learning curve. 

The biggest advantage VK has over any of the other services I'll mention here is that it's not a tiny startup. There's no concern that VK will run out of funds and disappear. It's one of the top 20 most visited sites in the world, with over 500 million members.

I know that the Russia connection makes some people nervous. Those concerns are not completely unfounded. However, English-speakers are a minority and seem to fly under VK's radar. As such, there's tremendous potential for Westerners to build communities there and essentially go completely unnoticed. 

Even if that weren't the case, VK appears to moderate content with a very light hand. I've seen accounts shut down for abusing the service (spamming and the like), but nobody I've met in my time there has been fact-checked or shadow-banned merely for sharing an opinion. Political discussion is generally open and vibrant. In fact, there are a number of people on VK who were kicked off Facebook for airing views that Zuckerberg and Co. didn't approve of.
In short: Familiarity, ease of use, tremendous untapped potential, and long-term viability make VK an excellent Facebook alternative. 


Pros: The founder is 100% committed to free speech.

Cons: It can be buggy at times, and the crypto feature is hard to figure out.

Minds is my favorite U.S.-based social-media alternative. It has just about everything Facebook offers. You can post on your news feed, create groups, send messages, and even blog. But unlike Facebook, it doesn't mine your personal data to target you with ads, and the feed is strictly reverse-chronological -- no algorithms choosing what you see when you refresh your page.

The best thing about Minds is that free speech is CEO Bill Ottman's core value. Ottman believes that letting people speak their minds, even if what they have to say is unpopular, is a crucial release valve. The alternative, he would argue, is to let censored people go off and stew in life's darkest corners, where they radicalize out of sight, filled with resentment. As such, unless someone shows up with a court order, on Minds you can say whatever is legal to say. 

And to his credit, Ottman is leading up a program called Change Minds to help people get out of racist and other extremist and destructive mindsets. So being pro-free speech doesn't mean Ottman wants Minds to be a place where bigots can mouth off without consequence. Rather, his goal is to foster expression that's both uncensored and thoughtful.

On top of all that, in a big score for privacy, all of your content at Minds is encrypted. No one at Minds is spying on you. The site is set up so that no one can.

Minds uses a cryptocurrency system that lets you purchase tokens to reward and boost posts, with the intention of promoting the site's best content. You don't have to buy tokens to use Minds, but it does open the site up a lot more if you do. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say I found the process for buying crypto and converting it to tokens very complicated, and I think anyone unfamiliar with crypto would run into similar problems.  

Minds holds tremendous promise, but it has some growing pains to work through. There are occasional tech hiccups, and using the site is overall more complicated than it should be. If you just want to post stuff on your news feed or browse groups, you're good to go. But if you want to do anything more advanced, be prepared for some frustration and pack your patience.


Pros: The founder is as close as you'll find to being a free-speech absolutist.

Cons: Unfettered free speech isn't always pretty.

Gab has had a reputation for being the place where all the extremists ended up when Big Tech went through its early rounds of purges. That reputation may have been deserved at one time, but now that even mainstream conservatives are either being kicked off Facebook and Twitter or leaving in disgust, the tone of the place really isn't all that strident. It comes off more like a Fox News comments section than anything else.

The site itself, like Minds, has pretty much everything you're used to at Facebook. No data-mining. No news-feed algorithms. The one significant difference I've seen is that you have to become a paying member to start your own group. But you can still join groups for free.   

Gab's privacy-based Dissenter browser is a pretty neat idea. It creates a comments section at any site you visit, so you can essentially take Gab with you away from the site.

CEO Andrew Torba is a very outspoken free-speech activist who doesn't pull any punches. He has a grand vision of an internet with freedom of expression at its core -- which, of course, is what the internet mostly was before woke corporate monopolies took it over and became its gatekeepers.

I suspect it's Torba's activism that attracts the most hardcore free-speech advocates to Gab. That's undoubtedly why the racists and trolls initially flocked to Gab and gave it a bad rap. But look -- you're going to get racists and trolls at any site dedicated to free speech. It comes with the territory. And besides, we all know what the alternative looks like. It looks like Silicon Valley casting its net of censorship ever wider and wider. So I'll deal with some crude people and their unsavory opinions if it means I don't constantly have to worry about being "fact-checked" or banned for challenging some Silicon Valley tech tyrant's woke narrative.


Pros: This is arguably the most privacy-focused of the Facebook alternatives.

Cons: The chat boxes will drive you crazy, and the focus on privacy can make it hard to connect with others.

Lots of Facebook users are flocking to MeWe. I don't really care for the way it works, but hey, if people like it, they like it.

Founder Mark Weinstein, a self-described libertarian, was a pioneer in social-media development. Billing MeWe as the "anti-Facebook," he started the site because he was appalled at the way Big Tech invades users' privacy to market to them. Like the founder of Minds, Weinstein believes that your data is your own, not something to be sold off to advertisers. 

MeWe, like the other companies mentioned here, offers pretty much all the things you use on Facebook. The one significant difference is that MeWe funnels most of its user interaction into groups. You can still post to a news feed, but most of the action takes place within MeWe's groups. And unless you go into the settings to turn them off, all the conversation from those groups will pop up on your desktop in the form of chat boxes. They'll eventually fill up the bottom half of your screen if you don't click out of them. 

The privacy-based nature of MeWe also means that it can be difficult to make connections with other users. At first glance, you won't even see an obvious way to add or search for friends. Instead, you'll see links to groups, pages, and chats.

I'm not overly impressed with MeWe, though it does certainly beat Facebook.

Non-contenders and caveats   

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. There are lots and lots of social-media platforms out there. I've tried a good number of them and for various reasons can't recommend any others but the ones I've mentioned here as decent alternatives. Some cater to niche audiences, limiting their ability to grow. Others are plagued by technical issues and can't seem to get off the ground, despite their promising potential. Still others just don't offer anything compelling enough to warrant leaving what you know behind.

Be aware, too, that most of your Facebook friends will probably not follow you to these sites. That's been my experience, anyway. Any new site you try out is therefore going to feel lonely. At times it'll feel as if no one is there. You'll be tempted to give up and go back to Facebook.

My advice, after a couple of months of doing this, is to keep your Facebook account open but limit your use as much as you can, while touting the new sites you're trying out and encouraging friends to follow. That's really about all you can do. You might find that Facebook ends up being the place where you post your innocuous everyday stuff, while an alternative site becomes your online hub for political activism. 

No one wants to do this, I'm sure, but Silicon Valley leaves us little choice. If anyone's interested, here's how you can find me at the sites I've mentioned: 

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