Fronting social surveillance

A new breed of open source web applications are popping up and gaining momentum among privacy concerned citizens. They’re called Invidious, Nitter, Bibliogram, Teddit or Scribe. Their main purpose is to propose alternative interfaces to “corporate social media”.

Social media is a weird landscape where a few corporate actors have gained tremendous power by being the most visited websites in the world and becoming the main point of entry for most people on the Web. These platform serve their captive audiences with news, entertainment and mediated social relations in exchange of precious ad dollars. To a point that it becomes very difficult for anyone that does not want to be caught in the micro-transaction exploitive net to exist outside of it.

Alternatives social media platforms do exists with similar features to these giant mammoths, minus the addictive parts: They are either as old as the Internet or a more ethical version of these giants they take inspiration from. But they all mostly suffer from a lack of network effect to replace them. Some would probably not survive if they suddenly became widely popular, but that’s another story. But for the active participants of these alternatives, the privacy conscious or the ones just wanting to stay away from advertising networks, what do you do when a friend or a news site sends you a link to Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit or Medium?

Do you ignore those links? Is it even possible to not visit them? I guess it is, but that would probably mean there is a huge amount of information and culture − content, like we say these days − that would be out of reach. And of course, that’s perfectly fine. No one should be forced to participate in mainstream culture or even be constraint to send clicks to mainstream platforms. But a few developers have decided to propose new ways to access these “pay-walled content” while staying away from the ad networks and all the dirty tricks these platforms play on you to keep you in chains.

The way they do it is they create new interfaces for these platforms and open source the code so that people can just install them wherever they want. The interface serves exactly the same thing that you would expect from the original platform, using a similar address scheme, but stripped away from all the “blockers”, annoying subscription pop-ups, cookies and other tracking mechanisms. They also build them to be lighter and thus more easy on computer resources. And of course, some don’t even use JavaScript, which makes these interfaces very suitable for low powered or old devices than would simply choke when opening the original corpo-app.

Of course, these tools navigate in unpredictable waters and better not be noticed by those actors they impersonate. They certainly need to be regularly updated to stay “compatible” with their source. Their growing popularity, while signaling a rebellion against corporate surveillance, can also be source of difficulties since it’s what also what makes them more visible to their targets. Which often results in them getting banned from accessing what they front. It’s a cat and mouse game for the host of these services as well for those who rely on them, needing to constantly update the software or the bookmarks.

While I find these services quite useful and I’m amazed that the current version of the Web still permits these kind of tricks to exist, it saddens me that we need them in the first place and that all those efforts, developing, maintaining, hosting, discovering and using these tools, are probably the modern version of the Danaides’ condemnation. The web is still open and that’s why these tools can work. You’ll notice that Facebook has no alternative interface. That’s because it’s completely closed. Facebook is not the Web. Never was and never will be.

I recommend using Invidious, Nitter, Bibliogram, Teddit or Scribe in place of Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit or Medium. But I encourage even more to invest in Peertube, Mastodon, Lemmy or good ol’ WordPress. The open and ethical web is built on a network of actors that stay true to these values and want to work together. Slapping a more open and respectful layer atop corporate social media can make us temporarily feel better but will not profoundly change the face of it.