There’s a common refrain on Twitter that can be heard echoing across the feed any time there’s a big news day or fresh political horror. It varies slightly in wording and context, but stays consistent in sentiment. The medium by which it’s delivered is also the subject of its ire: Twitter is a “hellscape” and a “trash fire,” destined to make you feel angry, exhausted, and engulfed in hot takes the moment you log on.
And yet, people keep logging on—Twitter reported 139 million daily active users in its recent Q2 report for 2019. Facebook, which has garnered similar comments from its users (not to mention a $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission for mishandling users’ personal data), has 1.59 billion daily active users. That number jumps to 2.1 billion when you add in Instagram, Whatsapp, and Messenger, all owned by Facebook. In March, Axios and SurveyMonkey published a poll that indicated Twitter, Facebook, and Google’s favorability was dropping, yet these companies continue to control large swaths of the internet. We use their platforms every day.
While it may seem like there are already (more than) enough social platforms, Darius Kazemi thinks there needs to be more—they just need to be smaller. For a little over a year, Kazemi has run a social media site called Friend Camp for 45 of his actual friends. In July, he published the online guide “Run Your Own Social” that encourages others to do the same. At the core of the guide is the belief that healthy social networks should be modeled after tight-knit communities in the real world, rather than based on the same profit-making systems that have encouraged our existing ones to grow at all costs. Instead of Facebook’s model as a “digital equivalent of a town square,” the sites that Kazemi is advocating for are more like a chill house party with a considered guestlist. The key, he emphasizes, is keeping your social network very small—as in 50 to 100 users small—so that you can design it specifically for the needs of your community in ways that social networks with millions of users never could.
Running a tiny social network will not make you money; it’s highly unlikely to attract venture capitalists. Per Kazemi’s guide, it requires time, genuine interest, and some technological know-how. But for those that are frustrated with the way that platforms make money off of our habits and interactions online, or miss the smaller, weirder online communities before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, Kazemi’s “run your own” CTA has a certain appeal. And as U.S. Democratic primary candidates continue to propose plans to break up the largest tech companies, who’s to say a multi-billion dollar social network is even a sustainable model?
“I’d love to see more experimentation and investment in technology that doesn’t have a product monetizable outcome,” says Danielle Robinson, director of Code for Science & Society, a nonprofit that supports the development of open-source technology built in the public interest. Kazemi ran Friend Camp and wrote the accompanying guide during his year as a Mozilla Open Web Fellow, and Code for Science & Society was his host organization. Robinson became an early user of Friend Camp, which she compares to “pre-Friendster” internet communities like Makeoutclub, started in 1999, as well as certain aspects of the moms’ Facebook groups she joined after having her first kid. “Those groups were great when they were like 200 people, and quickly turned into terrible cesspools when they grew to 600 people and up,” she says of the latter. “Friend Camp reminds me of the best, most supportive part of those interactions, and that early internet experience of connecting with people.”
Building the social network you want to use
Kazemi decided to start Friend Camp in August 2018 after becoming fed up with his other social media accounts. He created it as a modification of Mastodon, a decentralized social network started in 2016 that now has over a million registered users. Kazemi first invited around 30 people he followed from his private Twitter account, then put out a general call on Twitter. Today, Friend Camp has 45 active users, all of whom Kazemi knows either online, in person, or through a friend. Users can also connect to over 5,000 other communities that use Mastodon-compatible software through what’s referred to as the “fediverse” (essentially, independent online communities in one coherent network).
Mastodon is most comparable to Twitter: Users can post messages, follow friends, @ mention people, use hashtags, and boost posts. Its software is open source, so Kazemi was able to tweak the code to build a social network he would want to use. It looks a bit like a Tweetdeck, with multiple feeds showing your local timeline (i.e. Friend Camp) and other “instances”—which can either be an individual person connecting to Mastodon or another community—that you can follow (mastodon.social is an example of a large “instance”). Friend Camp’s theme, designed by a friend camper who used to do the theming for Neopets pages, has a pastel palette, with a plant in a terrarium as the default avatar.
Most of Kazemi’s UX and UI decisions for Friend Camp are in service of building a social network that works for his specific community. Some elements are replicable, which he outlines in the guide and offers as open-source code for people who want to set up a similar social media site. These include norms like “content warnings” that allow you to hide content people might want to avoid behind a tag that summarizes the post (i.e. “uspol,” for U.S. politics or “nsfw,” for not safe for work). “We use the content warnings field pretty liberally, almost like the subject field of an email,” says Kazemi. They range from actual warnings agreed upon by the community (“we tend to put content warnings around stuff like food photos, because some people have issues with seeing food in their feeds,” he adds) or in-jokes. Images are also hidden from the timeline by default, so you have to click into it to see.
Other features are just for Friend Camp. The beauty of running your own site, Kazemi argues, is that you can be hyper-specific about certain features. Larger social media sites can’t offer too many preferences or the software will become overly complicated for users. Facebook, for instance, offers various security preferences but sets default settings for users so they aren’t overwhelmed by the options. Because Kazemi personally onboards each new Friend Camp user in a one-to-two-hour video call, walking them through complex features and saying a few words about each of the other members, he doesn’t have to sacrifice something like multiple privacy settings for ease of use.
Playing party host to new users, making sure design and moderation decisions work for everyone—this is only possible when your social network is small. This is Kazemi’s point in his guide: He says the big problems with social network sites have to do with things like policy, values, and power, and those things are social and ethical, not technical. While large social media sites have to cater to an ever-growing user base, small communities find it easier to define their values.
“You can see it right now on Twitter and Facebook: people on the left complain that these sites support right wing extremism, and people on the right complain that these sites support left wing extremism,” Kazemi writes in “Run Your Own Social.” “And for a website with thousands of posts per second from hundreds of millions of potential sources that’s aiming to please as many people as possible, both of these viewpoints are absolutely going to be true. There is no way to moderate this effectively, and you can never come up with rules for behavior that make millions of people happy.”
The limits of self-sufficiency
But self-sufficiency comes with its own set of limitations. Kazemi recognizes that not everyone will feel comfortable with the technology, and that’s where he hopes developers and tech-savvy designers will come in to fill the role. “I don’t think everyone should be their own server, just like I don’t think everyone should know how to completely repair a car,” he says. “We have a community for that. I think everyone should know a mechanic or a programmer, but there are other skills that I would like people in my community to have, too.”
In reality, though, not everyone knows a programmer. One advantage of larger social networks like Facebook is their accessibility—to your parents, to people whose work is not at all tech-adjacent, to people in parts of the world where access to the internet is limited. This gets at the biggest issues around decentralized networks, which is that they can be clunky to administer and difficult to explain. They’re also still vulnerable to bad actors, as evidenced by the recent migration of alt-right social network Gab to Mastodon. Robinson says the only way for this to improve is for more people to be using and experimenting with them. She also thinks the time is right for moving this community beyond just tinkerers and insiders and into a larger public consciousness. “I think there are often projects that assume that everyone is okay with having their data live on an Amazon data center somewhere, and that’s increasingly not the case,” she says.
For his part, Kazemi is working on making the decentralized internet more accessible by putting on workshops based on his guide. With them, he hopes to address a challenge faced by new social networks: that people want to join social networks because their friends are already there. Kazemi’s workshops will work with existing online communities from traditional platforms—something like Robinson’s moms’ Facebook group, for instance—and teach them to create their own social network in the style of Friend Camp.
Guides and workshops like Kazemi’s are important for familiarizing people with decentralized networks, both in concept and in technology. Large social networks have evolved their interfaces based on a ton of user feedback over a long period of time, but new social networks can be hard for users to “get” immediately. It’s why we still take to Twitter to complain about Twitter. But below the hellscape chatter, there are some subtler indications of real change. Both Kazemi and Robinson go to Friend Camp for more personal posting, and they use Twitter almost exclusively for professional projects, behavior that seems much more common now than when Twitter started in 2006, or even a few years ago.
After speaking at a conference recently, Kazemi was approached by a group of Twitter designers who asked him how they could apply his principles to the platform. He said he didn’t think it was possible. “As long as [big social media companies] are operating in the same way—harvesting eyeballs, working on advertising revenue, and needing venture capital investment—I don’t have a lot of advice for them,” he says. What Kazemi’s proposing is something structurally different than how social media giants operate. They can scramble to change their privacy policies and try to combat hate speech, but really, they’re just too big. “I feel like they’re doing what they can at this point, but they’re almost at a dead end,” he says.
This article was produced in partnership with AIGA Eye on Design.