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Beyond Facebook: The Social Media Alternatives Project

Gehl SMAP edit

May 14, 2015 – There’s more to social networking than Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

That’s what Robert W. Gehl, assistant professor of communication at the University of Utah, is finding as he scours the Internet for what he calls “alternative social media” sites and services built as a critical response to corporate social media. He is cataloging what he finds in the Social Media Alternatives Project (S-MAP).

The S-MAP is a growing collection of alternative social media site interfaces, privacy policies and terms of service. In addition, the S-MAP hosts interviews with alternative site makers, as well as commentary on the state of alternative social media. The site is freely available to public.

Although Gehl wrote about alternative social media in his book, “Reverse Engineering Social Media,” he is surprised at the number and variety of the alternative sites.

“Every other day, I find a new alternative social media site,” Gehl said. “Some of them are well-known. Ello, for example, received headlines last year when it was billed as a privacy-respecting Facebook challenger. A few years before that, Diaspora was hyped as a ‘Facebook killer.’”

But Ello and Diaspora aren’t the only ones. Lesser-known but very vibrant is GNU social, a federated microblogging service.

“GNU social works quite a bit like Twitter, but anyone can install it on their own servers. You can inspect the code, modify it how you like – there are so many more possibilities than with Twitter,” added Gehl.

Another Twitter alternative to be featured is Twister, a peer-to-peer microblog.

“Your posts don’t go through any servers, but are shared through a distributed, encrypted network of devices. It’s quite a technical achievement,” said Gehl.

A fascinating outlet for social networking is on the Dark Web. Last year, Gehl published research on Dark Web social networking, a phenomenon that defies popular understanding.

“When people hear the term ‘Dark Web,’ they probably think about drug markets or hit men for hire. What they don’t think about is social media. But there are several active social media sites hosted on Tor and the Internet Privacy Project. People on these sites are socializing, debating politics and sharing media.”

Gehl hopes the S-MAP is useful for researchers and teachers. “Several professors around the world have said they will use this project in teaching. I also think social media scholars will find this site useful, because studying alternatives to the mainstream expands our ability to imagine what ‘social media’ means.”

About the Social Media Alternatives Project (S-MAP)

The S-MAP was founded in 2015 at the University of Utah. Financial support comes from the Dean of Humanities, the University Research Council and the Tanner Humanities Center. Its board of advisors includes leading scholars of alternative media from around the world.