Alternative for Who? Investigating Public Opinion on Alternative Platforms
By Tristan Bannerman, Amie Galbraith, and Natalie Kerby
While monopoly power is growing in tech, so is the public consciousness of the inner workings of large platforms. A growing movement of alternative platforms could hold the potential answer to public concerns, such as privacy. This paper explores how users who are already seeking out alternatives want these platforms to function, providing direction for the design of future platforms and regulation.
Alternatives, Decentralized web, Platforms, Platform monopolies, Platformization, Internet research, Google, Facebook, Netflix
2018 was the year of the techlash, a time in which the pervasive monitoring, manipulation, and tensions between social media and democracy became increasingly clear (Foroohar, 2018). As public consciousness grew about the influence of these platforms, some began to seek alternatives. Alternatives are not a new part of the tech world. However, we find this to be a particularly important moment to discuss them, at a time when the monopoly power of a few companies is coming into question (Srnicek & De Sutter, 2017).
What do people look for in alternatives? In this paper, we analyze three major platforms—Netflix, Facebook, and Google Search—and their alternatives that the directory for alternative platforms, AlternativeTo.net, has crowdsourced. By performing a comparative analysis of comments and tags, we tease out how there is not one type of user or vision for alternatives. Instead, users’ visions are contextually based on platform functionality and their perceived fallbacks of the original platform.
What is an Alternative?
The word alternative contains “al,” the Proto-Indo-European root for the word beyond, and “ter” the Proto-Indo-European suffix which means other (“Alternative,” n.d.). Thus, the alternative is that which is beyond and other. Alternative does not have a static definition, rather it is relational. To pin down alternatives means you have to locate the object that it is extending beyond, the object through which it becomes an alternative. However, the alternative does not stop at extension; it requires an agent to utilize, operate, or exercise it, to “extend it beyond.” In that way, the alternative gains two new qualities: 1) its intentionality and 2) its desire for change. An alternative is lively, full of intention both from its creators and from those who employ the alternative. Furthermore, the intention of the alternative is aspirational. When one uses an alternative, they use it because of their commitment to its existence and place in the world. In other words, the alternative reflects the users’ desire for the world.
A Brief History of Alternatives
The history of the internet, which starts in the halls of the US Department of Defense and elite American universities, is deeply intertwined with alternatives. In fact, the original culture and push of the internet was that of alternatives. Programmers and hackers competed with each other to develop the best and most efficient systems for rapid networked communication and processing. For example, Unix, an OS developed at Bell Labs, was licensed out to a variety of universities and companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, who in turn altered the OS to make it their own. GNU was developed as an open source alternative to Unix that would allow programmers to develop their own alternatives. The OS is still active today and Linux, its most famous offspring, is a free, open source operating system created by Linus Torvalds that can be used for anything from personal computers to large servers and supercomputers. It now serves as the basis for Android’s OS (Raymond, 2000). The development of Linux marked a great step in the advancement of digital technology alternatives.
Alternatives in media also exist offline as a means for people to express their vision of the world. Zines, for example, are self-published small circulation magazines that share information major publications would likely omit. For example, in the 1970s, they were integral to building the mythos and culture of punk (“LibGuides UT Austin,” 2021). Similarly, in Italy during the late 1970s, pirate radio emerged. In his book Precarious Rhapsody, Bifo Berrardi writes about the Italian autonomists in Bologna who attempted to use radio to change people’s perceptions of the ruling party of Italy and to spur the people to a more progressive cause (Berardi, 2010).
Alternatives in media follow two paths, that of content and that of structure. The pirate radio station and zines are alternatives of content, whereas in the early internet, the alternatives were more of structure (i.e. different ways to package and connect networks). Today most of our digital alternatives function within the larger structure of the internet. This is, however, complicated by platforms, such as Facebook, in that they have become infrastructures themselves set within even larger opaque structures (Poell et al., 2019).
Current Academic Debate
With the rise of monopoly power in tech, decentralization has become an important component of debates surrounding alternatives. A small group of centralized platforms—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft (GAFAM)— have positioned themselves as vital infrastructural services in exchange for our data (Poell et al., 2019). GAFAM, according to Poell et al, have emerged as cheaper, “more dynamic,” and privatized alternatives to “government monopoly infrastructures.”
Poell et al. argue that there is both a “platformization of infrastructures” and “infrastructuralization of platforms” in occurrence. Looking through these two lenses, we can see the powerful foothold these companies have. It is not surprising then that much academic debate highlights the challenges that arise when building alternatives and moving away from a centralized web (Barabas et al., 2017).
As stated in a 2017 report from MIT Media Lab, just because an alternative platform works well technically, does not mean users will flock to it. This is particularly difficult for social networking platforms, as users tend to go where their friends already are. To address this challenge, there have been calls for more social based research to better understand public attitudes towards a decentralized web (Vojíř et al., 2020).
Projects such as Web of Care by artist Taeyoon Choi explore a more user-focused approach to the creation of a decentralized web. Out of a need to challenge “tech-frontierism” and bring user agency into the creation process, Choi hosted an in-person participatory activity at the Decentralized Web Summit in 2018. The activity highlighted the need for “mutual respect for privacy, openness, and trust” when developing an alternative web, and drew attention to elements of access and ability often overlooked by big tech (Choi, 2018).
What Choi’s work shows is that in order to create a truly valuable alternative web, we should also embrace and employ alternative ways of doing research. If we are to design and move a wider public towards an alternative web successfully, it is vital that we take a user-focused approach and understand how future users actually want alternatives to function.
This paper will use AlternativeTo.net as a research tool and object of study to understand how people who are already actively seeking out alternatives conceptualize how a successful alternative platform should work.
AlternativeTo.net is a service which provides crowdsourced lists of alternatives to certain software. Users can search for a platform, such as Twitter, and receive a list of alternatives to it which are based on user recommendations. According to the site, it features 101,256 apps, 822,944 likes, and 808,704 opinions about software (as of October 25th 2021). We chose to do a comparative narrative analysis of Google Search, Netflix, and Facebook on AlternativeTo.net, as each platform is a leader within their distinct uses: search, entertainment, and social media. On AlternativeTo.net, each software has a landing page with a description, tags, likes, and comments from users, as well as a second tab that lists crowdsourced alternatives to the original platform. The first page of the second tab ranks 10 alternatives for every platform based on user votes with up to seven comments and six tags visible.
For our analysis, we collected the tags, upvotes, and comments from the three platforms’ original landing pages and that of the first 10 alternatives listed on the second tab for each of them. In total, we collected 146 comments and about 135 tags across the three platforms and their top 10 alternatives (30 alternatives in total). We chose this information because it is both the first thing that users encounter about the platforms and because we were limited in what we could collect as we were doing it manually. By comparing comments and tags for each platform and across the three different platforms, we aimed to understand how users conceptualize and discuss alternative platforms in different arenas of internet use.
Each platform varied in the themes that were important to users seeking out alternatives, demonstrating that those who pursue alternative platforms are not a uniform base. When it came to tags, the most popular tags for alternatives to the search engine Google were privacy focused, privacy protection, and anonymity. Netflix’s top tags were Internet TV, streaming, and ad-free, whereas Facebook’s were free speech, decentralized, privacy focused, federated, support for activitypub (an open, decentralized social networking protocol), and ad-free.
Based on tags, people who seek alternatives to Google Search tend to look for a platform that will protect their privacy, which aligns with recent criticism of the platform (Nield, 2019). For alternatives to Google, it seems to matter less to users if the infrastructure is centralized or open source, as long as the platform is not collecting data about the user. DuckDuckGo is the top ranked alternative search engine, and while it is open source and privacy oriented, it is not decentralized. Facebook’s users also were interested in privacy-focused apps, but the overall trend in their tags leaned towards decentralized and federated platforms, as well as platforms that have more lax content moderation policies that might be lenient towards more forms of speech. Netflix diverges the most from the other two platforms, in that its top tags are mostly about streaming or watching TV online, in addition to being ad-free. Its tags insinuate that users are less concerned with privacy or centralized power when it comes to entertainment online and are instead simply looking for more options of where to stream movies and television. It’s important to note that out of the three, Netflix is the only paid platform, which could potentially change the dynamics of what people look for in alternatives or what a person is willing to tolerate from a platform. Further research is needed to know if that is the case.
Comments for each of the platforms followed a similar trend to tags. Overall, Netflix had the least comments, which may indicate less of a demand for alternatives, a less impassioned user base, or less controversial critiques of the original platform. The comments on the alternatives focused more on the content provided by each platform, rather than their infrastructure. Importantly, alternatives listed here included Hulu, AmazonPrime, HBO Go, and Disney+, whereas Facebook and Google had less mainstream sites listed as alternatives, again showing that there is less opposition to the standard operational model of large streaming platforms. A few comments mention geography in some way, for example “Hulu is only available in America,” or “It’s very similar to Netflix, plus the subscription includes more Amazon services (besides Prime Video), another thing is that at least in my country (Spain) the subscription is cheaper.” Again, this indicates that people tend to be looking for variety of content—perhaps content that isn’t available in their own country or is less cost prohibitive—rather than expressing concern about the site’s infrastructure.
Similar to its tags, comments on alternatives for Google Search focus on privacy, while also noting the speed of the platform. Users appear to value the function of Google’s search engine and are looking for something with similar efficiency and accuracy, as long as it also ensures their privacy. This is exemplified in one user’s comment about DuckDuckGo, “Fast, great results, one of the MOST private. It doesn’t track you (although there’s not a search proxy). Best alternative to EVERY search engine.” Before the internet, search took place in less invasive spaces like a public library or at home with an encyclopedia (Ramsay, 2014). Thus, it’s not surprising that privacy becomes a key concern for those using Google Search, as it both changes the dynamic of search (Hillis et al., 2013) and can capture rather intimate information (Nield, 2019).
The comments on Facebook’s alternatives focus on Facebook’s centralized power. Two comments bring in Zuckerberg as a figurehead, “Why do so many people help to make guys like Zuckerberg, Bezos etc. so super-rich?” And a few comments reference a dislike for the “new” Facebook and a nostalgia for the old one. For instance, one user says, “At first it was great getting back in touch with people from my past. BUt that was 10 years ago. Since then, it’s all about seling your information for ad $, and if you have an opinion about anything people report you and you get booted off the platform for weeks or a month.” People generally seem interested in ethical and open source platforms that promote free speech and avoid censorship of political issues. Decentralization and federation are again big themes. While comments do mention the fact that Facebook makes money on user data by selling advertisements, the stronger trend is against Facebook’s centralized governance of the platform. People want a platform that is “Open source, transparent and does not push any particular ideology.” It comes through in the comments that people want a communal space, but one that is less regulated. Not surprisingly, most of the comments have been posted in the last four years, which tracks with the greater techlash against Facebook and other big platforms, especially in relation to the 2016 US presidential election (Madrigal, 2017).
In the short but full history of the internet and its surrounding technologies, alternatives have played an invaluable role in the creation of new digital technologies. The monopolization of a few platforms and their control over what is now seen as essential infrastructure concerns millions of people, making the alternative movement more important than ever.
The difference in data between Google Search, Facebook, and Netflix provide a picture of what AlternativeTo.net users think requires the most urgent attention in the context of monopoly power. The fact that more comments appear on Google Search and Facebook alternatives shows how the awareness of power—and the need for an alternative—is most obvious amongst users when it begins to intervene with vital communication and information services.
While the data we collected is only scratching the surface, it demonstrates that the reasons people are looking for alternative platforms vary between desires for structural change and desires for change of content. People are looking for alternative social media platforms with less censorship and governance over the things that they say, more privacy from alternative search engines, and different kinds of content from alternative entertainment.
As our original definition of alternative states, alternative is a relational term. For each of the platforms, there was never a desire to invent something completely new, but rather, replicate the good from the original platform with an additional layer of privacy, decentralized power, freedom of speech, or more content. The alternative was always in direct relation to the original.
Using websites such as AlternativeTo.net as a place of research provides valuable insights into user attitudes towards alternatives. There are many other websites holding similar public discourse that could be utilized to similar ends. Here, we have built a small overview of public opinion that might be used to improve the design of and communication surrounding alternative platforms, and ideally, lead to stronger user-adoption and aid in the move towards decentralization.
One downside of AlternativeTo.net is that we are not able to know geographic regions, race, ethnicity, class, or other factors that might influence what a person seeks when they look for an alternative platform. Having access to demographic information of the commenters would lead to a more nuanced understanding of an alternative platform user’s needs. Since our sample size is small, it can indicate trends but doesn’t provide a detailed explanation of what users want in alternative platforms, especially as it’s limited to those who use AlternativeTo.net.
Platform monopolization is a complex issue which can’t be solved by the creation of alternatives alone, and the responsibility to break up big tech doesn’t lie only on the users and developers, but also state regulation, such as antitrust laws (Khan, 2017). However, research such as that presented in this paper can provide a user perspective for those trying to solve the problem, moving us towards an internet that effectively reflects user visions of a better web.
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