Alternative Social Media Platforms: An Ethnographic Study of the Scuttlebutt Community
Can Open-Source Software (OSS) platforms offer ethical alternatives to Facebook and Twitter? How do technologies and social values interact with one another? And what might we learn from a close-up look at how OSS communities operate? A new research project in the History and Philosophy of Science explores these questions.
Having found an intersection in their research interests during their PhD candidatures within SHAPS, Eden Smith and Kate Mannell began collaborating on an additional research project, under the supervision of Professor Michael Arnold. This project includes spending five years as participant-observers within a community of OSS developers who are building an alternative form of social media. The technology they are building is called Scuttlebutt. Here, Eden and Kate answer some of the questions they are commonly asked about their research into the Scuttlebutt community.
Why should we care about alternative forms of social media?
People are increasingly wary about the commercialisation of our social networks. This distrust is most evident in the criticisms directed toward mainstream corporate platforms like Facebook and Twitter over their treatment of personal data, approaches to misinformation, and their ‘move fast and break things’ approach to development.
One response to the loss of faith in mainstream social media has been to develop alternatives using Open Source Software (OSS) – software with source code available for anyone to view, use, and enhance. These OSS platforms are increasingly appealing to disenchanted social media users who want alternatives to mainstream corporate platforms.
As a discipline, Science and Technology Studies has long been concerned with how technologies can reinforce or change the structures and patterns of power within communities. However, there is a long way to go before we understand how these social-technical dynamics impact the development of social media platforms. In terms of alternative social media platforms in particular, we need to have a better understanding of whether and how these platforms can provide meaningful alternatives to mainstream social media. We can develop this understanding, in part, by studying the social and technical contributions of the OSS communities that are building these platforms.
What is Scuttlebutt?
There are lots of alternative social media platforms currently being developed. Several of these are being built by the OSS community that is developing a technology called Scuttlebutt.
Broadly, Scuttlebutt is a protocol – that is, a technology for telling computer systems how to exchange information. The Scuttlebutt protocol incorporates elements of cryptography that enable secure interactions between devices. It is also decentralised, as data is stored on users’ devices rather than centralised servers. Another unique feature is that it works offline, allowing data able to be accessed and shared without an internet connection.
The community is building social media apps on top of this protocol. These apps share the protocol’s characteristics: they are cryptographically secure, decentralised, and work offline.
In addition to building unique technologies, the Scuttlebutt community is unusual in that it actively encourages people to get involved in developing these technologies. This is in stark contrast to social media companies that release products for passive consumption. As part of this, the community has adopted an opt-in approach to division of labour rather than a formal governance hierarchy. This has resulted in a set of community norms around communication and collaboration. For instance, contributors openly document projects, request and offer constructive feedback, signal intentions prior to making major changes, and collaborate on maintenance work so that it can be sustained over the long term. Community-building work is also highly valued. This includes actions like facilitating discussions, allocating resources, dispute resolution, organising gatherings, and modelling constructive communication practices. Many of these distributed-leadership and community-building practices emerged from the community’s explicit concern with the relationship between social values and technical features.
What does this participant-observation research involve?
We are using ethnography to study the Scuttlebutt community. This means that our research methods are centred around participant observation.
For us, participant observation means using the Scuttlebutt social media platforms to engage with, observe, and participate in the community that is forming around these technologies. Our participation includes everything from providing feedback on technical developments, to supporting community-building practices, to starting and joining social conversations. Along the way, we record our observations on aspects of the space related to our research interests and to community-led questions. We also supplement these digital-participatory observation practices by attending in-person gatherings and conducting interviews.
Our research is also based on principles from community-based participatory research, an approach that allows for communities being studied to contribute to the direction and outcomes of the research. For us, this means documenting our research intentions and practices in ways that allow community members to offer feedback and suggestions throughout the research project. Our ultimate aim is for the project to contribute to the Scuttlebutt community as well as improving academic understandings of alternative social media platforms.