Overview:

Can we do better than the social media that's dominated Western culture and distorted its democracies for the past decade? CounterSocial says yes—if you're ready for change yourselves.

Reading Time: 13 minutes

There’s a popular myth about a frog that stays in a pot of gradually heating water until it boils to death. It’s not true. The original frog takes a bit longer, but it does hop out. And yet, our fatalist belief in the myth of the dead frog makes a lot more sense after my first week “out” of Twitter, and onto a social media platform unlike any I’d experienced before. CounterSocial is one of a few forums you might have heard mentioned in the wake of Elon Musk’s declared intent to buy Twitter, but it’s not a replacement. It’s been around since 2017, as a specially curated instance of pre-existing infrastructure, and it has the potential to be so, so much more.

For twelve years, Twitter was a space I maintained to stay apprised of publishing industry news, and to establish myself as a writer. When Twitter made history for all the wrong reasons, as part of misinformation campaigns destabilizing the integrity of Western democracy? Or when it became the place that even members of US government were compelled to follow, to keep up with POTUS’s far-too-public public and foreign policy setting? I’d resigned myself to this hot mess. This, and genocide-inciting Facebook, were just the waters we had to swim in. And if we found ourselves acclimatizing to the need for “Twitter breaks” to escape the dread of whatever new incendiary hashtag was trending? Whatever new quote-tweet pile-on and flashfire hate-fest was in progress in our interest groups? Well… what was a degree or two more?

CounterSocial, and its dissenters, enters my radar

I first learned about CounterSocial during research for a recent piece here on solarpunk humanism. CounterSocial launched in November 2017, and its infrastructure was based on the open-source code of Mastodon, another platform I opened an account on last week (but with less overall interest, for reasons of highly differing site design I’ll get into).

Almost right away, the new site fell under scrutiny and public criticism by Mastodon’s founder, Eugen Rochko. CounterSocial aimed for zero tolerance of trolls, spam bots, misinformation campaigns, harassment, and political foreign-influence. But while most everyone would agree with those ideas in principle, not everyone is happy with what the follow-through entails. Our digital world is far more nation-state-specific than we’d like to admit, so CounterSocial’s founder, The Jester, a prominent US hacker with a military background, made the choice to block six countries with high rates of cyber attack from the site: Russia, China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Pakistan.

For this, the site was called xenophobic and racist, and Rochko publicly denounced CounterSocial while leading the charge in its de-listing from other parts of the “Federation” of open-source instances of Mastodon base code. (The Mastodon approach involves decentralized sub-communities, so that people can join “instances” of the site framed around specific interests, and bots will have a harder time disseminating misinformation across them all. It works, but by isolating people as well as bots. Your main page will look a lot like your Twitter profile and feed did, though, and some folks might prefer that more familiar layout.)

And because the founder and nearly one-man operator of CounterSocial arose from a right-wing US background, used to get his news from Fox, and in 2013 posted excitement at George Zimmerman getting acquitted? These ideas about CounterSocial went down easily with a certain purist slice of the left-leaning world. An actual “hacktivist for good”, committed to “obstructing the lines of communication for terrorists, sympathizers, fixers, facilitators, oppressive regimes and other general bad guys”, couldn’t possibly also be someone who had work to do as a human, right? Who had to grow out of the media culture they were born into, as so many of us do?

Screencap of the link embedded in the above paragraph: an April 25, 2022 tweet by The Jester, answering renewed criticism around a past tweet, along with fresh and unsourced rumors then disseminating wildly on Twitter.

How Twitter diminishes our discourse

This is part of the all-or-nothing mentality that made Twitter such a toxic space for me. The whole framework of that social media platform hinges on populist-driven hierarchies. Algorithms curate content for you based aggressively on what’s trending elsewhere, who’s already popular, and what advertisers want you to see. This creates multiple problems for the human psyche. No, really, let’s list them:

  • It’s easy to lose touch with the everyday friends, family, and interest-networks that we often first came to the site to follow. Those users’ posts show up less frequently unless we actively cultivate lists around them, and they’re still always surrounded by ads, clickbait, and recommended trending hashtags.
  • The lower your follower count, the lower the chances that your posts will find kindred readers. We all have different posting styles, not even close to easily captured by a simple keyword search, and the popularity-shaped algorithm makes it harder sift through those different styles to find “your people”.
  • Popularity doesn’t always help the popular, either, because the number of people trying to interact with you just for your prominence detracts from the ability to hold conversations as a regular person. You have a PLATFORM, and now you need to uphold it. The slightest misstep or bad opinion could see you widely condemned.
  • Relatedly, the quote tweet serves as a double-edged sword, because while it can boost you to prominence, it also boosts people to notoriety. The quote tweet can be used to whip up hatred against a user, and to make them an easier target for harassment.
  • From the moment we log on, our user experience is shaped around what the site has decided is important to us, with trending hashtags and suggested posts (by broad topic area) pushed onto and around our feed. We have to spend more time blocking keywords and ads to try to keep our timelines focused on what we value.
  • Follower count matters. Because it shapes prominence on our feeds, it also shapes how we view the worth of even people whose work we like. Only 32 followers? Eh. They must not be that good an artist. Or maybe there’s something wrong with their politics that I haven’t read about yet? They might even be a troll! Pass.
  • We pay more attention to how many likes and reposts our work is getting. We’ve even developed a whole new vocabulary on Facebook and Twitter around measuring the value of a post by its reactions. “Ratioing” exists only because these platforms do.
  • Worst of all, the user is acclimated to accepting this status quo because, after all, they’re not paying for the service. So what right do they have to complain?

When ceding our social media experience to corporations, we lose track of our own responsibility to cultivate the best of what we want to see in our communities.

The CounterSocial difference

We are all the products of our environments, and you can feel the difference that environment makes right away on CounterSocial. I certainly did, when I received a warm welcome among the 40,000-ish new followers that the site gained last week, essentially doubling its network overnight. The Jester (@th3j35t3r) had a lot of work to do to accommodate for the influx, taking down the site for days to improve its longterm capacity for a much larger account pool than it had hosted during its first four years.

But did the existing userbase rage at new followers for causing them to miss out on their communities for a while? Were they angry that all these weary social-media travelers were just now bandwagoning around their beloved digital haven?

Not even close. The sheer joy of fellow users, their eagerness to share resources like the user guide and #CoSoTips, their engagement when answering the same question the umpteenth time to a newbie who still has a “cracked egg” avatar on their account… all of these were strong indications of a community proud to share with others the best of the values they’d curated together over the years.

And what are those values? Well, let’s walk through the site together. I think they’ll become clearer once you see what the framework of the site does, and does not, support.

CounterSocial 101

I made a guide to help others from what I’d learned during my first week on the platform. If you log on and start to play around with basic functionality, you might have a layout a little like the one below. But rest easy! You won’t see all of these columns at once on the desktop. I simply changed my screen size for a screenshot. You’ll see five columns at a time, and scroll to read the rest. (And the mobile version is even more streamlined. Devices like the iPad seem to defer to the mobile version for now, too.)

As I note in the image below, your posting column comes first (1). Here, you can type posts of up to 500 characters, and though you can’t edit an existing “toot”, you can delete and return it to draft at the same time. GIFs can be uploaded (no library yet), and for now even the glitches attest to what CounterSocial does differently. If you upload a photo directly from your phone, it might show up sideways, because the “sanitizer” wipes photos of all personal metadata (about location, for instance) that the internet doesn’t need just to see your cute cat or latest knitting project.

The orientation glitch is part of that scrubbing process, and in queue to be fixed (just screencap your photo first: no metadata to scrub, no problem!), but did I mention how many cats, dogs, plants, nature shots, food photos, knitting projects, gardening projects, and funny memes sprinkle the site? Because although CounterSocial is very firmly built on the principle of protecting users from cyber attacks, ads, harassment, and disinformation… the users themselves simply want a place to post joy. And they do!

It’s quite remarkable, too, how much better the balance of news coverage becomes when one isn’t bombarded with trending topics and sponsored ads. A CNN tickertape runs gently overtop (you can pause it, or edit settings to remove it if you like), and folks are quick to tell you whom to follow for the most accurate updates on, say, the Russian invasion in Ukraine. But because there’s no need to perform your outrage for likes and follows, terrible news can also more easily coexist with photos of someone feeding their chickens, or their latest favorite Korean melodrama. We contain multitudes, after all.

My layout guide for new users. It’s too text-heavy to ALT, so folks who can’t view this image can refer to this Google Doc for its contents. NB: This is for the desktop. The mobile app is streamlined, absent the fun chaos of multiple columns.

As you can see in the above graphic, the “Community firehose” (2) is also special because, like Facebook at the start, it shows the site’s latest posts in chronological order. That’s it! No further algorithms. And each toot doesn’t show you how many people have liked or boosted it already (you have to click through for that info), so your first interaction is purely based on whether you liked what you saw. Did you? Give it a star! Not your thing? Scroll on. Did it annoy you? Mute or block user, and scroll on. Did it seem a dangerous toot? Something spreading hate or disinformation? Flag it for review. Sighted bots and harassers are splotched under a strict zero-tolerance policy.

But that toxicity is also rarer than you might think, because folks are so committed to courtesy, friendliness, supporting one another, and easing away from the idea that everything needs an argument.

On my first #CoSoCall (because, yes! anyone with a Pro account can start an audio/video hangout that all users, plus invited outsiders, can hop onto), I chatted with a few friendly users from around the world, including one from Texas who explained how his behavior and blood pressure had changed for the better, just by no longer feeling the need to react to the latest outrage on his social media platforms. On CounterSocial, site design made it easy to lean into what he loved, and curate his experience around it instead.

Some of that “curation” involves the hashtag feeds (5) that you can build for yourself. These columns will come after your friends column (3) and notifications column (4), and you can have as many pinned to your wall as you like. This makes it easy to scroll at a glance to check in with all your favorite interests, and see what others are posting about them. And because these feeds are also chronological? You’ll meet all kinds of new people just by sharing the same hashtag. Follower count really doesn’t matter when it comes to who gets to participate in a conversation.

And if you don’t see anyone on a hashtag of note? Well, that’s a space you can start to build up for yourself. As any seasoned “CoSonaut” will tell you: Welcome! This is a place for you to build the more constructive community you’d like to see and be a part of. Leave all your old cliques and animosities at the door. You don’t have to drum up followers here to count. Just dive in, and share what you love. Your village will come.

CounterSocial 102, and Pro account features

One major reason for this site’s distinct aesthetics, and the pride that users have for what they’ve built together in the first four years, is that CounterSocial relies on its userbase, not ads or corporate sponsorship, for funding. Every month, the fundraiser starts anew. But while anyone can donate to keep the site running, there are also a wealth of added opportunities for folks who pay $4.99US a month for a Pro account.

For instance, for all users, every Friday, there’s a hangout in one of the VR realms for “movie night” (@MovieNights). And anyone can attend those, even if you don’t have a headset! But COSO Realms is also a major perk of being a Pro account user: a VR space to share in other live events, virtually DJ, game together, or just hang out. Pro users can also access COSO Groups (Beta), which allows people to gather in more private (end-to-end encrypted) settings together.

(This last part is a little more like Mastodon, except that the latter is predicated by design on people splitting off into subgroups. On CounterSocial, everything is far more centralized as a matter of course, and isolating oneself in an info silo isn’t as easy.)

Other benefits, as listed on the Pro account page, include access to a few embedded news channels (bottom-left corner), along with emergency-service scanners from all over the globe, which provide real-time information about serious crises in progress. (Another participant in that fantastic first COSO Call described listening to firefighter reports from Australia’s devastating fires a few years back.) Pro users can file-share in a secure way (the Pro account page highlights deepfake protections, factlayer integration, bot sentinels, and identity-breach alerts), and set their posts to “explode” (be permanently database-deleted) for added control over one’s online footprint.

Any user can also pop on to entropy.counter.social to see firsthand how some of the security works: a 300-second “wall of entropy”, depicted as a chaotic display of colour flashes that you can add to on mobile, that generates as close to a truly random unique key as possible. This isn’t just a gimmick. It’s also a way of helping users to recognize the underlying work that goes into making a site like this secure, and of educating folks into taking their own cybersecurity more seriously.

Because that’s just it, isn’t it? When ceding our social media experience to corporations, we lose track of our own responsibility to cultivate the best of what we want to see in our communities. And yet, how can we not, when such sites go out of their way to shape our reactions, and to mine our attention and data, for ends all their own?

One feeling that newer users have sometimes shared, over my first week on the site, is annoyance that CounterSocial isn’t perfect yet. That it glitches sometimes, while The Jester is under the hood tinkering to accommodate new demands. That there’s a backlog at the moment for Pro account payment processing. And I get it. I do. These folks have just come over from a site that, for better and definitely for worse, does pretty much everything for them. Where’s their throng of immediate followers here? Why haven’t they been told whom to follow yet? Why doesn’t X hashtag already have all the content they want to see? Where’s Mark Hamill, or some other big name they want to follow?

It takes time to unlearn the passive, neoliberal reactivity that past environments have bred into us. But CounterSocial certainly gives us the breathing room to try.

Ongoing challenges

Now, as glowing as this commentary has been, and as happy with the platform as I have been, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also discuss ongoing room for improvement.

For one, this project still needs an expanded backend team if it’s going to scale to meet surging demand. The Jester has done exceptional work juggling a wide range of critical site tasks, but he will need to develop a deeper team he can trust to keep the momentum going. When he’ll find the time for that, amid the current work of keeping pace with the site’s massive influx, is anyone’s guess. But he is much-beloved by the more seasoned users of CounterSocial, so I sincerely hope that many of those folks are already trying to rally resources to help him with this critical transformation.

For another, I’m still not clear on the accessibility of this site for folks who use screen readers, and on the transcription possibilities for audio and visual content. I have a feeling it’s not where it needs to be yet, though, because the site is still trying to develop optimal performance across multiple browsers and device types. (Again, a project of scale that requires an expanded team.)

I will say, though, that the ALT feature on all photos is very prominent, so there’s no excuse for not dropping in some text to go with your visual posts anymore. And you as a user can make things a heck of a lot easier right away by always using caps to start each word in a hashtag, #LikeThis, to help those fussy screen readers along.

I’ve also talked to a few folks now with different disability needs, who’ve told me that this site has been a lifesaver for sustaining community and access to mental-health support during these incredibly trying past years. So, it’s definitely meeting some disabled folks where they are quite well. Nevertheless, making CounterSocial an interface that everyone can access is absolutely essential for further site expansion.

(And in the future, I also highly recommend that designers keep that functionality in mind from the outset. It’s ever so much easier when accessibility is built in from Day One).

Can the culture change? A frog’s final thoughts

So. Back to that frog. And more to the point, back to our myth about the frog that boils to death in gradually heating water. Why do we believe it? Because it’s a feature of our worst systems to give the impression of their own inevitability.

And yet, back in late 2019, we also didn’t have high hopes for society suddenly transforming. Then a pandemic required very abrupt changes in how we lived and worked. At the same time, too, we saw our governments demonstrate how easily they could in fact have funded key social programs if they’d wanted to. Just look at all the financial support that showed up overnight, to keep companies going when the world shut down! Likewise, some critical changes in Western imperialism seemed impossible right until the Russian invasion of Ukraine made them necessary. Then visa requirements became flexible in a flash, and Russia was cut off from SWIFT.

The same can be true here. CounterSocial was around long before Musk’s fateful decision to buy Twitter drove many users to a breaking point. The technology already existed. It was just the will and the groundswell for change that we needed next.

And, well, both are now upon us. We can make a change. We can choose to hop out of some truly funky water, and we can choose to be more proactive agents in whatever collaborative spaces we find for ourselves next. I’ve made that choice for myself. You can find me @MLClark on CounterSocial. Or, you know, you can just visit the site on its own, myriad merits—and build up the feeds and follows that serve you best.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.