Activism beyond Facebook: what are the alternatives?

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A couple of years ago, in my Open Source Bridge presentation Grassroots Activism is Hard. Can Open Source Help?, I talked about “the Facebook dilemma”.  On the one hand, it’s very easy to set up Facebook groups and events for activism, and that’s where a lot of people are.   But on the other hand …

The Facebook dilemma: Most people typically don’t see most Facebook posts; Facebook’s tools suck for activism; Many people aren’t on Facebook; Many people don’t feel safe doing activism on Facebook; Facebook is a panoptic “real names” environment; Facebook is an especially hostile environment for activists

Facebook has always been a challenging place to do activism and over the years has gotten steadily worse and worse.  So a lot of activism groups I talk to are looking for alternatives.

The good news is that lots of people and companies with more money than grassroots activism groups are also unhappy on Facebook these days.  As a result, there are quite a few products out there that describe themselves as community platforms (or something along those lines).  Even though these tools aren’t generally designed with activism in mind, they support key activism use cases like events and groups focused on different topics – so they’re a good complement to action-oriented solutions like Amplify.

Here’s a few that seem promising from an activism perspective.  A few up-front caveats:

  • I’ve only used a couple of these so my first-hand experience is limited.
  • I don’t yet know good any of these are from an accessibility perspective (except for Dreamwidth, which is great)
  • Discussions related to activism can get quite intense, and it’s not clear how good the moderation functionality is on any of these (again, except for Dreamwidth)

Commercial offerings

Several of these are big-ticket items that probably aren’t feasible for a local group.  Then again, some of these companies have discounts for non-profits; depending on how they interpret that, some activism groups might qualify.

Mighty Networks (“everything you need to create a safe, private space for your people that’s all yours”) is a well-funded woman-led startup with a strong focus on helping people monetize the groups they host.  Their functionality includes topics, groups, polls, questions, courses, real world and online events (supporting Zoom and Crowdcast), analytics, and (in-process) payments.   Pricing: $57/month for business package (described here by CEO Gina Bianchini), $30K/year “pro” with custom apps.

Disciple Media (“where communities thrive”), from the UK, has groups, feeds, events, analytics, and other social-networky goodness via custom apps.  It’s currently mobile-only; they’re working on a web solution as well as an API.  Case studies include a yoga instructor, a football club’s magazine, and a British MP engaging with constituents. Pricing: starts at 5000/year?

Honeycommb (“a social platform for brands, influencers, and interest based communities”) includes custom apps and web access, groups, conversation, event, and analytics.   Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters community is their highest-profile site. Pricing: private networks are free up to 100 users, $3,300/year for up to 500 users, $20K/year for up to 10,000.

Hivebrite (“building blocks for creating great communities”) is a general community management tool including events, groups, a CMS and so on, including custom mobile apps.  They have products focused on alumni groups, professional networks (Microsoft Accelerator uses it), and non-profits. Pricing: starts at $5000/year?

Tribe (“a powerful community platform, integrated into your product”) has standard functionality (groups, feeds, profiles) in a web interface, and they seem to have put more thought than the others into embedding into other sites; they have widgets, and are one of the few sites that mentions moderation on their features.   Pricing: Premium package (100,000 MAU, integrations with apps like Slack etc) is $400/month.

Mobilize (“a modern, human-first approach to creating powerful, purpose-driven membership networks”) is used by Indivisible for its group leader discussion format.  Based on my experiences there and multiple reports of accessibility problems I would not recommend using it for activism purposes (or anything else really).

Open Source

Open source software gives you the option of hosting the community yourself, which has advantages in terms of privacy, control, and potentially cost but will require some technical expertise and ongoing operations and maintenance work.   Most also provide some paid hosting options.

Discourse (“civilized discussion for your community”) and Nodebb (“A better community platform for the modern web”) have less functionality than the others; they’re basically discussion forums.  Discourse’s functionality and ecosystem of extensions is richer, but it’s very problematic from a diversity perspective (founder Jeff Atwood also founded Stack Overflow), and most its early adopters have been heavily-male sites (mostly in the tech and gaming areas). and Nodebb’s community site have more.  Other forum alternatives include earlier-generation PHP-based solutions like Xenforo and Vanilla Forums.

Dreamwidth has discussion groups (called communities) and journals.  It still looks like Live Journal from the early 2000s, which might well be a barrier for a lot of people.  Still, it stands out for its attention to accessibility, moderation support, ability to handle threads with thousands of posts, strong ethical principles and focus on privacy, pseudonymity, and accessibility. Dreamwidth founder Denise Paolucci’s News (and Welcome!), from 2017, talks about their history.

Known (“a collaborative social publishing engine”) has posts, photos, and discussions. One of its strengths is the ability to syndicate posts to various other social networks, and it has a lot of plugins available.

WordPress and Drupal are general-purpose open-source platforms which offer plugins to provide feeds, discussion groups, events, and all the other functionality an activism group would need.  Both platforms are extremely extensible and customizable, and have a good ecosystem of hosting companies as well.  Then again, integrating all the different pieces can be difficult and expensive; and the end result is likely to look a lot less polished than the platforms I discuss above, and there may well be some usability challenges.   What would be really great is if somebody (or an organization) invested the time to create an integrated easily-installable and very usable distribution, with everything integrated and customizable … if anybody is working on that please let me know.

If anybody who has experience with these has any perspectives, I’d love to hear from you.   And I’m sure there are some other good options I missed.  Your suggestions welcome on that front as well!


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