You Can’t ‘Just Build Your Own Twitter’
To build an alternate social media website with a dissenting moderation policy, you must first invent the universe. Good luck.
The balance of two opposing forces—military-industrial surveillance capitalism and progressive cultural hegemony—once formed an equilibrium that gave the average Joe some options in life. That equilibrium was on its way out for a while, but it collapsed with the Capitol riots. The progressive camp has swallowed up its rival—or maybe the other way around. Anyway, who cares. Does the supposed direction of this absorption tell us much besides the team affiliation of the one supposing it?
We’re seeing the beginnings of what unambiguous power looks like. Corporate donors are dropping the GOP, throwing away an intimate, decades-long DD/lg relationship. But perhaps more important is the wave of unprecedented internet censorship that included the digital death penalty for Trump and his allies, and also for any users who continue to make claims of election fraud. This was seemingly coordinated among the entire now-private public square, and private companies are of course allowed to do whatever they want.
Average Joe might feel like he’s living on the edge of a knife. Don’t like it? Why not just create your own social media website that competes with Twitter in moderation policies? This is America, right?
But to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. Here are the interconnecting layers of the internet that you’ll need to recreate yourself.
- Build Your Own Website
Scattered across the infamy spectrum are a few attempts to Just Build Your Own Twitter. Building a website, in and of itself, is pretty easy these days, since there are open-source options that cost nothing and no-code services that can be bought. Both result in minimal technical work on your end.
Gab was founded in 2016 as a “free-speech” alternative to Twitter: the only content that’s restricted is content that violates the law. Because the only people who really benefit from a neutral content policy are culturally radioactive right-wingers, the user base quickly spiralled into a den of far-right villainy. Consequently, it was booted from the Google Play app store in 2017, and never made it onto the iOS App Store.
Parler, for reasons that escape me, tried the same thing as Gab but expected it to work. This Twitter-clone was founded in 2018 and was marketed to conservatives as a place free of partisan caprice. The typical user seems to be somewhat less racist than Gab: where Gab has Nazis, Parler has a few too many QAnon cultists.
In a shocking swerve, Parler was also booted from the two mobile app stores. So to build our own Twitter, we must go deeper down the stack.
- Build Your Own Mobile OS and App Store
Eighty percent of Twitter’s users access the social network through the mobile app. Having an app on iOS and Android is pretty essential for something as app-ish as a social media platform. People demand them. Using a mobile browser is an option for an app, but it’s weird and clunky and cuts you off from features that ease life’s difficulties such as push notifications.
Now let’s say we’ve done what Microsoft failed to do: we’ve elbowed our way into the smartphone duopoly and we have a competing app store. But websites like Parler have run into other problems: nobody will host them.
- Build Your Own Hosting Infrastructure
On Sunday Parler was deplatformed by Amazon Web Services, a hosting provider that was once so neutral that it previously hosted Netflix, its number one competitor in the video-on-demand space.
Another hosting provider, DigitalOcean, preemptively stated that Parler is not welcome on its platform. Parler is still homeless at the time of writing and therefore still offline.
We want to avoid this trouble, so we must Build Our Own Hosting Infrastructure. But the internet is a wild place, and any website with a large enough profile needs a readied shield to protect it from the ever-present danger of “the DDoS attack.”
- Build Your Own DDoS Mitigation
A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is when many different machines on the internet send spam messages to a service or a website with the purpose of overwhelming its bandwidth so that it ceases to function. It’s a ubiquitous problem on the internet and there’s no real solution to it. But there are DDoS mitigation services that can use sophisticated techniques to minimize the impact of such attacks. Without such a service, a website can be taken offline by anyone in the world who is sufficiently motivated and skilled.
8chan, an imageboard-type social media website where many failed predictions were made by QAnon himself, was dropped by DDoS protection service CloudFlare in 2019 because of pressure from the press. This was essentially a deathblow to the website, which isn’t reachable at the time of this writing.
So we Build Our Own. Our website is protected now. But what if we don’t even have a domain name?
- Build Your Own Domain Registrar
The domain-name system (DNS) is like a phonebook for the internet: human-meaningful names like twitter.com are correlated to the machine-meaningful IP addresses of the servers that host websites. A domain name like “theamericanconservative.com” is easy to memorize and manage by a person, but it needs some technical infrastructure to associate it with an actual machine on the network, which is identified by the machine-meaningful IP address of 18.104.22.168.
Private companies called domain-name registrars reserve and allocate domain names to websites. If you don’t have a domain name, nobody can find your website by conventional means; they have to punch in your server’s IP address to connect.
GoDaddy, a domain-name registrar, stripped Gab of their domain name in October 2018. Any serious website can’t live with such a looming risk, so we create our own registrar to secure the life of our Twitter clone. But what happens if nobody can find it?
- Build Your Own Search Engine
Search is usually the first step of interacting with the internet. Without access to search, a web surfer is as good as blind. Without being searchable, a website may as well not exist, domain name or not.
Google Search controls a 90 percent share of the internet market. There’s good evidence that they’ve dramatically pushed down conservative news websites in their search rankings. This is compounded by the fact that Google publicly admits to using human “raters” to categorize websites on search in terms of “Expertise/Authoritativeness/
There’s no proof that Google Search has come for dissenting social media websites, but we’ve come this far in rebuilding the layers of the internet, and the political winds don’t seem to be blowing in the favor of principled neutrality. It would be irresponsible to expose ourselves to the risk of politicized search, so we do what we must and build our own Google.
But we’re a business, and businesses need a way to send and receive money. Uh-oh!
- Build Your Own Payment Processor
Stripe and PayPal, two of the largest payment processors in the world, terminated their relationship with Gab in 2018. So we get our hands dirty.
Further down the line, these payment processors are pressured by Visa, Mastercard, and global banks, who will refuse to do business with them if they don’t abide by certain rules, which sometimes involves policing political content. I hope you’re noticing a pattern by this point.
- Build Your Own Bank
Visa has relationships with all the top banks—Chase, BofA, Wells Fargo, Citi—that underpin the entire credit card network. Together, these banks have a market cap of well over 1 trillion dollars. Still want to build your own Twitter? You have to build one of these. Creating your own community or regional bank won’t cut it. It will end up just as much a client of the system as anything else in the stack.
Payment processing is so politically fragile because it all falls on the back of this banking oligarchy; their underwriters are the people who can pull the trigger and designate anyone as “high risk.” Risk standards correlate closely with the narratives set by the progressive ideological complex, because mega-banks like everyone else don’t want to draw the withering gaze of the Pink Eye of Sauron.
But banking is one of the most regulated industries in the country, to the point where banks could be considered public-private partnerships. Not to mention that a bank charter is a government document, the kind that is very hard to get. No free market here!
We’re not quitters, though. So we get a charter, go through the regulatory hurdles, and use our superhuman business skills to bring our bank to a market capitalization of $200 billion or so and dethrone one of the Big Four.
We can finally do it! We can finally implement a social media website with a moderation policy different from Facebook and Google! We acted on the advice of Very Smart online commenters and simply outcompeted every multibillion- and multitrillion-dollar company at every layer of the internet and financial sectors of the global economy. Voila! All it took was creating a vertically integrated monopoly, the likes of which the world has never seen.
Not so fast.
There’s something called Operation Choke Point. It’s one of many ways that the federal government circumvents legal limits on its ability to crack down on its enemies by compelling private companies to do it for them. Between 2012 and 2015, firearms dealers, cryptocurrency firms, political radicals, and many others felt the smothering hand of the Department of Justice indirectly—by way of the banking industry.
Even though it’s been officially ended, Operation Choke Point produced a chilling effect in the financial-services industry. It’s basic business logic to hedge against regulatory risk. We’ve come so far, but not quite far enough.
- Build Your Own Government
Here we are, at the bottom of the stack. Here we find enlightenment: everything is interconnected, no company is truly “private,” and the government is laundering political favoritism through several degrees of separation. There’s no escape from this web of interdependence. It’s just like the acid trip told us.
We hinted at ways that the federal government deputizes private actors to circumvent constitutional limits of its power, but there’s more. Businesses face legal penalties in the form of hostile workplace litigation if they don’t police employee speech, very often in a partisan direction. This results in the ideological homogeneity we see in the corporations that define the public perception of reality, such as Google and Facebook. These rank-and-file employees, not top executives, are the ones who demand more radical policies of political policing and deplatforming. Remember: the unity of everything, man.
With cultural domination in one hand and financial muscle in the other, power is assuming its final, undivided form. American progressivism has gone mask-off and revealed itself to be little more than pink libertarianism. The interests of working people take a backseat to two symbiotic concerns: increasingly radical social crusades, and the apparently sacred property rights of megacorporations that insulate social crusades from opposition.
The progressivism of just five years ago was deeply suspicious of the military-industrial complex and surveillance capitalism. By pure coincidence it disappeared during the Trump administration. It’s logical for corporate America to play ball. For social media giants, an expensive, complex, and mandatory moderation regime serves as a tall barrier to entry.
Robert Mariani is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. He was hit with a Twitter suspension for no apparent reason while writing this article. If and when the suspension is lifted, follow him on Twitter at @robert_mariani.