LOG OFF Writer Molly Armstrong investigates Dark-Web alternatives to social media, proving just how many ways there are to remain connected online.
One thing that is tied, wrapped, tethered to our social media experiences is our identity. For some, it’s what sells--influencers market this to fans. Companies love the vast pool of data our virtual identities supply. Our online ‘selves’ have transformed into an extremely valuable component of the internet, social media and economy today.
Though if you’re already here on the LOG-OFF website, you probably know first-hand how overwhelming your online identity can become, especially for us young people who are still in the thralls of finding our actual ones.
If you’re like me, you may have reached the point of wanting it to simply disappear, just as easy as hitting a delete button, scrubbing your virtual identity off the web and getting to finally focus on yourself far, far away from the realm of mainstream social media. You can do this by deleting your accounts, totally. . .but how nice would it be to do so without completely giving up the connections and knowledge-sharing that social media provides?
Sure, you can also achieve this by acting anonymously on Facebook or Instagram--but this can hinder your experience on a platform which specifically promotes sharing identity.
So, are there social networks that are first and foremost designed to prioritize the opposite : anonymity among users?
That’s where I figured the Dark Web could come in, the space on the Internet known for fostering anonymity and privacy, both.
Though first, I want to clarify some things about the Dark Web and the Deep Web. The Deep Web is everything that is not accessible (indexed) by standard search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing etc.), like emails, private messages or profiles, online banking information, data stored on private databases, among many, many more content-types.
The Dark Web is an extremely small portion of the Deep Web consisting of sites intentionally hidden from the Surface Web, sites that use the Internet through private computer networks like the Tor Browser.
When you use Tor, it sends your traffic through multiple computers (nodes) all across the world before you reach a site so your IP address and location is hidden behind the entire daisy chain of connections.
There are lots of uses for this anonymity, which can be seen through the plethora of illegal services and marketplaces speckling the Dark Web. This is also why you need to be careful when using Tor because if your computer isn’t properly protected your information can be stolen by hackers (identity theft).
On the flipside, this anonymity also provides a unique space for a lot of good things, like whistleblowing, human-rights organizations, and free journalism, which can make Tor a precious resource for users in countries with tight censorship as well as regular people who just want some more privacy.
In addition to all these various Dark Web activities, good and bad, there is indeed social networking.
In fact, Facebook actually has an ‘.onion’ address on Tor (though it’s the same Facebook). There’s also sites mirroring Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and the like. However, how do they compare? When you take identity largely out of the equation, what does it look like?
A good starting place for exploring these questions is considering the widely known Surface Web social media, Reddit, a platform that rides the line of what traditional social media is defined as.
People typically don’t post about themselves for the purpose of updating people; instead, personal information that is shared is often collateral for receiving advice or learning. For example with posts in r/relationship_advice, many users don’t have their names attached to their profiles so the information isn’t contributing to a real-life identity.
Reddit is an example of a successful platform where one can function anonymously and fully enjoy the benefits it provides.
However, try to imagine a totally anonymous Facebook or Instagram--it’s kind of hard to see how it could function the same or even similar to itself.
My experience with Dark Web social networks supported this. One thing that seems to be true across sites (ones I could access with working links) is that their structure and design resemble Reddit more than Facebook or Instagram.
Common themes are forum-like design and sub-communities, with discussion and information-sharing being the main mode of interaction. Though it was plain to see that finding strong connections with others was not the first priority, and really any connection wasn’t exactly either.
A reason for that is the fact a lot of people use these sites for serious privacy and security reasons, not just because they’re tired of keeping up a virtual identity, like me. Disappointing but expectedly, this lends itself to another theme across Dark Web social networks: darker discussion topics and marketplace talk, bordered by an annoying amount of ads for illegal services and products. Well-known sites like Galaxy3 or Dread appear to be less useful to the regular, law-abiding person and more to Dark Web users who actually have something to hide.
Overall, general Dark Web social networking sites (unsurprisingly) are not up to par with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. when it comes to offering a satisfactory experience in the same areas. It seems that finding an anonymous and private alternative to Reddit is generally more feasible than finding one for Instagram.
And on these more anonymous platforms, consistent connection with specific people may not be so easy or even possible, but untethering your identity can nonetheless be refreshing even if you do have to sacrifice some functionality.
Lastly, while I was disappointed with a lot of the social networks I encountered on the Dark Web, I did find one possible gem in my search: Aether!
Aether is actually a desktop app rather than an ‘.onion’ site so Tor isn’t needed, thankfully eliminating those Dark Web-specific downsides I mentioned above. Plus, Aether provides an example of an anonymous social network targeted toward users who want to exit mainstream social media, with the additional perk of a clean and well-designed user interface.
In terms of experience, Aether feels like entering an infant stage of Reddit because user counts are low and there’s so many sub-communities waiting to be created, though you can tell it’ll grow. If you have a sub-community you’d like to get in on early or create yourself, or of course if you're looking for an anonymous social media alternative, check it out!
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Louise, Elizabeth. “Top 10 Best Dark Web Websites to Explore in 2021 & How to Get Started.” Every Bit Helps, 5 Feb. 2021, everybithelps.co.uk/the-best-dark-websites/.
Madrigal, Alexis C. “Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 12 Oct. 2012, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/10/dark-social-we-have-the-whole-history- of-the-web-wrong/263523/.