An Alternative to YouTube: Internet Freedom in an Age of Giants

A good YouTube alternative is hard to find.

An Alternative to YouTube: Internet Freedom in an Age of Giants
Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Datamining is the practice by which almost all so-called “free services” operate, and plenty of paid services like Amazon amass such an indescribable amount of information about its users as to be nearly unthinkable. But what can be done to return control of users’ data to the people?

In the last few months I’ve been on a consistent hunt for the sort of projects that offer an alternative. There are few good contenders with Amazon, unfortunately, given their total monopoly over certain aspects of the commerce net. I can’t go to many other online retailers and find (A) the breadth of offerings, at (B) the price I, a poor person, can afford, and (C ) with the return policy that Amazon offers (the 30-day free returns has become essential for me for so many reasons. The one time in recent history where I had to go through a normal returns process was a bit of a nightmare).

How has my search gone, you wonder?

There are some delightful projects in the work, like AsteroidOS for smartwatches, PeerTube (supported by a French pro-privacy nonprofit), Mastodon (a Twitter-alternative where users “toot”), and new tools like which seek to be an all-in-one integration for a number of federated programs, including a cryptocurrency wallet that functions like CashApp.

But all of these services have what I’m going to call “the WhatsApp Problem.” Please bear with me through this preamble, I’ll get to the issue of YouTube momentarily.

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The “WhatsApp Problem”: or the danger of entrenched ecosystems.

Recently, many users found out that WhatsApp acquired more of their metadata than many were previously aware, and many users who were basically non-techies finally learned a little about what “metadata” even is and why it is so important. But, in the vast surge away from that platform (and toward others like Telegram which are actually not much better and, in some ways, are worse), a problem quickly emerged. How do people connect with their huge network of friends — a networked mired in the digital ecosystem of an app owned by an evil datamining monopoly? This is the “Whatsapp Problem”, namely that it’s difficult to leave an entrenched ecosystem because you’d need to convince everyone to leave with you.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons unions get suppressed, because collective bargaining is so powerful, but that’s a different subject.

Signal is a really great alternative for many aspects of a secure messaging system. I have to agree in part with its founder, Moxie Marlinspike, who stated that a centralized system might be the only real contender to other centralized systems (like Amazon/Google/Facebook), because a centralized system can respond and update faster, provide a consistent experience, and moderate effectively. This finally brings me back to the main topic of this article: finding a YouTube alternative.

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What alternatives to YouTube are there, anyway?

YouTube has turned into a global powerhouse and is one of the most accessible sources of vital and artistic work in the world today. It’s also owned by Google which profits vastly from the collection and use of every piece of data about you it can find. In his excellent medium blog post “How copyright filters lead to wage theft”, Corey Doctorow outlines some of the problems with YouTube in clear and stark terms.

But now that we know about the problem, where do we look for a solution? There are paid platforms like Vimeo which are traditionally bastions of higher-level content than YouTube, and there are federated platforms like PeerTube. Neither is 100% an ideal replacement to YouTube, though PeerTube could be… if some of the seriously major kinks are worked out of the system.


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Vimeo is a great content sharing platform that most people have heard about by now because it’s managed to solidify itself as a name-brand for higher-end work in the video production realm. Because it has a much smaller community than YouTube and because it survives through paid plans instead of datamining, Vimeo has become a bastion for high-end content, including YouTube style vlogs, but especially short films and various tutorials.

Vimeo has a lot of features that make it accessible, a great and varied payment system that allows creators to receive funds for the work they produce, excellent interface and software, and the benefit of a centralized infrastructure which ensures content conforms to ethical/moral/legal guidelines. Unlike YouTube it has no automated content disabling system that serves the big corporate interests at the expense of the small-time content creator and artist.


Photo by Micaela Parente on Unsplash

PeerTube isn’t actually a platform, it’s a hosting federation — a basic foundation for the creation of individually curated “tubes” (called “instances”). Anyone can host their own content on an instance they create, so I could essentially host my own “mini YouTube” if I so chose, or set up an instance with a hosting provider that I liked and run my mini-YouTube off of their servers. Because it’s not a centralized platform, nobody can tell me what I can upload or not (as long as I’m posting within the content guidelines of a specific instance I can upload content to that instance).

This is great for privacy enthusiasts, those who need to escape local censorship laws, and also those who just want a nice backup to their YouTube content in case the YouTube robomoderator deletes their video due to a copyright claim by a big corpo. But there are some severely massive problems as well.

The first problem is one of size. This is a point that a lot of pro-PeerTubers like to quibble about, but I find their arguments totally moot. PeerTube as a network function has a lot of potential, but there simply aren’t that many instances and there’s no good way to sort through the various instances that do exist. (An app called Thorium is trying to change that but it’s in an early Alpha state).

The second PeerTube problem is worse, and built in. Namely: the ability of anyone to upload content however they want, whenever they want, with very few restrictions. Because of this, many PeerTube instances have been flooded with extremists who have been banned from centralized platforms because of hate-speech and things like anti-vax rhetoric. Other times, they’ve just gone and created their own instances, filling them with a spewing bile of awfulness.

And the extremism is often mixed with conspiracy theory stuff, as mentioned before. I found a massive amount of conspiracy theory material on PeerTube instances that were ostensibly anti-Alt-Right. If you can be anti-fascist but are just as crazy as them, it doesn’t entice new users.

And there is the final problem. There is not enough content. YouTube has oodles of really ugly content buried in its depths, despite recent attempts to clear a lot of it out. But it’s largely obscured by really good stuff (or at least by really inane and stupid stuff). There is a hardcore network of YouTubers who do amazing blogging, who create clothes from scratch, who design musical instruments, who sing, who offer inspirational guidance to millions of fans… hop into any PeerTube instance and for every one video that’s kind/sweet/funny/inspirational you’ll find ten that have no meaning to anyone who isn’t a technologist and twenty that are conspiracy theories/extremist/weird.

PeerTube can only succeed if it grows, if its userbase climbs dramatically and blots out the undesirable and extremist elements. There needs to be a way of simplifying the process, of making it easier for people to join, connect, upload work, and be rewarded for that work — and it needs to come with a means of forcibly filtering out the content that’s horrendous. Of de-voicing the people who are awful so that the normal people and the good ones who create cool content, can migrate to a platform that isn’t going to take advantage of them.

What does the future hold?

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

I’m always curious. Will there be viable alternatives in the next few years to systems owned by the monopolies? Technologically, the only thing holding it back is funding. But the philosophy of such places needs to evolve as well. If there’s no method of ensuring that extremist, hateful, and hurtful content isn’t culled, no PeerTube-like system will ever thrive beyond a small community of tech-minded fans, privacy hopefuls, and the paranoid/extremist detritus of our various interlinked societies.

Until then, paid platforms like Vimeo offer a nice middle ground… for those who can afford it.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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