I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the internet will look like in the future. Right now, it’s dominated by social media in one form or another, with large, megacorp silos acting as our primary sources of information and discourse. This is a shift from the “DIY” homegrown state of the early internet — while there were absolutely megacorps that cornered entire niches of the internet (think about the likes of AOL, for instance), it didn’t feel like quite as much of a stranglehold. There was lots of room for growth and plucky startups and homegrown projects. A proliferation of open source projects to run your own websites in all sorts of wacky configurations (lots of weird mishmashes of CMSes, blog software, forums, galleries, with some shaky handcrafted glue between them all). Lots of platforms, lots of different standards and protocols popping up all the time, and nothing really talking to each other all that well. Early attempts at cohesion had mixed success (OAuth, yay! RSS, woo! Trackbacks… um).
Given that sort of morass, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of these homegrown solutions gave way to professionally run central services. Tired of fiddling with your tumble log? Go sign up for Tumblr. Microblogging micromanagement got you down? Check out this Twitter thing. Sick of managing 500 logins to different forums? Roll on over to Reddit. Gallery software galling you? Find your way to Flickr! They handle the backend, you provide the content, and your audience grows as their userbase does! Sounds great, right?
In a lot of ways, it is kind of great. It opens up options and avenues for communication for millions more people who may not have the technical expertise or wherewithal to host their own services (assuming they even know what services they want or need). The value there is not to be understated!
But there are problems with this sort of centralization, as well. Since you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox, you need to abide by their rules, which historically many of these sites have made increasingly restrictive as time goes on. There’s been considerable debate about whether some of these platforms would qualify as a “public square” as far as freedom of speech considerations are concerned, but for now at least, they are private entities that can dictate what is and is not placed on their site, and if you don’t like that, you can take your toys and go elsewhere. Except… where else do you go? After you’ve built an audience, and your site is linked to a platform (i.e. facebook.com/whatever or foobar.tumblr.com), the hurdle of actually leaving feels almost insurmountable.
Another drawback to this centralization is cost. Many of these sites are ostensibly free to use — this is part of how they draw in such large numbers of users. But it costs a lot of money to handle that many users. Services at scale require both infrastructure and continued development. This has several ramifications: there is an impetus to draw in increasingly large numbers of users in order to draw investors and financial backing; “the users are the product,” where advertising revenue becomes how the service is funded. In both of these cases, the priorities of those in charge of the service can end up at odds with the interests of the users on the platform. You can see the outcomes of this split in vision and purpose in the various reports of sites like Facebook breaking trust, selling personal data to large corporations, and having an active hand in propaganda and political manipulation. (This is also exacerbated by online advertising being a largely unregulated wild west, where even what regulations we have aren’t consistently enforced. As evidenced in the last election cycle, egregious misinformation was peddled by multiple parties, in ways that would not be allowed in traditional media.)
This gets us to the state of things today. While there are still small sites scattered around, they effectively need to be labors of love, because sources of revenue have largely dried up, with advertising dollars getting increasingly allocated to the silos. Whether it’s news, media, or discourse, most of it goes through a handful of large sites. Further, newer regulations in both the US and the EU (among others) place significant financial and regulatory burden on new services, which serves to entrench the large corporations, while making it increasingly difficult for new contenders to rise up. It’s a period of consolidation and entrenchment. It’s a lurching Frankenstein’s monster, an abomination of the goals of the early internet.
Which gets me back to the original topic I started this post with: where are we going from here? We have significant consolidation right now, combined with regulatory and financial hurdles, the sheer inertia of existing offerings, and waning user trust in existing services, all of which points to the end of new social media services emerging. The cynic in me says that we’ve fucked things up too much, and entrenched megacorps is the new reality for the foreseeable future. But I do have a smidgen of hope.
My hope is federation. That is to say, that the protocols and systems that have been developed that allow for better interoperability between separate systems (such as ActivityPub, which is a specification that drives systems like Mastodon and Pixelfed) are finally mature enough to allow for a re-proliferation of smaller, more focused sites. It might not be viable to expect everyone to run their own instance, but if joining one service doesn’t hinder you from talking to your friends on another service, that’s a big big step forward. (The irony is that we had more interoperable services before, with things like Google and Facebook and Twitter having open APIs or using standards compliant technology like XMPP, fostering adoption… and then phasing out the interoperability once their user bases hit a critical mass. Which, incidentally, AOL was criticized for, not a decade prior, were lauded for eventually opening their chat service to third parties. Oh, how times change!)
What I’m hopeful for, my optimistic vision of the future of social media on the internet, is federated services. Varied smaller sites and systems talking to each other, with the ability to import and export your identity if you need to move services, where you can have a central, more tightly controlled online identity. Where you can have a sense of ownership of your content and identity, but still a sense of community and connection. I think the silos will still be there for a long time to come, and I don’t think it will be the full indieweb ideal, but viable decentralized solutions are coming. As far as I’m concerned, they can’t get here soon enough.
(Update: There’s a follow-up to this post here.)