Roll up, Roll out

I ended up going down a bit of a rabbit hole via Warren Ellis, who linked to Jay Springett, who linked to Matt Mullenweg, who linked to some nifty projects, and it got me thinking about what the state of the art these days even really is, as far as blogging and forums and online spaces are concerned.

I’d rather murder myself than ever go near any kind of online forum again. But a return to forum life for people who actually want to think and talk would fit with the current tone of the dark-forest-y online discourse I’ve seen.

Warren Ellis

I’m personally with Warren on this: I’m not inclined to create, manage, moderate, or even participate in a forum again any time soon. But I appreciate that forums are useful, may scratch a need for some people, and that the tools for forums are in dire need of some attention.

I must admit, I’ve not really been following the Dark Forest discourse as much as perhaps I should. It doesn’t quite fit for me, as a metaphor. I feel like a lot of the folks I see talking about that particular metaphor for online interaction are people who already built an audience, found their tribe, and then opted to withdraw to their enclaves, taking their tribe with them. That’s not a dark forest, that’s a raiding party.

Don’t get me wrong, I see what they’re talking about, and how devastating it can be to become that day’s Main Character, and that there is value in keeping a lower profile. But I feel like the metaphor falls down. So much of the online discourse they’re theoretically shying away from is centered around a desire to draw attention to yourself, to build an audience — in short, a popularity contest. So does that guardedness and wariness to share yourself more openly come from a dark forest where you could be destroyed, or does it come from a desire to control your narrative with the audience you’re trying to grow? I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something.

As a side note, I decided to start putting together a Glossary of the New Web, to try and capture various terms, concepts, systems, and tools that are part of the “internet discourse” these days. It’s not exhaustive, slightly opinionated, and generally brief, but I do try to link to where you might find out more. It’s a start.

Durable Pseudonyms

An interesting piece by Alfred Moore over at The Conversation talking about “Online anonymity: study found ‘stable pseudonyms’ created a more civil environment than real user names“. This hearkens back to a lot of thoughts I had about online identity back in the day – it’s interesting to see newer studies examining the space. The basic gist is that when comparing online discourse using real-life names, pseudonyms, or “durable pseudonyms”, stable pseudonyms led to notably more civil discussion.

Our results suggest that the quality of comments was highest in the middle phase. There was a great improvement after the shift from easy or disposable anonymity to what we call “durable pseudonyms”. But instead of improving further after the shift to the real-name phase, the quality of comments actually got worse – not as bad as in the first phase, but still worse by our measure.

Alfred Moore

This makes sense to me! I couldn’t tell you why a stable pseudonym ends up hitting the sweet spot, but anecdotally, it matches my experiences. There needs to be enough friction to spinning up a new account that folks are reluctant to do it just to talk trash, but not so heavy a process that no one will sign up. Sounds like the study authors are not 100% sure why, either, though they have some hypotheses:

We don’t know exactly what explains our results, but one possibility is that under durable pseudonyms the users orient their comments primarily at their fellow commentators as an audience. They then perhaps develop a concern for their own reputation within that forum, as has been suggested elsewhere.

Alfred Moore

Ello, Goodbye

Andy Baio has a nice, if bittersweet, elegy for ello, a social network that was (ostensibly) built for creatives, “The Quiet Death of Ello’s Big Dreams“. It is, if anything, a testament to the risks of pulling in VC money.

In June 2023, the servers just started returning errors, making nine years of member contributions inaccessible, apparently forever — every post, artwork, song, portfolio, and the community built there was gone in an instant.

How did this happen? What happened between the idealistic manifesto above and the sudden shutdown?

It’s a story so old and familiar, I predicted it shortly after Ello launched.

Andy Baio, “The Quiet Death of Ello’s Big Dreams”

I had an Ello account, joined in the initial rush when it launched, then wandered off. I’d occasionally check in on it, but was never particularly invested. Still, it’s kind of sad to see it just evaporate like that, and I feel for the users who were active on the service and lost everything they’d posted there.

It sort of reinforces the notion to me that the way tech startups are funded these days is just fundamentally broken. There’s this allure of VC money, but inherent to VC funding is this notion of perpetual rapid growth, and of either building an empire or being acquired by one. And if you’re trying to build an empire, that’s fine. But what if you only want a kingdom? Something only as big as you can manage, built to endure, but bigger and more notable than a small mom-and-pop shop. What does funding for that look like?

A few quick links about the web

Some quick links I wanted to capture. First, Joan Westenberg, writing “I miss the internet.” I miss it, too.

The homogeneity of the modern web is disheartening. Every website and platform is just a slight variation on a handful of templates. The eccentricity, the vibrant individuality, and the raw expression that once pulsated across the net all seem to have been replaced by either an inoffensive, user-friendly sameness or an algorithm-endorsed near-genocidal mania of hate speech that is somehow deemed socially acceptable.

Worse still, today’s internet is a place of scrutiny, surveillance, and unprecedented data exploitation. We’ve traded our privacy and autonomy for the convenience and connectivity it provides, and in so doing, have become commodities in an unseen market. In the pursuit of progress and personalization, we have inadvertently sterilized the very essence of the web, transforming it from a shared experience into a solitary echo chamber.

Joan Westenberg, “I miss the internet”

Then Anil Dash wrote a piece for Rolling Stone, and then elaborated on his blog, “The Web Renaissance Takes Off“:

So, while I’m still circumspect and cautious about the very real threats and harms that will come from the worst parts of the major internet platforms, I am more optimistic than I’ve been in a long time about the massive potential of the human internet to come roaring back in a way that we haven’t seen in a generation. More and more, I think of it as “the people’s web”. And like so many things that come from, and by, the power of the people, it’s a movement that can be delayed, or undermined, but increasingly I have come to believe that it cannot possibly be truly stopped.

Anil Dash, “The Web Renaissance Takes Off”

(I appreciate the optimism of it, and remain somewhat hopeful as well.)

Next, from Jason, a post asking “Where have all the websites gone?” Which feels a bit like an elegy for the internet of yesteryear, while calling out something I’ve felt myself: one of the ways the old internet worked was through the curators, and how essential the sharing was.

We used to know how to do this. Not long ago, we were good at separating the signal from noise. Granted, there’s a lot more noise these days, but most of it comes from and is encouraged by the silos we dwell in.

Somewhere between the late 2000’s aggregator sites and the contemporary For You Page, we lost our ability to curate the web. Worse still, we’ve outsourced our discovery to corporate algorithms. Most of us did it in exchange for an endless content feed. By most, I mean upwards of 90% who don’t make content on a platform as understood by the 90/9/1 rule. And that’s okay! Or, at least, it makes total sense to me. Who wouldn’t want a steady stream of dopamine shots?

Jason, “Where have all the websites gone?”

Worth a read. I like seeing the direction the discourse has been going lately.

Finally, Giles Turnbull issues a challenge to creators and developers: let’s put effort into creating a sea of new tools for the indie web, and let’s make them easy to install and use:

We need more self-hosted platforms for personal publishing that aren’t WordPress. And don’t point me to Hugo or Netlify or Eleventy or all those things – all of them are great, but none of them are simple enough. We need web publishing tools that do not require users to open the Terminal at all. And we need lots of them. 

We need a whole galaxy of options.

[…]

It’s not that I hate WordPress. I don’t use it, personally, but I don’t hate it. I can see the benefits of using it. It’s a great tool. 

But it needs more competition. People coming fresh to web publishing should have more options.

Giles Turnbull, “Let’s make the indie web easier”

I do use WordPress, and I still agree with the sentiment – the competition is useful to keep all platforms on their toes, and now may be a fantastic opportunity to go back to first principles and see what a tool for putting things on the internet should look like now.

The Internet is Worse Than Ever

If you’re not familiar with Kurzgesagt, they’re a Youtube channel that does well researched, informative videos about a broad range of topics. In this case, it’s about the impact of social media on society, and clarifies some information about social filter bubbles and social sorting.

I suppose it’s unsurprising to say that I agree with their thoughts on how to improve the situation – move out of the “digital town square” and get back to smaller communities. It’s healthier for society, it’s healthier for you. This also all puts me in mind of a recent article in Garbage Day, which was discussing that the internet has actually gotten smaller, with a subset of creators making an outsized portion of the content you see day-to-day. In short, social consolidation leads to a reversion to the same sort of “broadcasting” mentality of older media. Social media serves as a channel for this sort of broadcasted content, and if you want to get back to a broader, weirder, more diverse range of content, the answer is to get back to a broader, weirder, more diverse range of online communities.

That’s a trade-off, economically speaking: if you make it big in a centralized outlet, you stand to make a lot of money – smaller communities inherently have less money to offer. But, that presumes you’ll manage to rise to the top of the creator heap – it’s far more likely that you’ll fall somewhere in the long tail of a pareto distribution. In a more distributed, fractured internet, the peak is lower, but you have more opportunity to get a slice of that sum, so you might actually end up making about the same (or more). It’s hard to say.

That’s a bit of a digression, though. Go watch the video, it’s only ~11 minutes long, and let me know what you think.

The Handcrafted Artisanal Web

John Scalzi talked a while back about How to Weave the Artisan Web:

1. Create/reactivate your own site, owned by you, to hold your own work. 

2. When you create that site, write or otherwise present work on your site at least once a week, every week.

3. Regularly visit the sites of other creators to read/see/experience the work they present there.

4. Promote/link the work of others, on your own site and also on your other social media channels where you have followers. Encourage your followers to explore more widely, beyond the algorithmic borders of “social media.”

John Scalzi

I do agree with those suggestions, even if I’m not always the best at doing them myself.

Continue reading “The Handcrafted Artisanal Web”

Threads and Mastodon

I’ll shush on this soon, as I’m sure y’all either are already getting flooded with thinkpieces about this, or don’t care about the topic that much. But before I move on to other things, a nice article by Watts Martin: “You’re So Vain, You Probably Think This App Is About You: On Meta and Mastodon” The gist is that a lot of the hand-wringing about Threads (and more specifically, Meta) joining the Fediverse and mucking it up is probably overblown.

How can I say that so confidently? Because Threads is not a Mastodon instance. It is its own self-contained, centralized social network with plans to let its users follow Mastodon accounts and vice versa.

[…]

So, on one hand: a billion users who accept Instagram showing them ads, algorithm-jamming their timelines and hoovering up as much personally identifiable information about them as they can. On the other: two or three million users on an explicitly anti-corporate platform engineered to be highly resistant to leaking private data. I dare you to make a convincing business case for Facebook spending a single cent trying to capture a fraction of the second group, when it’s less than a percent the size of the first group.

Watts Martin

I’m inclined to agree… mostly. I think them even announcing plans to support ActivityPub was a red herring, a way to hedge their bets in case they didn’t get the immediate traction they were hoping for. (And as Watts points out in their piece, it looks good to regulators.) Since they did get the rapid adoption going, I wouldn’t be surprised if that feature quietly drops off their roadmap entirely. And honestly, that’s fine – I didn’t really expect them to keep it open for very long anyway, so if it never opens up in the first place, the end result is the same.

I do also agree with Watts that mastodon instance admins being reactionary and defederating Threads before it even opens is overkill – silencing them so they don’t end up flooding your Federated tab and killing your server is probably plenty.

The truly toxic idea, though, is that Mastodon instances should not only refuse to federate with Threads, but they should refuse to federate with other servers that do federate with Threads. In other words, users should be punished for decisions they have no control over and may not even be aware of, made by the administrators of servers they don’t belong to. I am dead serious when I call this toxic. The default position must, must, be that breaking your users’ social graphs is a last resort against clear and present danger. A server explicitly welcomes Nazis, child porn, TERFs, and serial harassers? Block that fucker. But it’s absurd to insist that federating with Meta’s general-interest server presents the same threat level.

Watts Martin

Enshittification (and what to do about it)

A while back, Cory Doctorow had an article that made the rounds called “Tiktok’s Enshittification“, and then a follow-up called “Gig apps trap reverse centaurs in wage-stealing Skinner boxes“, both of which are well worth the time to read. I’m fairly certain that’s where the term “enshittification” was coined, and damn if it doesn’t make a lot of sense:

Here is how platforms die: first, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

I call this enshittification, and it is a seemingly inevitable consequence arising from the combination of the ease of changing how a platform allocates value, combined with the nature of a “two sided market,” where a platform sits between buyers and sellers, holding each hostage to the other, raking off an ever-larger share of the value that passes between them.

Cory Doctorow, “Tiktok’s Enshittification
Continue reading “Enshittification (and what to do about it)”

Trying to take off the Cynic Hat

I’d started writing a screed here about how Threads’ purported support for interoperation with other services through ActivityPub (an open standard) is a red herring, and how they’ll be locking it down as soon as they hit a critical mass (which I stand by, for what it’s worth – I give it two years before things start shifting, shutting down APIs, breaking interoperability, adding features that “only work in Threads”, putting their thumb on the scales for changes to the standard, etc). But I realized I was wearing my Cynic Hat, and yucking peoples’ yum doesn’t really help. I’ve already mentioned my concerns about their privacy settings and intertwining with Instagram – if, knowing that, you still opt to sign up, that’s up to you, go have fun.

So instead, here’s a few projects that are giving me some hope:

  • The Flickr Foundation and Wikimedia Commons are partnering to improve the bridge between the services. (For those out of the loop, Flickr has been quietly rebuilding itself since it was acquired by SmugMug back in 2018, and launched a non-profit – the Flickr Foundation – in 2022, to help steward the large body of public domain or creative commons licensed material that had accumulated. I have a soft spot for any project that aims at preservation and responsible sharing of creative work, and this seems like a good one.)
  • Several museums have begun making available high quality scans of many important works from their archives. Notably, the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art are both doing this. The Creative Law Center has a page with a list of museums part of this effort! (If you haven’t checked the Creative Law Center out, it’s a fantastic resource for explaining things like copyright, trademarks, licensing, and what to do about it all as a creator.)
  • Tumblr. Hear me out: after seeing it get run into the ground by corporate parent companies (for years!), seeing it get some genuine love and support from their new owners (Automattic, same folks who own WordPress) has been refreshing and appreciated. It has its own culture and customs, and while they’ve made efforts to provide some mechanisms for monetization (gotta pay that server bill somehow, right?), those efforts have very much been in keeping with the nature of the site and the people who use it. Time will tell on whether that’s enough for them to thrive, but that they’re at least trying alternatives to the current de facto default of highly targeted user-data-driven advertising gives me some hope. Obviously I’m more aligned with hosting your own shit, but if that’s not viable for some reason, going somewhere that at least isn’t going to actively sell you to the highest bidder feels like a good next-best alternative.

Social Network Power Vacuums

The continued collapse of Twitter has lead to all sorts of folks scrambling to fill the void. They’re all a bit of a shitshow in different ways (which, let’s be honest, so is/was Twitter). Will Blue Sky be the next Twitter? Will Threads be the next Twitter? Will Hive be the next Twitter? Will Twitter be the next Twitter? It’s all a bit laughable.

First there were the young scrappy services that were already trying to do a thing (think Mastodon or Hive), so already existed when the exodus from Twitter first started. None of those are going to get the mass inertia (and I think that’s a good thing, let them fill particular niches like they already were – hopefully enough folks stick around there that it just makes them more viable for their communities in the long run).

Now you’ve got the services that were either in development (Blue Sky) or fast-followed (Threads). Blue Sky might end up doing a thing – I’m not on it, but it sounds like a lot of “the cool kids” managed to land there. It’s still a semi-closed beta, so it’s got the “exclusivity” thing going (but folks say also means it feels more like pre-2013 Twitter). Threads is Meta’s fast-follow into the Twitter-like space, it just came out, and design-wise people seem okay with it, but is a privacy nightmare, and has the sort of dark patterns and bullshittery you’d expect from Meta (for instance, if you decide you don’t like Threads and want to delete your Threads account, you must also delete the Instagram account you linked to it).

Broderick had a good observation that’s been making the rounds:

I think hardcore Twitter users have rose-colored glasses about the site’s coolness. The reason for its success, if you can argue that it was ever really successful, wasn’t that it was cooler than Facebook. It was because of its proximity to power. The reason it was so popular with activists, extremists, journalists, and shitposters was because what you posted there could actually affect culture. The thing that ties together pretty much everything that’s happened on Twitter since it launched in 2006 was the possibility that those who were not in power (or wanted more) could influence those who were. And I don’t think it’s an accident that a deranged billionaire broke that, nor do I think it’s accident that we’re suddenly being offered smaller, insular platforms or an offshoot of a Meta app as replacements. The folks in charge clearly don’t want that to happen again.

Ryan Broderick, “Paying to use a site you can’t use anymore

I think he’s right. I also think that will probably continue to be an anomaly. The “social media” era in general I don’t think has been a healthy one, both for individuals and as a culture. There have been some great benefits (rapid information dissemination in times of crisis, methods to have dialogue with folks in positions of power, etc), but it’s lead to some pretty massive drawbacks as well (a rise in depression and feelings of isolation, conflation with personal identity and “brand”, influencer culture in general).

I don’t know what shape things will go from where, what the transition will be, or if we’ll not actually move on and instead just limp along with a shittier, rotted husk of an internet. I think the corporate-driven shambling zombie outcome is just as likely (or more likely) as the outcome where we move past this and figure out a healthier, better method for interacting online. The internet is pretty shit right now, but shit can make good fertilizer, so a part of me remains hopeful that there’s a seed somewhere out there that will germinate and grow, and in like a year or three we start hearing about something that is surprisingly awesome. (I don’t think it’ll be any of the services from now, though.)