On Elon Musk and the race to Mars…
Anil Dash on returning to the building blocks of the web. Which is to say, the idea of “the web” being made up of thousands of small privately run sites, rather than a handful of giant data-sucking digital feudal states. (Among other things.)
For people who don’t know Web History 1.0, Dash was one of the key figures of the early personal web, involved in the development of services including Movable Type (and its hosted version, TypePad) and LiveJournal (before it got sold to the Russians, in a move that looks Portentous In Hindsight).1
As someone who has run some version of my own website since 1999, and my own server since circa 2000, obviously I’m biased towards Dash’s argument. I’ve always crossposted content to the big “social” platforms of the day2—see for example my Tumblr and Dreamwidth—but I don’t let content sit there forever (it gets auto-deleted after about a month) and the “master” copy is always held by me, in my own database. I like the “data sovereignty” aspect of keeping my own stuff on my own site,3 but the main issue is, and always has been, in discoverability/social interaction. Hence the crossposting.
This is not something I think is insurmountable. The current crop of self-hosted blog/CMS tools are not great on things like federation but there’s no reason that needs to remain the case. Services like Mastodon and diaspora* prove modern social features like dashboards, liking, and reblogging work fine in a federated/multi-server model… even cross-app, assuming everyone is using open protocols. (Remember things like RSS and trackbacks?)
Obviously running their own federated social network infrastructure is not going to be an option for everybody. But, again, I think there’s a happy medium between “everyone is their own admin” and “Facebook owns everyone”. Think family- and community group-run instances of Federated Social Platform X, which can talk to but retain backend infrastructure/data isolation from other instances.
This is, obviously, idealistic and the main barrier here is money. Facebook has the money to run servers and pay devs to put in the features in a way, say, diaspora* admins don’t.4 Again, this isn’t a new problem; more people use iPhones than Ubuntu, too, despite them both technically being forks of the same operating system. But Apple, like Facebook, has the money, and the devs, and the designers, and thus the ability to produce (and market) a polished, commodified user experience.
All that being said, money alone won’t save Facebook if, for example, its bad PR gets to critical mass and/or (more likely) its business model is ruled illegal. And if the empires of digital feudal lords start to crumble, then Web 1.0 v2.0 will be waiting for it…
- Speaking of LiveJournal; one of the things a lot of people seem to forget is that LJ was originally only the official hosted version of a free codebase. In other words, anyone with a server could set up a LiveJournal clone… and they did, which gave us things like DeadJournal, InsaneJournal, JournalFen, and Dreamwidth. In theory, you can even still set up your own clone; I’m not sure where the LJ code lives these days, but DW’s fork has some fairly straightforward instructions. ^
- … Assuming they have APIs to do so. ^
- Obviously, I don’t run my own datacenter, so I’m still on someone else’s infrastructure somewhere down the chain. But there is a lot more choice of providers here than if I were relying solely on a SaaS/PaaS service like Facebook/Tumblr/Medium/WordPress.com/Blogger/etc., and also the financial relationship is a lot more traditional; I’m my provider’s customer, not advertisers or data brokers or governments. ^
- This is also one of the reasons I think Mastodon has gotten much more traction versus Twitter than diaspora* has versus Facebook; Twitter’s more abbreviated service and kinda crappy product management makes it a much softer target. ^
Nostalgic-af essay on the late 90s personal internet.
I won’t lie, this—plus all the other Old Web Nostalgia that’s been going around recently—made me go on an archive.org hunt for what I remember of the Web That Was. I found it in fragments. Half-broken museum pieces of the sites I remember (muted.com, impolite.org, taintedweb). Some sites online but frozen in time (#!/usr/bin/girl). Some still online and moved on (Furious Angel, Jemjabella, Loobylu, Ladybot). And then some I can’t find at all (six.nu, what happened to you?).
One of the things that gets to me, though—asides from how young we all were—was how little some things have changed, even when it seems everything has. Like, a lot of Tumblr fandom now seems like a retread of the early-to-mid ’00s personal internet (hell, even some of the the aesthetic is starting to feel creepingly familiar), except nowadays instead of whether or not your site is valid XHTML and rag-right aligned, all the drama and pileons are about whether or not someone’s Steven Universe headcanons pass the purity test. Different content, same tiny font. All it needs is for someone to bring back webrings…1
- Seriously, please. Someone bring back webrings. Webrings were great! ^
On the long, slow quiescence of this forgotten social network. Tl;dr, Diaryland didn’t sell its users out (a la Facebook, Twitter, etc.), thus never turned massive profit or experienced (read: had an incentive to chase) massive growth.
Ironically, I think Diaryland was probably the only early social network I didn’t have an account on (and I had a Melo, of all things)…
Wait. Do… do people think the definition of the “public square” is a place where people just… gather in public? Because actually that explains a hell of a lot…
(Also, spoiler alert, the notion of the “public square” is of land held, collectively, both for and, more critically, by the public. By definition, if something is privately owned, then it’s not a “public square”.)
… Okay so now I’m thinking about what an actual “public square” social media website would look like.
I mean, the obvious answer is “managed by a government on behalf of its citizens”, i.e. how “public land” works, but the international nature of social media makes that… problematic.1
So, failing that… perhaps a site run under some kind of trust/co-op arrangement on behalf of its users? With some kind of governance body and associated user representation. Would that mean users had to buy-in to be members? How would membership (“citizenship”?) be conveyed? Would there be a ruling body? Some kind of bureaucracy?
Incidentally, the closest thing I can think of of a website that runs in this fashion is the AO3, which is not “social media” in the strictest sense, but does have a social element. But even the AO3 is tied to a private (non-profit) entity as defined by an existing nation state (the US).
I suppose it’s also possible that the entire notion of a “public good” on the internet is, in itself, unattainable given that the internet itself is a series of interconnected privately owned infrastructure systems. This, I suppose, is the argument for nationalising internet infrastructure… which, while it’s an idea I don’t outright oppose, comes with its own sets of issues.
Anyway, tl;dr I don’t have an actual answer to this, but it is interesting to think about. And also: Twitter, Facebook… even Mastodon instances, et al., are not “public squares”. They’re private ones.
- Also, I know how much y’all, not 100% unreasonably, hate/mistrust governments. ^
James Mickens on machine learning, AI, and security.
From the keynote’s summary:
Using case studies involving machine learning and other hastily-executed figments of Silicon Valley’s imagination, I will explain why computer security (and larger notions of ethical computing) are difficult to achieve if developers insist on literally not questioning anything that they do since even brief introspection would reduce the frequency of git commits.
Nitpick: Decentralized and federated aren’t the same thing when referring to computer systems. Mastodon is both because anyone can run their own instance and have it interact with everyone else (decentralized), and because it’s built as an extension of a protocol that’s interoperable with non-Mastodon systems (federated).
Twitter, conversely, is centralized… but it’s also federated in the sense that it can serve as a federated identity provider. Ditto Facebook. It’s just that the social media components of those systems aren’t federated.
Email is an interesting case. Normally I’d argue that’s its decentralized but not federated… but I could potentially be swayed by an argument that it’s federated in the same context Mastodon is (i.e. is made up of separate yet interoperable implementations of an open standard).