Now that we’ve had a little more time since the initial shock and awe of the Elon Musk purchase of Twitter, social networks have had a chance to build up interest as potential next networks to replace Twitter.
We have been given a rare chance, as a culture of social media addicts, to break a cycle we keep repeating and move to something that isn’t just owned by somebody who stands to make billions of dollars from your decision.
Unfortunately, we’re in real risk of falling into the same well as before, convinced that the open choice is somehow too complicated. That has meant that two separate social networks, Post and Hive, have driven interest from Twitter’s failings, away from open networks like Mastodon or the broader Fediverse, or even legacy networks that have generally proven good corporate citizens, like Automattic’s take on Tumblr.
Don’t fall into the well again.
This seems like a really good introduction to and rationale for the IndieWeb:
The early vision of the web was one of a decentralized and somewhat anarchic community where we each had control over our own content and our own online presence — that’s a vision that Tim Berners-Lee still endorses, but it’s one that’s put in jeopardy by the relentless centralizing tendency of big companies. And that’s why I find the Indie Web movement so interesting — not as a rejection of the corporate influence, but as a much needed counterbalance that provides the technology for people, should they so choose, to build an online presence of their own devising without giving up the communities and the connections that they have built on existing networks.
The Indie Web is the name given to a movement instigated by a group of technologists who want to put some distance between themselves and Silicon Valley. At the heart of the Indie Web are the IndieWebCamps, but I’d like to have a quick look at one of the central ideas motivating the creation of various technologies that help foster the same connectivity as social networks with a bit more freedom.
We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it?
The learning algorithms have no ethics or boundaries. There’s no slot in the algorithm that says “insert moral compass here”, or any way to tell them that certain inferences are forbidden because they would be wrong. In applying them to human beings, we leave ourselves open to unpleasant surprises.
The issue is not just intentional abuse (by trainers feeding skewed data into algorithms to affect the outcome), or unexamined bias that creeps in with in our training data, but the fundamental non-humanity of these algorithms.
So what happens when these tools for maximizing clicks and engagement creep into the political sphere?
This is a delicate question! If you concede that they work just as well for politics as for commerce, you’re inviting government oversight. If you claim they don’t work well at all, you’re telling advertisers they’re wasting their money.
Facebook and Google have tied themselves into pretzels over this. The idea that these mechanisms of persuasion could be politically useful, and especially that they might be more useful to one side than the other, violates cherished beliefs about the “apolitical” tech industry.
One problem is that any system trying to maximize engagement will try to push users towards the fringes. You can prove this to yourself by opening YouTube in an incognito browser (so that you start with a blank slate), and clicking recommended links on any video with political content. When I tried this experiment last night, within five clicks I went from a news item about demonstrators clashing in Berkeley to a conspiracy site claiming Trump was planning WWIII with North Korea, and another exposing FEMA’s plans for genocide.
This pull to the fringes doesn’t happen if you click on a cute animal story. In that case, you just get more cute animals (an experiment I also recommend trying). But the algorithms have learned that users interested in politics respond more if they’re provoked more, so they provoke. Nobody programmed the behavior into the algorithm; it made a correct observation about human nature and acted on it.
But even though we’re likely to fail, all we can do is try. Good intentions are not going to make these structural problems go away. Talking about them is not going to fix them.
We have to do something.
As more people and more devices get connected to the internet, the lure of centralizing control—which makes it easier for companies to manage them—is bumping its head against the initial design of the internet: to drive reliability and scalability. With every new largely centralized system that comes online, the internet becomes more brittle, as centralization creates an increased number of single points of failure.
The generator supports Twitter cards, Pinterest rich pins, Google’s structured data and Facebook’s Open Graph.
Add this markup to your web pages to make links to your site look great in social apps and websites! Also, making outbound content look attractive helps people escape these content silos and venture back out onto the wild wild web!
Many have tried over the years to bring us web annotations. The lack of standards has been one of the key things holding these efforts back– a need we highlighted in the first of our 12 original principles back in 2013 and have been working towards ever since.
Twenty four years after Marc Andreessen first built collaborative annotation into Mosaic and tested it on a few “guinea pigs” before turning it off, annotations have finally become first-class citizens of the web.
From the W3C Web Annotation co-chairs, Rob Sanderson and Tim Cole:
“Many websites already allow comments, but current […] systems rely on unique, usually proprietary technologies chosen and provided by publishers. Notes cannot be shared easily across the Web and comments about a Web page can only be saved and viewed via a single website. Readers cannot select their own tools, choose their own service providers or bring their own communities.”
So what exactly does this mean for you?
Comment widgets may soon become a thing of the past.
The W3C standards (called Recommendations) are a key milestone towards a future in which all pages could support rich layers of conversation without requiring any action by their publishers—because that capability can be built into the browser itself and be available as a native feature, just like web search. The shared vision is that conversations will be able happen anywhere on the Web, or even on documents in native apps, and inline instead of below-the fold, in a federated, standards-based way.
Do you remember how the web used to work? How the web was supposed to work?
In the earlier days of the web, we always published to our own web site. If you weren’t happy with your web host, or they went out of business, you could move your files and your domain name, and nothing would break.
Today, most writing instead goes into a small number of centralized social networking sites, where you can’t move your content, advertisements and fake news are everywhere, and if one of these sites fails, your content disappears from the internet. Too many sites have gone away and taken our posts and photos with them.
I want to encourage more independent writing. To do that, we need better tools that embrace microblogs and the advantages of the open web. We need to learn from the success and user experience of social networking, but applied to the full scope of the web.
As we move our code to CodePen, our writing to Medium, our photographs to Instagram we don’t just run the risk of losing that content and the associated metadata if those services vanish. We also lose our own place to experiment and add personality to that content, in the context of our own home on the web.
I thought this was an excellent talk on the hard questions we should be asking ourselves as developers. Why do most people use closed, proprietary systems and devices, if the open web is so wonderful? Even as developers, we still use them ourselves, and depend on them. How can we be more empathetic to what the average user needs and wants? How can we lock open the web, so the future isn’t entirely dependent on huge corporations and services, which is where we seem to be heading?