Modern Social Media (facebook, twitter, tiktok, instagram, etc.) is designed to extract the maximum amount of attention it can from us. It does this by leveraging decades of psycholgical research to build a feedback loop that is both addicting and infurating. Outrage becomes engagement, engagement becomes attenion, attention is transformed in to money. But that's not enough! Social media applications also spy on you, tracking where you go, when you go, who you talk to, etc. Attempting to turn all of this in to more money.
It might not seem like it, but we're dancing on a razor's edge between survielance capitalism and genuine human connection, and we have a choice to make.
Let me explain,
Even if you're not Terminally Online, you've no doubt seen the recent Meltdown Elon Musk has caused in the social media world, you may have noticed the slow death of Facebook, or stared confusedly at the sudden popularity of TikTok and the "Story" format for videos. All of these things represent the end of Social Media as it has existed for the last 10 years. This is an end that should be celebrated! What happens next may be worse, or it may be better. We, right now, have the opportunity to decide.
Will Social Media continue to be a puppet of Survielance Capitalism, or will we return it to its not-for-profit roots?
You already know social media isn't *new*, but it is older than you probably think. The first system that resembles modern social media was called Community Memory and launched in 1973, (and many of the concepts of modern social media can be found in NLS circa '68.) Community Memory was a piece of software that ran on a mainframe, and was connected to from teletypes running in coffee shops around Berkly. It allowed people to post messages, share thoughts, and do many of the things we do on Social Media today.
Now "Mainframe" and "Teletype" don't sound like "Facebook" and "Cellphone" but the idea is pretty much the same. It's a client and a server. Something to connect from, something to connect to. When people didn't all carry computers around all the time, you needed to provide one (in the for of a teletype, in this case.) when The Internet didn't exist, you used direct dialup and plain old telephone lines.
This same principle carried on well in to the era of the modern internet. People the world over ran Message Boards on their home computers that you could connect to over your phone lines. These computers would often connect to one another, too! Swapping messages and emails and art, node to node, across the country or across the planet using a system called Fidonet. In practice, it moved a little slower than Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook, but the basic experience was pretty similar.
But nobody makes *Money* running that kind of adhoc, distributed network, so modern capitalism didn't allow it to continue to exist. These organic networks were replaced with things like AOL and Compuserve, and those gave way to Live Journal, Xanga, Myspace, etc. Each iteration becoming a little Stickier, a little more likely to Hold your attention. A little more profitable.
And then, of course, came the behemoths. Twitter and Facebook grew up with broadband and cellular internet. For many people, they came to supplant the internet,but that spell has been broken. Facebook (or rather "Meta" as the nonsensically insist on calling themselves) is losing money hand over fist. Twitter was acquired by an unstable billioare, saddled with debt it will never be able to repay, and gutted of staff.
(And, really, no one under 25 even notices. They're on tiktok, or instagram, being exploited in New and Different ways. But instagram and tiktok aren't here to replace Twitter and Facebook, they're here to replace Broadcast Television, and that's a conversation for another article.)
The old gods are dying, the new ones struggle to be born, now is the time of monsters.
Well, in spite of their obvious harms, facebook and twitter serve a valuable purpose, connecting people together through the aether, allowing conversations and collaboration that would be otherwise impossible. It's a faustian bargain, and the value they provide probably isn't worth the price we pay to them, but they're more or less essential to modern life.
They're actively harmful, large parts of modern existence work badly without the services they provide, they're losing money hand over fist. Time to replace them.
Lots of services have sprung up, some seemingly over night, looking to capitalise on the apparent slow marching death's of Twitter and Facebook.
Tumblr, for one, now owned by Automattic the same folks behind Wordpress, has experienced a bit of a resurgance. Others like CoHost (apparently worker owned, but details are sketchy) and Hive (owned by some VC firm, with no contact info, and unclear Terms of service) have appaered, seemingly from nothing. Even StickerMule appears to be trying to get in to the Social Media game.
These platforms all represent an alternative to twitter and facebook, but in ways big and small, they all also represent a continuation of the status quo, and likely continuance of the trends of surivialance capitalism, certainly a continuation of the trends of technological centralization, and the slow march of the internet from Conversation to Broadcast.
(well, except maybe not Tumblr. We'll get back to that.)
There's another option, and it's the one I've put my energy in to.
Alright, I gotta get in to some weeds. I'll try not to stay here too long.
There's a community run alternative social media network widely called "The Fediverse." It's called that because it consistens of lots of small social media networks that talk to one another, and this is called Federation.
Lots of people (3 million and counting) are looking to this federation of independent social media servers as a viable alternative to twitter, and that is mind boggling for me.
Twitter was a multi-billion dollar company with more than 8,000 employees. The fediverse is a niche hobbyist project, run by volunteers, consisting of a few dozen different pieces of software all stitched together using open protocols. Lots of big organizations are making their precense felt on the fediverse, and Tumblr has indicated that they will likely add the ability to federate to an upcoming release.
This independent, community run alternative to commercial social media is wrestling power away from the billionaire class in real time. It's more than a technical standard, it's cutural, political, economic. We represent an existential threat to the business model of some of the most wealthy corporations on the planet, and we can choose in this moment to make a transformative shift in the way we, as a society, relate to one another. We can move back to a Conversation and away from a Broadcast.
The biggest piece of software that powers the Fediverse is called Mastodon. It replicates a lot of what commerical social media does, but it does not spy on it's users. It was designed to look like, and work like, Twitter and other commercial services. This makes it an easy place to start, but there are others. Hometown (see https:runyourown.social) is a fork of mastodon designed around small and medium sized community management. There are others too! Goto Social, Plume, Misskey, Pixelfed. Lots of pieces of software that can all speak to one another.
Each one of these piece of software can be launched by Anyone at any time on any server, and they can all talk to one another. This means that my account @firstname.lastname@example.org running Mastodon can see and reply to posts from MissKey or Hometown or whatever. For most users, most of the time, it works just like Twitter or another major social platform.
But social.ellijaymakerspace.org is running on a $40 raspberry pi, sitting in a closet at the Ellijay Makerspace. If we lose power, it stops working. If I forget to empty old photos, its disk fills up and it stops working. There's a freedom in having something personal like this, but there's also a danger.
Traditional social networks can access your direct messages and are designed to harvest your private data, but they are big, faceless, hulking behemoths. You get a reasonable assurance that they'll only read your private messages in order to sell advertisements to you, and that they'll be around in 5 years, and in exchange they harvest your data. Small social networks don't have the same financial incentives to harvest your private data, but they also don't have the same assurances that they'll be around in 5 years, or that an unscrupulous server administrator won't go snooping on your private messages.
On a large social network, there's a massive moderation team. On any given instance of a federated social network, there are usually just two or three moderators, but they are usually responsible for a much lower number of people per moderator. On a large social network, you can always go to the main web page to sign up. On a federated social network, it takes some thought (maybe even some research) to figure out which instance or server (or software!) is the one for you.
For folks in and around ellijay, come by the Ellijay Makerspace to sign up for an account with social.ellijaymakerspace.org. If you're not in or around ellijay, you can go your own way with https:runyourown.social or you can check this excellent list of Hometown Servers.
Either way, when you get your account set up, give me a follow @email@example.com and tell me about what brought you to the federation.
Social Media Futures (and histories) was published on 2022-11-22