“Standards-based interoperability makes a comeback, sort of” – The best brief overview I’ve seen of the possibilities, limitations, and dangers of the decentralized social web.
For those of us who have been using Mastodon for a while (I started my own Mastodon server 4 years ago), this week has been overwhelming. I’ve been thinking of metaphors to try to understand why I’ve found it so upsetting. This is supposed to be what we wanted, right? Yet it feels like something else. Like when you’re sitting in a quiet carriage softly chatting with a couple of friends and then an entire platform of football fans get on at Jolimont Station after their team lost. They don’t usually catch trains and don’t know the protocol. They assume everyone on the train was at the game or at least follows football. They crowd the doors and complain about the seat configuration.
It’s not entirely the Twitter people’s fault. They’ve been taught to behave in certain ways. To chase likes and retweets/boosts. To promote themselves. To perform. All of that sort of thing is anathema to most of the people who were on Mastodon a week ago. It was part of the reason many moved to Mastodon in the first place. This means there’s been a jarring culture clash all week as a huge murmuration of tweeters descended onto Mastodon in ever increasing waves each day. To the Twitter people it feels like a confusing new world, whilst they mourn their old life on Twitter. They call themselves “refugees,” but to the Mastodon locals it feels like a busload of Kontiki tourists just arrived, blundering around yelling at each other and complaining that they don’t know how to order room service. We also mourn the world we’re losing.
I’m a bit concerned about micro.blog — I don’t use Mastodon — for just this reason. That’s why I wrote a few months ago, “On micro.blog, you have absolutely no incentive to flex, shitpost, self-promote, or troll. You’re there to post interesting things and/or chat with people. Nothing else makes sense.”
I agree that we shouldn’t be stuck in our own bubbles of misinformation. But the part Elon gets wrong is the premise that there should even be a “common digital town square” controlled by a single company. I reject that idea.
The common digital “square” should be the entire web, with a diverse set of platforms. There should be common APIs but many communities with their own rules, goals, and business models. Concentrating too much power in only a couple social media companies is what created the mess we’re in.
I like Independent Publisher, the WordPress theme you’re looking at, but I’m not crazy about it. I prefer Davis, the theme I was using before — but Davis just underwent an update that undid the custom CSS I was using to tweak it. Davis does something that many themes do, something indefensible and unforgivable: it renders all block quotes in italics. This is stupid, because sometimes such quotations contain italics of their own, which are wiped out by the CSS. Typically, it’s possible to use the Custom CSS feature in WordPress to fix things like that, and in the past I did that — but this new update has made the theme impervious to such changes. No matter what CSS I add, the theme ignores it. So I am back to Independent Publisher, which is … okay. Fine, I guess.
The whole situation is yet another reminder of how frustrating life in the indie web world can be if you don’t possess the tools you need to Do It Yourself. I really really don’t have the time to learn how to write my own WordPress theme … but that’s probably what I should do. Sigh.
Of course, another alternative would be to leave WordPress altogether for an alternative platform, but I suspect that will have to wait until I retire. Because that is a big job.
Julia Evans makes really cool zines for people who want to know more about computer programming, or, more generally, about being a power user of computers. Her most recent zine is called How DNS Works, and it’s excellent — plus, there are some leftover pages about registering and maintaining your own domain. For example:
Other images with more detail here.
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of owning your online turf — or coming as close to it as you can get — for reasons I explain in detail in this essay. Evans’s zine-within-a-zine about domain registration and maintenance does a great job of explaining exactly how it works — and in the process, I hope, makes it seem less intimidating than it otherwise might.
Elon Musk’s imminent purchase of Twitter has a good many people scurrying for the exits, and some of them are coming to micro.blog — which is awesome! I’ve written often here about micro.blog, and here’s a selection:
- Micro.blog and the open web
- Why a social network that scales up is a bad thing
- On Cal Newport’s New Yorker essay that described micro.blog
- Some “hidden” features of micro.blog
But let me add a bit of advice for those who are coming to micro.blog from Twitter: You need to leave Twitter behind altogether. Micro.blog isn’t Twitter and doesn’t want to be.
Let’s start with this: on Twitter it’s hard not to be aware of your follower count; on micro.blog you cannot know how many people are following you. Moreover, there is no re-post button. If people want to link to your micro-post they have to do so manually, by copying the link and inserting it into their own post. Similarly: there is no like button. If you like someone’s post you have to reply to them to say so. And: there is no algorithmic feed — it’s just chronological, there’s no other option.
What all this adds up to: On micro.blog, you have absolutely no incentive to flex, shitpost, self-promote, or troll. You’re there to post interesting things and/or chat with people. Nothing else makes sense.
And that’s why it’s great.
So if you’re coming over from Twitter, please try to leave your Twitter habits and reflexes behind. They won’t help you at micro.blog.
UPDATE: Here are some brief thoughts about Mastodon, which, by contrast, is exactly like Twitter, in all the bad ways.
Since 2009, I’ve been keeping my bookmarks online in service called Pinboard. It’s a service that displays your bookmarks — with tags and text excerpts, both very important for me — in a simple and readable form. Obviously I wouldn’t have used it for so long if I didn’t like it, but two things have consistently bothered me. One is that it has never had a responsive design: though some gestures in that direction have been made recently, if you want to look at your bookmarks in a mobile device your best option is to manually add the letter “m” and a period before the URL. The other says more about me than about Pinboard: I bookmark too many pages. Way too many pages. The result has been that I forget almost everything that I have there, including the things that I really want to remember. Yes, search is available, but when faced with a wilderness of bookmarks it can be difficult, for me anyway, even to understand what to search for.
Nevertheless, when, a few months ago, the owner of Pinboard asked longtime users to make a contribution to the ongoing maintenance of the site, I agreed to do so. After all, I had paid once, twelve years ago, and had been using the site ever since. It seemed a reasonable request. But then, very soon afterward, I started having problems with the site and wrote to ask for assistance. Those emails have not been answered. I have to say, it’s just a little bit annoying to have tech support fall silent right after you give the company money, but this is the world we live in. Still, despite my stoic resignation, it struck me that this was an opportunity for me to rethink my bookmarking practices. After all, as Manton Reece reminds us, “The only web site that you can trust to last and have your interests at heart is the web site with your name on it.” Pinboard is on the open web but it could still disappear today and I would have no recourse.
So here’s my plan: I will bookmark-with-excerpts less often, but when it happens it’ll happen here on
blog.ayjay.org, where I already have a tagging system in place. After all, I am equally interested in what I say and what others say on any given topic; and comparing my thoughts with theirs is a useful exercise.
A new semester starts today, so I won’t be doing as much blogging blogging as I did over the summer. But this site may be even more active, just in a quotey sort of way. Caveat lector.
Finally: I’ll still be doing my weekly newsletter — a new issue went out this morning.
And by Glass I mean this.
- Holy cow is it beautiful. I’ve seen people saying “This is what Instagram used to be” — no. Instagram never looked this good, this clean. Photographs are all you see unless you swipe to get more details.
- I’m just following a few photographers right now, none of whom I know — I just used the discovery page and followed the ones whose photos caught my eye. But the result already is an infinite scroll of beautiful photographs.
- I am not nearly photographically skilled enough to be on the site … but now I sort of want to be.
- That said, I am an open-web and (better still) indie-web kind of guy, and Glass is not that. You can only see the photographs from within the app. It’s another walled garden, if not yet a walled factory.
- So while I’ve posted a few photos there, I’m not likely to invest any further, except maybe to try cross-posting from micro.blog, where I currently post my photos.
Micro.blog has some cool features that many users are not aware of. (They’re not really hidden, but that made for a better title than “not especially well-known.”) Here are some of my favorites:
1) An emoji-based system of tagging: for instance, 📚, which will show you books that micro.blog users are currently reading. And here’s a pandemic phenomenon: a tag for 🍞 — next time I’m baking I need to take a picture. And another pandemic-enhanced tag I like: 🌱
2) Related (and discoverable from the 📚 page): a grid layout of the covers of those books.
3) If you are a micro.blog user and want to record what you are currently reading, the best way to do that is to go to this page and enter the title — or, better, the ISBN — of the book you’re reading. The ISBN will return an image of the cover of the specific edition you’re reading, like so:
Click on that image, and you get something like this:
Note the link to indiebookclub, a simple, open-web work-in-progress alternative to the bloated, chaotic locked-down mess that is GoodReads. But if you choose to start a new micro.blog post, you get a text field pre-populated with the relevant information. Just click “Post” and you get something like this.
4) Micro.blog can also be an open-web, streamlined alternative to the monstrosity that Instagram has become, and if you want to see a good selection of the photos that micro.blog users are posting, then this infinitely-scrollable page is the best way to do it. And if you are interested only in a photo service and have an iPhone, then you might consider downloading the Sunlit app. It’s excellent. If you are on Android, I don’t think there is a photos-only app right now, but there are several micro.blog options for that platform. You can get a list of all the third-party clients for micro.blog here.
5) I think this has to be enabled by individual users, but if you’re only interested in the photos that a particular user posts (as opposed to text), then you can usually find a dedicated photos page. Here’s mine.
6) One feature I have been meaning to use: podcasting! That link will take you to the relevant information, but in brief: You can use micro.blog to post short-form podcasts (longer-form too, though that seems somewhat contrary to the character of the site). The best way to do this is through the microblog companion app Wavelength, which is to podcasts what Sunlit is to photos. I love the implementation of this feature: You can have your podcasts show up in your micro.blog timeline, but you can also register them with Apple so they will show up in the Apple Podcasts directory.
Finally: Not a feature of micro.blog, but if you want to know why I believe that supporting such endeavors is important for our social future, please read this essay of mine.
I was a Kickstarter backer of micro.blog and an early enthusiast, but I eventually drifted away from it because I was having trouble getting it to do what I want it to do. In some cases there were bugs in the system — it’s still a new platform, after all — and in some cases my brain was just not getting in sync with it. But I have continued to pay my monthly fee and to cheer it on, and micro.blog’s founding genius Manton Reece has been working away at improving the platform and extending its capabilities. Now I’ve decided to come back. Here’s why:
- My micro.blog page is part of my own domain — it’s on my turf. My data belongs to me.
- I need, for the usual professional reasons, to have a Twitter account, and the frictionless cross-posting from micro.blog allows to me to do so without stepping into the minefields of Twitter itself.
- I used to have an Instagram account, but I hated having even a tiny place in Zuckerworld, and micro.blog offers easy and clean image posting, plus a dedicated page for all my photos.
- Also, I devoted many years to using Pinboard as a bookmark manager, but (a) I was saving too much stuff; (b) the site has only been minimally improved over the past decade — it still lacks a responsive design, which is a crime in 2020; and (c) it’s not on my turf. Why not use micro.blog to post links with brief quotes?
- I’ve been thinking about doing — well, not a podcast as such, but occasional short audio, posts, microcasts one might say. The ability to do that is baked into micro.blog.
So basically micro.blog is a way for me to put everything I do online that is visually small — anything small enough not to require scrolling: quotes, links, images, audio files — in one place, and a place on my own site. The only weird thing about this setup is that it will make me look like I’m super-active on Twitter when I’m barely ever on Twitter. But that’s a small price to pay for moving my stuff out of the walled gardens and onto the open web. And maybe when I don’t have a new book to promote I can deactivate my Twitter account — again.
I’ll continue to use this particular wing of the ayjay.org empire for occasional longer posts, but most of the action will be happening over there. Oh, and it has its own RSS feed too — I recommend that in preference to finding my microposts through Twitter.
When I bought this domain name I joked that the “.org” in this case stands for “organism,” because of course I’m not an organization. But that may not matter to the private equity firm that wants to buy the whole .org domain.
I have to confess: I didn’t know that this was possible. I thought the various domains were administered by the consortium that runs the whole Web — I didn’t know that entire top-order domains were for sale on the open market. I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog and elsewhere counseling the wisdom of owning your own turf, but this is a strong reminder to me that of course I don’t own my turf — I only have use of the domain name for as long as I am willing and able to pay whatever a private equity firm (should the sale go through) decides I ought to cough up. If they tell me that I can keep ayjay.org for $5000 a year, then this won’t be my turf any more.
It’s sobering. Similarly — and this I did know — if my hosting company, or any other hosting company I might use, decided that as a Christian I am an intolerable bigot who cannot be allowed to sully their good name, then I might still have temporary title to the domain name but would be unable to make any of my writings public.
I have written against the walled gardens of social media and in favor of tending the digital commons, but maybe “commons” was a bad metaphor. Maybe the open web is more like a public park that the city government might at any time sell to developers who plan to turn it into a high-rise. Absence of walls is not presence of public ownership.
I own my computer and the files on its hard drive. That may be all, in the digital world, I own.
As a consistent and perhaps obnoxious advocate for the open web — see here and especially here — I was thrilled to see this article by Cal Newport, and more than thrilled to see the shout-out to micro.blog. Please come check it out, along with me.
Just one point for now: Newport writes, “Despite its advantages, however, I suspect that the IndieWeb will not succeed in replacing existing social-media platforms at their current scale.” This is precisely right, but as I commented a few weeks ago, that’s a feature, not a bug. Scale is the enemy.
Along those same lines, can the IndieWeb, and products of IndieWeb thinking like Micro.blog, save us? Might they at least provide an alternative to the toxic aspects of our current social web, and restore the ownership of our data and content? And before you answer, RTFM.
On an individual and small collective basis, the IndieWeb already works. But does an IndieWeb approach scale to the general public? If it doesn’t scale yet, can we, who envision and design and build, create a new generation of tools that will help give birth to a flourishing, independent web? One that is as accessible to ordinary internet users as Twitter and Facebook and Instagram?
I think that’s the wrong question. Of course the indie web cannot scale. But that’s a feature, not a bug. Scale — as-big-as-possible, universal-not-local, something-for-everyone scale — is the enemy. It’s the biggest enemy that community and fellowship and friendship can possibly have. If it scales, I want no part of it.