Tag: open web

Manorial Technocracy

This morning I have a post up at the Hedgehog Review on “Our Manorial Elite.” The core idea, as you’ll see if you click through, comes from Cory Doctorow, or rather a historian friend of Doctorow’s. “[Bruce] Schneier calls [our current arrangement] ‘Feudal Security,’ but as the medievalist Stephen Morillo wrote to me, the correct term for this is probably ‘Manorial Security’ — while feudalism was based on land-grants to aristocrats who promised armed soldiers in return, manorialism referred to a system in which an elite owned all the property and the rest of the world had to work on that property on terms that the local lord set.”

What the rabble who stormed the Capitol building have unwittingly done is to consolidate (a) the social power of the enormous transnational tech companies and (b) the intimacy of those companies’ connection with the United States government. Given the recent usefulness of Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon to the currently dominant political party, what are the chances that a Democratic Congress will pass legislation curbing their power, or that, should some such bill emerge, a Democratic President would sign it into law?

So let me bang this antique drum one more time: You need to own as much of your turf as you can. I explain why and how, in detail, in this essay. Avoid the walled gardens of social media, because at any moment they could appeal to digital eminent domain and move the walls somewhere else, and if they did you’d have zero recourse.

Now, to be sure, even when you “own your turf” you don’t really own your turf — as the people who run Parler have recently discovered: they didn’t just lose their access to Apple’s App Store and Google Play, and their data storage account with Amazon’s AWS, they lost their text message and email service provider. I was reminded of just how vulnerable my own digital presence is last year when there were plans to sell the .org domain to a private equity firm. That situation has been avoided for now, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but there are no guarantees going forward. When I’m on the open web, I own my data — which is a big deal, since the owners of the walled gardens also own your data — but I don’t own the power to share my words and images with others.

I hold no brief for Parler, which I am glad to see shut down — it has been a foul thing by any reasonable measure — but as I note in my Hedgehog post, the big social media companies are making up their rules as they go along, and in so doing setting the standards for other, smaller companies to follow. So are the other big companies: As Glenn Greenwald points out, the planning for the assault on the Capitol wasn’t done on Parler, it was done on Facebook — yet we don’t see Apple banning Facebook from its App Store, do we?

The smaller, the more vulnerable. If I were to say something controversial enough, my own hosting company, the wonderful Reclaim Hosting, could give me the boot. It’s not at all likely, of course, but my point is that it’s possible. I could be fired by Baylor, Google and Apple could shut down my accounts, I could probably be cut off by my ISP. I think the only thing left would be a landline phone, which, if I’m not mistaken, we in the USA still have fairly strong rights to use. But I don’t have a landline. (Maybe I should remedy that?)

It’s possible, then, for any of us to be not just shamed or dragged on social media but really and truly digitally shunned — to be completely cut off from every possibility of electronic discourse and community. I don’t see how you can’t be concerned about this possibility. So even a lawyer for the ACLU — which has in recent years explicitly refused to support speech that it doesn’t approve of — says, “I think we should recognize the importance of neutrality when we’re talking about the infrastructure of the internet.”

Until that neutrality in enshrined in law, we are all at the mercy of our manorial technocracy. But if we stay outside the walled gardens, we are safer and more free. I would encourage all of you to ditch Twitter, ditch Facebook (including Instagram), ditch all of them and learn how to live once more on the open web. The future of our democracy just might depend on it.

more on the Dish

Since I wrote about Andrew Sullivan’s renewed Dish, Andrew has reported that subscriptions are near 60,000 — probably over that mark by now — and David Brooks has weighed in with a smart take. As always, David is hopeful:

Mostly I’m hopeful that the long history of intellectual exclusion and segregation will seem disgraceful. It will seem disgraceful if you’re at a university and only 1.5 percent of the faculty members are conservative. (I’m looking at you, Harvard). A person who ideologically self-segregates will seem pathetic. I’m hoping the definition of a pundit changes — not a foot soldier out for power, but a person who argues in order to come closer to understanding.

And as always, I’m a little less hopeful than David — or maybe I place my hope in slightly different places — in ways that I can explain by quoting another passage from his column:

Other heterodox writers are already on Substack. Matt Taibbi and Judd Legum are iconoclastic left-wing writers with large subscriber bases. The Dispatch is a conservative publication featuring Jonah Goldberg, David French and Stephen F. Hayes, superb writers but too critical of Trump for the orthodox right. The Dispatch is reportedly making about $2 million a year on Substack.

The first good thing about Substack is there’s no canceling. A young, talented heterodox thinker doesn’t have to worry that less talented conformists in his or her organization will use ideology as an outlet for their resentments. The next good thing is there are no ads, just subscription revenue. Online writers don’t have to chase clicks by writing about whatever Trump tweeted 15 seconds ago. They can build deep relationships with the few rather than trying to affirm or titillate the many.

Is it really true that there’s “no canceling” on Substack? I think we’ll only know that in time. We’re about two weeks, by my reckoning, from #BoycottSubstack becoming a prominent hashtag on Woke Twitter. It would be stupid for Substack to care. But in the past year or two a whole lot of organizations have been stupid enough to fold in the face of a few red-faced social-media scolds.

So maybe there will be canceling on Substack — but there are many alternatives to Substack. And the really good thing about all this is that newsletters are built on email, and email is transmitted through a series of open protocols that no one controls. It would be perfectly possible for people like Andrew and Matt Taibbi and other independent thinkers, if they got canceled by Substack, to hire someone to build out their own distribution system and continue as though nothing had ever happened.

The woke mobs are apoplectic, but not always stupid: they have reliably gone straight at the gatekeepers of culture, and the gatekeepers of culture, faced with a handful of people with plenty of spare time and no rhetorical restraint, have reliably folded like a cheap tent. So what’s the point of reading, much less paying for, a magazine or newspaper where, as Bari Weiss has rightly said of the NYT, “Twitter is the ultimate editor”? You know that almost everything you read will have been vetted to ensure that it conforms to the Authorized Narrative, so why bother? Even if you actually believe in the Authorized Narrative, do you really need to pay money to have your opinions confirmed, day after day?

No; I think even some of the woke, or at least the wokish, will send their money to venues,and writers, who say what they actually think. What a concept! And what makes this possible is the open web and the pre-web internet. How cool is that?

One of the greatest things about the open web and the pre-web internet is that they work at any scale. There is no difference, from the reader’s perspective, between reading a newsletter with 250,000 subscribers and reading one with ten subscribers. As I wrote a while back,

Facebook is the Sauron of the online world, Twitter the Saruman. Let’s rather live in Tom Bombadil’s world, where we can be eccentric, peculiar perhaps, without ambition, content to tend our little corner of Middle Earth with charity and grace…. Whether what I’m doing ultimately matters or not, I’m finding it helpful to work away in this little highland garden, above the turmoil of the social-media sea, finding small beautiful things and caring for them and sharing them with a few friends. One could do worse.

And in case you don’t know, my own little contribution to the Republic of Newsletters may be found here.

return of the Dish

I’m really glad to learn that The Dish is returning — especially in a form that will allow Andrew to write fewer but longer pieces than he did in the old days, and, I trust, by such means to retain his sanity. The former Dish was pedal-to-the-metal every single day, and even Andrew, the hack than whom no sharper can be conceived, couldn’t over the long term flourish at that pace, either emotionally or intellectually.

A slower-paced Dish of his own is surely the best venue for Andrew, who is the most independent of thinkers and therefore a constant threat to the “safety” of any colleagues whose mental cabinets have just two pigeonholes, Correct people and Evil people. (Apparently at New York most of his colleagues were two-pigeonholers.) I subscribed instantly, and I know I won’t regret it.

But Andrew is not the only thoughtful and unclubbable journalist who’s going indie these days, and that poses a problem for me. In that introductory message I linked to above, Andrew mentions the similar Substack-based endeavors of Jesse Singal and Matt Taibbi, and while I think both of those guy as are superb journalists, if I were to subscribe to their work as well as Andrew’s that would cost me 150 bucks a year. I still might do it — but that’s a lot of coin for three voices.

There’s an economies-of-scale problem here. At a newspaper or magazine, writers share an editorial and technical infrastructure, so costs of production are distributed. Those who go it alone don’t get to benefit from that, and neither do their readers. So the cash outlay for those readers can escalate in a hurry.

On the other hand, it’s nice when the money you send to pay the writer actually pays the writer (minus Substack’s cut, of course). I have long wished that places like the New York Times and Washington Post had tip jars for the good writers — if I subscribed to the damned things I would have to subsidize the clueless, pompous, self-righteous, yappy-dog incompetents who dominate those once-distinguished institutions.

One hand, other hand, one hand, other hand. The work of the subscriber-supported solo practitioner doesn’t get seen by nearly as many people as something on the open web — but maybe that’s a feature rather than a bug! Fewer morons to insult you without reading what you write.

Given the hostility of our major media venues to anything that even resembles thinking, there’s no easy solution to this problem. Perhaps some kind of non-partisan, non-ideological journal of ideas will eventually emerge — Lord knows there are enough tech zillionaires to fund one — but in the meantime what does a reader do? This reader is gonna look for some fat to cut from his media budget and pay one or two more writers.

getting back to the open web via micro.blog

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:

  1. My micro.blog page is part of my own domain — it’s on my turf. My data belongs to me.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

UPDATE: Deleted my Twitter. Yes.

on not owning my turf

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.

here and there

As some of you may have noticed, I’m not posting here very frequently. I think for the foreseeable future I’m only going to be using this blog for longer reflections — long by internet standards, anyway.

From day to day you’ll find me posting to my micro.blog account — and if you haven’t checked out micro.blog, please do! People sometimes describe micro.blog as a “Twitter replacement,” but that’s not quite right. It may be better to think of it as what services like Twitter and Instagram could have been if they had been devoted to the open web and not subservient to the demands of venture capital. It’s a great place for low-key connection with others, and the best possible way to get started in blogging. It’s not free, but then Twitter and Instagram aren’t free either — those services just make you may in currencies other than money. Micro.blog serves no ads, respects your privacy, and allows you to own your turf. Try it!

I continue to post bookmarks — with useful excerpts! — at my Pinboard page, which I have been using for … [checks site] … ten years and two weeks.

Finally, I think my newsletter is pretty fun — a bit of a break from the incessant seriousness of our political moment.

to put the point plainly

Nolan Lawson:

Get off of Twitter.

You can’t criticize Twitter on Twitter. It just doesn’t work. The medium is the message.

There’s an old joke where one fish says to the other, “How’s the water today?” And the fish responds, “What’s water?” On Twitter, you might ask, “How’s the outrage today?” (The answer, of course, is “I hate it! I’m so outraged about it!”)

Get off of Twitter.

Wait, have I said this before? Maybe only two or three hundred times.

But here’s why I keep saying it: The decision to be on Twitter (or Facebook, etc.) is not simply a personal choice. It has run-on effects for you but also for others. When you use the big social media platforms you contribute to their power and influence, and you deplete the energy and value of the open web. You make things worse for everyone. I truly believe that. Which is why I’m so obnoxiously repetitive on this point.

Just give it a try: suspend your Big Social Media accounts and devote some time to the open web, to a blog of your own — maybe to micro.blog as an easy, simple way in. Give it a try and see if you’re not happier. I know I am.

indie web in the New Yorker

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.

social media, blogs, newsletters

Tim Carmody:

The blogs I’ve written for (Kottke notwithstanding) have only had so much ability to retain me before they’ve changed their business model, changed management, gone out of business, or been quietly abandoned. They’re little asteroids, not planets. Most of the proper publications I’ve written for, even the net-native ones, have been dense enough to hold an atmosphere.

And guess what? So have Twitter and Facebook. Just by enduring, those places have become places for lasting connections and friendships and career opportunities, in a way the blogosphere never was, at least for me. (Maybe this is partly a function of timing, but look: I was there.) And this means that, despite their toxicity, despite their shortcomings, despite all the promises that have gone unfulfilled, Twitter and Facebook have continued to matter in a way that blogs don’t.

I’d very much like to dismiss what Tim says here — but I don’t think I can. He’s probably right. (And the asteroid/planet metaphor is an especially fertile one.) In light of Tim’s account of his experience, I’ve been reminded that my own opting-out of social media is a luxury — and I am therefore all the more grateful for that luxury.

I wrote in a recent edition of my newsletter,

On Tuesday morning, January 22, I read a David Brooks column about a confrontation that happened on the National Mall during the March for Life. Until I read that column I had heard nothing about this incident because I do not have a Facebook account, have deleted my Twitter account, don’t watch TV news, and read the news about once a week. If all goes well, I won’t hear anything more about the story. I recommend this set of practices to you all.

After reading the Brooks column I checked in on the social media I have access to, and I cannot readily express to you how strange the commotion seemed to me. The responses of people to this issue struck me as — this is going to sound very strong, but I promise you that it’s precisely how I felt — it struck me as the behavior of people in the grip of some manic compulsion, of some kind of mass hysteria. There are no rational criteria in light of which what happened between those people on the National Mall matters — none at all.

And then I was filled with relief that I hadn’t got caught up in the tsunami — which, if I had been on social media, I would have been as vulnerable to as the next person, I’m sure — and filled with determination to make my way to still higher ground. Maybe you can’t do that, but if you can you probably should. (And, to be perfectly straightforward, there are a great many people who say they can’t disconnect from social media who in fact just don’t want to, or are afraid of what will happen if they do.)

Relatedly: I was chatting with the wonderful Robin Sloan about these matters earlier today, and Robin expressed his hope that “a tiny, lively, healthy Republic of Newsletters is possible — it really is!” I love everything about that formulation: Republic of Newsletters, yes, but also that it’s “lively” and “healthy” — and tiny. Numbers, metrics are not what matters here. What matters is relation. What matters is “Only connect.” I replied to Robin,

I think so — I really really do. Opt in, read or don’t read as the fancy strikes you, and if you have a comment or a question, hit reply. What could be simpler? (As you and Craig Mod commented in that recent WSJ piece, email may be the Tom Bombadil of internet communication: last, as it was first. Well, you didn’t use that metaphor, I admit. But it’s fascinating that the pattern, for some of us anyway, seems to be internet to open Web to walled gardens to open Web to internet.)

Facebook is the Sauron of the online world, Twitter the Saruman. Let’s rather live in Tom Bombadil’s world, where we can be eccentric, peculiar perhaps, without ambition, content to tend our little corner of Middle Earth with charity and grace. We’ve moved a long way from Tim Carmody’s planetary metaphor, which, as I say, I feel the force of, but whether what I’m doing ultimately matters or not, I’m finding it helpful to work away in this little highland garden, above the turmoil of the social-media sea, finding small beautiful things and caring for them and sharing them with a few friends. One could do worse.



If there were a Nobel prize for hypocrisy, then its first recipient ought to be Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss. On 23 August, all his 1.7 billion users were greeted by this message: ‘Celebrating 25 years of connecting people. The web opened up to the world 25 years ago today! We thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee and other internet pioneers for making the world more open and connected.’ Aw, isn’t that nice? From one ‘pioneer’ to another. What a pity, then, that it is a combination of bullshit and hypocrisy….

It’s not the inaccuracy that grates, however, but the hypocrisy. Zuckerberg thanks Berners-Lee for ‘making the world more open and connected’. So do I. What Zuck conveniently omits to mention, though, is that he is embarked upon a commercial project whose sole aim is to make the world more ‘connected’ but less open. Facebook is what we used to call a ‘walled garden’ and now call a silo: a controlled space in which people are allowed to do things that will amuse them while enabling Facebook to monetise their data trails. One network to rule them all. If you wanted a vision of the opposite of the open web, then Facebook is it.

Why Tim Berners-Lee is no friend of Facebook | John Naughton | Opinion | The Guardian. Couldn’t be more correct, or more importantly correct.

Create systems that are ambivalent about the open or closed web. If I create a tool that’s good at posting content to Facebook and Twitter, it should also post to RSS feeds, which exist outside the context of any corporation. Now other generous and innovative people can build systems that work differently from Facebook and Twitter, using these feeds as the basis, and the investors will have another pile of technology they can monetize.

If you don’t like the way the algorithms in Twitter and Facebook work, then this is how to counteract that. Re-create the level playing field we used to have. Stimulate the open web. Give us something new to play with. It isn’t “either/or” – it’s “and.”

The key point is this – in everything we do we must treat the open web as equal to the private networks. Maybe we don’t have to depend on the government to do this for us, maybe we can be a bit more systematic about encouraging the wild chaos of the open network, knowing that it leads to new tools and new opportunity to profit.