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  • On Social Media

    April 27, 2022

    It has come to my attention that people really don't like the fact that Elon Musk now owns Twitter. They complain about how it's oppressive and will end up censoring liberals 1 among other things. Of course, this is nothing new; people have been complaining about social media for as long as social media has existed. Tech companies either do too little or too much to combat misinformation and hate speech. There seems to be no happy middle ground.

    But here's the thing: nobody says you have to use Twitter or Facebook, or any other social media network. If you don't like the way it's operated, or you feel that it threatens your freedom of speech, then go somewhere else! And I say this to people on all sides of the political spectrum, because everyone seems to complain about it. There are plenty of platforms to choose from, and each platform has it's own reason for existing. It always bothers me especially when people talk about censorship on these platforms, because they are owned by privately-owned companies with long terms-and-conditions pages that you never read anyway that are allowed pretty much to do whatever they want. In those terms and conditions that you never read, you will find that all content you publish on social media belongs to the company. As soon as you upload an image or video to Instagram, Instagram owns that media and you waive all your rights to it. Likewise, every post you make on Twitter belongs to Twitter.

    It stands to reason, then, that if the company decides it doesn't want something on its platform, it can get rid of that content. It's as simple as that, and that's what you agreed to when you created your account. Again, I'm saying this to both liberals and conservatives, because both ends of the political spectrum always find a way to complain about this, despite knowing what they're getting into. It is almost as if people think they have a right to free speech on these platforms. Or, more accurately, it's as if people think they have any rights at all on these platforms.

    If you don't like the way any of the big social media platforms operate, you have a few options:

    1. Abandon social media altogether.
    2. Join a federated social media network like Mastadon or GNU Social or something obscure. Anything that uses ActivityPub fits into this category.
    3. Build your own social media platform, or buy and existing one.
    4. Join a public-access UNIX-like system and enjoy the internet as if it's 1990.

    I personally took option 1. Technically inclined people tend to take option 2. Politicians and other millionaires tend to take option 3. Only total nerds take the last option. Nonetheless, I want to explore each of these alternatives to social media.

    I am, of course, most familiar with abandoning social media altogether. This one is actually surprisingly easy to implement if you are so inclined. I was on Instagram in middle school, and around the time high school started for me, I quit. Everyone I talked to about this was in total support of me, and they were willing to work with me to find other means of communication, such as SMS or email. The point is, if people really want to stay in contact with you, then they will work with you to ensure that they can. Social media creates as lot of false or shallow friendships. It's easy to talk to all kinds of people, but when it comes right down to it, we don't really care about those people. We think we have so many "friends" on social media, but we probably know deep down that they aren't really friends at all.

    It's always easier to use a chat platform for one-on-one or small group communication. There are plenty of secure options, from email and PGP to Matrix and Signal. But what if you're interested with sharing content with the world? That is what the internet is all about, isn't it? It is about discovering new content and ideas, so I absolutely agree that there's a place for making data public. In the case that you want to do that, you can always start a blog. Even though the concept of blogging is something that social media companies want you to think is obsolete, it is very much something that still works for keeping in touch with people. You can post your content to your own blog, and then make it available with RSS. Likewise, you can "follow" other blogs by importing their RSS feeds into your news aggregator, and people can follow your blog by doing the same with your feed. Generally, people will make their email address available on their blog if you want to reach out to them for comments.

    To me, this blogging network is already the best form of social media. There's no need to create a new social media network, or join an existing one, even. You can simply start a blog, and encourage your friends and family to do so as well so that you can follow them. If you want a private stream of content, you can put your RSS feed behind a password-protected server, or something similar. The whole system is quite simple, and can be really great for keeping in touch with people. If you want to meet new people and discover new content, you can share your feeds. Back before search engines existed, there was the concept of a "webring," which is where sites would link to other sites just for exposure. The same sort of thing can happen with blogs. Bloggers are encouraged to link to blogs that they follow so that other people can find them.

    Social media is designed to be addictive, and a lot of people use it just to get attention. Blogs, on the other hand, are not addictive at all. You just post to your blog, check your feed to see if anyone else posted to theirs, and then go about your day. There's also no concept of a "like," "upvote," or anything else like that; that is to say, people don't ever know if you saw their content unless you tell them, which means they can't be used only for the purpose of getting attention. Blogs encourage users to focus primarily on publishing high-quality—or at least well-thought-out—content simply for others to enjoy.

    The other great thing about blogs is that you are in total control of both the content you publish and the content you see. The whole system is decentralized, which means you choose to pull in feeds from wherever you want, and you can choose to not pull in feeds you don't want. You only see the content you're interested in, and unless the publisher of that content takes it down, you will always have access to it. Additionally, nobody can censor your content; they can only choose not to follow it. In this way, you can easily avoid all the problems you have with social media.

    However, if you simply can't handle the idea of having a blog and installing an RSS reader app on your phone as a replacement for social media, then there's always the option of joining a federated social media network. I've never done this, because really isn't an ideal option, but a lot of people have luck with them. The idea behind federated social media is that you can run your own server, or join a trusted server. You can then communicate with anyone on that server and anyone on other servers as well. Each person gets to choose their own server, and can follow whoever they want. The decentralized nature of the system makes it difficult to censor, although it is still possible for the administrator of any given server to censor users on it, so this type of social media should be used with care. Generally, sites that utilize a federated network will look and act just like any other social media network. Mastadon, for example, is basically a Twitter clone. It functions almost identically, but it theoretically gives you more control over your content and the content you choose to follow.

    The third option you have is to build your own social media network. I've considered this as a viable option for a long time, and have even sketched out some ideas as to what my social media network would look like. However, since then, I've discarded this idea as unrealistic. The major problem most normal people will have with this one is the fact that running a social media network takes a lot of resources. It requires a lot of time and money, yes, but it also requires users. So you have to market your network and convince people to join it. That's probably the hardest part of the whole deal, because why would people want to join some random obscure platform that nobody else is on? In other words, what can you offer that's unique in terms of functionality? Additionally, what will ensure that your social media network won't become like everyone else's?

    These questions are hard to answer, which is why blogging makes the most sense to me. With a blog, you aren't offering a unique feature, so you don't have to try to sell a platform. You only offer content, which should speak for itself. Take this blog, for example. There is nothing fancy about it at all. In fact it is so simple that it is on the border of being total garbage. And yet, a flashy web interface is not the appeal of my blog. The appeal is that it delivers content. Nothing more, and nothing less. It doesn't matter what my words look like or how they're presented. Everyone has their own preferences, so all I have to do is deliver the content and let the people that consume my content decide how they want to do so.

    Now, I'm certainly not saying that my blog is the only way to do blogging. This way will most likely not work for many people other than me. I absolutely encourage people to offer unique content in other interesting ways. I could easily make this blog a lot more rich by rendering posts in HTML. That would allow me to include images and videos if I really wanted to. You could also use Markdown to write your blog, and have a tool convert it to a web page and RSS feed for you automatically. But the purpose of my blog is only to offer text, so I can do it with plain text files. The point is that every blog needs to have it's own unique purpose.

    I'd also encourage people to think outside the box when it comes to digital interactions. Social media and blogging aren't the only possibilities. One idea that is particularly fascinating to me is the idea of a public-access UNIX-like system. Plenty of these systems exist, and they always have for as long as the internet has been around. They're used to let users communicate with each other, play games against each other, and even host websites. Public-access UNIX systems are a niche type of community, to be sure, but I think it would be a fascinating experience to host such a system myself, and see how it goes. OpenBSD would make a great public-access system because it is secure and offers many built-in social features such as games and multiple ways to write to other users.

    These types of systems will certainly make you feel like you're taking a step back in time. Some people find that refreshing and appealing because times were simpler. Others will find it archaic and confusing. I personally find it appealing because I greatly appreciate simplicity, but everyone has their own preferences. UNIX systems will generally have a steep learning curve if you don't have any prior experience, and you generally have to be pretty technically inclined, but it is definitely worth persuing because it is a lot of fun.

    So, that's pretty much what I think about social media. There's plenty of alternatives that deserve to be explored, and I think people should consider them. Especially if they aren't happy with the way the services they use work. The fact is, social media as it is commonly implemented today is flawed, but there are alternatives that are better. If you have any ideas that I haven't touch on in this post, or if you want to start a blog or join a public-access UNIX system, feel free to contact me via email.

    1. After all the censorship of conservatives... ironically. It's actually surreal how one side now so suddenly complains about censorship after years of censoring the other wide. We either all deserve free speech, or none of us do! 

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