The way out

There have been many articles written in the last month about the role of social networks. Some even reach the obvious conclusion: that the top social networks are too big. This interview on Slate was fairly representative, covering monopolies and centralized power.

But these articles always stop short before hitting on a solution. They always wrap up saying “it’s tough to solve this”.

I think there are 4 parts to finding our way out of this mess with massive social networks:

Better features: We should be careful before copying everything from Twitter. I don’t want to take features that failed us and recreate them in a new environment. Micro.blog leaves out features on purpose that we think undermine a healthy community.

Open standards: When I first stopped tweeting 6 years ago, it was largely because of the developer-hostile attitude from Twitter. Proprietary APIs reinforce the lock-in with content silos. This is why so much of Micro.blog is based on IndieWeb standards. It’s why Mastodon uses APIs like ActivityPub.

Content ownership: Controlling the writing and photos you post online isn’t about open source or the technical experience to run a server. It’s about using domain names for identity, so that you can move your data in the future without breaking URLs. I’ve written more about this here and it’s a fundamental part of the book I’m writing about microblogging.

Smaller social networks: Many people are looking for “the next Twitter”, but it’s not enough to replace Twitter with a new platform and new leadership. Some problems are inevitable when power is concentrated in only 2-3 huge social networks — ad-based businesses at odds with user needs and an overwhelming curation challenge. This might be Mastodon’s greatest contribution: getting people used to the idea of many smaller, interoperable communities.

There’s not only one solution. I think platforms like Micro.blog and Mastodon each have a role to play and can be complementary. Mastodon helps by encouraging smaller social networks, distributing the task of moderation, but doesn’t prioritize content ownership. (An account on an instance like Mastodon.social has no more ownership of its content than an account on Twitter. Both let you export your data but both live at someone else’s domain name.)

If you are frustrated with the state of social networks, I recommend blogging more. I love seeing new blogs and photo blogs just as we’re having a serious debate in the mainstream about social networks. The way out isn’t easy, but there’s a clear path waiting for us to take it.

Manton Reece @manton
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