A Web that Reflects People and their Values

The Web is an interesting place. Sure, a growing portion of the world has access to it after its 30+ years of use and influence on the world. People would like to believe that it's just a little corner of computers just yapping away at each other. It controls (directly and not) as much of your life as you'd give it, with the bare minimum of more brick and mortar institutions using it as a means of communication and commerce. I've opened more bank accounts online than in person—which was dramatically different for people 20 years ago, from speculative musings. Less media referred to weird online metaphors back then, now it's become quite simple to draw a line from a “young'un phrase” on television and its inspiration from the Internet—usually from Black people (which is wrong, by the way).

The Landscape

Now, with the recent (bubble of a) trend of the “decentralization” or “reforesting” or “decapitalizing”—whatever phrase you'd like to use—there's quite a few (I think too many) projects attempting to be the one “truth” and “vision of the future”. Things like Twitter-funded-but-not-run's BlueSky project, with people who have experience working on software that does very hard things (like keeping data as consistent as possible speedily with bits and bytes), community-and-government-funded-and-led Scuttlebutt that literally lives off the conventional Web (with tools to peer in) and the IndieWeb (oh hi) all have ideas on how to get there. The more specific of an end-goal (everyone uses X' or a thing that implements X, so it can speak to X'), the shinier the landing sites tend to be because it's easier to demonstrate. That's good! It's really the best way to get people who don't give a shit about how it works (until something goes wrong/abuse happens/etc), they just want something that they can talk to their friends with. It's difficult (but not impossible) to compete with ad-driven platforms like Twitter and Facebook because of the critical mass of people on those platforms and the amount of content generated (by people and machines) on these platforms.

There's also the need to actually have things working. As a society that's grown a shorter tolerance to computing speeds as they allegedly drop (for those who can afford it) and a heightened sense of lockdown to the mega-platforms that can keep us in (Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung all rely on these silos to maintain profits), we have expected everything to just work every single time. This, by itself, isn't unreasonable—it's the bare minimum. But we expect the quality of billion-dollar companies from solutions that were built in a few months (if not a year) with incredibly less labor power than those companies. It reduces the chances of community-driven feedback from being a priority when improving independent solutions, and just encourages more people to remain within their gardens. I haven't got a solution for that problem outside of building bridges to stay in touch and move people out when we can.

We got all of that crap going on—then we have things happening like Facebook letting people harvest data for the lulz, Twitter being the place for white nationalists to trade tips, Instagram decaying the mental health of teens and adults—the list goes on. But people will not leave these decaying ecosystems—despite the harms. Some people find their livelihood sustained on there, others don't have offline options that are safe or inviting, so online is the only place they'll go. Others are part of communities that don't know (or care to know, to be frank) about other options because they also choose to exist in the panopticon of communities online (like being a part of Anime Twitter and also a foodie). We have multiple facets of ourselves that we decide to show to specific people. I know personally that very few (like on one hand, in my life).

The Wants

Reading a post about how mediums can influence (if not control) a message, I was reminded again that it really does matter where we post things. Posting to places where we have control—control to even change the licensing of the content posted-is the biggest act of defiance in a world where access needs to be taxed, monitored and controlled by everyone who wants a cut. All of this motivated me a while ago (about four years?) to look into alternative social networking systems. I began blogging on my site more (hey!) and sending more newsletters (over here!) but this was only a quarter of the concern for me. I needed the following things:

  • A way to publish stuff. Photos, videos, game play achievements, where I've been—all of this is fair game. I see my site as an extension of my self, mainly in the digital space. But not in a weird, capitalist twist that mimics the worst facets of our society online.
  • A way to get my stuff. If I put it somewhere for anyone to get, you should be able to get it. If it's something that I only want some people to get, those in that particular audience should be able to get it. They should optionally be able to get these updates as soon as I publish them—or not! Up to them! I might also only want some stuff, so I should be able to apply filtering.
  • A way to send stuff to people, at their discretion. If I don't want to hear anything from anyone, I should be able to hit a button saying “Silence World”.  I want to let the source of my likes on other resources be my site (or something else that I vouch as liking things on my behalf) and let the thing being liked to know that I did the liking (or not—some likes don't have to be shared).
  • (Optional, but would really like) a way to do stuff without the Internet. I've become more and more interested in the “offline” networks—networks that don't connect to the global Internet but are colocated (or even distributed around the world through relays). I want to know how to share my stuff in this way with the same tenants as highlighted above.

Implicit requirements of each of these things is that they have to be “simple” and “secure”. Simple, as in leaning on conventions and hints to automate as much of the experience as possible, but still informing the user to what's going on at their preferred level of discretion. Secure, as in leaning on known standards for Web and application security, keeping integrity in the intended audience for the things I post and having the ability to change this in the future. None of this stuff is easy. And it gets harder as we add more and more capabilities to the kind of content we'd want to share.

Unironically, this isn't even considering the landscape of mobile computing. It's not just phones, we have people doing private competition in fitness with just a watch on their wrist or measuring how many achievements that they've unlocked in games they've played on their consoles. These systems aren't conventional social networks, but they're private and restricted in what can be sent (a literal controlled vocabulary). And with the advent of video becoming as ubiquitous as text, it's not enough to just “have a feed” on your homepage. People will need clients that can just amorphously render the things that people will want to see. I actually don't think there's a singularly correct solution to this—and the existing world shows this. People communicate over multiple platforms in the same way that my family speaks multiple languages at home—we learn how to. But these new formats aren't necessarily portable. Snapchat pioneered the concept of a story, and now LinkedIn has them. These are things that people use more often of each platform because of the people that they can reach that conventionally would be useless elsewhere. More on this in a later post because it's a headache in itself.

The (Personal) Goals

I've been digging into this for quite some time now, and I've learned enough to work on something that'll not only work for me, but for those I'd want to interact with. I'll try to work on it as much as I can in the open and lean on established standards to make interop possible, but I won't overextend beyond what's reasonable. This isn't anything new from what I've been working on before—I just have a better sense as to what I'd want it to do in the end.  I want something that'll work for me and I do think that by leaning on interop where reasonable and piping when possible, I'll be able to get to a place where I don't have to question if the medium is controlling the message I want to send. I also want to get to a point where I can encourage the medium's presentation in relation to the message I'd like to send. My website would be a place where I express and extend my content (and thoughts and experiences) in the way I see fit. However, the ability to open and present experiences in different tools is something we have to work to enable. We've described a large enough problem space and have a reliable enough network that we can build tools like this. This might be yet another ramble of mine, but Matthias has recently said, it's okay to just put stuff out there.

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