To Go Forwards With the Web, We Have to Go Backwards

When factory farming started to be linked to health problems and climate change, many people took the opportunity to reevaluate the basic requirements our food system. And now with a growing concern for how our media consumption effects our individual health and our democracy, we're in a similar situation with online content.

Like our food system, there were things that were working just fine with the internet that we ditched in favor of scale-at-all-cost, which ended up meaning centralization at all cost. Personal blogs, RSS, self-hosted services. They didn't scale and had technical hurdles, but they also, I would argue, added more real value to people's lives than social networks.

If we return to those original value propositions, and not necessarily the tools themselves, I believe we can achieve most of the things we enjoy about Facebook and Twitter without the toxicity.

Our Media Diet

Evolution has made it difficult for us to stop eating sugar, or synthetic approximations of sugar, based on a time when it was beneficial to eat as much as possible. Similarly it is difficult to stop consuming infuriating or validating opinions ... and their synthetic approximations.

It is difficult to empathize with someone who is not like yourself. It is delicious to feel superior to flat earthers or anti-vaxxers.

The problem is that people are only as good as the systems they use allow them to be. Facebook does not allow its users to easily be good people. The temptation to give in to righteous outrage is too powerful because people have been pushed to extreme opinions by an algorithm that leverages outrage to optimize engagement.

We become our worst selves even in systems that don't necessarily profit from extreme behavior, like driving a car. Many of my friends, who I think are some of the best people on earth, drive in a way that would make me utterly denounce their self-worth if I drove behind them for five minutes. Our brains are only empathetic in environments where they are allowed to be.

Online media is too synthesized, too addictive, and our brains are not capable of refusing what's put in front of us.

One of the good things about reading newspapers was the mix of content you agreed with and didn't agree with. Sometimes you were surprised by something you didn't think you'd like. The idea that some infinitely scrolling feed that keeps giving us dopamine hits because it's perfectly tailored to what we want is flawed. Both in its goals and in its feasibility.

The Balance of Power

At it's heart, this is a story of control and power. If we view the system as having three parts, creators, distributors, and consumers, right now most power rests with the distributors (platforms). The internet has gotten rid of so many middlemen, so many inefficiencies, why has it bloated the mediation between creator and consumer?

Platforms and distribution are an important part of the pipeline. But not the most important. Right now they are king, and they need to be more of an equal branch of government. It's better for everyone, probably even the platform makers, if we shift the power back to the creators and consumers.

What Can We Do

We have become too centralized. Too many of us rely on Google, Twitter, and Facebook, which gives these companies outsized power. This power is only coincidentally put towards making our lives better when it overlaps the power's own market incentives.

I believe we need to go back to a more decentralized internet in order to pull the market back towards accommodating users' actual needs.

Unfortunately I don't think there will be a seamless move from Facebook to decentralized social networks. There will be a time of turmoil and experimentation as we once again retreat to our silos.

But only then will there be a market opportunity for next-generation social networks to emerge. Ones that optimize the value they provide to users, not to data brokers and advertisers.

So I suggest accelerating and condensing the experimentation time by pro-actively decentralizing our digital lives. Let's signal the market that there is money to be had in providing analogs to these centralized services that respect the ownership of our data.

Personal Blogs: We need to go back to putting things on our own domains. Of course you should still also publish to any networks you need to reach your audience, but the canonical home of your content needs to be under your control.

As a former Medium employee, it pains me to see publishers like Hacker Noon go through so many headaches because of Medium's sudden and ill-communicated pivots. Until we have a publishing platform that can physically guarantee us control of our content, we need to go back to individual domains.

Once enough websites relied on Facebook traffic for their business, they became hostages to the platform, paying more and more for the same amount of exposure. If we pull in the direction of personal blogs, the market opportunity will be to offer distribution without a loss of control.

RSS: Boy, did we abandon RSS too early. Before Twitter and Facebook, users could just browse the raw, unmediated feeds from their favorite sites via RSS (and still can!). Yes, there were problems with the average person being overwhelmed with too many links. But I think the Faustian bargain we made for purely social curation was too steep. Instead of just solving the minor hurdles, we threw up our hands and signed over our lives to poorly incentivized companies.

Google Reader showed that we could add social layers and curation on top of RSS (recommendations, comments), while still allowing users to be in control of their feed. We need to go back to making it easier for users to control, understand, and personalize their feed outside of any single platform.

Media companies should advocate for this as well since it tips the scales back in their favor. We shouldn't have platforms that entire media businesses rely on for distribution (News+ shows that smart people still think this is the future). Give users the power to decide what they like, and how they want to get their content. Give content producers the tools to build relationships (and revenue) directly with their audience.

Some sites may decide to stay with Facebook, and that's great, but we need to spread the word that there is a better way. We need to have a conversation about easy, frictionless media consumption that's platform independent.

Self-hosted Services: Now that web servers are so cheap, we need to re-examine the idea of having our favorite services backed by servers we own and control, rather than a SaaS company. Wordpress for blogging, Matomo for web analytics, Rocket Chat or Mattermost for instant messaging. There are so many awesome free pieces of software that you can load up on your own server. If you're non-technical, many companies specialize in setting up these services for you. You just click to install, pay the hosting fees, and away you go.

You really don't need Slack's giant scale and infrastructure for your team of six people to talk and be productive. You don't need Google Analytics' aggressive data collection to monitor traffic on your small site. The list of outsized SaaS platforms that people use for relatively simple tasks goes on and on. Let's use SaaS when it makes sense and consider self-hosting by default.

I do believe that self-hosting would need to be productized more for mass adoption. But without a significant movement of people capable of willing to take the plunge, those products will never come. Or at least never rival centralized services.

I Know, I Know

I'm not ignorant of the reasons we ended up here. People are lazy. People don't care. But this is a systems problem, not a people problem. And I see demand growing for systems that makes doing the right thing easy. That make it easy to absorb dissenting, well-argued opinions. That provide a balanced, nutritious media diet that makes us feel better individually and as a society.

Let's throw some gasoline on the fire. Subscribe below to receive future posts on how to leverage the above technologies to achieve your own goals.

Cover image by PHÚC LONG on Unsplash

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