I’ve been thinking about ways that I can support more people participating in an open and independent internet. There has already been a lot of discussion on how to reduce the technical barriers to entry: how to help people setup their own blogs, host and own their content, and so on. But while these technical challenges are not insignificant, I don’t think they represent the greatest hurdle.
Let’s consider Riley, a hypothetical Facebook user. Riley might have misgivings about Facebook’s use of their data. And they might very well know that a simple blog on open source platform like WordPress allows them to own, maintain, and migrate their posts down the road. Riley might even deeply resent the degree to which Facebook has weaselled itself into their life. Riley might really want to deactivate their social media accounts and ‘go independent.’
In the end, however, Riley decides to change nothing about their online habits. This decision is not only informed by questions about the time commitment and technical know-how required make a switch but by the network effect of Facebook itself: when Riley posts something on Facebook, there is almost always feedback. Riley’s friends often click an innocuous-looking ‘like’ button that serves as a low-cost, high-value social signal that reinforces Riley’s use of the platform. By contrast, Riley has no guarantee that sharing their thoughts on a personal blog would reach much of an audience at all.
Inasmuch as Facebook is a social experience, anything that provides less social feedback amounts to a categorical waste of Riley’s time.
My thesis is that the technical challenge of setting up a personal blog is not Riley’s principal barrier to, say, escaping Facebook. The critical challenge is a lack of reinforcing social validation. Facebook, despite all of its ills, gives Riley the sense that their words and pictures capture the attention of others. Facebook offers Riley a voice. As a social species, the notice of others is the paramount currency. Loneliness is a far more significant psychological threat than some company called Cambridge Analytica or the most recent updates to a terms of service agreement.
The independent web is not only in competition with platforms that make self-publishing technically frictionless, it is in competition with platforms that algorithmically reward our most basic human needs for acceptance, reinforcement, and validation.
For the Rileys in my world who make the leap, one of the most important things I can do is interact and engage with them in their newly established spaces. This is about human to human engagement, not just typing ‘like’ in every comment box. Annotate, dialogue, amplify, and interact.
The only lasting antidote to social media’s current data monopoly is to create independent networks that are more wholesome, creative, interactive, and, yes, behaviourally reinforcing, than what any corporate AI or algorithm can provide. The Rileys of the world are only going to leave Facebook if the alternative is a manifestly more validating human experience, psychologically and emotionally. The only way this is going to happen in a decentralized network is if a whole bunch of us make thoughtful engagement and amplification of new voices a serious priority. If the independent web is going to survive, it must become a human web.