An Independent Web that is More Social than ‘Social Media’

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.

29 Replies to “An Independent Web that is More Social than ‘Social Media’”

  1. @jamesshelley Great article, and the human-to-human feedback is an important dimension to the “escaping the silo” story that I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone else mention, at least not this explicitly.

    Micro.blog, with Discover and several users operating a welcome wagon, seems like it is on the right path—having both ease-of-use and good interactions.

  2. Well said.

    Ironically, I’ve highlighted a portion of your post (with Highly.co) but you won’t notice that. Of course if you were on Medium, you would.

    I’m not sure that broad support of webmention is the answer, but you’ve helped me see that it has more value than I noticed before.

  3. @jamesshelley

    By contrast, Riley has no guarantee that sharing their thoughts on a personal blog would reach much of an audience at all.

    Does Riley have guarantees his post on Facebook actually reached his friends? I bet lot of them lick Like because Riley is friend and not have read anything past the headeline and abstract.

    So, it comes down to “perceived reach” vs. “unknown reach”. Looking at your server logs will often give you better idea of your visitor’s interaction than social network likes or “interactions”, (expect for people reading your rss feed). Part of the problem is that Likes cause our brains to get a small dopamine high.

  4. @oyam @jamesshelley I can attest to the fact that FB‘s “reach” amounts to nothing.
    For shits and giggles I decided to bury my engagement announcement at the bottom of a 6-7 sentence paragraph. For the photo, I posted a four-photos collage showing the food I ate and the poster of the movie I watched that night.
    Needless to say, I received plenty of likes, but most of them from people who didn’t even read the post. It was only after a couple of friends made a big fuss in the comments that people actually realised what the post was about!

  5. @vishae @jamesshelley That’s a good story. I very rarely posted on Facebook in the past. I recently posted that I no longer log in, and to give people contact info, etc. Bunch of people commented asking questions… really? (The only way I realized there were comments is I did a Facebook data dump and saw the questions in there.)

  6. @oyam As far as the dopamine hit is concerned though, perception seems to work as well as reality — and has the added ‘benefit’ of being easier to manipulate through the proxies of digital feedback mechanism (i.e. high felt reward, low cost signalling)

  7. @smokey I agree that @manton and @macgenie are doing a phenomenonal job of curating Micro.blog’s Discover feature, and the power of the informal welcoming committee here makes us part of a unique moment of convergence, I feel. I’m curious as to the scaliability, though: not in terms of quality curation, but simply in terms scope management. Just speculating.

  8. @oyam @vishae That’s a great story, Serena. Highlights that our treatment of like-button engagement is as much about giving people a way to signal their approval without actualling doing anything. (And somehow we call this nonsense ‘social proof’ of value?) More importantly: congrats on your engagement! (Can’t tell from the context if this story happened recently or not, but its worth celebrating either way)

  9. @jamesshelley @smokey Thanks! Scaling is always a challenge but something we’ve planned for. I knew from the beginning that Micro.blog would need a curation team + extra people to help out. That’s why it’s so important for the platform to be sustainable and have a variety of paid hosting options.

  10. @jamesshelley Agreed! Perception is the only thing that matters. If you shut out the outer world (which social networks make you do in various ways), your perception becomes the world, and they are the input into that perception.

  11. What a great piece! I think it’s an interesting challenge. The lack of “likes” and such do make the IndieWeb feel more lonely. And yet, when I DO receive real responses (thoughtful, text written responses), it provides a MUCH bigger social satisfaction then I received even from 50 likes.

    As I started reading your post I thought “we need to do more to encourage likes on the IndieWeb”, by the end I thought “we need to do more to help people seamlessly reply to others” I think high quality engagement is the key to beating Facebook. Micro.blog has already provided me with much more substantive responses then I get from friends and family on Facebook.

  12. @oyam As a preface, this may only pertain to my industry (I’m a lighting designer for live performance), but for all it’s faults, FB is pretty effective at getting the word out about shows. And keeping my work visible to past and potential collaborators. I don’t use it much for personal interactions, but I do make sure that there are performance photos I’m tagged in and my name is associated with events.
    And being lucky enough to know some talented artists, some beautiful work can show up in my feed. :)

  13. @Bruce Sure, but there are other sites to get a word out about shows like upcoming.org or eventful.com. There is nothing that FB does that hasn’t been done before they even existed. As for work, I’d host my portfolio on my own site over FB any day. And seeing others work, RSS feeds can do the same as FB feed. I bet you lot of those people have their own sites with an RSS feed already. One point you do raise, though, is your ability to see others pictures from shows and tagging yourself. There is no equivalent for that concept on the open/indie web, that I know of.

  14. @oyam But sadly Facebook is where all the people are. ;)
    We use the other promotion sites too, but Facebook does have the advantage of alerting friends of people who are interested/going to the show. Helps reach folks that one doesn’t know.
    I do have my portfolio on a site I own, but most people in my world are not technically inclined. And I don’t know anyone who uses RSS. I doubt most would even know what it is.

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