Blogger Pronouns: thoughts on simplicity, exclusivity, openness, and privacy

Hi Eli, Colin, Serena, Josh. Thanks so much for your thoughts on the Blogging in the Second Person post.

Eli, your response makes me think of Dear Dealer, a recent segment on This American Life. It is an essay addressed in the second person. For this essay, at least, the POV frames the story in such a way that personalizes the issue far beyond a third person report on the subject. Tying the idea of simplicity to POV here is interesting. By no means do I think we should say something prescriptive, such as a blog reply ought to be in the second person. But perhaps what we can say is that the second person might help simplify some responses in ways that give them much greater clarity and meaning?

Colin, I agree that the “reluctance to exclude some readers” is probably a key reason why we bloggers sound like editorialists. This thought provokes the question further for me: I’m curious to what extent does it feel alienating to read a text that is written as correspondence? Is this principally a concern with perceived contextlessness? I am imagining someone reading these words who did not read the initial text that sparked this conversation: does this reader presently now feel more left out or uninvited to participate than had I written this in the third person? (It’s an honest question: I’m not sure.)

Serena, I have also contemplated the concern that blogging as correspondence might “restrict the conversation between the original poster and the responder.” On the one hand, I agree it’s a very fair and valid concern. And, simultaneously, I wonder if there anyone reading this post who feels excluded from this conversation, or unable to participate in it? If we grant the hypothesis that public writing is about engagement, does not a text’s inherent publicness itself invite input? Perhaps this exchange is akin to leaving messages to your pen pal on a public bulletin board, or adding to the ‘thread’ of a graffiti exchange? Could we also suppose that open dialogue is in another way more inclusive and invitational of external input than it is exclusive?

Josh, I love your question, “would some individuals be uncomfortable having a ‘letter’ written to them made public without prior permission?” I’m fascinated by the psychology and cultural underpinnings here, and the proposition that a shift in pronouns might be felt to necessitate acquiring the permission of the intended recipient — who is the same person regardless of the POV of the text. I wholeheartedly agree that the grand traditions of ‘open letters’ and ‘letters to the editor’ in print media have earned reputations for public shaming and one-sided takedowns. But how much of this expectation is contextual, genre-based behaviour? As Serena says, “I’d have no qualms about responding to you in the 2nd person if I was replying to you in the comments section.” Do we not write very open, public messages to one another all the time already? I wonder: by nature of maintaining a presence on a platform — one which bakes comments or responding into its infrastructure — do we not implicitly agree that others will write both to and about us? What does this mean in the blogging context? By nature of a person presenting their ideas publicly to the whole world, do they not inherently invite the world to respond however it so will?

I appreciate the input and perspective that all four of you bring to this question. The more I think about, the more the blogosphere sounds like a parliament: instead of addressing our interlocutor, we address the Speaker of the House, who happens to be the impersonal whole of the internet. This observation isn’t intended to outline a ‘problem’ that demands a prescriptive ‘solution.’ But I am thankful for the opportunity to engage in this discussion with you.

Blogging in the Second Person: Open Correspondence for a Social Web?

When we bloggers refer to one another’s posts, we usually default to writing in the third person. I suspect this is because writing publicly incentivizes accessibility for the broadest possible audience. Whatever the reason may be, the third person voice is the ‘genre tradition’ of blogging. We tend to write sentences like this:

In a recent blog post, Riley writes that…

Although I am obviously responding or reacting to Riley’s post, I am not formally writing to Riley. Instead, I am prioritizing my address to the nameless, faceless recipients of the internet who might also read this post, not Riley. I am now writing about my interlocutor, which is an awkward way to carry on a conversation.

I have been thinking about the nature of correspondence, and pondering the value of intentionally writing and framing ‘reply’ blog posts in the second person and first person:

Hi Riley. Your blog post makes me think…

This perspective feels much more like a conversation than a commentary. While there is nothing wrong with commentary, I suspect the usual, detected third person POV will always sound more like an editorial than an exchange. Of course, there is nothing wrong with editorials, either. The question is, do I personally want to be more of a reporter or more of a conversationalist in this space?

I have been thinking about ways that I might contribute to making the open web a more inviting, social environment. In turn, I am wondering if a subtle shift in pronouns might make the independent blogging world inherently look a little less lonely? After all, when you are writing in the second person, you are intrinsically writing in the context of some relationship.

Another reason I find the idea of ‘blogging in the second person’ compelling is that I have a nostalgic — if not anachronistic — fascination with letter writing. We all know that the estates of the rich and famous often release the correspondence of iconic leaders and visionaries for publication. These become crucial primary sources for historians. But the letters of the elite and well-known are a mere tip of the iceberg: for generation after generation, written correspondence was the sole and de facto platform for sharing ideas, discussing politics, and expressing emotions across distances.

What we forget today — in the world of archive-it-and-forget-it email — is that personal correspondence has historically embodied much more than a temporal mental exchange. Letters’ dependence on physical media endowed them with staying power: when you discover the chest of old correspondence in your grandparent’s attic, you realize that letters can live long beyond their original delivery date. A message can be a letter, or an epistle, or an archival record. Once you entrust the message to the postal service and it’s final recipient, it goes on to have a life you no longer control and might have long term value you cannot imagine.

My point is that there is — or, perhaps more accurately, could be — a stronger parallel between blogging and traditional letter writing than apparent at first blush. Like letters, blogs can be shared beyond original recipients. They can be cited. Repurposed. I am curious to experiment blending the two: I want to try using blogging as a proxy for letter writing, and correspondence as a model for blogging.

If the cross-pollination of ideas is at the heart of ‘small b blogging‘ — an attitude towards writing online that isn’t obsessed with the scale of the audience — I wonder if emphasizing the pronouns of direct correspondence might bring the emphasis back to the exchange of thought.

For now, I’m leaving this post here as a theoretical point of reference. As I occasionally address other bloggers in the second person, I want to have a ‘linkable explanation’ for what I am trying to do and why. If I write a post directly ‘to’ you, the above paragraphs are here to clarify my underlying logic. Please feel free to respond in kind: using our blogs as vehicles for open correspondence has the potential, I hope, to foster a critically needed atmosphere of dialogue.

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.

I’m signing on and standing up for the #indieweb cause

If it wasn’t already obvious, I should mention I’m totally on board with the #indieweb movement.

The independent web “is a people-focused alternative to the ‘corporate web’” and it means being intentional and strategic about owning the space one inhabits online.

Let’s suppose you have a thought, question, observation, or idea to share. Sure, you can quickly post it on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, or to any platform, but then what happens? What becomes of your intellectual effort or creative labor of love after you push that ‘Post’ or ‘Submit’ button?

Corporations scrape, buy, sell, and monetize your data. Algorithms determine who sees it. Your thoughts are stored in a server somewhere, probably far away, in a database you can only access through the proprietary platform itself. Your content becomes subservient to someone else’s terms and conditions. Your words, your pictures, and your ideas now live under the lock and key of a user agreement you probably didn’t even read. Then one day, when the service shuts down, all the stuff you shared might be instantaneously deleted and disappear forever.

Along with a growing contingent of people around the globe, I want to personally use the web in such a way as to foster more openness and the broader exchange of information. And I want to act on this commitment. This means making what I post online accessible, not dependent on a specific platform or corporate business model, and not stored in a format where I essentially lose all ongoing control and rights to my data. This means that I will primarily be posting here on my site going forward, and continuing to syndicate updates to various social media platforms automatically.

The truth of the matter is that the #indieweb is not a ‘new’ movement at all: it is merely going back to the heart of what the Internet was intended for in the first place.

Interested in joining?

Is “following” and “liking” fundamentally different than “reading”?

Remember blogrolls? These were lists of links to other blogs that a blogger would often post on their site. In the days before we surrendered everything to corporately sponsored algorithms, online writers and readers built networks by recommending fellow authors to one another.

I’m curious: who do you read today? Who are the writers producing work online that you read directly? If the answer is, “Oh, I follow so-and-so on Twitter,” or, “I like so-and-so’s Facebook page,” then I wonder if we’ve traded “reading” for the push-button convenience of “following” and “liking” one another?

Does “following” and “liking” one another equate to “reading” one another? “Reading,” in the nostalgic parlance of yesteryear, seemed to imply a personal commitment to tracking along with another person’s thinking over time. “Following,” in terms of today’s proprietary social network jargon, doesn’t seem to carry the same weight of personal investment.

The interesting twist in the story is how enthusiastically so many of us bloggers and online writers jumped at the chance to build our “networks” on social media–only to one day discover that a following on another company’s platform does not necessarily translate into thoughtful, engaged readers. Whatever it means to be a “liker” and a “follower” today, it doesn’t necessarily seem synonymous with a “reader” — at least in the sense of someone who’d list you on their blogroll.

Let’s specify the question to get the rub of the issue: whose online writing do you read or subscribe to directly without relying on social media platforms for updates on their work?

It’s an honest question: who are the people whose ideas and words have so much value for you that you access their writing directly (blogs, newsletters, etc), without depending on your social media channels as your primary conduit to their work?

I guess another way to put it: if you were going to rebuild a blogroll today, who would it include?

I think I’ve become social platform agnostic

I think I have lost my faith in the social media platforms.

It has been an interesting few weeks of thinking about the Internet in general, and social media in particular — namely its pros/cons, opportunity cost, externalities, and collateral, oligopolies, the tyranny of the network effect, and how all this impacts the future of a free, open, and independent web.

Not that this is “the conclusion” of the matter by any means, but I feeling evermore comfortable in a place of “social platform agnosticism.” The investment of my time in developing platform-specific archives and followings does not make sense. These proprietary commercial mediums built on the Internet do not serve me, they serve advertisers.

The ultimate value of the Internet is that it is an open network. I want to invest my time and grow my understanding in a dataset I can access, transport, query, and utilize in the future. For me, right now, this means using WordPress to amalgamate my personal “online existence” in a MySQL database that I own, instead of relying on Facebook or Twitter — or whatever the “next things” might be — to host my digital life for me on their terms, under their conditions.

I will still share updates across these commercial platforms, of course, but I will share from this platform that I independently own and control — a platform that is free and independent of the proprietary web. This is what I mean by platform agnosticism: I don’t believe commercial networks should be the repositories of my data, but I’m happy to temporarily utilize them for the connectivity they create and provide… as fleeting and proprietary as they might be.

‘Trinet’: the web is a Facebook, Amazon, and Google oligopoly

The Web began dying in 2014, here’s how is a blog post by André Staltz, posted October 30, 2017. You should read the piece in its entirety. Here are some highlights.

Google and Facebook now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic.

Before 2014, approximately 35% of website visits originated from searches. Today, Facebook has surpassed search, accounting for approximately 45% of website traffic.

Any website aspiring for traffic depends on Google and Facebook, including the news media. The vast majority of content published to the web panders to the algorithms of Google and Facebook.

Staltz predicts the ‘internet’ will devolve into a ‘trinet’ — “network of three networks,” namely Facebook, Amazon, and Google.

In short, the web has become an oligopoly:

The Web and the internet have represented freedom: efficient and unsupervised exchange of information between people of all nations. In the Trinet, we will have even more vivid exchange of information between people, but we will sacrifice freedom. Many of us will wake up to the tragedy of this tradeoff only once it is reality.

The Independent Web

I can remember the internet in the days before the term ‘independent web’ became an ideal. In the beginning, everything about the web was independent. If you wanted to put something on the ‘information superhighway,’ you had to get access to a server (or host your own) and code it in whatever message you wanted to share.

Collectively, we have made a big trade-off. The move to platforms of scale (i.e. social media) has made it astronomically easier to use the Internet: Mark Zuckerberg has made it extremely convenient for us to log-in and leave our messages for each other on his computer. But this ease of use comes at a cost. The web is increasingly centralized: all the stuff we post is published in datasets we can’t access, under terms of use agreements we don’t read.

We feel like the cloud gives us freedom, but this liberty is, in fact, an acute dependency server infrastructure we don’t control in any way whatsoever. Whatever the web is today, and becoming, it is not a state described well by the word ‘independent.’

Tyranny of the Network Effect

Do you ever feel that digital media platforms like Facebook wield a tyrannical power over our lives?

There is an explanation.

The network effect refers to the positive feedback loop created by the mass adoption of a service or platform. For example, let’s say your friends are on Facebook, inviting each other to parties and complementing one another on their exciting lives and accomplishments. Naturally, you want to be invited to parties and be validated as a human, too. So you create a Facebook account. Now other people who want to go to parties with you and receive signals of your approval have a greater incentive to join Facebook as well. On and on it goes, until the perceived cost of not being on Facebook is higher than the perceived downsides of joining the platform.

The network effect explains why so many of us use Facebook so resentfully. Even while we are fully aware of the privacy and equity issues of social media, the phenomenal scale of Facebook market penetration means we feel like we need it to be connected to it. So, while many of us claim to ‘hate Facebook’ in no uncertain terms, we voluntarily continue to utilize it.

The network effect is like a kind of tyranny all to its own. It makes platforms like Facebook seem like nonnegotiable requirements for living and communicating in the modern world.

Social networks of such immense scale, like Facebook, have achieved their tyrannical reign over our lives by convincing us that our connection to one another depends on the wizardry of their platforms. As soon as we accept this proposition, there is no limit to the privacy we will trade to capture and access the attention of one another. All hail the corporate enterprise that convinces us that our human relationships and social organization depend on their clever algorithm.

Perhaps the only way to subvert the tyranny of the network effect is to remember that human communities — still, believe it or not — possess the power to organize themselves. As long as we credit the power of Facebook with enabling our collective action, we ignore the ways that the platform is conforming our relationships and communities into its image. Facebook is only one network, and while it may operate at a stunning scale, it’s presumption of being an ‘essential network’ is nothing more than a self-claim — a self-claim that it desperately needs us to believe.

Platforms are nothing apart from our adoption of them.