In what ways do online spaces co-opt personal expression?

In a sense, digital social platforms homogenize personal individuality as much as they amplify and incentivize it.

One of the most interesting contradictions of the ‘digital revolution’ is how big tech endlessly promise better tools to express our creativity, individuality, and unique voice in the world…

…as we are happily baited into using platforms and devices that funnel an increasing scope of our human experience into the homogenizing, universalizing portfolio of a ‘user.’

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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?

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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