Social Decay

The New Yorker recently featured an article from Cal Newport entitled Can “Indie” Social Media Save Us? that generated a lot of interest and responses from the IndieWeb community. The focus of the piece was whether the rise of the IndieWeb and decentralized social media services could help to mitigate some of the problems that have come from the corporate social media networks. Ultimately, Newport concludes that the IndieWeb will never reach the popularity of the current social media spaces.

Despite its advantages, however, I suspect that the IndieWeb will not succeed in replacing existing social-media platforms at their current scale. For one thing, the IndieWeb lacks the carefully engineered addictiveness that helped fuel the rise of services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This addictiveness has kept people returning to their devices even when they know there are better uses for their time; remove the addiction, and you might lose the users.

Unfortunately for those that love the IndieWeb, social networks thrive on economies of scale, and the corporate networks tend to have the advantage there. On the most recent episode of the Internet Friends podcast, Drew and Jon discuss leaving Twitter and coming back again. The discussion includes some vague references to using another social network service, which I believe is Micro.blog, and how that experience wasn’t as valuable or enjoyable as using Twitter. I have heard others express this frustration, mostly for the simple reason that the corporate social networks like Twitter and Instagram are where most people are found.

I actually prefer Micro.blog to Twitter, though it was never meant to be a direct competitor or to match all of the features or scale (that’s why M.b. includes cross posting to networks like Twitter). Micro.blog is slower, but also more considered. Alan Jacobs believes the speculation that the Indie Web will not overrun the established networks in number of users is a good thing.

Just one point for now: Newport writes, “Despite its advantages, however, I suspect that the IndieWeb will not succeed in replacing existing social-media platforms at their current scale.” This is precisely right, but as I commented a few weeks ago, that’s a feature, not a bug. Scale is the enemy.

When I stumbled upon Micro.blog, I was looking for an minimal, markdown-centric means of blogging. I started on the network with the “blog like a hacker” approach of using Jekyll on GitHub pages and later switched over to the hosted plan. The social aspect of M.b. was a bonus. The M.b. network presented a built in group of people who, unlike many on Twitter, were interested in, and had the attention span needed to read 500 word blog posts.

Manton Reece, the man behind Micro.blog, in response to the Newport piece, elaborates on one of the premises that drives the network.

It’s okay to have centralized services to make things easier for people, because it’s too much to expect that everyone should run their own server. The web can be “spread out” on multiple layers: a more diverse set of platforms, so that not all the power is concentrated in a couple massive platforms like Facebook; and more personal domain names, so that even if Micro.blog hosts 1000s of blogs, each one has its own identity on the web and can be moved.

The idea of a portable identity is a big part of the value proposition of the IndieWeb and blogging in general. You can switch platforms and still keep your writing and your domain name. Depending on the specifics of the platform switch and the design implications, your readers may never even know you are using a different service. There is a consistency as well as a method of true ownership of your content. Popular blogger Khoi Vinh expounds on how ownership and the platform you use helps to distinguish your work from the rest of the stuff in the stream.

That said, I personally can’t imagine handing over all of my labor to a centralized platform where it’s chopped up and shuffled together with content from countless other sources, only to be exploited at the current whims of the platform owners’ volatile business models. I know a lot of creators are successful in that context, but I also see a lot of stuff that gets rendered essentially indistinguishable from everything else, lost in the blizzard of “content.”

Though I wholeheartedly wish for a return to the days when it took some amount of effort to put your thoughts on the internet, I am skeptical that many will turn to the IndieWeb. Despite the problems of the centralized social networks, people don’t seem to be turning away from them in massive numbers. Though it’s getting easier to join, thanks to networks like Mastodon and Micro.blog, the IndieWeb still has a ways to go before it will be appealing to your average internet denizen. Even if people leave Facebook and Twitter, there is no guarantee they will join the IndieWeb. As Newport writes in the original piece, users fed up with the existing social networks may abandon the concept of internet-based social networks all together.

As a technology enthusiast, I’m a believer in the IndieWeb movement and think it will play an important role in the future of the Internet. For the exhausted majority of social-media users, however, the appeal of the proverbial quiet bench might outweigh the lure of a better Facebook.


Images via Andrei Lacatusu’s collection, “Social Decay” on Behance

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