Can we make the internet fun again?

Last week, the New Yorker published an essay entitled Can Indie Social Media Save Us? and I was delighted to see Micro blog mentioned, as I’ve been a microblogger for over a year now. Services like Micro blog are making it easier than ever to create a more humane, diverse, and human internet. The kind of internet I believe we need today.

I miss the days when my friends had blogs; they wrote about their hobbies and projects and hikes, and each of those sites were as unique as the individual. Websites were clunky back then, yes, but they were far more interesting than the sterile corporate web we live with today. The web was actually a web back then, full of serendipitous links and surprising points of discovery. It could also be bizarre. Does anyone else remember Gonads and Strife? 😂

The Great Flattening

Our internet changed significantly in the early 2000s, starting with the dominance of search engines. Why should sites build links to one another, talk to one another, if you could enter what you wanted in a search box? Organic cross-linking between sites diminished, and everyone began gaming the system to get more attention from the search engine algorithms.

Soon after, Facebook changed everything again. Why put your words, photos, and hobbies on a website when you could throw it into a single social feed for your friends to see? Social media was convenient and seemed to come with few downsides. Why blog when you could throw a quick update online from your phone? And thus Facebook ate the blogosphere, capturing us all within their walled gardens.

The conveniences provided by search and social media consumed much of the early web. We all started visiting the same few sites, and reading what they chose to prioritize. Later, these websites sought to control our behavior and take psuedo-ownership of our content, using it to drive their own agendas. Thus began the malignant onset of fucked-up terms of service contracts and manipulative algorithms. Over the course of five years, the original internet all but disappeared, replaced with corporate-owned surveillance boxes, designed to profile you based upon what photos you upload, what you like, what you hate, what you read, and what you say. Thus our humanity became distilled down to a set of characteristics third parties could use to manipulate our behavior, and our thinking.

Buy this thing.

Vote this way.

Fear this group.

Believe this lie.

There’s no use in blaming ourselves. It’s only recently that we’ve begun to see the trade offs, the deep and abiding damage to our institutions, and the ways we’ve been mislead. And I doubt that (most of) the programmers building these systems set out to create these social monstrosities. Company leaders chased the money, made bad choices, and minimized them. “It’s just ads,” they seemed to say. “We’ve always had ads.” But we all know there’s a difference between an ad and psychological profiling.  And we understand that showing women ads for women’s shoes is very different than using racial data and misinformation campaigns to manipulate elections. But the tools of big social media don’t discriminate between good and evil; they’re unsafe tools in irresponsible hands.

A smiling man in blue installs a surveillance camera on a ceiling.
Don’t mind us! Your private conversations are totally private! Promise.

“The Internet” is Bigger Than We Think

Because the online world has consolidated so much, when you think about “the Internet” today, you’re probably thinking about a small number of sites run by powerful corporations. As different as they are, they operate under a similar set of rules, the most sacrosanct being that your online communications must go through their surveillance box, and that you will be targeted by those who are willing to pay, based upon what you’ve said, uploaded, or clicked. Even based upon who you associate with!

If you’ve followed me this far, let me ask you a few questions: Does this limited view of “the internet” sound like the internet you wanted? And is this type of internet supportive of the world you want? Are free services worth the trade-offs? And were you fully informed of the costs when you signed up?

Writing about the corruption of online culture makes me sad. But instead of staying sad, let’s consider an alternative world, one not too different from the internet that had begun to emerge before we walked away. Let’s talk about the possibility of the internet working for us, instead of the other way around. Really, what I want to know is this: Can we make the internet fun again?

That question has been tickling the back of my brain for a long time, and indie social media sites like Micro blog are indeed part of the answer. But no single service or method can bring us a better internet. In reality, we’ve got lots of things we can do.

So far, I’ve found three options for making a happier internet. I’ll outline them here, and I’m curious what you’d add to my list.

Option One: Minimizing Internet Use

Some people are choosing to minimize their exposure to the internet, because it’s become dominated by manipulative corporate interests and bad behavior. For example, they might quit Facebook and Instagram but they still use the internet for texting, television streaming, and research. The book Digital Minimalism is a good entry point into this line of thinking.

My problem with this option is that abstaining from the web isn’t the same thing as fixing it or enjoying it. You might enjoy sharing photos and ideas online, like I do. You might have friends who aren’t near you physically, making the internet a good way to interact with them. Being “mostly” offline can shrink your world, a little, and not everyone wants that. But I’ve tried the minimizing thing, on and off, and it isn’t bad.

Time away from the online world is restorative, but I want a better internet, too.

Option Two: Paying for the Services You Use

In a simplistic sense, the big internet companies monetize us and sell us out because they have bills to pay and investors to please. Servers, employees, and electricity all cost money, right? We shouldn’t expect free services to come without a catch.

Therefore, a good alternative to surveillance capitalism is paying a small fee for the services you want to use. In doing so, you become the customer, and not the product. And instead of trying to manipulate you ever-harder for more money, the right kind of service provider will focus on your satisfaction.

For example, you can run a hosted Micro blog for $5 per month, posting your status updates, ideas, and photos there so your family can see them and enjoy them. There are apps for your phone to make uploading photos easy, and anyone with a web browser can see your posts, without needing an account. As an example, you can see my micro blog here, and my micro blog photostream here.

Or, for the same price, you can run a blog on WordPress.com with your own domain name and no ads. Post photos, updates, essays, videos; anything you like, really. And if your Mom complains that she doesn’t want to go to your site directly, she can get your blog posts by email!

Privately run, advertisement free, and reasonably priced services exist for all sorts of internet activities. I use Pinboard ($11/yr) for saving and archiving online reading material. Hobby photographers might enjoy a SmugMug account with private links for friends and family. Letterboxd is a service specifically for movie lovers! Chances are, whatever your “thing” is, there’s a programmer who has started a small and scrappy business to offer you an option that respects you and gets the job done.

And for anyone feeling like “This sounds great, BUT NONE OF MY FRIENDS ARE ON THOSE SITES” take a slow breath and think for a second. This isn’t actually a problem, but the big companies want you to believe it is. As long as you feel locked in, they profit.

  1. Paid services like WordPress and Micro blog make it easy to cross-post. You can host your stuff on your own site, and cross-post links Facebook or Twitter so people still trapped in the corporate web can find your newest stuff with little effort. Also, no one is forcing you to quit anything.

  2. At risk of sounding snarky, let me remind you that your friends don’t actually “exist” on Facebook or Instagram. They’re flesh and blood people with a miraculous web browser in their pocket. If clicking a link to see your latest photos (or calling you, or texting you, or hanging out) is too much work for them to bear, are they really your friends?

As a side benefit, some of these services don’t use “likes” because the whole sharing things only to get likes back is a stressful and crummy dynamic. Breaking that cycle can feel pretty good, after an initial adjustment period where it feels weird.

Option Three: Run a Personal Website

Here’s where things get exciting for me. If you’d like to take your internet expression one step further, you might consider running your own website. Post something that goes deeper than status updates, give your site a slant or a theme, perhaps even customize the design. In doing so, you’re not only giving your friends and family a place to see your stuff, you’re helping to build a more diverse and interesting internet.

The human internet!

I’m talking about sites like Kottke.org and Austin Kleon’s blog and Brad Enslen’s human-edited web directory. These are websites without hidden agendas, pages that exist purely as an extension of human curiosity and the desire to share what’s useful.

Back in the early aughts, the human web used to be full of people, not bots and targeted ads.  And it can be that way again, if we’d like it to be. I believe we all benefit from authentic balls-to-the-wall human expression and the creation of sovereign spaces to be ourselves without manipulation by third parties. By making your “online home” your own, and controlling what goes there, and being yourself, you’re making the internet a more human place.

Does making a website or blog seem intimidating? Or like too much work? Don’t stress! Instead, read this fine post by Alex Guzey who reminds us all that doesn’t matter if you have an audience, or if what you are posting is original. Having your own site or blog can help you clarify your own thinking, explore your creativity, and have fun. You might build something that helps someone else, but that isn’t the point. Do it for the joy of it. Make something only you could make.

If it helps you to get started, imagine me and the other residents of the IndieWeb standing on the other side of a low fence. We’re jumping up and down, smiling, and waving our arms. Join us! Come on over and play! We wanna see your new website or blog!

And by making a personal website, blog, or project-site, you can proclaim your freedom from the crummy surveillance sites. You can leave the unethical tech companies wallowing in their own stinky algorithms while we create something better. Not one website to fix this mess, or even a dozen, but hundreds of thousands, each different, like stars in the sky, each one representing a unique human mind.

What a beautiful thought!

Let’s Make the Internet Fun Again

Are you ready to make your own site? Getting started goes something like this:

  1. Claim a little plot of land online. It could be a blog, a micro blog, a website, a photo album, a page that lists music you like, anything, really! Pay for it. Choose a service provider you like, one whose terms of service wasn’t written by Satan’s own lawyer.
  2. Ideally, connect your site to a domain name that you own.  This makes it easier for people to find you, and you can keep your domain the same even if the underlying website changes. But if you’re feeling intimidated by the domain thing, skip it for now.
  3. Use your site however you’d like! Share or create something you find interesting. Write, or post photos, or share whatever you like. Cool! Now you’ve got an online playground.
  4. When you’re ready, link your sites to other sites. Learn about using comments or webmentions to create conversations, friendships, and to spark new ideas.

If there’s one thing that my forty years on this planet has taught me, it’s that humanity is bizarre, wonderful, diverse, and creative. By bringing your creativity and humanity to the internet, you’ll be making the online world more human, more lively, and better for everyone.

I hope you’ll join us!