Once upon a time, the internet was ruled by a combination of people's individual blogs, and instant messenger. The most-reliable way to get access to a person's content was actually through their own personal website. If someone wanted to connect with people online, they would publish blog content on their site. Sometimes content was pretty long, but generally speaking it was shorter - a few sentences, and a most a few paragraphs. A blog post almost felt like a status update that you'd see on Facebook, or in these days, a Twitter thread.
This content was generally consumed by people using an RSS feed reader. Content would be subscribed to by a person, and as a result any content published on that site would automatically be displayed in the person's feed. Anyone could make an RSS feed on their site, and anyone could subscribe to any feed they wanted. Many feed readers had features to better-organize feeds, and gave people complete control over their feed. There was no ads in most readers, and if there was any algorightm that the reader used, it was generally focused on one thing - helping that person create the perfect feed of content. It was designed to help you open your feed, read your content, and get out efficiently. There was no motivation to keep you in the app because the app didn't care how much you used it. It was a tool, and a good one at that.
Then social media came around, and for a while it felt a lot like RSS feeds. You had a lot of control over your feed. Much like an RSS feed, you would log on, see what people posted, add some comments, some likes, maybe retweet something. It was really cool! It made it easier than ever to talk to friends, connect, and be in-touch through the "little things" that happened between blog posts. Social media, at least at first, was a tool. However, there was one issue with social media that RSS feeds didn't (and still don't) have.
This seemingly innocent difference is significant because it made social media interested in doing whatever is necessary to get you to do one thing - look at as many ads as you could. This means that many design decisions did not represent your needs, in fact, many decisions made the internet worse. But none of that mattered because social media wanted one thing - for you to look at as many ads as you could.
Social media once had RSS feeds, but they realized that ads can't be served over RSS so they got rid of them. Want to check social? Use the website. This caused many people to stop using RSS altogether, and instead put their time into social media. People started publishing more, and more content directly in social media in-favor of hosting, and running their own site because it was easier. Facebook created business pages, causing many smaller companies to skip a website entirely in-favor of that.
And then came what I think was the worst thing to ever come to social media - an algorithm-based feed. No-longer was it possible to simply get a feed of content that you missed since you last checked. Content was shown to you based on your interests, based on how you interact on the website. Again, all in the name of one goal - drive as much engagement as possible. Get people to stay on the site as long as possible, and come back as often as possible. All for one key thing - get as many ads in your face as possible.
Few of the decisions that were made was for our well being. It wasn't made to make our lives better. Social Media had gone from a simple tool that helps us connect with friends and family easier to a life-leeching tool built to drive engagement at any cost - ripping apart friendships, families, and entire societies in the process.
The internet is quite literally a communication protocol, and that's fundamentally what social media is. It is one of the best ways for people to connect, and I think it's an amazing feat in human technological advancement. However, I also think that it's too fundamental to the internet to make it a for-profit endeavor. By doing that, it corrupts the intent. It's no longer a tool - it's a profit center, and profits don't always align with what is good for the internet.
Since for-profit social media has come into existence, I believe that:
- Personal blogging and RSS feeds largely dissappeared.
- Friends and family, who are being fed different algorithms are more-divided than ever
- Information online has become less-trustworthy, and more misinformation is being
And what sucks is that none of those things needed to happen. They all happened simply because with these things happening, social media platforms make more money.
- Social media could be easier to integrate with a personal site, making it possible to share content online holistically
- Feed algorithms could simply not exist, or exist with plenty of options to cusotmize them to suit your needs.
- If equipped properly, social media could flush out misinformation and mute it.
None of these things will ever happen with Twitter, Facebook, or any other for-profit platform. Ultimately, again, their goal is one thing - get you to look at as many ads as possible. Little else will matter.
But what happens if we took social media, and we removed the need for ads altogether? What if social media existed freely, had no ads, and did not make decisions based on the ads? What if, like the RSS feed readers in the past, a social media feed was a tool, built to give you the content you chose to see, in the order you expect to see them? What if it had a reliable way to remove disinformation, and flush out bad actors online effectively. That'd be pretty awesome, right?
I think so, too, and this…this is fundamentally why I'm so excited about Mastodon, and the fediverse in-general. It isn't for sale, and the decisions made on these platforms are all made specifically to make the best social network possible. I envision a future where I can own my website, and own my online identity. A future where I am not mindlessly scrolling my feed, letting the algorithm guide me and subtly form my opionion on things. A future where I can choose how to consume, and share information online.
Most importantly, I envision a world where social media is a part of the actual internet again, not some leech sapping the very nature of the internet away for the sake of profits.
I hope this post ages well.