I got accidentally banned from Twitter. And that got me thinking.
Some recent thoughts on late-stage capitalism, the changing nature of “mainstream” social media, and the rise and complications of so-called “web3 federations,” on the occasion of being accidentally banned from Twitter due to faulty algorithms
#twitter #censorship #algorithm #automated #problems #unaddressed #entitlement #hubris #corporate #mindset #latestagecapitalism #hostagecustomers #advertisingaslifestyle #selfbranding #web3 #federations #mastodon #writeas #opensource #homeserver #sci-fi #nearfuture #dayaftertomorrow #metaverse #metaverseforreal
Did you hear? I got banned from Twitter for three weeks! It was for a stupid reason that should've never happened, but that was caused by imprecise censorship algorithms doing a bad job at catching “inappropriate” behavior that the company is trying to do in order to police its hundreds of millions of members all at the same time. To be specific, I saw two people fighting yet again about whether the Beatles or the Beach Boys are the greatest rock band of all time, and I responded in a retweet, “Jesus Christ, when are the last of the Baby Boomers finally going to goddamned die already?,” and Twitter's censorship bots mistakenly interpreted that as an open threat of violence, as if I was saying that I was going to personally hunt down and eliminate every last Baby Boomer that still remains in the world. Twitter then informed me that my entire account would remain suspended until I was willing to delete the tweet that was causing the suspension, which I was happy to do because I wasn't trying to take some kind of big First Amendment stand over a stupid throwaway joke while high on a Thursday night that wasn't any good to begin with; but then the coding went wrong at the Twitter website for me going in and authorizing the tweet's deletion, so I couldn't actually get rid of it and get my account up and running again. And the link they provided for me to gain help from the Twitter staff didn't work, and I couldn't use the normal help button because I was now entirely locked out of my account; so for a good three weeks there I had begun thinking that maybe this was finally it, that maybe through a strange set of circumstances I would find myself just one random day entirely booted off Twitter's entire ecosystem permanently, and with no recourse available in my life.
That got me thinking again about something I've been thinking about a lot lately, namely the group of apps we might call the “mature” or “mainstream” social networks, places like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and a few others, and how increasingly dissatisfied I find myself with all of them these days more and more, and how I don't think it's my imagination but rather that these companies keep tweaking their operations to lean more and more into money-making through dark patterns as much as humanly possible, to feed an insatiable “shareholder” abstract entity out there who just wants the stock price to keep going up astronomically like it has been for the last two decades in this space. This is one thing that really bothers me about publicly traded corporations, that the employees of that company now both legally and ethically find themselves bound to satisfy the “shareholder” as their ultimate boss, which is typically interpreted to mean, “My job is to keep the stock value of this company continuing to go up and up, no matter what that entails.” And so that's where you see so much amoral behavior from corporate employees, at that place where they're justifying it by claiming they're “keeping the shareholders happy,” while most shareholders have no idea what goes on in the day-to-day dealings of the companies they own stock in, so have no idea these companies are acting so ethically shady in the first place.
Like, I've been thinking about Instagram a lot recently, because that used to be my favorite social network out of all of them, back when they were an independent company — a wonderful combination of my friends' and acquaintances' casual images with more interesting and breath-taking photographs from professionals and serious amateurs. But under Facebook's continued ownership, the ad-display rate has just gone up and up in the name of continued revenue growth, until now there's an unbelievable one ad out of every three posts you see (no exaggeration); and they've done a hard pivot in the last couple of years into video and especially vertical video, since that's the driving force behind TikTok and that's where all the kids (i.e. all the money) is now, so another one out of every three or four posts is now a vertical video, which I have no interest in watching as a grouchy late-middle-aged man who was only there for interesting photography to begin with. And now Instagram is letting you attach a plea for a fundraising charity to every single entry you post, so essentially every single post now in my feed is blaring for my money or attention in the most blatant, obnoxiously addictive way possible, based on a whole darkly lit basement room of pasty coders and UX specialists slaving away for $75,000 a year who do nothing for 60 hours a week but think up new evil ways to take people's money.
Mastodon's a beautiful idea, and I myself have a Mastodon account which you can “trumpet at” or whatever you want to call it by using the unique address @email@example.com, and whose “home page” you can see and follow at mastodon.cloud/@jasonpettus. But the reason the mainstream social networks went mainstream is because they were able to build up a critical mass of actual users; and for a social network, the more people you already know, the more useful and fun the service is, and a lot of people on Mastodon right now are just a bunch of pasty nerds here to prove that the service actually works. That's just like it is with any technology — the first blogs with RSS feeds were all about tech issues, and the first YouTube channels were all tech entertainment outlets — but there needs to be a much wider adoption of Mastodon by the general public before it'll ever have even a chance of being a viable alternative to Twitter or Facebook. Once that happens, though, I'm willing to picture what the utopians say would happen with a critical mass of Mastodon accounts, which is social media simply becoming another form of open communication we use to navigate the world, just like having an email address or a telephone number, and that Facebook- or Twitter-style communication is here to stay as a permanent option in everyone's lives, just expanded into a now open format that can be understood by anyone with the right free software.
I mean, what we're really talking about here, if we want to look at a day-after-tomorrow science-fiction conceit, and look at it from the standpoint of the utopians, is the idea that eventually everyone would run their own personal communications server at home, which would manage their email, browser access, movies and music, and social media presence. Then no one could censor anyone at any time, because they're running their own email and social media straight from their own home server they maintain and control, and I would never have to deal with what I just did at Twitter where I found myself locked out maybe for good because of a blip in the software that Kafkaesquely couldn't be solved. And that gets us into something I've been thinking about again lately, too, which is how the World Wide Web was originally conceived by the '80s and '90s science-fiction community as an interface similar to a physical world, where you would have a private dwelling that we in the 2020s may think of as our desktop image on our laptop or a new tab in our browser, the place where we do our email and social networking, company work, play music or movies, etc. But to go banking in the '80s cyberpunk internet, for example, you'd actually travel by virtual car or train down a virtual highway to a cartoonishly grandiose building where your bank is located, and actually go in and interact with an AI teller.
I've been building this space in Minecraft recently (seen above) that feels like this really nice hangout space that I could ideally just leave up on my second monitor in the evening while I'm listening to music, reading a book, etc., and sort of just be in this virtual space at the same time I'm in my physical space here in Chicago. And this is very similar to how the Web worked in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, for example, if only you picture that at my Minecraft Zen pond space you're seeing, I could press a magic button floating in space and my email would scroll down for a moment for me to deal with, then I could press the button again to make it disappear, and attend to all the online administrative functions I do in a day from such a virtual space, from sending and reading messages to posting social media updates, reading the news, picking a new music playlist, etc. There's already development teams like Momentum, for example, that are making money by figuring out ways to bring in live information every time you open a new tab in your browser; I learned just enough from my coding bootcamp experience in 2015 to know that the same tech, the same coding, being used there could be used to bring in everything from emails to social media, weather, sports scores and more, basically anything that has an API, and then it'd just be a matter of building a virtual space, like a little cartoon home, for you to “reside” in at your browser tab while you're attending to these functions. The software for creating the virtual space would be free, just like Momentum, so anyone running it on their browser would be able to communicate directly from “house” to “house,” and go visit each other's virtual spaces; and at that point you effectively have the Metaverse without needing Facebook to centrally control everything, make it all a giant mall, and take 33 percent off the top of all money exchanged. Or, wait, actually, doesn't that suspiciously sound like a way the internet used to be accessed by a bunch of people before the rise of “Web 1.0?”
I don't know what the fate of the so-called “web3” movement is, but I do at least theoretically like their idea of all of us owning our own online presences; and I especially love the idea of a hobbyist movement that grows around the cobbling together of old outdated laptop motherboards in order to build the home server that runs a household, so that we'd all have something to actually do with all those slightly outdated laptops that are starting to gather dust on a back shelf. So I'll continue maintaining my Mastodon account, and see if I can't deflect more and more of my social media attention this year away from places like Twitter and Instagram, and more to places like that. Certainly one of the overdue things that I've done in the last week is finally join the social network 500px, which has been around for a long time and is known as the social network for “serious photographers;” because I gotta confess, the goofy TikTok-style videos at Instagram is turning me off profoundly, as is the 33% ad-display rate, the dark patterns for determining what posts I see first, the constant bombardment of pleas for my money, and everything else that's come with the recent “profit at all costs, the customer will put up with any punishment we give them” mindset there. We'll see how much I've actually switched over to a “federation-style” system of personal online presence by a year from now, but certainly there's nothing stopping me from at least being mindful about the subject and careful how much time, attention and intellectual property I'm giving these giant corporate places. Getting booted off Twitter so coldly and suddenly, a place I've come to enjoy for all the smart, cynical, Tumblr-style humor I've been able to find there, really rattled me this month, and I'm really determined now to find a better way to have this humor coming into my life without it being so tightly controlled by a central publicly traded corporation.
Freelancing update! I've officially started my “Jason Pettus, Editor” free occasional newsletter! I'm shooting for “once every two weeks or so” right now, so don't worry that you'll get bombarded with content if you join. This is part of my efforts this year to finally establish a central online presence for myself as a freelance book editor, and to build a legitimate community around me despite being someone who doesn't work at any one particular publisher. I'm starting with the newsletter, where I will share industry news about the publishing status of my clients' various manuscripts; delve into a specific editing topic each time and offer tips; share interesting discussions I've been having with English as a Second Language students at Reddit; and link to my latest book and movie reviews, my personal blog posts, my newest poetry, and recommendations of photographers at 500px. After this, I plan on building a standalone website for my freelancing services, including a direct-marketing landing page, rates and FAQ pages, and a way to directly book me straight from the site; and I'll entice people while there to sign up for the newsletter and stay signed up, because anyone who books a job through me and subscribes to the newsletter automatically gets 25% off their final bill. I hope that bringing in people from all over the place, but who have a shared interest in the content I include in the newsletter, will bring me a legitimate community of authors, publishers, language people, book people, etc., and that we're all staying connected together in the way a group of fans might through a science-fiction publisher or what have you. It's free for all to join, so I hope you'll have a chance to do so, part of my efforts this year to have both a busier and a more self-owned online presence.