WebReduce: A Journal of Geek Culture and Weirdness-at-Scale
Just one month ago, shortly before acquiring Twitter, Elon Musk polled his 92.5 million followers to see if they approved of this idea:
Convert Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters to a homeless shelter since no one shows up anyway.
Amazon founder/billionaire Jeff Bezos responded, suggesting Twitter could just devote a portion of its headquarters, like when Amazon attached an 8-story homeless shelter to one of their own office buildings. “Worked out great and makes it easy for employees who want to volunteer.” And then even venture capitalist Marc Andreessen jumped in, quipping “Every other desk?” But by then Musk has moved on to another poll for improving the social media site:
Delete the w in Twitter?
All these breezy what-if scenarios capture what’s so strange about this moment in time: the possibility of a surprising new fluidity in the social media landscape. The New Stack recently explored the idea that the future of social media lies in interconnecting platforms — very conspicuously un-walled gardens, where a service’s boundaries are permeable and allow seamless connections to other social services. (“A statistics website called The-Federation.info, run by Jason Robinson, lists 15 fediverse protocols, 86 projects, and about 5.25 million users,” Richard MacManus pointed out last month — with 1.5 million of them active within the past six months.)
But what’s equally interesting are the solo developers and small teams crafting their own home-grown alternatives.
Some have tried solving social media’s “firehose” problem, replacing the constant stimulation and ever-competing memes with an entirely new model. There’s “Slow Social” (allowing posting just once a week or “Sunday” (allowing reading just once a week). Meanwhile, developer Adrian C. Jackson recently ran a successful Patreon drive to fund the relaunch of Speekin’, a Twitter alternative that describes itself as “black-owned, inclusive, and bigot-free.”
Another developer has spent over 10 years picking away at SafeGreet, an alternative site promising it’s “family-friendly and security-conscious”). There’s larger projects with ambitious names like Diaspora, SafeGreet, Scuttlebutt, HumHub, ELGG and the Open Source Social Network. So there’s definitely something in the air.
Chronological tweets seem much better than what “the algorithm” suggests
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 12, 2022
“Back in the 2000s having competitive websites that did the same kind of thing was the rule, not the exception,” points out social platform pioneer Evan Prodromou (who created the non-commercial Twitter-like microblogging service StatusNet back in 2015). So maybe Twitter’s pending change of ownership will inspire a new flurry of activity? As Richard MacManus put it more recently (in a profile of decentralized technology developer Darius Kazemi), “if you’re a developer looking for the next big thing, what better time to experiment with a platform?”
But is there also some fundamental impulse to combine programming with socializing? There was a funny moment when Stack Overflow’s podcast interviewed its own director of engineering. Interviewer Ben Popper (Stack Overflow’s director of content) looked back on the strange things that had led people into coding careers — including a desire to code up improvements to their profiles on early social media sites.
I can either do work or keep up with email but not both
— dr. nicole forsgren (@nicolefv) May 11, 2022
Whether it was Neopets, Myspace, Xanga, or Tumblr, for “people of a certain generation… getting into these things as a teenager was part of discovering yourself — forming your own identity, wanting to have an online identity that you can customize, led you to frontend web development, and from there down the path.”
The podcast focused on inspiration examples for self-taught coders. But taking the long view, Popper added that for earlier generations it might’ve been making your own videogames, or running your own dial-up bulletin board system, so years later they’d reminisce “and that led me down this path of needing to learn things so that I could advance this personal passion that I have…”
Then Popper joked that for the current generation, maybe it’s making NFTs.
Don’t do it.
— I Am Devloper (@iamdevloper) March 2, 2022
Or maybe it will be something else, suggested the podcast’s co-host — ApolloGraphQL developer advocate Ceora Ford. She’s also seen people coding up quizzes for their Tumblr accounts. And Popper added that he’s seen his own kids exploring another potentially educational social platform: Roblox. “They have a whole separate editor that lives on the desktop where you can design a game and then, similar to Zynga or something like that, you can put in little in-app purchases and try to turn it into a business or whatever.”
Of course, every generation faces not just different technologies — but entirely different challenges. And some worse than others. Software engineer Vladimir Agafonkin works for custom map-making site Mapbox, and described dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in an early March Twitter event (also archived on YouTube. He’d had to flee his home city of Kyiv with his wife and two eight-year-old daughters for a safer city in southwestern Ukraine. “It’s relatively safe here, apart from air raid sirens, like four times a day.”
“But the bomb shelter here is pretty convenient. It’s fast to run there. And my kids can grab their iPad, and play some games while we’re waiting — sometimes up to one and a half hours or two.”
TNS profiled how Ukraine’s developers responded to Russia’s invasion and even interviewed some of the affected developers for our Makers podcast. Here the two threads come together, with news reports that as Russia invaded Ukraine, it also blocked access to popular social media platforms, meaning 80 million Russians lost access to Instagram. And the response, the Guardian reported, Russian developers quickly brewed up a satirical new alternative called Grustnogram — roughly translated as “Sadgram” — a service to which users upload sad, black and white selfies. Insider reports that now Russia already has its own alternatives to western social sites, including RuTube (an alternative to YouTube) and Facebook alternative VKontakte.
The issues surrounding social media sites are now even provoking serious scholarly study. Just this March Georgetown University (working with the McCourt Institute) awarded grants to assemble experts to explore, among other things, “the misuse of social media by foreign nationals and governments,” and to develop a research agenda with the Médialab at the Paris Institute of Political Studies on “ways in which social media both reflects and influences modern social and political life.” Nine grants were announced, including one funding a team of computer scientists, ethicists, and lawyers investigating “how digital platforms use information from millions of users to manipulate their behavior and access to information.”
For those of you that have left the tech industry, how’s that going? Asking for a friend.
— Kelsey Hightower (@kelseyhightower) February 21, 2022
Founded last June, the McCourt Institute is just part of the $100 million “Project Liberty” initiative, which Bloomberg described as “an attempt to rebuild the foundations of social media” in part by creating a publicly accessible database of people’s social connections, “allowing users to move records of their relationships between social media services instead of being locked into a few dominant apps.” (The group dubbed their open-source protocol the Decentralized Social Networking Protocol — or DSNP — “owned by the public, to serve as new infrastructure to re-center the internet around people instead of platforms.”) The scope of the problem is clear, according to a statement by the initiative’s founder, Frank McCourt (a real estate mogul who is also a former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers).
Of course, developer Mark Rendle knows it’s the poor hapless developers who will ultimately have to shoulder the burden of providing all this new social media infrastructure — along with all the unending flavors of interconnectivity.
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