When I was at college, I had a night job in a call centre, providing tech support to AOL’s UK customers. It was the late nineties, and although AOL was never as popular in Europe as it was in North America, the company’s vision of a proprietary walled garden giving an ‘internet-like’ experience was still a compelling option for many.
Of course AOL’s influence waned over the years, causing many of us to think that “the internet wants to be free” and that any attempts by a large corporation to supplant the internet was doomed to failure, confirmed by the quick rise and fall of services like Bebo and MySpace.
Now I’m not so sure.
The 2010s have seen the aggressive expansion of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. When you sign up to these services, you feel like you’re a new customer but of course you’re not, you’re a product. Sophisticated algorithms suck you in to spend more time on these sites, ‘engaging’ more so that you will provide more information to be targeted by ever-more tailored (and profitable) ads.
And the effects have become even more chilling as the algorithms that social networks use spill over into society and politics, encouraging us all to become more polarised, more aggressive and more needy.
There is an alternative, and thankfully there are some very smart people working on it. A return to the open web, where we share for the simple joy of sharing, without profit-maximising algorithms getting in the way.
Host your own content
The basic idea of hosting your own content is not that you pretend that social networks don’t exist, but rather that you take control of your own content, under a domain name that you control, and choose what you share with other services.
I’ve hosted my own content on this site for the past twelve years but for shorter ‘status updates’ I have occasionally used social networks for this purpose.
I’ve created my own ‘microblog’ at https://t.bibby.ie that I will use for short pieces of content, originating from my own site. I will use a new service called micro.blog to share my posts to twitter and (maybe) facebook, but the content will always originate from my own site. If you don’t want to create your own site, micro.blog can do it for you – yes it costs money ($5/month) but if we are to take back control of the web, we need to start thinking like customers, not products. The micro.blog service is still invite-only at the moment, but I have a few invite codes if anyone would like to check it out.
I’m grateful that there are people working on products that can help us liberate ourselves from the walled garden, and I’m hopeful there will always be a place for independence on the web, away from the toxic profit-maximising behaviour of commercial social networks.