Social Media Distancing
Explaining my rationale for moving away from social networks and towards a more indieweb approach with direct contact to my readers.
I’m not a big fan of the term “social distancing”. It’s idiotic. What you actually mean when you say that is “physical distancing”. In fact, while pretty much the whole world is distancing physically right now, everyone is giving their best not to be socially distanced from others. As evidenced by Zoom and Microsoft racking up thousands of years of digital meeting time ever single day. As it stands, I really don’t need more distance to people in my life that I care about right now. What I need, is more distance to the people I don’t care about. Hence: social media distancing.
Social media has been an integral part of my life since my early university days. I joined Jaiku in the summer of 2006. When it died a slow death at the hand of Google, I moved to Twitter. I spent some time on identi.ca and Google+ (where I had over 15K followers for a while) and eventually moved back to Twitter, when those services were put on life support. On the way, I made many very good friends. In fact, I continue to have most of my meaningful social interactions outside of my immediate family with people I’ve met over social networks. Some of those people I’ve never even seen offline once.
The Hate Speech Myth
I’ve never bought into the mainstream’s narrative that social media, and especially Twitter, is a cesspool filled with hate and trolls. First of all, most people’s definition of “hate” is way off when it comes to the online arena. My Collins Dictionary (sixth edition) defines the verb hate as “to dislike (something) intensely, detest”. Yet a lot of online behaviour that’s described as being hate merely comes from a desire to want to annoy somebody. I am pretty sure I know this for a fact because since about 2005 I’ve spent more time sharing my personal thoughts and beliefs on the public internet than anyone else I’ve ever heard of. And I’ve run into people who wanted to mess with me because of that almost every single day of those 15 years.
The interesting thing is that, when you actually confront these people – and I especially made a sport of this during my time at heise online; their comment forums are renowned in all of Germany for having one of the toughest, knee-jerk crowds around – they tend to start being nice to you. Most of them, when faced with realising they were messing with an actual human being, start feeling bad about what they just did. There are exceptions, of course. There is genuine hate out there and I’ve also experienced my share of that. But I think it’s way lesse prominent than popular opinion would have you believe.
I think that what you are getting on social media is just people. These people who attack you for looking different, thinking different, being more successful than they are, think the same way in offline life. When they see you walking down the street in an outfit or haircut that doesn’t conform to their narrow mainstream idea of what is right and proper, they think the same things they’re throwing in your direction online. They just don’t have the balls to tell you in person. When they’re on Twitter and feel save in their pseudo-anonymity, they suddenly say all the things they always wanted to say but were afraid to. But that isn’t the fault of the internet, or Twitter. It isn’t the fault of the medium. It merely brings out sides in people you normally never see. And that isn’t necessarily bad either. If you start seeing it for what it is, you can actually learn a lot about people and the world that you can apply offline, too.
I’m lucky. I went through hell in school pretty much from 5th to 10th grade, when I was mercilessly bullied and a good part of my day, every day, was made hell by other people who didn’t like the way I looked and thought. As bad as that was, it also made me understand many things about the human psyche. I went to Australia for a year, found myself in that huge, open country and returned invincible. In Australia, I was a veritable star in school. The cool kid from the other side of the world who could play soccer like nobody’s business and knew all this stuff about history and languages that the other kids had never heard of. I found my confidence and I realised that confidence was the only thing I had been missing all along. Subsequently, I learned that words cannot hurt you if you don’t let them. I understand that this isn’t the case for everyone, but somehow, my life’s story crystallised in a way where I learned this just early enough to make a difference for the rest of my life.
So I always took the good in what social media had to offer and just had fun with the rest. Very early on in the Linux Outlaws days, Dan and me had a forum on the website – everyone could sign up. We built an amazing community. Every once in a while a troll would come in and try to mess with us – it was a Linux podcast after all and that community is full of socially inept nerds who want to screw with people’s feelings. I still remember that one time, early on, this guy comes in and starts posting about how gay I am. We scared him off by posting a ton of posts where everyone was extolling the virtues of sucking cock all day. We never had to ban anyone who was an actual person. We never needed a code of conduct. We just had this understanding that we liked the place, were going to defend it and anyone who wanted to be a dick about it could fuck right off.
The Twitter Problem
So my problems with social media were never the people on the platforms. It was always with the platforms themselves. Jaiku was bought by Google and got fucked over. Google+ was neglected until it was basically dead. And distributed platforms like identi.ca (later Status.net) never really took off. These days, I’m mostly on Twitter. I love the platform because it is public by default and I hate sites that silo people off into little filter bubble groups like Facebook does. It also has a history of being used by people who want to say what they think. Which is refreshing when compared with services that built fake parallel glamour universes that have only a very strenuous connection to reality most days – i.e. things like Instagram. Another reason I love Twitter is because it gives you an unfiltered stream of all the posts by all of the people you follow. And that’s where the issues with Twitter start, because they actually don’t do that anymore.
Twitter, these days, is all algo’ed up. I dunno why that is. Is it because they have Facebook envy? Is it because they need to do it to better hide ads in your stream? Or is John C. Dvorak right and they simply couldn’t deal with the number of messages and users they have if they’d actually serve you the content you subscribed to? Whatever it is, its made the platform worse.
Then there are other, more personal problems. Ever since the Gamergate controversy kicked up, I am banned by thousands – most likely hundreds of thousands – of accounts. What did I do? Well, I had followed two people for years: Adam Baldwin and Milo Yiannopoulos. The former because he starred on Firefly, one of my all-time favourite TV shows, and the latter because he was a person of interest for a tech reporter covering wider internet and social media issues. Then a rather moronic software developer decided to write code that people could connect to their Twitter profile and that would ban anyone who followed those two accounts. Thus I got banned by thousands of accounts I had never interacted with. I don’t even know which accounts are affected. I just know that, for over five years and counting, I’ve run across a tweet every other day that I can’t access. Because the account, which I often come across for the first time, has blocked me. I wouldn’t have minded if they had just muted me. I don’t give a fuck if they can see my tweets or not. But making it so that I can’t see their tweets or even their profile without opening an incognito tab is dumb.
The other annoying thing with Twitter is that I am relatively sure they shadowbanned me. I had a steady influx of about 100 new followers a week for years. And then I wrote a number of very critical articles and opinion pieces about the platform and the company behind it in Germany’s biggest IT publication – which were read by hundreds of thousands of readers. Suddenly, my follower count dropped off to about one new follower a week. I decided to test this theory of being blackballed back in the day when Twitter changed its process of getting a verified tick mark. After some of my colleagues at the same publication, who had orders of magnitude less followers than me and worked in the exact same job, got verified, I applied using the exact same answers to the application form they had given. My application got denied. When I pressed Twitter on it, stating my colleagues' applications and the fact that we were doing exactly the same job at exactly the same publication and that I was arguably much better known on the wider internet, they never replied.
Since then I’ve analysed this further and I’m almost certain their algos are hiding my tweets. I think the only way you get to see them is if you follow me or if someone you follows retweets them. I’m virtually certain they never get surfaced by any other means, no matter how popular they are. I had a number of extremely popular tweets in the last few years where I could analyse very well how they spread and became popular and how that differs from how this works with other accounts. And I’m far from the only one this has happened to. I’ve done extensive research into this and networked with a lot of people. I also set up other accounts that Twitter does not know are connected to me and ran tests. What happened to me and others almost always seems to be connected to stating certain political views that go counter to what the company seems to believe is the proper way to think. To be honest, I’m amazed they haven’t outright deplatformed me yet. Sadly, while many people in the field are virtually certain this is happening, it’s almost impossible to prove from the outside. And most tech journalists don’t believe this is happening because of confirmation bias – their views align very closely with Twitter’s on these matters.
Add to that me having maxed out the number of people I can follow on Twitter years ago, which leads to me having to unfollow someone to follow someone else and I’ve gotten more and more annoyed with Twitter as time went on. I guess that’s your lot in social media life if you take a Robert Scoble approach to it. These days, I mostly use Twitter from anonymous accounts for research purposes for my job.
The Fediverse isn’t a Solution
Last year, I set up a Mastodon instance in the hope of outsourcing my blog comments to it and maybe, at some point in the future, move into the fediverse full time. I also wanted to have a look if decentralised social networking actually has taken off now. Sadly, I don’t believe it has.
In my experience over the last year, these communities are just like small versions of Twitter that have disassociated themselves from the mainstream. They are even worse filter bubbles than one could even have imagined. You are free to follow who you’d like to follow (generally speaking) and there are no algos at work messing up your stream, but at best you’ll be straddling a number of disassociated filter bubbles from communities who don’t really want to have anything to do with each other. The only thing they have in common is some technology and a lose framework of belief that companies are evil and that we need to decentralise the web. That’s not very social, at least when looking at the whole community from a bird’s eye view.
My fediverse stream right now is about 45% enbies who reject all notion of gender and most social norms altogether, 30% ultra-libertarian gun nuts, 15% journalists from Berlin who only talk to a bubble of two dozen other journalists from Berlin and the remaining 10% are people I still know from identi.ca or followed because they seemed cool or interesting. It makes for some extremely weird, and occasionally very funny, reading. But it doesn’t represent society as a whole at all and is useless for research.
Making matters worse, I’ve lost pretty much all confidence in the leadership of Mastodon, the project who’s software I’m using to run my instance. These people are the worst kind of millennial social justice warrior types who have no concept of what equality – or justice for that matter – is. All they do all day, it seems, is to virtue signal and hold sermons on how they are saving the world. They don’t care about free speech and they’re blatantly not interested in allowing any other viewpoints than their own to even be voiced – they also seem to be too dumb or disinterested to actually educate themselves about words like “fascism” and what they actually mean. These are not the people I want in control of the software stack I’m using. That isn’t better than a Silicon Valley corporation, that’s actually worse.
At this point, people will be shouting at their screens that there is other fediverse software I could use. And that I should run it on my own server anyway. I know this is what’s going on because I had this happen pretty much for every single episode of Linux Outlaws when I criticised some random piece of open source software. There’s always some nerd around saying “yeah but you shouldn’t use that anyway, use this!” You know what? I’m now 37 years old and I have many grey hairs. I’m getting too old for this shit. I don’t want to try another piece of software. I’m going back to what I know works.
Going Back to Basics
I’m doing what I always wanted to do back when I first got on the internet in 1998 and started writing things. Something I couldn’t do back then because I was a kid and didn’t have the means to do it with. But I can do it now, as an adult: I’m doing it myself. I’m rolling my own thing. I’m going all indie. I’m bringing it all home to my own site.
I’ve started implementing basic microblogging capabilities for the theme I use on this website. For now, I can already post links, short notes and photos right here on the blog without having to shoehorn them into full-length posts. The website itself will still be running on Hugo and will be completely static, I’ll just post more on here and much less on social networks controlled, in some way or another, by other people and foreign entities. At some point in the future, I will probably have a try at tying Bridgy Fed into it so that people can interact with my posts natively within their fediverse apps. I also want to move to a new hosting platform – that had been on the to-do list ever since GoDaddy bought Webfaction – and might use this opportunity to chose a provider which features continuous integration of Hugo and Git which then would enable me to publish at a much quicker pace.
I will not delete any social media accounts of mine for the time being. You can still reach me everywhere, especially on Twitter (since that is where the public largely is). But I will post less on these services and more on my own blog right here at fab.industries as time goes by. This site has RSS feeds for pretty much any content that is published – try appending
/index.xml to any content listing page – and should therefore be ultimately accessible to anyone. Definitely more accessible then any of these social media sites. If you are already reading my blog regularly, you can look forward to more content. And if you want to comment on anything I write on here, please use the means listed on the Contact page.
Thanks for taking the time to read all of this. I have thought about these things for the last couple of months and it was important to me to sit down and write it all out in plain sight. I hope this change doesn’t mean I will hear less from you. Please take the opportunities listed on the contact page to heart and talk to me when you feel like it. I am a professional writer and the dialogue with my readers is very important to me. And especially with all this physical distancing going on, we should all endeavour to be more social. This is just my approach of structuring it in a way that makes sense to me.
Header image credit: Prateek Katyal