Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Interview with Om Malik

Once a year we hold a small online conference for the community called Micro Camp. For 2023, as the tech world was grappling with Elon Musk’s chaotic leadership at Twitter and the impact of decentralization with Mastodon’s growing popularity, Om Malik joined us for a keynote conversation about where things are headed.

This is an edited portion of the interview.

Manton: I’ll give just a real quick — it’s hard to summarize 20-25 years in five seconds — but just real quick for people who aren’t familiar. You are a journalist, you covered tech really early, leading up to the dot-com era. You were a founder at GigaOM, you were a partner at True Ventures, and you’re a blogger.

Manton: You post photos. I love seeing your photos, great black and white photography, and you write about social media. You’ve had a way of capturing the moment that we’re in, I think, as social networks evolve, as people are more interested in a renewed focus on blogs, and more independent platforms. I’d love to talk to you about that.

Manton: But first, what did I miss in that quick whirlwind description of your last couple of decades?

Om: I think you got it. I think most of my life is dedicated to journalism. I thought blogging was an extension of that idea. That’s why I was a very, very early adopter, 2000 time frame, and a big disciple of Dave Winer.

Om: And life is taking me in many directions. I live on the edge. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the possibilities of technology and imagining that.

Manton: Yeah. Personally, I loved those early days, following what Dave Winer was up to. I think you used Movable Type and Blogger, and some of those early systems, and I used some of those too.

Manton: I’m curious about those early days of blogging. Is there anything that stands out as you were just trying things out and switching different blogging platforms and that sort of thing?

Om: Yeah. I was hand-coding HTML pages in the early 90s, using whatever tool or text editor. I went on to use HomeSite… I used Dreamweaver, I used FrontPage, and a whole bunch of the apps to create web pages. Essentially, the idea of publishing on the web was what was to me the most important thing.

Om: That’s why I find it so strange that people get caught up in the trap of the label. “Hey, this is blogging, this is tweeting, and this is Substack, this is Medium.” I think that has been the most confounding part of everything. How did we become, like “I have a Substack.” No, instead of saying, “I write, you write.”

Om: How do you write? Do you actually say what notebook you’re using or what brand you’re using when you’re writing in your notebook? It is like the insanity of it makes no sense.

Om: The progression for me was as tools became easier, I just adopted the easiest way to publish and the easiest way for people to find me. That’s the thing, right? You want, as a writer, people to read you. That’s it.

Om: Even if only one person reads you, that’s the act of creating. It’s complete. You create it in a void, so it’s still incomplete, at least for me. For other people, it’s very different. For me as a journalist, for me as a writer, the act of creation is going out, touching somebody with what I’ve written and then the process is complete. Start again, do it again.

Om: And to me, that was it. And I think that blogging was just the simplest, easiest way of doing it. I mean, a blog is a great tool. You know, you feed your stuff into a server and it works. And then Movable Type came and that made things easy. But then, you know, I ended up being in the open source camp and I’ve always stayed in that camp.

Om: And the reason is, it’s not like a religious thing. It’s more like I do not want to be beholden to some silo. Again, right now it’s become a religious thing. And it’s like, for me, it’s just there’s a reason why the internet exists. It’s supposed to be open. It’s supposed to be a network of networks. We cannot be confined to just one thing.

Om: And I guess I’m old, like as you said in your intro, you know, 35 years on technology, 27+ years in the internet itself. I think it has made you appreciate the underlying technology and what the internet is all about. So the ethos are still, you know, alive and kicking inside me. I mean, I’ve dabbled with like, I should do a Medium and I should do a Substack. And something inside me, you know, holds me back.

Manton: Yeah, I think it’s interesting to frame it that way of like a tweet or a Substack. I feel like there’s a trend with companies they want to sort of own the noun or the verb. And actually when we started, a lot of people asked like, what should we call posts? Should we give them some special gimmicky name? And I always pushed back at that. No, they’re just posts. We don’t need “tweet”. We don’t need anything fancy.

Manton: And I wonder, I mean, you were so early on Twitter. You were like literally one of the very first people.

Om: The first tweet, outside of Twitter people.

Manton: Yeah, and so, you know, obviously Twitter has gone through a lot of leadership changes and different things, but at its core, microblogging these short posts, it was about what you just said is like, what’s the easiest way we can just kind of get our thoughts out there?

Manton: I guess I wonder how you feel seeing the different changes that have gone on with Twitter, and does that influence how you write on your own blog at all? Or are those kind of separate worlds?

Om: Clearly, both Facebook and Twitter have had an impact on how people publish, the kind of people who publish, and how often they publish. All those things have changed. What used to be blogging has been partitioned in many parts, right? Like blogging used to be about friends and we had like the blogroll and that became like Twitter in a sense, a source for information. And then the post became like Facebook and photography became Instagram.

Om: And it’s like a lot of social behavior came from blogging. And I think as all these new platforms have come up, they are being more current, right? They are more equipped for the time we are living in. So Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter — they are the right ways to publish in the age of the mobile, right? And TikTok was the right way to publish in the age of the front-facing camera. TikTok and Snap.

Om: I think we look at the act of publishing in complete isolation from the network itself, the hardware which is available, and how we the people are actually using real-world technology. And so blogging is everywhere now. It just isn’t like in a blog silo.

Om: So how has it influenced me, right? Like the world has become so fast, so off the cuff, so casual. So when you’re a blogger, you actually have to take a step back and just say, I can’t be doing the things that I was doing earlier. I actually have to take a more thoughtful approach. I cannot compete with the speed of the mobile platforms.

Om: What I publish has to be more considered. All these things become inputs as much as they become outputs. Blogging itself hasn’t changed. How we do it, you know, like how we cook a dish is different on a gas stove versus on a charcoal grill. But it’s still cooking. So that’s exactly how I think about blogging. It’s just that you think differently about it.

Manton: Right now, it feels like there’s a lot more awareness about where things are going. And I guess, yeah, some people put their photos on Instagram and this other platform and whatever the new thing is, and their blogs.

Manton: But I pulled up one of your old posts where you did talk about the kind of trap you can get in if you only post to the other platforms. You were talking about something in the news and you said, “This is why you need your own little place on the internet. Otherwise you’re always tilling someone else’s land.” You know, you’re always helping their ad platform or whatever their business model is and you’re not controlling yourself.

Manton: And that is a big kind of philosophy that I have, that the IndieWeb has. And I guess I wonder for photography, for example, do you think people are thinking more about that now? It feels to me like they are, but I don’t know.

Om: No. I think somewhere down the line, we stopped thinking about the idea of photography as a mean of creative satisfaction. And the act of creation is what made photography special. Instead, we all became whores to attention. Instagram turned us into people seeking attention. We forgot all about the creating.

Om: And so everything became about the likes and the retweets and the reshares and the comments and the followers, instead of: what happened to the joy of creating the photo?

Om: It doesn’t even matter what it looks like. Today I was walking around Central Park and I saw one image, literally, just like walking. And it caught my eye from my phone, just a photograph. I have a big camera in my bag. And at that point, I just saw this image and I had to make it.

Om: I don’t think it’s like a fine art photograph. It won’t win any awards. But for me, that one moment of like, I saw something and I captured it and the joy it brought me, that’s what photography is all about.

Om: We have imposed metrics upon the art of creation. I think that is why I don’t think, you know, photography is gonna ever be able to move away from the likes of Instagram or something like it. Because now we are all addicted to the metrics on top of photography or on video or on creative products.

Manton: And that’s definitely something I hear from people with starting a new blog, they’re often miss some of that engagement. And the best bloggers, I think, they post for themselves first, right? They post because just the act of writing something helps clarify their thoughts or they feel good about sharing it. But if two people see it or a hundred people is a secondary thing.

Manton: And it’s definitely not a secondary thing on most social networks. In fact, you have, you know, teenagers, especially, I noticed sometimes they’ll post a photo and if it doesn’t get enough likes right away, you know, they’ll take it down, like something’s wrong with it or something.

Manton: I don’t love that, I guess. All the new social networks that are coming up, Mastodon, Bluesky, you know, some of the social networks, they kind of copy the way Twitter did things, in which case I feel like you’re gonna have the same sort of, you know, the same… People will use it the same way if it rewards the same like counts and follower counts and that sort of engagement.

Manton: I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that.

Om: I have a lot of thoughts. In my most recent newsletter, I wrote a piece pointing out that Twitter now is the Fox News of social and Bluesky is probably gonna become MSNBC because like all those people who were on Twitter are gonna go there.

Om: And the reality is that, I mean, I’m just making an analogy, not that I’m calling it the Fox News of social. But they’re getting there, right? And I think, the idea of what Twitter is and like how it publishes and where it stands in the ecosystem, in a way, we forget that we Web 2.0 people are now essentially entering the internet boomer phase, right?

Om: Like in a way, we are like old… I’m definitely old, I know, but people who were in their mid-20s or they’re in their early 20s in 2002, 2003, they’re older now. They’re 20 years older. Mark Zuckerberg is a middle-aged guy, I’m sorry. Like he’s a 40-year-old. I mean, he’s not cool. Cool people are somewhere else. Cool people are younger, they’re using different platforms.

Om: Any text-based publishing platform like Twitter, like Bluesky, like Mastodon, they are essentially reinventing the wheel. Maybe a better wheel for some community or some kind of people with different persuasions.

Om: The fediverse needs to really go to the next level. It needs to start thinking about how is the next generation going to use the software, right? How are they going to adopt?

Om: None of the old people actually got the idea that the front-facing camera was the most important camera. That’s why you sometimes you look at it like, dear Apple, you’re spending billions of dollars building the back-facing camera, great. If only you spend more money on the front-facing camera, it will be more effective.

Om: We have to look into the younger generation and how they are thinking about using the web.

Manton: That’s really interesting. And I do think some of, sometimes when like the open source world, for example, will build something, they will say, okay, we’re going to do Instagram, but more open, federated, whatever. Which is fine. But also it tends to create something that already existed in a different way, versus trying to figure out how, like you said, the next generation is — what kind of tools they need.

Manton: And so it almost feels like we’re always catching up because so much innovation feels like it’s happening at the big companies.

Om: So in the old days, Microsoft was so big with the OS and with the office suite, right? And Sun Microsystems bought OpenOffice and they started to compete with them, feature for feature, open, lower price. Other companies did the same thing.

Om: And yet Google comes along and says, yeah, this is on the browser. You don’t need to install the software. You don’t even need an OS, just use the search, all the information is going to come to play. You don’t win against like a set standard of using something by hawking the same product, right?

Om: Google for search has become basically preeminent. Bing has failed and Yahoo didn’t go anywhere and search is still correlated with Google. So how did you go up against Google? Like you kind of say, oh, that’s the way to kind of shift often to use the same, using something very different. And like, it’s a new way of finding information, right?

Om: New way of using computers went from Microsoft and then Google in the browser, and then we went from new way of looking for information. It’s going to OpenAI, ChatGPT. So you’re suddenly start to change how people think about certain things.

Om: Like whether it’s Bluesky, whether it’s Mastodon, there’s a couple of others, but they’re doing exactly the same thing. You don’t win doing the same thing against somebody who already had 300 million active users, right? Like you may get to like 20 million, 30 million active users, but then what? You’re not winning against that.

Om: So if you have to win, you have to think different. Like how would, you know, like a whole new generation of people going to use your product. And the fediverse needs to kind of really sit down and figure it out.

Manton: Yeah, I think that the fediverse certainly has grown so much just in the last handful of months. When I think of like 10 million people on the fediverse, that feels like a lot of people to me, but really compared to the billions on, on, uh, or, you know, hundreds of millions on Twitter. It’s still early days.

Manton: I was just reading, there was another rumor this morning, I think about Meta’s possible tweet-like service based on Instagram, you know, kind of off of your Instagram profile and whether that would be compatible with Mastodon.

Manton: And it’s just, it’s fascinating to think if, if Tumblr or Instagram or someone embraced the fediverse, they would immediately become the dominant player. They would just have many, many more millions of people. And what would that do to the existing community?

Om: I think that’s a very good point you bring up. So as far as Facebook and doing a Twitter clone and they’ve tried it before. Even people who are like, you know, the young people don’t use Facebook, it’s becoming less and less relevant.

Om: I think the only product they have with the younger demographic is relevant to is Instagram and, you know, they’re going to take the golden goose. It’s only a matter of time because as a company, they don’t have a lot, many ideas. Because they don’t know how to invent anything new, right? So they’re basically keep copying other people. Like they’re looking at, oh, we can roll out a Twitter-like interface and see what happens.

Om: I think if younger people, if you need to get on to like the next thing, that’s not Facebook and that’s not Twitter. I mean, you know, Elon Musk is a 50+ year old guy. He doesn’t have bright new ideas on how young people do social.

Next: Part 5: Decentralization →