Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Introduction

“If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

I was nervous as I drafted the email from my hotel room. A reception was starting downstairs at the Release Notes conference, held in 2016 at the Crowne Plaza hotel in the old Indianapolis Union Station. I would need to mingle, shake hands, try to remember everyone’s names even though I’m pretty good with faces and terrible with knowing what to say. I clicked send on the email to a handful of friends — announcing an early prototype for what would become Micro.blog, months before the Kickstarter campaign for the platform and this book — and then went downstairs, feeling the excitement of revealing something new.

Micro.blog has steadily improved over the years. It has come a long way since the first public beta in 2017, with changes rolled out on a weekly basis. The book companion to Micro.blog that you hold in your hands had faltered, though, with improvements kept in my draft but not shared with the world.

This book would’ve been more profound if it had been published in 2017 instead of 2022. The longer it took me to write it, the more well-understood the problems of massive social networks seemed to be with the general public. Years after Cambridge Analytica, the 2016 election, hate speech on Twitter, and Zuckerberg testifying before congress, I started to wonder if I could even add anything unique to the conversation.

But for all the known problems, there remain very few proposed solutions. In the debate about the role of platforms, there are offshoots into new technologies, web history, safe communities, even antitrust law. These are threads that we need to tie together with a cohesive framework.

Big platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok are built with small pieces of content. Lack of friction made posting easy. Amplification and engagement made creators influential. Native ads that are the same size as real content made platforms rich. That’s why the fix should also be rooted in small (micro) content: where it’s stored, who owns it, and how it flows across the web between much smaller, open platforms.


There’s a conflict in the modern internet between the fast and the slow. It’s not the speed of networks or how fast a web site loads, though. It’s the pace of change.

Startups move quickly. They experiment. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously described Facebook’s motto as “move fast and break things”. Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2013 he talked about letting engineers run with an idea and quickly iterate, because they had a testing framework that measured new experiments. As long as a new feature met Facebook’s metrics for whether people liked it or it generated more revenue:

What I really mean by “move fast” is that I want to empower people at the company to try things out, and I don’t demand that every iteration of what we release is perfect.

Framed that way, moving fast doesn’t sound so bad. But the web as a whole doesn’t work that way. The standards process moves slowly. Clever ideas implemented on a personal web site take time to catch on and spread, because most sites are small.

It’s because of this balance between the fast and the slow that a new social network like Facebook that seems at once exciting and probably harmless can have a profound negative impact over years. Massive social networks steamroll over the natural, steady evolution of the web, because a single large site gains an outsized influence over progress.

Today we face a web that is fundamentally broken. The web is increasingly centralized, corporate, and developer-hostile. Most writing happens on a small number of web sites that we do not control.

In 2012, Anil Dash wrote about the web we lost:

In the early days of the social web, there was a broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company’s site.

Two years before his post, the first IndieWebCamp event was held. Founded by Tantek Çelik, Aaron Parecki, Amber Case, and Crystal Beasley, IndieWebCamp attendees had seen how the web was changing, the blogosphere fading away, and they wanted a return to simple, interoperable standards. The idea resonated immediately, but years later it still seems just on the edge of mainstream adoption.

In a conference talk at Web Directions in 2014, IndieWeb co-founder Tantek Çelik outlined what we could learn from old blogs and how to rebuild for the future, starting with the early days of blogging before silos took over:

In 2003 we kind of hit this moment of peak independent web. We kind of assumed that that was how it was always going to be. Everything was working; everyone had their own site. Why would we assume anything different? Well, what happened? Silos happened.

The most popular web sites today make sharing more approachable. Millions of people communicate online now because it’s easier. Silos like Facebook and Twitter promised to make people’s lives better and more connected, but the cost was stagnation for the rest of the web.

Twitter turned their back on developers. Instagram sold out and is full of ads. Snapchat and TikTok exist almost outside of the web, like so many new mobile apps built on web technologies but with accessibility from a web browser as an afterthought.

It’s time for a return to what made the web great. This book is about how. It’s both a history and a guide. How the web used to be, and how it should be again.

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