Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Why indie microblogging

“That is why you need to own your little place on the Internet: otherwise you are always tilling someone else’s land.” — Om Malik

Across the different types of feeds and APIs there is a guiding principle of openness. We choose standard formats so that it’s more likely that our writing and photos will last. We choose open APIs so that many apps can be built, all compatible with each other. These choices mean fewer proprietary formats and less chance for any single company to have too much power over the creation and storage of web content.

There are over 2.8 billion people on Facebook. This is the same number of people in the entirety of China and India combined, the two most populous countries on the planet. All of the posts and user profile data flowing through has given the company great power over what people see and what private data is shared.

In the fallout of Cambridge Analytica using personal data from millions of Facebook users, Mark Zuckerberg ended up testifying before Congress. Facebook eventually settled with the Federal Trade Commission for $5 billion in 2019.

Many people thought the fine against Facebook wasn’t enough. As Tony Romm covered for The Washington Post, the FTC had originally hoped for not only a much greater fine, but holding Mark Zuckerberg responsible, and placing new rules on how Facebook treated user data. Facebook pushed back:

Facebook leaders further sought to ward off any restrictions on the way they collect data in the first place, another long-sought stipulation by commission Democrats who felt the agency should seek injunctions to change companies’ behavior — not just monitor them for years to come. Privacy watchdog groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, heavily emphasized the need for these “structural remedies” at Facebook for more than a year.

The web needs a course correction, moving away from the concentration of power that gave Facebook so much leverage in negotiations with the FTC. We can’t count on meaningful oversight of these massive platforms.

As Ben Thompson of Stratechery wrote, some regulation such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation even strengthens the moat these silos have built around themselves. The GDPR could help insulate these ad-based silos from competitors who won’t have the same resources to comply, and who will have a more difficult time building up the kind of ad network that Facebook already has:

GDPR will be a pain for Google and Facebook, but it will be lethal for many of their competitors, which means digital ad revenue post-GDPR…will go to Facebook and Google. That, of course, is already happening, which is why Google and Facebook haven’t embraced GDPR; it’s not like they need the help in building a moat, but they will get it none the less.

Instead of trying to directly compete to Facebook’s business, more smaller companies should embrace their size and user-focused principles. Laura Kalbag and Aral Balkan started the Small Technology Foundation to build indie tools and encourage developers to consider the ethics in software design. Laura introduced it this way in a blog post:

Small Technology are everyday tools for everyday people designed to increase human welfare, not corporate profits. The opposite of big tech. We’re on a mission to build tools that enable everyone of us to own and control our own place on the Internet.

Millions of tweets are created every day. These are short posts, links, and photos. If we redirect even a small amount of that effort to instead start with indie microblogs, it will be an explosion of new growth for the open web. It will accelerate the maturation of IndieWeb standards, which we’ll cover in detail in Part 3.

This is why we should start with short posts. They represent the majority of content on silos like Twitter and Facebook, and they’re easy for anyone to create, without the often daunting task of thinking about a whole web site. With better tools and platforms, people can have their own web site as a default outcome when microblogging, rather than as a chore and technical hurdle.

The choices we make about open APIs and RSS feeds are more than implementation details. They are a blueprint for taking back the web.

Next: Interview with Brent Simmons →