How social media fits into the Open Web

Blogging bird

So far in my ongoing project to IndieWebify my web presence, I’ve upgraded my WordPress site with IndieWeb plugins, installed a blogroll, and subscribed to a bunch of indie bloggers in a modern feed reader (I’m trialling Inoreader, but I’m also still using Feedly – both are great choices). Now I’m curious to see how social media fits into this Open Web picture. After all, my manifesto for AltPlatform was partly based on finding a way to route around the big Walled Garden social networks: Facebook, Twitter and all the rest.

Firstly I want to point out that I have no desire to leave the big social networks. They each serve a purpose, which I’ll summarise below. My problem with social media, which I outlined in the manifesto, is that these platforms have become too dominant in online discourse. Plus they’re all closed, proprietary systems and have frustrating limitations (such as the inability to link inside a Facebook post). I’m exploring the Open Web because I want to limit the influence these social networks have over my life, and tap into the wide open promise of the WWW again.

Firstly, here’s what I do want from social media…

Facebook is where I keep in touch with family and friends. I also like to use it to publicise my writing work – my tech columns, updates on books I’m writing, spreading the word about AltPlatform, and so on. Occasionally I like to see what my friends think about a certain topical news item (for example the disturbing news about sexism in the tech industry, which flooded my Facebook feed this week). But more often I just want to use Facebook to keep in touch with people I know.

Twitter is at its best when it’s a social water cooler – i.e. for industry and social chatter. But just as you learn to avoid certain types of people at the water cooler (the office blowhard, the gossipy one, the oversharer, etc.), you find ways to avoid those people on Twitter too. At least I do. I dislike the outrage culture of Twitter, the groupthink, and the mob mentality. What I do like about Twitter is that I get to connect to interesting people all over the world, people who I’d never connect with on Facebook because I don’t actually know them. But I’m interested in conversing with them due to their knowledge and/or passions.

I could go on and list what I like about LinkedIn, Instagram and other social media, but my overall point is this: I choose to use social media tools in specific, and usually controlled, ways. Facebook and Twitter have their place, but they aren’t (for example) primary news sources for me. Or at least I am mindful of not letting Facebook control my news diet or Twitter influence my opinions too much.

What about Mastodon, which I profiled in an earlier AltPlatform post. Mastodon is probably the ultimate Open Web microblogging tool currently (especially since I don’t yet have access to Micro.blog or Known, two tools that seem to be popular among IndieWeb people). I dip into Mastodon from time to time, but it just hasn’t managed to become part of my daily Web routine. Perhaps it will in future, but the old ‘network effects’ rule applies here: the value of a tool is ultimately in the strength of the community it builds. Part of that strength is in numbers. And while Mastodon has a thriving fan base that numbers in the hundreds of thousands, it isn’t yet big enough to have (for example) a sub-community of tech blogging enthusiasts. But I hope it will develop in that way, because the federation nature of Mastodon potentially makes it an ideal host to hundreds of communities.

Which brings me to blogging. Before social media existed, blogging was my primary means of connecting to people all over the world. ReadWriteWeb between 2003-2007 was where almost all my social networking happened (online at least). That continued to be the case well past 2007, but that was the year Twitter launched and Facebook began to make its presence felt globally. Things began to shift after 2007 and eventually social media dominated the online discourse.

Now here we are, ten years later, and some of us are looking at blogging again. As I noted above, I’m not advocating for blogging to usurp social media. Firstly that just isn’t going to happen, and secondly most of us like using Facebook and Twitter – at least for specific uses.

However, I’m hopeful that blogging can make a comeback as a way to network with people in an independent, open platform way.

So far the blogging revival is slow and there are some bridges to build, for example between the techies in the IndieWeb movement and those of us more focused on having broader discussions. I’m not suggesting there’s a problem. It’s a perfectly natural cycle: the developers build the tools and they also like having discussions about building the tools. Then people like me come in – the early adopters who aren’t necessarily technical, but who like to play with new tech and proselytise it to a wider audience. Then subject matter experts from other domains come in (education bloggers are always among the first) and take it even further afield. And so on.

That’s what I’m hoping is going to happen with blogging in 2017 and beyond. Let me know what you think…

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