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Can “Indie” Social Media Save Us? (newyorker.com)
126 points by bem94 31 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 69 comments



The article says the indie web won’t succeed because it lacks the engineered addictivity of the regular, ‘big tobacco’ web.

In reality, it doesn’t even come to that. The indie web is, as of now, inferior to the point that no honest product comparison could make it seem an alternative. It requires you to learn concepts (like Mastodon’s federation and servers) that does not benefit you in any real way in your day-to-day use, adds additional complexity, and makes things less practical on the user end in the real world, even if in abstract it does improve the ideas underlying.

P2P is still trying to win based on the goodness of people’s hearts. That does not work - I’m saying this as someone who built and is running a P2P platform myself (Aether, https://getaether.net) so I struggle with the same thing. You have to be decentralised and a better product. The only way to make this is to play to the strengths of P2P networks.

If you try to copy a centralised service to make it P2P you will always be at a huge disadvantage, since centralised networks will be always better at running centralised systems. If you do something that’s only really possible on a P2P system though, then you can offer the centralised internet an actual alternative. I don’t think anyone does that yet. (Though for whatever it’s worth, I’m trying.)


I see all of your points about ‘success’ and ‘inferiority’ if I look at this from the perspective of Facebook being an ‘upgrade’ to the Web - ease of use, friends at your fingertips, a landslide of short simple updates.

However, I don’t actually see it that way. I would have preferred to fork the Web back in 2007 or so. This is going to sound out of touch, perhaps, but the future of the Web for me, personally, consists of entirely different things. Something like: a place to store my writings/conversations that’s mine and can be organized and designed like I prefer, a good way of finding new people (random little out-of-the-way folks of any stripe), and I don’t want a big feed of random garbage - I want to visit other sites now and then, like I would visit friends IRL - I don’t need everyone in my life everyday.

I don’t even care about decentralization or P2P - I actually don’t see that as a central part of the Indieweb. The above is what is important to me. And the Indieweb has been surprisingly satisfying in this way. And it’s actually growing. Not much, but I’m happy with the friends I’ve made. I’m happy with HN as well, for learning things and staying out of my face - but it gets to feel a bit faceless at times because it’s just a bunch of gray comments with often very little to distinguish the people here.


The thing is, you still can have both on the modern web. The web isn't all FAANG, and there's nothing stopping anyone from changing their browsing habits or not participating in social media if they want, or building sites the way they were built in the 90s.


Oh I absolutely agree. If I think of those large sites as a kind of flypaper, it’s a bit helpful. On the other hand, I don’t think people should be thought of as flies - and I also still kind of believe that Internet can do better.


> However, I don’t actually see it that way. I would have preferred to fork the Web back in 2007 or so. This is going to sound out of touch, perhaps, but the future of the Web for me, personally, consists of entirely different things. Something like: a place to store my writings/conversations that’s mine and can be organized and designed like I prefer, a good way of finding new people (random little out-of-the-way folks of any stripe), and I don’t want a big feed of random garbage - I want to visit other sites now and then, like I would visit friends IRL - I don’t need everyone in my life everyday.

that's nice but it's not what prints money


The web should be a library, a collective knowledge. F money. We're in the friggin 21st century it should be time to look beyond.


The web already is the biggest, most comprehensive library and store of collective knowledge in human history.

But it shouldn't just be that.


> But it shouldn't just be that.

No, it shouldn't, true, it's also a media and a connectivity platform.

However, in my opinion, the web always should have been strictly non-profit. (Note: non profit means employees are paid properly but the "profit" goes back straight into development, infrastructure, and future proofing). Money involved is only destroying and splitting it.


> The web should be a library, a collective knowledge.

Sounds like an ad for Library Genesis and Sci-Hub. :-)


> that's nice but it's not what prints money

Then it's a self-authenticating firewall / Grail quest.

Search engines found a way to scale and profit from the long tail.


As someone who was an early social media insider (FB, Bebo) — I completely agree. I can't speak for the larger indie web space, but within the social media niche, the concept of friend portability would go a long way towards making indie platforms viable again. See https://techcrunch.com/2019/05/12/friends-wherever/


> It requires you to learn concepts [..] that does not benefit you in any real way in your day-to-day use, adds additional complexity, and makes things less practical on the user end in the real world, even if in abstract it does improve the ideas underlying.

No offense, but this is a good summary of what people were saying about the www in the 90s.


And the web fixed these issues, one by one, on one end by being simplified by generations and generations of technologists, and on the other end by adding actual real world uses like making shopping easy.

Most importantly, it did not have a full blown competitor that everyone was already using that it had to contend with.

The past is a foreign country. Web of the ‘90s has almost no likeness to the web we have today. Had it stayed like that, we’d still be faxing things around.


> And the web fixed these issues, one by one, on one end by being simplified by generations and generations of technologists, and on the other end by adding actual real world uses like making shopping easy.

All of this can happen with "Indie" Social Media too.

> Most importantly, it did not have a full blown competitor that everyone was already using that it had to contend with.

We had telephones and fax machines, which many people were happy with. Just as an example: Things like Internet Chat were seen as toys by the grown-ups and few people had the foresight that 25 years later people will spend more time sending messages than they spend on the phone.

The so called "Indie" Social Media could have benefits that will kill traditional Social Media one day - or maybe there are good reasons this will never happen. Not practical, hard to use and not having a real use case are no good reasons. They just apply to any new technology in the early stages.

> The past is a foreign country. Web of the ‘90s has almost no likeness to the web we have today. Had it stayed like that, we’d still be faxing things around.

Agreed. Same applies for "Indie" Social Media.


The web of the early 90s had little resemblance to the web of the late 90s, for that matter.

Aether looks cool (I want to dig in deeper); the continual revivals and evolution of the Usenet-like ideas keep me hoping that something like it will catch and get big again.

The latest wave of the eternal September is using terminals that make it damn hard to enter text, and I wonder if that is a killer stumbling block, or a critical and necessary filter.


> And the web fixed these issues, one by one, on one end by being simplified by generations and generations of technologists

Creating a website today is much more complicated than it was in the 90s, where the web standards (e.g. HTML) were comparatively simple.


No, it isn't. You can literally create a website exactly the same way and it will work, excepting maybe some deprecated tags like <marquee> and <blink>.

The only thing that's become more complicated is enterprise web design, for professional sites.


>No offense, but this is a good summary of what people were saying about the www in the 90s.

And the web solved a huge swath of those problems with centralization.


Centralization helped to mitigate some of the problems and there is no reason to think that these couldn't have been solved in a decentralized manner as well. Moreover centralization introduced a swath of new problems.

I think the reason centralization has won is because it is the way of least resistance in our current environment.


You don't need to understand federation to use Mastodon.


If you want to comment on a post on a different instance, you need to know what is going on at some trivial level to get the addressing/login right. It's not obvious, and some instances have surprising restrictions that make life more complicated. That's probably what is meant here by "understanding federation". The zero institution of federation is... The thing is broken up into multiple parts.


Most of the time you'd come across a post on a different instance in your home feed which just takes a click to reply to, the same as any other post.


To get to the point of having a "home feed" you have to choose an instance. It's not like Usenet where there was a default local NNRP server, no decision to be made

Having a basic grasp of what federation means is about as important in Mastodon as knowing what a "group" was on Usenet: it's the first concept one needs to learn.


I wonder why the fediverse decided to deviate from the email syntax.

It's anecdotal, but when I tried to push for ActivityPub the major source of confusion was the prepending @: once I started aliasing <account>@<instance> to @<account>@<instance> everybody stopped asking.


> In reality, it doesn’t even come to that. The indie web is, as of now, inferior to the point that no honest product comparison could make it seem an alternative.

Here's one user that prefers the distributed alternatives. Yes, they are less polished but waaay more exiting and usable.


and Mastodon is pretty polished actually


I get the impression that nobody has really mentioned the elephant in the room, which is that Facebook and Twitter are so popular precisely because they are so big, and the IndieWeb is unattractive mainly because it isn't.

Like probably most of you here, I don't care for walled gardens. I host my own blog, avoid Google as best as possible, and am regularly one step away from deleting Facebook. But I don't. Why? Because many old friends are there, and I have no other realistic way of keeping up with them. There's no earthly chance I'll ever get them all onto Mastodon, so for better or worse I'm going to stay where they are. In the end, friendship is more important than philosophy.

On the contrary, after years of avoiding it, I recently started using Twitter. Again, the reason is that that is where the people are. I'm still a bit iffy about it, but I have realised that in my field, almost everybody is on Twitter. It is simply the most efficient way to keep up with what is going on and what the important people are doing. In the end, practicality beats purity.

So yes, I'd love to use micro.blog, or host my own Mastodon instance. But until they can offer me what the elephants of Facebook and Twitter can - i.e., a global community - they don't stand a fighting chance.


On the other hand, exclusivity has its appeal.

I come to HN precisely because not everyone knows about this place (and even if everyone knew, not everyone would come).

I don't go much on Reddit anymore (except for some pretty niche subs), because I know that I'll read the same dumb comments over and over again.


>I don't go much on Reddit anymore (except for some pretty niche subs), because I know that I'll read the same dumb comments over and over again.

Not to slag on HN, but you'll often read the same dumb comments over and over again here as well.


If you're only interested in the content, then yes, you're right. But I'm not on Facebook because of the content, I'm there for the people.


Yuuup. A huge portion of the value of a lot of networks is in the sheer size of them - you're much more likely to write content people are interested in, and find content to read that you find interesting.

For a lot of these things, making a better product is the easy part. Getting enough people using them so that they start being useful and valuable is the hard part. This is the exact reason why, after reading a book on market design and matching markets, I pretty much simultaneously realized that A) I could make a better dating app user experience than Tinder etc, and B) I don't have the marketing skills and resources needed to get a lot of people using it, so it's pointless.


Mastodon may not “save” us but I find it to be enjoyable. Smaller communities can actually be moderated properly, and not everything is always about collecting data, pleasing advertisers, etc. It feels more like a real internet community again.


I've really tried to like Mastodon, but I see too many toots accusing seemingly innocent people of being "fascists" and being complicit in the killing of minorities every time I step foot in almost any instance (that was an extreme case to illustrate the actual situation, but I hope you know what I'm saying). As well as other types of content you can already find on Twitter: rants, uninspired one liners, ego masturbation, etc.

I don't like these kind of broadcast platforms because they tend to incite abuse; only in Mastodon it leans more toward the left most of the time, given the strict rules most instances enforce. I also don't like not owning my data.


> I also don't like not owning my data.

In molochs such as Twitter or Facebook, you already do not own your data, so the only option is to not use them. When it comes to federated networks, the resolution is simple: do not federate with the instances whom you do not trust.

Regardless of the choice you make, if you make it, then please do not complain that your content has no visibility. If you want other people to see the stuff you post, you naturally give them a right to save, repost, screenshot, print, memorize or otherwise make a copy of it. If you do not want that to happen, either do not post it online, or invest in getting a social network to run via Widevine.


>In molochs such as Twitter or Facebook, you already do not own your data, so the only option is to not use them. When it comes to federated networks, the resolution is simple: do not federate with the instances whom you do not trust.

I do not have an account on either Facebook nor Twitter. Federated and centralized networks are not that different in terms of how your data is handled: they both rely on trust. Indeed, in centralized platforms you only have one possible group of people in which you can place your trust, but it comes down the very same thing in both cases: hosting your data somewhere else and hoping for the best. Peer to peer networks come with other shortcomings, but that is not one of them.

>If you want other people to see the stuff you post, you naturally give them a right to save, repost, screenshot, print, memorize or otherwise make a copy of it

I agree. Nonetheless, microblogging platforms like Twitter or Mastodon incentivize abusive content with their design. That's why Jack and others at Twitter are testing new ways of presenting and interacting with tweets by means of projects like twttr, and also why some instances on Mastodon let you disable boosts and so on. I won't complain about anything because that's not something I generally intend to do and because I don't think I will ever sign up for Mastodon.


>If you want other people to see the stuff you post, you naturally give them a right to save, repost, screenshot, print, memorize or otherwise make a copy of it

No. Under current copyright you don't grant them any rights, except a very few narrow ones. Memorize is arguably one of them, but reproducing it (accurately) from memory is not.


Finding an instance that you enjoy is hard. I am on a small instance dedicated to a specific niche, and it works great.


Try setting up filters for home timeline, notifications, public timelines and conversations - that should protect you from those who like attack and accuse anyone because of literally any reason. I was targeted by some random teenage girl because of one word in my post - after quickly checking her profile I was sure it wasn't worth interacting with her.


My experience on the Fediverse is actually directly opposite yours: there is a whole host of explicitly right-wing instances to the point where a lot of other instances filter them out through blocklists. It it also my experience that a good deal of Mastodon instances tend to be left-leaning (as a result of per-instance rules/moderation practices) and a good deal of Pleroma instances the opposite. Of course there are exceptions here, but it's really not hard to find right-wing instances on the Fediverse. In fact, to find them you only need to browse popular blocklists[0]. There is nothing preventing you from signing up to one of those, though I think it's fair that I warn you that they're not the kind of instances you'd want to spend much time on for your own sanity.

Disclaimer: I'm sympathetic to a lot of the "leaning to the left" practices you name, such as calling people out and the issue of complicity by voting to maintain the status-quo.

[0] https://github.com/dzuk-mutant/blockchain


90% of those block lists passed around are just free speech friendly instances that abide by United States speech laws.

It’s really disturbing to me that a server can follow US laws and get on these shared block lists.

I guess free speech is synonymous with evil totalitarian fascism? It’s no wonder the phrase “clown world” became popular.


The only person using the phrase "evil totalitarian fascism" is you. It's entirely reasonable for an instance owned by a private individual to have higher restrictions on what they permit than the US does. Most countries, as a matter of fact, also have more restrictive policies.

Opting into using the blacklist is just that - an option, and you can customize the list as you please on your own instance. There is no problem here.


No. If a server admin does not use that block list, they are excluded from the larger (original) Mastodon community. So every instance is effectively bullied into also using the block list if they want access to the largest fediverse. Otherwise others won’t federate with them.

This kind of nannying makes for an incredibly depressed and not-fun space. Twitter is a fun space precisely because of the possibility of altercations with those that disagree with you.

I think the world has spoken in this regard (based on user and usage volume). People prefer more speech as opposed to less speech. Echo chambers / hive minds are boring and oppressive.


I don't think it's even about being moderated, but rather that in a small community extreme ideas won't find enough support to survive, if the community is reasonable. On the other hand, it's possible for extreme communities to emerge too, but I would say that this type of fracturing is more like real life groups than not.


Is HN "indie" enough for this definition?

There are plenty of non-facebook social media platforms. From HN to minecraft forums. Eve-online and hundreds of associated websites is essentially one large social media network. And there are plenty of online communities catering to all the stuff you cannot talk about on facebook (piracy, hacking etc). Teens gather in these places specifically to avoid facebook.

Each of these network nodes is run by an independent person or very small group. I think they together get at least as much traffic as the larger networks do individually. We just don't talk about them as much because they don't collect the statistics that facebook does. They don't market themselves to advertisers like facebook does. They don't seek to spy on their users like facebook does.


Calling it the indieweb is spot on imo. I was running IRC servers and phpbb message boards throughout the 2000s and it seems to me that the only thing changed with the web is the massive influx of novice users on big social media.

The rest of us have always been, and likely always will be, a sub-culture of sorts. We used to have message boards, now we have federated social media instances.

If you look at a list of mastodon instances it reads like a list of privately hosted message boards in the 90s/2000s. Or a list of privately hosted BBS' in the 80s.

The major difference being that these islands are now all federated.

In my youth I had a dozen IRC accounts setup in my .irssi/config (or BitchX;), today this would have to be federated. (iWish IRC was fedarated too but that's another story)

So not much has changed on the social aspect. And that's where I believe we're headed. A big shallow part of the internet will be used by people who have better things to do than engage in deep conversations on the computers about their special interests.

While a much smaller, sub-culture, will use specialized forums for their special interests.

So I guess the sad conclusion is that you shouldn't expect the IndieWeb to go mainstream.


Imagine if the internet was owned by one company. Or email was owned by one company.

Instead we have a non profit set of standards which divide the internet into different layers. So you can have your ISPs, your web hosting providers, your websites etc. There is a healthy demarcation which prevents consolidating of power.

Maybe the way to breakup twitter/facebook etc is to create a set of protocols and divide them into layers.

For instance I should be able to register a username for tweeting like how you register a website name for DNS. Once registered you have a choice to store your tweets in any data hosting service.

Then a number of aggregate readers handle the front end user interface.

Each reader can have its own content filter and discovery algorithms. So even if your content is found offensive in one reader, you can just switch to another. If one is really addictive in a negative way, switch to a less intrusive useful version.


Email is an instructive example.

In theory, anyone can implement a standards-compliant system and play on the same level as the major providers. In practice, the email ecosystem has had to evolve a series of defenses against bad actors who took advantage of precisely this standardized openness.

There are, in practice, a relatively small number of email providers that users are likely to interact with. They all find ways to do it profitably. Power is very much consolidated.


> There are, in practice, a relatively small number of email providers that users are likely to interact with. They all find ways to do it profitably. Power is very much consolidated.

For now.

It wouldn't surprise me a bit if EU takes time to look into this after they've finished what they've already started.

In fact I'd recommend we all send complaints to local authorities and point out if big actors are blocking our servers without reason (and no, I guess "didn't care to verify" won't fly.)


And yet, it is a lot less consolidated than antisocial media is.

You can actually run your own mail server without major problems, and even if you use an email provider, there still are quite a lot of them on the planet, and they do have to compete, so if one started to be too much of an asshole, users could reasonably easily switch to a different one, so that certainly limits what providers even attempt to do.


I’ve only dabbled, but my impression is that mastodon and micro.blog are oriented towards building “online” communities like Twitter, ie communities of interest with people you likely do not know in real life.

Facebook and to some extent Instagram seem to be most often used to share within pre-existing offline networks; ie you might use it to follow life updates from someone that you also see in person on occasion. This works because everybody is on it — you don’t have to hope that your acquaintance from college (or whatever) has picked the same instance as you.

Is there an “indie” real-life-network alternative? Is that what Diaspora is intended to be?


Friendica works with Mastodon and Diaspora and intends to do exactly that.


Yes, but only social media that is actually "social"; that is, platforms which enhance our offline lives instead of keeping them online.


I don't buy this.

I've met a ton of people online that I've never met in person and I've learned a ton from them. In some cases I've met these people in person and wonderful friendships developed as a result even though most of the interaction was online.

There's nothing wrong with online communication. And I'm tired of the narrative that something is inherently more meaningful just because it's in person. It's not. There is far more nuance than that.

The internet is a tool and it can be wonderfully used as well as abused. We need to make it easier to use in productive, healthy ways. But to spread this false-narrative of "online vs offline" is mostly people trying to resist change in my estimation.


You're replying to a lot of things, none of which the person you replied to actually said.


It's absolutely possible that I mis-interpreted OP. If that's the case, I apologize.


> I was both pleased and chagrined by the irony of the fact that my anti-social-media talk had found such a large audience on social media.

This immediately reminds me of the "Fifteen Million Merits" episode of Black Mirror.


This data that the tech Giants hold close to their chest belongs to the people and should be released for competitors to use in their products.

I envision companies competing on UX/privacy/ect while all using the same data set. People should be able to use Myspace to talk to their grandparents on Facebook.

How it is now is like if Ma Bell was never broken up, and we were only able to use our AT&T phone and data plan to talk to other AT&T customers only. How could any other phone company start with such barriers in place.

But who am I? Just the last human.


Personally I really don't want the data I shared with one company to be shared with others without my explicit content.

I don't particularily like Google, but unlike a bunch of others they haven't shared my data voluntarily AFAIK.

In a way they already compete on privacy.

If my data gets shared among a bunch of them my privacy will be decided by the most sloppy one.


Back in the early 2000's, I became part of a large group of friends. Someone in the group hosted a private web site where friends could post pictures and messages. When MySpace became popular, people started migrating over there and then to Facebook. You could say this was the private or indy social network of the day.

I was disappointed to see the site fall by the wayside, It's just easier, and that's were people are.


There is still usenet groups, forums and email lists around. Those technologies have existed for decades and are optimised for user happiness/utility, not user engagement (drastically different and all the fancy facebook measurement only gives you engagement).


> optimised for user happiness/utility,

obviously not. They were optimised for the conditions that existed at the time, which included limited bandwidth and intermittent connections, which are no longer realistic limits.

Usenet was wonderful and still has many pockets of wonderful in it; but even I who cut my teeth hacking UUCP to WWIV gateways and such want nothing to do with setting up a modern NNTP impementation.

I don't pretend to have the answers to "how do we make a usenet analog happen again?" but the remnants of antiquated forums don't effectively argue against the need for trying new forms of forum.


Not unless it comes bundled with an indie society.


I am willing to bet that someday, we will return to our roots: classic communities forming organically around topics without algorithms guiding us along. But until then, let us remain hopeful and vigilant.


What's there to stop any of the big sites from buying them out before they become a threat?


Pretty much all the software mentioned is fully Open Source. And all the nodes are owned by different people or groups of people, and a lot of them are the kind of people who would never sell like that. And if they did, you could just move to a different node anyway. And Indieweb used to operate on the principle (probably still does, just haven't checked) that a standard wasn't a standard until several different pieces of software could work with it, not just one, so that ensures choice in the software market. Maybe in the future one node will become so overwhelmingly big and popular that they could be brought and it would be a problem, but at the moment there really is no one thing they could buy.


Mastodon is AGPLv3 so there is nothing to buy.


It is possible to use the embrace-extend-extinguish pattern. Has been done with XMPP.


I sort of welcome that...in a way...Because to me that signals that the federation protocols (not unlike xmpp) are worthy of attention (and fear by) the big boys of the web like FB, Twitter, etc.


I doubt indie social media will save us from facebook, no more than indie journalism will save us from the new yorker.

I hope one day the likes of facebook and the new yorker doesn't exist, but I'm not holding my breath.

The only thing we can do is stop consuming divisive toxic garbage that is facebook and the new yorker.




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