I want to talk about certain companies and social media sites, the direction they’re going, and how they’re disenfranchising their users. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of companies and services come and go and/or change their models and pricing. Just look at the services Google has killed over the years… why would anyone trust their products at this point? Look at how other platforms have put a slow squeeze on their users by changing their pricing, and/or forcing engagements and advertisements.
I’ve been into selfhosting for a few years, and the control that it allows over your services, your privacy, and your data is comforting. And being able to break away from cloud-based services that may or may not last long-term nor properly take care of your data is additionally liberating. And now with the advent of the Fediverse, I feel that we are fortunate to have another avenue, in a similar vein, for social media sites.
Let’s go back in time, I was on the internet in the mid to late 90s as a kid and saw the web in its infancy. It was uncharted territory, it was a new frontier, and it was exciting! But it took effort to get online, you had a single big beige desktop computer to get online that you shared with the entire family, you had to sit at a desk to use it, you had to dial in, and you had to carve out time for it. You also had to actively seek out content; there were no algorithms or large platforms feeding your interests, you had to find it and communicate it to others. And everything took time to load, even a single webpage took time, and a single song could take 20-30 minutes to download before you could begin playing it. And because of these things, because it took effort and time, the internet consisted entirely of enthusiasts. Enthusiasts willing to put in the effort to be online, and to find and share content with each other.
The internet’s golden era really lived in that window from the mid-90s to the mid-00s. A bunch of small websites and communities setup by enthusiasts. And then somewhere along the line, corporations started setting themselves up to control a lot more than just their storefronts. We saw a bookstore become one of the largest cloud service providers and the largest online shopping center for everything. We saw a search engine become the default in search, email, browser, advertising, and take over Android and YouTube and many other projects and services. We saw a site for talking to and sharing photos with your college classmates also primarily focus on advertisements. And the entire time, all these companies Facebook, Google, Amazon, Tencent, Alibaba, Microsoft, etc. have been collecting our data, tracking us across sites, across platforms, across devices because we signed on for it.
We got free and easy to use services and devices, but it didn’t cost us nothing. We gave up the information used to manipulate and control us. It ranges from something as simple as a curated ad to sell you a new toothbrush, to mechanisms that effect win/loss rates to keep you playing a game longer, to preying on your desire of social validation or FOMO or other psychological triggers, and other algorithmically timed dopamine hits to prolong user engagements. All of these things which they got to learn and trial because we gave them the data and the engagements. And what about the Cambridge Analytica scandal which manipulated large demographics to sway an election? That right there is the one that opens my eyes. Have all these different companies started investing so many resources into our data just so they can occasionally sell us a new pillow or toothbrush or dog toy? Obviously targeted advertisement is valuable, and that is likely the reason they initially started harvesting the data, but I believe at some point came a realization that the real intrinsic value of all this data is a much broader form of influence, control, and power. They can manipulate entire populaces, not to just buy this or that but to actually align in thought and opinion. Follow the vast resources these companies are pouring into data collection and analysis… is that anticipated value really coming back out solely from advertising?
But maybe I’m just a conspiracy theorist, and I need to set my copy of 1984 down, but in my mind the Cambridge Analytica scandal is a proof of concept to broader influences. The influence wielded from all that data is extremely powerful and downright frightening. And I think it would be naive to believe that with the amount of resources being poured into it, that this type of power isn’t being sought after. Conspiracy theories aside, there is no doubt they manipulate us in some form, and it’s time to begin distancing ourselves from them.
I’ve recently left reddit, I joined reddit 15+ years ago, and there was a time when reddit was great, but it’s been a long, slow boil so I didn’t realize how bad it had become until leaving. The recently popular term coined by Cory Doctorow, enshitification aptly describes what we are seeing across these platforms. I can say, just like in selfhosting, moving from reddit to lemmy has felt liberating. Every day I felt another tentacle fall away and I am back to exploring a platform that hearkens back to the internet of old, that golden era that gets me nostalgic. And also just like the internet in its infancy, lemmy is not perfect and has some issues. It has glitches, it’s slow at times, the userbase is small so content comes at a slower pace… but everyone here is an enthusiast so they genuinely care and are more open to discuss topics. There are no ads or algorithms tinkering with or diverting your thoughts so you don’t have as much guard over whether or not the content is actually disguised advertisements. And the content feels more organic and enjoyable, I’ve read more articles on lemmy in the past week than I have on reddit in the past year.
It’s time for people to reclaim the internet from the corporations.