June 3, 2019

Imagining the future of social media with the IndieWeb

With mainstream social media platforms slow to reform over issues of privacy, addictiveness and lack of regulation, IndieWeb social media platforms provide an alternative for people who want to connect across the world, without the baggage of traditional platforms.

What is the IndieWeb?

Cal Newport describes the IndieWeb as a “loose collective of developers and techno-utopians” developing their own social-media platforms that will retain what’s good and remove what’s bad about social media based on principles that are less corporate and more humane. Decentralization is a major goal to achieving that because the current issue is that most online activity takes places on servers owned by a small number of massive companies. Because we don’t pay for the privilege of using those servers, companies have to find other ways to draw value from users which is why we now have issues of compromised privacy and “engineered addictiveness” to increase alternative revenue streams.

Alternative forms of social media include Micro.blog where users post on their own domain hosted on Micro.blog’s server or their own personal server. This means the site only acts as an aggregator, users own what they write and can do what they want with it—including posting to competing aggregators. This system is what IndieWeb developers call “publish on our own site, syndicate elsewhere” or POSSE.

With another, Mastodon, users join a specific server called an “instance” as opposed to a single website or app. Each instance has its own code of conduct, terms of service and moderation policies. This allows users to choose instances with policies they agree with and leave others without losing access to the whole Mastodon social network.

How could it work?

The IndieWeb is unlikely to ever replace current mainstream social media platforms.

The two most important things that social media platforms require are business models and network effects. Social media platforms are powerful only on the basis that it’s where “the network” is. It could be friends, peers, entertainment, whatever it may be. But to support that is a robust business model that allows the scale and development to happen at a reasonable pace. Any sort of challenger to mainstream media would need to solve both and up until now, nobody has tried hard enough to make a non-ad-driven social media platform which prioritizes a certain type of content.

Further, for those working in certain industries, social media literacy (especially with mainstream platforms) will eventually become requisite knowledge on par with Internet literacy if it hasn’t already. So for those who don’t want to or can’t bring themselves to abandon traditional social media, they can only try to limit the negatives of those experiences within the confines of the platform as they very slowly reform.

This means that IndieWeb will remain just that for those who want it: indie in the sense that it’s a more private, particular version of something mainstream that are widely known and used by everyone. In other words, whether it’s a referral-only speakeasy with artisanal cocktails or a neighborhood dive bar only a few crowds can appreciate, the point is that the crowd is smaller and you have a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into.

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