01 Nov 2022 @ 3:04 PM 

Hey, remember blogs? It’s beginning to feel like they might be making a comeback. I’ve been around these here interwebs a long time, and social media has risen and morphed a lot in that time. Meanwhile, actually owning your own domain and putting up your own shit there has never gone away and has remained fully functional. My first iteration of the BunkBlog was on GeoCities, in the SiliconValley subdivision, maybe unit 7309? Anyway, it’s long gone but the Wayback Machine still has some bits and pieces of it. My oldest post I can find is from 1998, and was about rude assholes on the internet. Some things are just evergreen, aren’t they?

Early Connections

Once upon a time, it required actual effort to have an online presence. Pre-Web, the presence you curated was on individual bulletin board systems (BBS) that each had their own culture and rules. Most BBSes were just one guy with a spare computer, or in some cases one guy with a computer that he left available during specific hours of the day. Of course, most of those only had a single phone line attached, so everything was done asynchronously, and discussions were necessarily fairly slow, often taking months to reach a consensus. We were social, but very deliberate – when we really wanted to have a gathering, we literally gathered. I had BBS meetups at pizza parlors and public parks. BBSes weren’t just limited to local areas, though. There was a decent-sized protocol called FidoNet, which used a “store and forward” system to send batches of electronic messages around the world. With the speed of modems and the frequency of sending batches varying wildly between FidoNet nodes, it may have been many hours, possibly even days, before your message reached its destination, but it opened the world to computer geeks.

By the early 1980s, it was becoming obvious that home computers weren’t just a fad, and that people liked reaching out to form online communities. Some companies popped up, such as Genie and Prodigy and QuantumLink and AOL and CompuServe (I had a QuantumLink account with my 1200 baud modem on a Commodore 64). Each had their own forums and communities, and because they were on bigger computers with actual infrastructure, it was possible to do real-time chatting with other humans. Then, the internet became open to commercial users, instead of just government and educational users, gradually through the first half of the 1990s, until the NSFNet fiber backbone was decommissioned and it became the wild west in 1995.

Social Media

We started to look for persistent connections and build communities almost as soon as the internet became accessible to all. Web sites joined “rings” that were built on various affinities, and by 2000 there were a multiple new tools available. LiveJournal was a personal site that went big, producing a new generation of people who were logging their thoughts and connecting with each other. We had communities devoted to nearly any topic imaginable, and we could tweak the style of our personal pages within some limits, so our web logs became blogs became our means of expressing ourselves. LJ had privacy levels, it had (eventually) nested comment threads, it had groups and filters and introduced the term “friend” to mean “some person that I like to read on the internet.” LJ reached a height of a couple million users, and then the owner sold it to a company that sold it to a Russian company and now it’s effectively dead in the USA. Along the same time, Myspace rose, offering another customizable cacophony of colors and blink text. Myspace flamed out even faster than LJ, being bought by Rupert Murdoch and then essentially killed off for personal use. Bands stuck around for a while, but even they didn’t persist much past the rise of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all the other sites we have today.

One abiding feature of the old online communities was moderation, via humans who either were paid or volunteered to police each forum for rules violations. Most would offer a warning or two for scofflaws, and if they were ignored the offender got chucked out the metaphorical airlock. Sadly, moderation does not scale very well, as we see in the modern social media sites. Trying to automate moderation produces nonsense. In multiple instances, I’ve seen people report or flag content that is offensive or violates a site’s terms of service (Nazi symbiology is the most obvious and flagrant), and the person reporting the content gets their account suspended, while the Nazi remains on the service. Robots are bad at making judgment calls.

It seems that lack of good judgment is not a problem to the owners of the modern social media sites, because they are not actually in the business of providing communities. They are in the business of providing demographic data to advertisers and data miners. As the saying goes, if you’re not paying for a service, you’re the product and not the customer. Facebook and Twitter don’t give a shit about you and your desire to reconnect with high school classmates – they just want that advertiser gold.

Profit Motives Suck

There are many things that capitalism has proven good at, with the appropriate level of regulation and oversight. I think many people have realized that monetizing human interactions is not a great thing for the humans. Various alternative social media platforms have come up over the years, attempting to break the network effect problem that keeps people on Facebook and Twitter. Mastodon appears to be the protocol that may actually finally beat the profit-focused social media world.

Mastodon is more a set of communication standards than it is a web site or platform. The main site, mastodon.social, has reached its capacity long ago. When I created my first Mastodon account, in 2017, they were already telling people to join mastodon.cloud for general-purpose uses, or to find one of the other instances that had already popped up. I’m not going to reiterate what others have written about the service, but the federation and deliberate nature of connecting, and the non-profit nature of the entire fediverse (get used to weird terminology), really seems like something that may take off.

There are thousands of Mastodon users, broken into different servers with different communities, but they can all (within limits) link together. If you’re tired of Mark Zuckerberg’s robots telling you that pointing to the hate speech is worse than hate speech, or if you’re tired of Elon Musk spreading misinformation on his personal web site, maybe check out Mastodon. It’s a slower, simpler, more social media site.

Oh, and read Cory Doctorow. He’s pretty damned clever.

Posted By: Gary
Last Edit: 01 Nov 2022 @ 03:13 PM

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