Every year or so, I (re)join the ranks of hackers who decide they’d like to try building a microblogging tool. It’s sometimes after Twitter or Facebook does something cruddy to remind me that I’m the product. Sometimes, it’s when jerks have the run of the place and no one can do anything about it. Often these things are highly correlated.

Silos & Sovereignty

To just build another silo would be a mistake. So, as usual, my thinking strays toward decentralization & user sovereignty. That is, empower people to put their stuff in lots of different places online that treat them like royalty – often because they’re paying customers.

Historically, this tends to offer a terrible experience. To write on your own piece of the web, for example, you have to rent a domain & a server. Then, get some kind of publishing tool working. Oh, and be sure to keep everything updated & running.

All of this requires hours of study and tinkering better spent doing something else. You know, like the things that prompted you to have thoughts worth sharing in the first place.

The Great Big Block Party on the Web

Still, circa 2002 or so, we had us a great big block party on the web. The experience was so compelling that plenty of full- and part-time geeks braved the tech gauntlet to participate in the emergent blogosphere. Good times, fun hacks.

But, some folks had notions to make this even easier & more accessible – and thereby rope in a much broader swath of humanity. Ditch decentralization. Simplify discovery. Provide the servers and the software. Improve the on-ramps. Make it free-as-in-beer.

And it worked. The network effects of throwing open the doors on massive party silos soon dwarfed our little hobby homesteads on the open web. By the time I get a proper blog running and build myself a blogroll, you’ve already gotten on both Twitter and Facebook and started making fun of me with all your new friends.

However much I might grouse about the fix we find ourselves in now, it’s undeniable that these social networking silos have had massive success in connecting people around the world. You know, that thing we always dreamed the Internet would do?

Free as in Lunch

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, though. Servers, developers, and bandwidth all cost money. As it turns out, though, having all these people partying in one place generates a big steaming heap of attention & data. Certain parties are willing to pay for (or semi-legally demand) access to this rich humus, because it helps their businesses grow.

The unfortunate thing, though, is that this optimizes for treating people like organic waste. The only real concern is that you don’t raise too much of a stink and just keep stewing in the pile producing valuable nutrients.

That’s what it means to be the product rather than the customer. You have little control or influence. Maybe, just maybe, if you and a bunch of other people shout loud & long enough, they’ll turn & aerate the compost. That may not accomplish what you hoped.

Fair Trade?

Most people seem okay with the trade, though. Putting up with monitoring & marketing can be an acceptable cover charge, given the alternatives. I’m no exception: I’ve been complacent enough over the past decade – because I get to talk to family, friends, and interesting folks without yak shaving on my hobby server. (Not yak shaving about this particular thing, anyway.)

But, I haven’t clicked on a banner in forever, and I’ve gotten really cynical about marketing in general. More often than not, an ad drives me to actively avoid the product. Seems like the silos really have to work to squeeze value out of me. Seriously, some days I feel like I’m pulling a con on every single free-beer service on the web.

My hunch is that the party will wind down, someday. But, maybe not soon and maybe not for everyone: We still have a few billion people on the planet yet to get in the door. Those folks get to carry my freeloading butt. But, I bet things will start to look less familiar as time goes on and the silos catch on and stop targeting me.

Party Like it’s 2002?

Still, it feels like the stink from the pile is rising steadily. Fresh folks might keep it rolling, but maybe veterans and cynical newcomers will look for something different. We have ephemeral messaging apps like Snapchat, anonymous spew like Secret, and continual complaints about meddling with the news feed.

People object when they notice the creepy guys wandering around with clipboards, eavesdropping on conversations and randomly rearranging furniture in the room. Nothing really new, but it isn’t going away. Maybe it’ll rise to some level of notice and snowball?

I wonder if we’ll have an opportunity to revisit the Great Web Block Party of 2002? Could we convince more people to pay money and tolerate complexity – even just a little – in exchange for their own pieces of the web?

Maybe. But, I think it will take a better balance of payment & annoyance vs privacy & sovereignty. It also wouldn’t hurt if it made a profit for some folks – even if only as some nice lifestyle businesses. If I knew how to make that happen, though, I’d be doing it. That’s what keeps me at my day job – though it helps that my employer is looking at this stuff, albeit as a non-profit.

Of course, us old web hackers could just end up the new ham radio enthusiasts. We’ll get up early for our swap meets and trade links. Meanwhile, the world will have moved on from the web and we’ll have discovered that AOL was just ahead of its time.

That’s a depressing thought. I think I’ll go for a run, then return to tinkering to cheer myself up.