The indie web, a supplement for social media disappointment
Growing up in rural Vermont, I had great friends, but I never quite 'fit in.' Then I discovered the internet, online forums, and AOL Instant Messenger friendships. I felt at home. I felt belonging.
Toward the end of high school, Myspace became the leader. I carefully crafted my top 8 and customized the CSS in my profile. I spent hours talking to new friends, commenting on music, and contemplating the future.
'The Facebook' launched in my freshman year of college. I connected with my local college campus in new ways. At a school of more than 15,000 students, this opened up so many doors to meet people. I could see other students in my classes, post on people's walls, and connect with new friends. Not long after the launch, Facebook opened up to everyone. Gasp! Now it wasn't about college friends, but global connection, and my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles sent me friend requests.
Instagram bounced onto the scene. I posted pictures of the food I ate, a poorly constructed snowman, and drawings. Yet another way to connect.
As a designer in the early 2010s, Dribbble was a place for me to connect with other designers, find inspiration, get work, and grow.
And Snapchat... meh.
Twitter was my place. I connected with designers, developers, and makers from all over. My Twitter friends became my real friends. This was the only platform where I transitioned online friends into real friends I would meet for beers and vacation with.
I loved moments on all these platforms. The connection, the friendships, the opportunities.
In the end, every single one of these platforms failed me. They fizzled out by losing my trust. Some of them are gone completely, and others just became unusable.
There are moments in every growing platform that feel magical. These moments for social media platforms happen before a company 'needs' to make money. All platforms funded with Venture Capital 'need' to grow; they need to return capital to their investors. So when user growth slows, user engagement and monetization become everything. Remember Instagram before ads? It was wonderful! But also unsustainable. It was always going to shift into some spammy ad platform. When a platform feels too good to be true, it's because it is. If there isn't a cost associated with it, there will be a cost paid down the road. You will pay whether that comes from your wallet or your attention (ads). You become addicted, angry, and manipulated. And finally, you give up.
I am frustrated with the system and with myself. I know it will happen, yet I keep engaging with these platforms. I build a community, and eventually, I lose connection. A community disintegrates and fizzles out because the foundation it was built on crumbles.
Social platforms are analogous to my high school experience. There were good times, rough times, and friends made along the way. But it was a moment in time. Things changed, and I moved on. I outgrew the experience. Sure I may check in and keep up with certain people, but for the most part, the 'moment' is over, and those connections were rooted in a time and place.
Other platforms will come. People are dreaming of decentralized systems like Mastodon. Although I hope one of these catches on and prove sustainable, I am not sold. I remain cautiously optimistic.
For now, I will keep on doing a couple things:
- I will keep publishing on my personal website. A site I own. If I need to switch hosting providers, it is an export, not a migration. I own the content, the design, and how it is structured.
- I will continue to follow as many people via RSS who publish to their own personal sites. RSS allows you to follow other people's sites. No matter what host they use or the reader you use. This brings immense flexibility.
- I will maintain an email newsletter that can easily be ported to a new provider when things with your current provider fall apart (cough, Twitter shutting down Revue).
Maintaining an open and indie web framework won't fix my disappointment. But it does give me more agency to keep up with people I want to learn from and provide the same opportunities for others to keep up with me in the same way.
I don't want to build relationships and connections that can be uprooted because investors are disappointed or because a billionaire has a different vision. This ends in disappointment.
My hope is others create safety nets and escape hatches. Capitalism isn't going away, we may find ourselves disappointed, but we can build bridges and paths to stay connected. But it requires us to own some of our own content.