Toward a social contract for social media

Last week, I led a "strike," or boycott, associated with the hashtag #SocialMediaStrike, directed at the giant, centralized social media services. Though throttled by Twitter and no doubt by others, the brief campaign led to massive use of the hashtag, many people carrying out the strike, as well as dozens of news stories from around the world.

Here I will tell the story of what happened, make some observations about what we might do next, and then make a rather specific proposal, what we might call a "social contract" for social media companies.

What happened

Let me tell the story briefly, from the beginning.

I joined Facebook around 2006 and Twitter in 2008; I never felt quite right about them, and my objections piled up over the years. After I decided to lock down my cyber-life, I abandoned as much of social media as possible. Facebook was a challenge, but I permanently deleted my account, and haven't looked back. It wasn't hard to leave Quora, Medium, and Instagram. But I was still on Twitter for career reasons, and it bothered me that I had abandoned my Facebook friends. I thought, "There's got to be a way to get my friends to join me on some alternative social media network." But how? Then it occurred to me that if somebody made a browser plugin for my friends, that would insert my posts on Minds (for example) into their feeds on Facebook, and which would enable them to reply to me, that would go some way to making different social media networks interoperable. This idea got a lot of play on Twitter.

The more I thought about it, the more I decided that the lessons I had learned as part of a blockchain company since September 2017 (Everipedia) were applicable to social media as a whole: the whole social media system needs to be decentralized. What does that mean, exactly, though? There are several ways to think about it:

  • We should own (ultimately control the distribution of) our own data. Nobody should be able to shut us down, just as nobody can shut down our blogs.
  • We should have total control over our own feeds, i.e., our user experience as we use social media apps. This includes the sorting algorithms
  • Social media apps should not be "silos." They should share data; they should be interoperable; if you post on one, your data should be available on all the others (that do not specifically block you or your post).
  • More than just sharing data, the data they use should be entirely independent of the apps that contain them. That means social media apps become, essentially, social media readers analogous to blog/news readers.
  • To continue the analogy, just as blogs and blog readers exchange data via the common (practically universal) RSS standard, so social media readers should exchange data via a common social media standard.

My employer (Everipedia) kindly supported me as I spent some time developing this idea in speeches and a Wired article. In writing the latter article I hit upon the idea of using social media to organize—ironically, sure, why not?—a social media strike, and to write the Declaration. Whoever I talked to about it loved it. It resonated for people with both left politics and right. That's interesting and perhaps unexpected, because it is an idea that ultimate concerns Internet politics itself. It turns out that when it comes to Internet politics, almost everyone is still essentially "liberal": we all want to be free to publish and to be in control of our own experience. (Matters, of course, are different when we consider whether we want other people to be free to publish and to be in control of their experience. But when it comes to our own, we want to be in control.)

That was last March. I had several months to organize something bigger and more formally, by reaching out to a lot of influencers and get them on board as early signatories of a Declaration of Digital Independence, but whenever I started to make cursory movements in that direction, I frankly lost heart. The reason, as I eventually realized, was that the only way I was going to do this is by reaching out to regular people through normal channels, out in the open—you know, real grassroots organizing. Everything else felt (and might actually have been) philosophically inconsistent. So a little over a week before July 4, I got to work.

I cleaned up the various documents and started pushing them out on various channels, but especially on Twitter.

At first it looked like it was all going to be a dud. Then, slowly but surely, different "blue check marks" and then news outlets started showing interest. When the BBC and Fox News' Tucker Carlson took an early interest last Monday (July 1), that really opened the floodgates. Here's a list of coverage a colleague collected:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nK6BHGu9SD4 (Tucker Carlson interview)
  2. https://twitter.com/questCNN/status/1147240877892481031 (CNN interview)
  3. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/05/wikipedia-co-founder-larry-sanger-slams-facebook-twitter-social-media.html (widely distributed and discussed)
  4. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/wikipedia-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-to-protest-power-of-giants-like-facebook-184501284.html
  5. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-48825410 (ditto; first major coverage)
  6. https://www.newsweek.com/reddit-technology-social-media-strike-larry-sanger-facebook-twitter-1447549 (ditto)
  7. https://nypost.com/2019/07/02/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-over-privacy-issues (ditto)
  8. https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-06-29/wikipedia-co-founder-unveils-declaration-digital-independence (first coverage by anyone, I believe)
  9. https://thenextweb.com/tech/2019/07/04/reddits-r-technology-goes-dark-as-part-of-socialmediastrike (/r/technology's blackout in support was widely reported)
  10. https://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/web/larry-sanger-wikipedia-mitgruender-ruft-zu-social-media-streik-auf-a-1275236.html
  11. https://www.elpais.com.uy/vida-actual/motivos-cofundador-wikipedia-llama-huelga-redes-sociales.html
  12. https://www.repubblica.it/tecnologia/social-network/2019/07/01/news/wikipedia_lancia_sciopero_social_stop_il_4-5_luglio_per_un_sistema_piu_libero_-230074747
  13. https://thehill.com/homenews/451471-wikipedia-co-founder-wants-two-day-social-media-strike-to-highlight-privacy-issues
  14. https://www.theregister.co.uk/2019/07/01/wikipedia_founder_calls_for_social_media_strike
  15. https://observer.com/2019/07/wikipedia-founder-larry-sanger-july-4-social-media-strike
  16. https://www.salon.com/2019/07/03/wikepedia-co-founder-plans-social-media-strike-will-it-work
  17. https://www.marketwatch.com/amp/story/guid/D29FC838-9D0E-11E9-956A-E9AF1A718551
  18. https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/world/2019/july/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-july-4-5
  19. https://siecledigital.fr/2019/07/01/le-cofondateur-de-wikipedia-invite-a-la-greve-des-reseaux-sociaux
  20. https://www.rp.pl/Spoleczenstwo/190709913-Tworca-Wikipedii-wzywa-do-strajku-w-mediach-spolecznosciowych.html
  21. https://fossbytes.com/wikipedia-co-founder-social-media-strike
  22. https://twitter.com/BBCTech/status/1145654230558134274
  23. https://ici.radio-canada.ca/nouvelle/1205730/greve-facebook-twitter-larry-sanger
  24. https://twitter.com/JeanneCBC/status/1145723863210352641
  25. https://twitter.com/GarethM/status/1145712804118351874
  26. https://pawoo.net/@masterq/102365444906120134
  27. https://gizmodo.com/wikipedia-co-founder-picks-a-nice-day-to-log-off-1836017140
  28. https://www.presse-citron.net/quand-le-cofondateur-de-wikipedia-appelle-a-la-greve-des-reseaux-sociaux
  29. https://libertysentinel.org/wikipedia-co-founder-boycott-social-media
  30. https://themerkle.com/can-a-social-media-strike-be-pulled-off-in-2019
  31. https://samnytt.se/social-media-strejk-utropat-den-den-4-och-5-juli
  32. https://www.reddit.com/r/technology/comments/c7g36c/social_media_strike_proposed_for_july_45_by
  33. http://mugayir.com/wikipedia-ceosundan-sosyal-medya-boykotu-icin-cagri
  34. https://actualidad.rt.com/actualidad/320005-cofundador-wikipedia-convocar-huelga-redes-sociales
  35. https://elpais.com/tecnologia/2019/07/03/actualidad/1562153010_528990.html
  36. https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/07/01/demanding-users-fight-data-and-privacy-protections-wikipedia-co-founder-calls
  37. https://www.observalgerie.com/style-de-vie-et-loisirs/hitech/cofondateur-wikipedia-appelle-greve-reseaux-sociaux-4-5-juillet
  38. https://www.reddit.com/r/tech/comments/c7ipl7/social_media_strike_proposed_for_july_45_by
  39. https://twitter.com/thehill/status/1146384654578196481
  40. https://wnd.com/2019/07/wikipedia-co-founder-urges-social-media-strike
  41. https://www.numerama.com/politique/530423-le-cofondateur-de-wikipedia-vous-invite-a-faire-greve-avec-lui-contre-facebook-twitter-et-youtube.html
  42. https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/c8s87d/im_larry_sanger_wikipedia_cofounder_everipedia/
  43. https://www.newsmax.com/newsfront/wikipedia-social-media-data-privacy/2019/07/03/id/923114/
  44. https://www.verdict.co.uk/decentralised-social-media
  45. https://twitter.com/PrisonPlanet/status/1147122675917185024
  46. https://summit.news/2019/07/05/wikipedia-co-founder-slams-zuckerberg-big-tech-for-appalling-internet
  47. https://twitter.com/bitchute/status/1147336649883283456
  48. https://reclaimthenet.org/larry-sanger-twitter-facebook
  49. https://reclaimthenet.org/larry-sanger-declaration-of-digital-independence
  50. https://twitter.com/svbizjournal/status/1147558662950592519
  51. https://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2019/07/05/larry-sanger-wikipedia-social-media-strike-fb-twtr.html
  52. https://www.standard.co.uk/tech/social-media-strike-larry-snager-internet-dark-a4183046.html
  53. https://www.cnet.com/news/reddits-rtechnology-goes-offline-for-july-4-social-media-strike
  54. https://www.curvearro.com/blog/why-social-media-is-ready-to-go-on-strike
  55. https://tribetica.com/can-a-social-media-strike-be-pulled-off-in-2019
  56. https://uk.news.yahoo.com/social-media-strike-why-favourite-083241784.html
  57. https://world.einnews.com/article/489949068/7umkU6G_w9ukLXsk
  58. https://inside.com/campaigns/inside-social-2019-07-05-1568KII3/sections/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-121855

There was probably more. Despite this amount of coverage, I don't think the story ever trended on Twitter or Google News.

That the effort was throttled by Twitter is obvious. Tweets were placed behind "sensitive content" warnings—never with any explanation, but often with high irony—even when I merely shared one of Twitter's own memes with the #SocialMediaStrike hashtag. There also seemed to be games going on with the hashtag itself.

What inroads did the effort make? There were a few notable "blue checkmark" supporters, but on the whole the result was a creature of grassroots efforts and direct reporting on those efforts. No major politician supported it; no A-list conservative or libertarian YouTube star or pundits supported it; no high-ranking lefty, rightly complaining about "surveillance capitalism," joined; none of the leading Silicon Valley darlings, often critical of social media, joined; etc. In short, the Establishment pretty much uniformly took a pass—except, oddly, for the massive amount of news reporting as I said, and despite that reporting.

The lack of Establishment up-take I chalk up to the fact that it was started as a grass-roots effort and thus was beneath their notice; presumably, their support would need to be courted in advance. But as I said, I specifically decided not to court their support in advance. I'm not particularly sorry I didn't, even though clearly it would have been a bigger deal if I had. It would have been bigger, yes, but the rank and file would be wondering much less about the genuineness of the movement. Besides, I'd have to worry about movement politics and personalities. What we've demonstrated is that this movement has legs without any A-list endorsements. And I don't count myself in that group. I'm a B-lister at best. Heck, I've only got 6,000 followers and Twitter gave me my own blue checkmark only a couple months ago. My interest will continue to be that of a disgruntled social media user who also happens to be a casual Internet theorist.

Next steps: some notes

After announcing that they were back from the strike, many people asked what the next steps were. Some suggested we do another, longer strike; I'm not opposed to that. Many suggested that we start new social media networks; I think some of these people really didn't realize that there were plenty under development. Representatives of several alternative social media networks reached out to me, including CEOs of two or three well-known ones. It's all been quite confusing and so you'll have to give me time to get it sorted out, especially since I'd like to be doing other work too, of course. Helping to organize this effort is at best a temporary sideline for me.

First, then, let me make a few observations about future strikes:

  • We still haven't shown the whole world that there is a massive latent demand for decentralized social media and data self-ownership.
  • Simply doing another strike (perhaps a longer one) might be more effective than last week's strike.
  • But a similar strike anytime soon would almost certainly be ignored by the press and many potential participants. It would be better to plan any follow-up strike for some time months from now—even next year on the same days.
  • There doesn't have to be a centrally organized strike. You can declare yourself to be on strike on any social network you like, and maybe repeat the message daily or weekly, and then don't interact except to promote your strike.
  • Here's the thing. If there's going to be another big organized strike, I'm not going to be the one to organize it. I'm a reluctant organizer of this sort of thing, to be honest. As I said, I'm not a specialist or working full-time on this stuff. So someone else, or some other organization, would have to organize it. I might well participate, though, if someone else organizes it.
  • Another proposal I saw is to have regular planned strikes, like once a month. This strikes me as unlikely to make big inroads, but of course it all depends on execution.
  • There's a whole aspect of any such effort toward data ownership, privacy, and decentralization that might need special attention, I think: teaching the ignorant. A common reaction to the strike was, "Wait, why should we care about privacy again?" I explained that before, even why we should be hardcore about privacy, but much more needs to be done on this. Similarly with free speech. So many people, especially younger people, have never learned why free speech is so important.

But there are maybe more important issues aside from any strike:

  • I'm not aware of anything like an industry-wide agreement or commitment to interoperability and to settling on common standards. I'm interested in helping to broker that or to kick it off, although I probably wouldn't want to participate, as that is not my area.
  • I'm not interested in endorsing or joining any social media companies as an adviser. Though I am often asked, I am an adviser to almost no one. Thanks for asking.
  • In my Wired paper, I describe "mass try-outs," i.e., as many people as possible descends en masse on one particular social media alternative, then another one a week later (or whatever), for as long as necessary.
  • Here is a message for alternative social media CEOs: there is strength in numbers. If you fight each other for the giants' table scraps and leftovers, you'll get nowhere. If you join forces to make each other interoperable and to organize mass try-outs, you'll not only get a massive amount of publicity, you'll get a massive amount of new users. A rising tide lifts all boats. Please act on this observation.
  • I'm happy to try to bring you together for these purposes, if you're not already making satisfactory headway, but I don't want to be part of the organization. That's your business, not mine. I have no interest in being an interloper. This is not just because I don't like to be rude, it's because I don't know you or trust your organizations (yet), and I would like to stay independent of the fray.
  • I do have one piece of advice for such an organization: you can't include all alternative social media organizations in the biggest, most serious mass try-outs (I think), like every little Mastodon instance. Some will not make the cut, because they're not big enough.
  • That said, if you (social media companies wanting to organize mass try-outs) want massive grassroots support, the best way to organize which sites to follow is to use some objective and publicly-verifiable metrics of engagement, such as Alexa or Quantcast, number of social media mentions, or something else like that. Another option is to agree on a list of judges, and they democratically determine a list of n networks to do a "mass try-out" on.
  • Of course, the also-rans should also have their (perhaps briefer) day in the sun. But the main event will feature some of the unquestionably leading alternative social media networks and will have more days and more publicity, naturally.
  • That is, as long as they really are provably committed to decentralization, self-ownership of user data, and interoperability. But we would have to determine their bona fides.

So what should we do next?

Proposal: A social contract for social media

Here is a proposal that I would like your feedback on.

I'm thinking of trying to get the CEOs of alternative social media companies—and then, perhaps, the big ones—to agree to a set of principles.

Once agreed and signed, I would be happy to help broker an announcement that a deal, along these lines, had been reached.

And then we could do some "mass try-outs" of at least some signatories, in conjunction with a new social media strike. But I think the first step is to get the alternative networks on board.

What principles? I don't think the Principles of Decentralized Social Networks is specific enough. What we really need to do is to operationalize those very general principles. So, something like this:

  1. We, representatives of social media networks agree to work with each other to adopt, adapt, or create a single, commonly-used, commonly-developed, and mutually satisfactory set of standards and protocols for making our networks interoperable, regardless of what other and underlying technologies we may use.
  2. "Interoperable" networks are those in which, at a minimum, posts that appear on one network can appear on other networks of a similar kind. Thus if one network supports microposts only, then microposts that originate on other networks can appear there. Similarly with longer posts, images, videos, and so forth.
  3. We will make diligent efforts support what might be called personal social media accounts as soon as available, so that there is support for peer-to-peer social media that does not require any networks or instances at all. In other words, these would be user-owned social media accounts, made according to standards that enable a person to post a social media feed entirely independently of any social media network. We will work diligently toward offering full technical support for users to post directly from feeds they directly and individually control onto our networks.
  4. As we become more fully decentralized, we will make user data fully portable. In other words, when a fully decentralized and interoperable network comes online, we will enable users to export their data in a format that allows them to host the "ur-version" of their data elsewhere.
  5. There is no requirement that our networks must carry all types of social media content; we may restrict what we carry by medium. Some networks may focus on microposts, others on blogs, and still others on photos or video. The standards and protocols should cover all uses of all these media, sufficient to specify how they are used by the big social media networks. As distinct new kinds of social media are invented, these too should be specified as well.
  6. It is also to be expected that we will support all features supported by the standards and protocols. For example, while some networks might support a wide variety of "reaction" features, others might have just "like" or "dislike," and some might have none at all.
  7. We, the social media networks that are party to this public pledge, each retain the right to moderate all content that appears on our networks. Neither any central body nor any specially commissioned organization has the right to determine what may and may not appear on our networks. We may be as open, or as restricted, as we wish.
  8. We acknowledge that there are other serious problems associated with decentralized networks—such as, perhaps especially, spam and problems associated with real-world identities. We will work diligently to solve these problems in a way that does not create a potentially corruptible system, or an ideologically-driven system of viewpoint-based censorship.
  9. Whether or not our own projects will support a private messaging service, the standards and protocols we support will include end-to-end, strong encryption for individual private messaging as well as private group chats.
  10. The only requirements for a network to be join this decentralized system are neutral technical protocols; the only requirement for a person to create an account will be purely technical ones. There will be no application or vetting process, any more than there is for the registration of a new domain name, blog, or email provider or address.
  11. The standards and protocols we adopt will be open source, not proprietary.
  12. We will create or place our trust into, and continue to support, an open and democratic organization that manages these standards and protocols. We may and should be expected to object if we notice that biased or corrupt procedures, particularly those operating behind the scenes, are shaping the development of these standards and protocols.
  13. We will particularly resist incursions by governments and giant corporations that attempt to hijack the standards and protocols for purposes of censorship, surveillance, or profit-making opportunities not open equally to all.
  14. We are committed to ease of use—so that people can enjoy the full benefits of owning their own data and participating in a decentralized social media system without installing their own server or doing anything else that requires technical skill beyond that of the plain non-technical person.

Please read that over and let me know what you think.

I propose that social media CEOs negotiate with each other on some such set of principles, then all agree upon them. The benefits of doing so would be tremendous:

First, this should light a fire underneath all and create a mutual, shared understanding about the ultimate goals of the new social media architecture. It would constitute a "Manhattan Project" for redesigning the Internet (or, as one organization has it, "redecentralizing" the Internet).

Second, it should also give users enthusiasm about alternative social media, by giving them some assurance that networks they reward with their participation today will remain true to certain basic principles. This is, as Internet entrepreneurs can surely agree, very important.

Third and finally, this will also give journalists, commentators, and technical professionals commonly-agreed grounds for criticizing the big social media networks. Perhaps they will want to claim to be moving toward decentralization; but if they cannot satisfy the requirements of this agreement, we can deny that they actually are decentralized. If the public shows tremendous support for decentralization in the sense that is agreed to, this will make it ever harder for social media giants to resist moving toward a decentralized future.

I know I haven't come to grips with all the issues involved here, and I know there are real experts who have. So help me to edit (or completely rewrite) the above so that it is something that we should expect social media networks to accept—assuming they really do take decentralization seriously.

The above is a very rough first draft at best. How should these principles read? Please discuss below.


How to decentralize social media—a brief sketch

The problem about social media is that it is centralized. Centralization empowers massive corporations and governments to steal our privacy and restrict our speech and autonomy.

What should exist are neutral, technical standards and protocols, like the standards and protocols for blogs, email, and the Web. Indeed, many proposed standards already do exist, but none has emerged as a common, dominant standard. Blockchain technology—the technology of decentralization—is perfect for this, but not strictly necessary. Common protocols would enable us to follow public feeds no matter where they are published. We would eventually have our pick of many different apps to view these feeds. We would choose our own terms, not Facebook's or Twitter's, for both publishing and reading.

As things are, if you want to make short public posts to the greatest number of people, you have to go to Twitter, enriching them and letting them monetize your content (and your privacy). Similarly, if you want to make it easy for friends and family to follow your more personal text and other media, you have to go to Facebook. Similarly for various other kinds of content. It just doesn't have to be that way. We could decentralize.

This is a nice dream. But how do we make it happen?

After all, the problem about replacing the giant, abusive social media companies is that you can't replace existing technology without making something so much more awesome that everyone will rush to try it. And the social media giants have zillions of the best programmers in the world. How can we, the little guys, possibly compete?

Well, I've thought of a way the open source software and blockchain communities might actually kick the legs out from under the social media giants. My proposal (briefly sketched) has five parts. The killer feature, which will bring down the giants, is (4):

  1. The open data standards. Create open data standards and protocols, or probably just adopt the best of already-existing ones, for the feeds of posts (and threads, and other data structures) that Twitter, Facebook, etc., uses. I'm not the first to have thought of this; the W3C has worked on the problem. It'd be like RSS, but for various kinds of social media post types.
  2. The publishing/storage platforms. Create reliable ways for people to publish, store, and encrypt (and keep totally secret, if they want) their posts. Such platforms would allow users to control exactly who has access to what content they want to broadcast to the world, and in what form, and they would not have to ask permission from anyone and would not be censorable. (Blockchain companies using IPFS, and in particular Everipedia, could help here and show the way; but any website could publish feeds.)
  3. The feed readers. Just as the RSS standard spawned lots of "reader" and "aggregator" software, so there should be similar feed readers for the various data standards described in (1) and the publishers described in (2). While publishers might have built-in readers (as the social media giants all do), the publishing and reading feature sets need to be kept independent, if you want a completely decentralized system.
  4. The social media browser plugins. Here's the killer feature. Create at least one (could be many competing) browser plugins that enable you to (a) select feeds and then (b) display them alongside a user's Twitter, Facebook, etc., feeds. (This could be an adaptation of Greasemonkey.) In other words, once this feature were available, you could tell your friends: "I'm not on Twitter. But if you want to see my Tweet-like posts appear in your Twitter feed, then simply install this plugin and input my feed address. You'll see my posts pop up just as if they were on Twitter. But they're not! And we can do this because you can control how any website appears to you from your own browser. It's totally legal and it's actually a really good idea." In this way, while you might never look at Twitter or Facebook, you can stay in contact with your friends who are still there—but on your own terms.
  5. The social media feed exporters/APIs. Create easy-to-use software that enables people to publish their Twitter, Facebook, Mastodon, Diaspora, Gab, Minds, etc., feeds via the open data standards. The big social media companies already have APIs, and some of the smaller companies and open projects have standards, but there is no single, common open data standard that everyone uses. That needs to change. If you could publish your Twitter data in terms of such a standard, that would be awesome. Then you could tell your friends: "I'm on Twitter, but I know you're not. You don't have to miss out on my tweets. Just use a tweet reader of your choice (you know—like an old blog/RSS feed reader, but for tweets) and subscribe to my username!

The one-two punch here is the combination of points (1) and (4): First, we get behind decentralized, common social media standards and protocols, and then we use those standards when building plugins that let our friends, who are still using Facebook and Twitter (etc.), see posts that we put on websites like Steemit, Minds, Gab, and Bitchute (not to mention coming Everipedia Network dapps).

The exciting thing about this plan is that no critical mass seems to be needed in order to get people to install the envisioned plugin. All you need is one friend whose short posts you want to see in your Twitter feed, and you might install a plugin that lets you do that. As more and more people do this, there should be a snowball effect. Thus, even a relatively small amount of adoption should create a movement toward decentralization. And then the days of centralized social media will be numbered. We'll look back on the early days of Facebook and Twitter (and YouTube!) as we now do the Robber Barons.

We can look at a later iteration of Everipedia itself as an example. Right now, there is one centralized encyclopedia: Wikipedia. With the Everipedia Network, there will be a protocol that will enable people from all over the web to participate in a much broader project.

I would love to see the various competitors of the social media giants settle on a common standard and otherwise join forces on these sorts of projects. If they do, it will happen, and the days of privacy-stealing, centralized, controlling, Big Brother social media will soon be behind us. We'll return to the superior and individually empowering spirit of the original Internet.

We have to do this, people. This is the future of the Internet. Even if you've given up social media, we should build this for our friends and family who are still toiling in the digital plantations.


We need to pay more for journalism. A lot more.

I'm going to say a few obvious things, and then then a few unobvious things, about the business model for news publishing.

Obvious thing #1: One of the most consequential facts of the Internet age is that news content has become free of charge. We all watched in morbid fascination in the 1990s and 00s when news came out from behind paywalls. What will this do to the business model? we wondered. How will news publishers survive and flourish?

Obvious thing #2: None of them flourished, and many didn't survive. One of the worst industries to get into these days is journalism. Major news organizations have never stopped hemorrhaging jobs. I feel sorry for my journalist friends, and I'm glad there are some who still have jobs. There are quite a few desperate journalists out there; I don't blame them.

Obvious thing #3: There are two main business models for news publishing: advertising and subscription. I'm not familiar with the statistics, but it seems obvious that most news that is read is supported by advertising. Note, I don't say that most money that is made, or the best news available, comes from advertising. I'm just saying that if you add up all the news pageviews supported by ads, and compare it to the news pageviews supported by subscriptions, you'd find a lot more of the former.

I'm done boring you with the obvious. Now something perhaps a little less obvious: Desperate journalists, whose jobs depend on sheer pageviews because that's how you pay the bills, are desperate to write clickbait. Standards have gone out the window because standards don't pay the bills. Objectivity and fact-checking are undervalued; speed and dramatic flair are "better" because they drive traffic and save jobs. But even this is pretty much just the conventional wisdom about what's going on in journalism. It's very sad.

As long as the business of journalism is paid for by ads, it won't be journalism.

It will be clickbait.

If you look at the line of reasoning above, however, you might notice something remarkable. At least, it struck me. It is the simple fact that the news is free of charge that led almost inevitably to a decline in standards. This lowering of standards has even affected more serious reporting that can only be found behind paywalls, in my opinion.

I remember keynoting a publishers' conference in 2007, and many people were asking: "The Internet is threatening our business models. How do we solve this problem?" I suppose they thought I'd have a bright idea because I had managed to build something interesting on a shoestring; but I didn't have any. Since then, as far as I can see, news publishing hasn't gotten any farther along. I haven't had or encountered any fantastic new ideas for getting journalists paid to do excellent work.

As long as the business of journalism is paid for by ads, it won't be journalism.

It will be clickbait.

If you want to support real journalism, with real standards, consider subscribing to a publication that you think practices it, or comes as close to it as possible. It's on us, the public.

But that's lame. You thought I was going to stop there? If so, you don't really know me. Journalism never was very good. Standards have dropped, that's for sure; but we should look back and recognize that they never were terribly high in the first place. What we really need are journalists who recognize just how elusive the entire, nuanced truth really is. (Maybe require them to have had a few philosophy courses.) And we need publishers who demand not just good traditional journalism but neutrality, in the sense I defined in an essay ("Why Neutrality?"):

A disputed topic is treated neutrally if each viewpoint about it is not asserted but rather presented (1) as sympathetically as possible, bearing in mind that other, competing views must be represented as well, and (2) with an equitable amount of space being allotted to each, whatever that might be.

This standard, it turns out (as laid out in my paper), is pretty hard-core. But following it would solve many of the problems we've had. The extra work meeting such a high standard would cost more to produce. But I think enough people care enough about their own intellectual autonomy that they would pay a significant premium for truly neutral news reporting with unusually high standards, above and beyond the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

I know I would.


Social media stupidifies and radicalizes us

Back when the buzzword switched from "Web 2.0" to "social media," I started to get quite suspicious. When I was participating in online communities, I wasn't propagating "media." That is something that boring corporate media types did.

What would those boring corporate media types, or rather their Silicon Valley equivalents, do with once-unconstrained, lively, frequently long-form debate communities? Make the conversations shorter, more vapid, more appealing to the masses, and more addictive. In short, more of a really dumb waste of time.

The Zucks and Dorseys of the world did this in order to hook people more and more. What they probably didn't realize at first is that they had built tools for stupidification and radicalization. I don't think "dumb down" is quite the right phrase: dumbing down means making something complex simpler, easier to understand, but also less accurate. To "stupidify" focuses on the effects on us; in social media mobs, we are truly stupid herd animals, and when enraged, rather frighteningly stupid mobs. What we are fed and say is dumbed down; consequently, we are stupidified.

That degraded quality of social relationship--that is these fools' legacy. I have no respect for what Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey achieved. (This isn't a personal slam; I don't have that much respect for Wikipedia, either, which is something I built.)

If you had set out to reduce human Internet interactions to a subhuman, irrational, emotional level, an excellent strategy would be to replace long mailing list and Usenet newsgroup posts and rambling blog posts like this one with tweets (whether 140 or 280 characters--at that tiny length, it doesn't matter), propaganda memes, and emotion-driven comments that are cut short and sent by default if you try to write more than one paragraph.

To make the medium of social interaction briefer and more visual is to convey that intelligence, which is almost always long-form, is not valued. We live in a tl;dr world, the world that Zuck and Jack built. They must be very proud. If Marshall McLuhan was right that the medium is the message, social media's message is that your intelligence and individuality are worth little; your emotions and loyalty to your tribe are everything.

I will go farther than that. I lay the ongoing destruction of democratic institutions squarely at their feet. That's a dramatic and indeed emotional-sounding claim, but just look at what has happened and what is going on right now. It's a disaster. We increasingly distrust our institutions insofar as they are co-governed by our ideological opponents. That didn't used to be the case; what changed? That we are constantly presented with idiotic and easily-refuted versions of our opponents' social and political views. Consequently, we have lost all respect for each other. Staggering percentages of the American people want to split up the country and predict civil war. Long-term friendships and even family relationships have been broken up by relentlessly stupid arguments on social media.

It isn't just that increased familiarity with, or constant exposure to, our opponents' points of view has led to mutual contempt. Sure, familiarity might breed contempt; but through social media we do not project our most genuine, nuanced, intelligent, sensitive, and human selves. Social media makes us, rather, into partisan, tribal drones. We are not really more familiar with each other. We are familiar with stupidified versions of each other. And that is making society insane.

It certainly looks as if the combination of short, visual messages and simplified reactions to them--"hearting," upvoting and downvoting, or choosing from an extremely limited menu of emotional reactions--is enough to dumb down, to stupidify, the versions of ourselves we portray to each other. And that is, again, wreaking havoc on our society. With social media absolutely dominant as the locus of modern socialization, how could this fail to have a profound impact on our broader societal and political mood?

It is Zuck's and Dorsey's fault. They built the medium. The medium stupidifies us. Stupid people are particularly bad at democracy, as our Founding Fathers knew. The leadership of republican institutions must be wisely chosen by a sober citizenry using good sense improved by education. What we have now, thanks to social media, is a citizenry made punch-drunk by meaningless but addictive endorphins awarded them by reinforcing their tribal alliances, stupidly incapable of trusting "the Other" and, therefore, of reaching anything like a reasonable, democratic consensus.

This is one of the main reasons why I quit social media cold turkey over a month ago. I don't miss or regret it. I will continue to use it only for work purposes, i.e., essentially for advertising, which I hope is a reasonable use for it.

I sincerely, fervently hope that in five or ten years' time this is the conventional wisdom about social media. What comes next, I don't know. But we can't survive as a democratic society under these conditions.


I'm quitting social media cold turkey

"Yet another public resolution to leave Facebook or Twitter," you say with a laugh. "Only soon to be given up like so many others, no doubt." That's a reasonable reaction. But go ahead, check up on me: here are my Twitter account and my Facebook account. My last posts were Sept. 11 and Sept. 12. I promise to leave this blog post up forever--that'll shame me if I get back to it.

I've critiqued social media philosophically and even threatened to abandon it before, and I've advised people not to use it during work time (I admit I've later completely ignored this advice myself). But I've never really quit social media for any length of time.

Until now. As of earlier today, I've quit cold turkey. I've made my last posts on Twitter and Facebook, period. I'm not even going to say goodbye or explain or link to this blog post on social media, which I'll let others link to (or not). Friends and family will have to either call or email me or make their way here to get an explanation. I'll be happy to explain further and maybe engage in some debate in the comment section below.

I thought I'd explain what has led to this decision. You'll probably think it's my sniffy political stance against social media's threats to free speech and privacy, but you'd be wrong--although I'm glad I'll no longer be supporting these arrogant, vicious companies.

This resolution didn't really start as a reaction to social media at all. It began as a realization about my failings and about some important principles of ethics and psychology.

1. Socrates was right: we're not weak, we just undervalue rationality.

We are a remarkably irrational species.

Recently I began giving thought to the fact that we so rarely think long-term. If we were driven by the balance of long-term consequences, there are so many things we would do differently. If you think about this long enough, you can get quite depressed about your life and society. Perhaps I should only speak for myself--this is true of me, for sure--but I think it is a common human failing. Not exercising, overeating, wasting time in various ways, indulging in harmful addictions, allowing ourselves to believe all sorts of absurd things without thinking, following an obviously irrational crowd--man might be the rational animal, as Aristotle thought, but that doesn't stop him from also being a profoundly irrational animal.

I'm not going to share my admittedly half-baked thoughts on rationality in too much detail. You might expect me to, since I'm a Ph.D. philosopher who was once a specialist in epistemology, who has spent a great deal of time thinking about the ethical requirements of practical rationality, and who has done some training and reading in psychology. I'm not going to pretend that my thoughts on these things are more sophisticated than yours; I know they're probably not. I'm not an expert.

I will say this, just to explain where my head is at these days. I have always taken Socrates' theory of weakness of will (akrasia) very seriously. He thought that if we do something that we believe we shouldn't--have an extra cookie or a third glass of wine, say--then the problem is not precisely that our will is weak. No, he said, the problem is that we are actually ignorant of what is good, at least in this situation.

This sounds ridiculously wrong to most philosophers and students who encounter this view for the first time (and, for most of us, on repeated encounters). Of course there is such a thing as weakness of will. Of course we sometimes do things that we know are wrong. That's the human condition, after all.

But I can think of a sense in which Socrates was right. Let's suppose you have a rule that says, "No more than one cookie after dinner," and you end up eating two. Even as you bite into the second, you think, "I really shouldn't be eating this. I'm so weak!" How, we ask Socrates, do you lack knowledge that you shouldn't eat the second cookie? But there is a straightforward answer: you don't believe you shouldn't, and belief is necessary for knowledge. We can concede that you have some information or insight--but it is quite questionable whether, on a certain level, you actually believe that you shouldn't eat the cookie. I maintain that you don't believe it. You might say you believe it; but you're not being honest with yourself. You're not being sincere. The fact is that your rule just isn't important to you, not as important as that tasty second cookie. You don't really believe you shouldn't have it. In a certain sense, you actually think you should have it. You value the taste more than your principle.

From long experience--see if you agree with me here--I have believed that our desires carry with them certain assumptions, certain premises. New information can make our desires turn on a dime. I think there are a number false premises that generally underpin weakness of will. I'm not saying that, if we persuade ourselves that these premises are false, we will thereafter be wonderfully self-disciplined. I am saying, however, that certain false beliefs do make it much easier for us to discount sober, rational principles, naturally tuned to our long-term advantage, in favor of irrational indulgence that will hurt us in the long run.

Here, then, are two very general premises that underpin weakness of will.

(a) Sometimes, it's too strict and unreasonable to be guided by what are only apparently rational, long-term considerations.

There are many variations on this: being too persnickety about your principles means you're being a hard-ass, or uncool, or abnormal, or unsociable, or positively neurotic (surely the opposite of rational!). And that might be true--depending on your principles. But it is not true when it comes to eating healthy and exercising daily, for example: in the moment, it might seem too strict to stick by a reasonable diet, so it might seem unreasonable. But it really isn't unreasonable. It is merely difficult. It is absolutely reasonable because you'll benefit and be happier in the long run if you stick to your guns. It will get easier to do so with time, besides.

(b) Avoiding pain and seeking pleasure are, sometimes, simply better than being guided by rational, long-term considerations.

This is reflected, at least somewhat, in the enduring popularity of hedonism, ethical and otherwise. The aesthete who takes the third glass of wine doesn't want narrow principles to stand in the way of pleasure (it's such good wine! I don't want to be a buzzkill to my awesome friends!); instead, he will also congratulate himself on his nuance and openness to experience. The same sort of thinking is used to justify infidelity.

Such considerations are why I think it is plausible to say that, no, indeed, in our moments of weakness, we have actually abandoned our decent principles for cynical ones. You might object, "But surely not. I'm merely rationalizing. I don't really take such stuff seriously; I take my principles seriously. I know I'm doing wrong. I'm just being weak."

Well, maybe that's right. But it's also quite reasonable to think that, at least in that moment, you actually are quite deliberately and sincerely choosing the path of the cool, of the sociable friend, of the aesthete; you are shrugging with a self-deprecating smile as you admit to yourself that, yes, your more decent principles are not all that. You might even congratulate yourself on being a complex, subtle mensch, and not an unyielding, unemotional robot. This is why, frankly, it strikes me as more plausible that you're not merely rationalizing: you are, at least temporarily, embracing different (less rational, more cynical) principles.

But as it turns out, there are good reasons to reject (a) and (b). Recently, I was talking myself out of them, or trying to, anyway. I told myself this:

Consider (a) again, that sometimes, rationality is too strict. When we avoid strict rationality, the things we allow ourselves are frequently insipid and spoiled by the fact that they are, after all, the wrong things to do. Take staying up late: it's so greatly overrated. Overindulgence in general is a great example. Playing a game and watching another episode of a television program are simply not very rewarding; just think of the more gainful ways you could be spending your time instead. Having one cookie too many is hardly an orgasmic experience, and it is absolutely foolish, considering that the consequences of breaking a necessary diet can be so unpleasant.

Indeed, most Americans need to be on a diet (or to exercise a lot more), and that is an excellent example of our inability to think long term. It is hard to imagine the advantages of being healthy and thin. But those advantages are very real. They can spell the difference of years of a longer life, and considerably greater activity and, indeed, comfort in life. That is only one example of the advantages of rationality. The simple but profoundly beneficial activity of going to bed early enough and getting up early enough can make you much more alert, active, happy, and healthy. Why do so many people not do that every night? I think the reason is, at least in part, that we literally cannot imagine—not without help or creative effort—what that better life would be like. We are stuck in our own moment, and it seems all right to us.

In short, the requirements of a rational human life seem unreasonably "strict" only because we lack the imagination to consider a better sort of life.

Consider (b) now. Pain, and especially discomfort, are not all that awful. They are an important part of life, and if you attempt to avoid all pain, you ultimately invite even more. There is nothing particularly degrading about discomfort. Especially if it is unavoidable, and if working or fighting or playing through it results in some great achievement, then doing so can even be heroic. I’m not meaning to suggest that pain for its own sake is somehow desirable. It isn’t, of course. But being able to put up with discomfort in order to achieve something worthwhile is part of the virtue of courage.

2. It is irrational to use social media.

I want to be fair. So if I'm going to examine whether indulgence in social media is rational or not, I'll begin with some purported advantages and see how solid they are.

Social media seems to benefit the careers of a few people. This seems true of people with a lot of followers; but my guess is that most people with a lot of followers already have successful careers, which is why they have a lot of followers. (Models on Instagram and popular video makers on YouTube might be an exception, in that they can make their career via the platform itself.) People with fewer than, say, 10,000 Twitter followers don't really reach enough people to have a very interesting platform. I have about 3,000 Twitter followers, and I've deliberately kept my Facebook numbers smaller just because I use Facebook in a more personal way. Frankly, my career doesn't seem to be helped all that much by my presence on social media. Besides, that's not why I do it.

My Everipedia colleagues might be a little upset with me that I won't be sharing Everipedia stuff on Twitter and Facebook anymore (which I won't--because I know that even that little bit would pull me back in). But I can assure them that I'll get more substantive and impactful work done as a result of all the time freed up from social media. I will continue to use communication platforms like Telegram and Messenger, by the way, and Reddit, in the Everipedia group, will also be OK. I'll also keep using LinkedIn to connect to people for work purposes. But Quora and Medium are out. Those are too much like blogging anyway. My time is better spent writing here on this blog, or for publication, if I'm going to do long-form writing.

Social media also seems to be a way for us to make a political impact. We can talk back against our political opponents. We can share propaganda for our side. Now this, I was surprised to learn, does seem to have some effect in my case. I've heard from one person that she actually became a libertarian mostly because of my posts on Facebook. (I could hardly believe it.) Others say they love my posts, and I think I do probably move the needle some miniscule distance in the direction of Truth and Goodness. But I'm only writing to a few hundred people on Facebook, at most. My reach on Twitter is larger, but I almost certainly do not persuade anyone 280 characters at a time.

This isn't to say that, in the aggregate, social media doesn't have a great deal of impact on society. It clearly does. But I think its total impact is negative, not positive. Perhaps the way I use it is positive, although I doubt it. I am more given to long-form comments than most people on Facebook and Twitter. I like to think that my comments model good reasoning and other intellectual virtues. But are they my best? Hell no. Does my influence matter, on the whole? Of course not. I am participating in a system that does, on my account and on most people's, lower the level of discourse.

On balance, I'm not proud of the political impact of my social media participation. I don't think many of us, if any, have the right to be proud of theirs.

Social media is kind of fun. Sure, it's fun to butt heads with clueless adversaries and get an endorphin boost from likes and other evidence of public visibility. But political debate is more frustrating than interesting, and the endorphin boosts are meaningless artifacts of how the system is designed. Nobody really thinks otherwise, and yet we do it anyway. It's pathetically, absurdly irrational.

Facebook keeps me in touch with my friends and family. Admittedly, there is very little downside to this one. I frankly love hearing from old high school friends that otherwise I might not hear from for years. Facebook keeps me a little closer to my extended family. That's a great thing. A common response to this is that the quality of our interactions is much worse than it would have been otherwise. But if I'm going to be honest with myself, I just don't see this. I mean, Facebook lets me see remarks from my funny and nice old friends from high school, and I probably wouldn't talk to them at all if it weren't for Facebook (sorry, friends, but I think you understand! There isn't enough time in the day to keep up with all the friends I've ever made in my life!). There's no downside there. And no, I don't think it makes my relationship with my family any worse. I think it makes it a little better.

So what about the disadvantages of social media?

We are driven by algorithms. Facebook, Twitter, and the rest carefully design algorithms that highlight the posts our friends make to fit their purposes, which are not ours. The whole system has been designed by psychologists to hook us to participate as much as we can, which it frequently does.

Social media companies spy on us. And they make it easier for other companies, organizations, and (most concerning to me) potentially repressive governments to do so. And by participating, we endorse that behavior. That seems extremely irrational.

Social media companies have started to openly censor their political opponents. And again, if you participate, you're endorsing that behavior. Continuing to participate under those circumstances is irrational for conservatives and libertarians.

I sometimes get kind of addicted. I go through phases where I use social media a lot, and that can be a pretty awful waste of time, at least when I have many other things I should be doing. This is the main reason I think the right strategies are "cold turkey" and "you won't see me again"--like it or not. In short, I want to minimize temptation.

We indulge in petty debates that are beneath us. This bothers me. I don't like dignifying disgusting propaganda with a response, but I seem not to be able to restrain myself when I come across it in my feeds. Often, a proper response would require an essay; but I'd be writing an essay in response to an idiotic meme (say), which is kind of pathetic. I'd much rather have long-form debates on my blog (or between blogs that reply to each other, as we used to do).

It takes time away from more serious writing. I can write for publication. So why should I waste my time writing long Facebook posts that only a few people see? For things not quite worthy of publication, at least if I focus on my blog, I can write at a longer length and develop an argument more completely. Did you used to have a blog on which you had longer, better things to say?

So it's a waste of time, on balance. The opportunity cost is too high. I can and should be spending my time in better ways--work, programming study, helping to homeschool my boys, and doing more serious writing. That's the bottom line. Apart from keeping me in touch with family and friends on Facebook, the advantages of social media are pretty minimal, while the disadvantages are huge and growing.

Why don't I just limit my social media use to personal interactions with family and friends on Facebook, you ask? Because I don't want to take the risk of falling back into bad old habits. My friends can visit my blog and interact with me here, if they want. My family I'll call and visit every so often.

So I'm turning the page. I don't expect this to be big news for anybody. But it's going to change the way I interact online. If you want to keep seeing me online, start following my blog.

3. Can I really do this?

I suppose I've given a reasonably good analysis of why using social media is irrational. I've said similar things before, and many others have as well. And yet we keep using social media. Obviously, human beings are often not guided by rationality; much would be different in our crazy old world if we always were.

It is remarkable, though, just how much we acknowledge all the irrationalities about social media, and yet we indulge in it anyway. There's something deeply cynical about this. It can't be good for the soul.

The big question in my own mind is whether I will really be able to stay away from social media as I say I will. My use of social media is irrational, sure. But I don't pretend that the mere fact that  is, all by itself, enough to motivate me; indeed, I'm not sure who it's rational for, apart from the very few people who make a career out of it.

But I want to try. And as I said at the start of this post, it's not just about social media. It's about making my life more rational. So at the same time, I want to start eating more healthily and exercising more regularly, going to bed earlier, etc. Doing all that at once seems very ambitious. It might even seem silly and naive for me to say all this. But the insights I've reported on in part 1 above have really stuck in my mind, and they don't seem to be going away. So we'll see.


So I tried out Gab.ai

After the recent purges of Alex Jones and assorted conservatives and libertarians by Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others, I decided it really is time for me to learn more about other social networks that are more committed to free speech. I decided to try Gab.ai, hoping against hope that it wouldn't prove to be quite as racist as it is reputed to be.

See, while I love freedom of speech and will strongly defend the right of free speech—sure, even of racists and Nazis, even of Antifa and Communists—I don't want to hang out in a community dominated by actual open racists and Nazis. How boring.

So I went to the website, and, well, Gab.ai certainly does have a lot of people who are at least pretending to be Nazis. I never would have guessed there were that many Nazis online.

To support my impression, I posted a poll:

 Are you OK with all the open racism and anti-Semitism on Gab.ai? 57% Yes. 37% I tolerate it. 6% Makes me want to leave.

Wow! 1,368 votes! I sure hit a nerve with Gab.ai. But the results, well, they were disappointing: 57% of self-selected poll answerers on the web poll said they were OK with open racism on Gab.ai, 37% tolerated it, and it made 6% of them want to leave. But I was told by several people that I should have added another option: "That's what the Mute button is for."

There's another reason I've spent this much time exploring the site. It's that I really doubt there are that many actual Nazis on the site. Consider for a moment:

  1. The Establishment is increasingly desperate to silence dissenting voices.
  2. Gab.ai and some other alternative media sites have been getting more popular.
  3. Silicon Valley executives know the fate of MySpace and Yahoo: it's possible for giants to be replaced. Users are fickle.
  4. Like progressives, most conservatives aren't actually racist, and they will be put off by communities dominated by open, in-your-face racists.
  5. There's a midterm election coming up and people spending untold millions to influence social media, since that, we are now told, is where it's at.

Considering all that, it stands to reason that lots of left-wing trolls are being paid (or happily volunteer; but no doubt many are paid) to flood Gab.ai and make appallingly racist, fascist, anti-Semitic accounts. Of course they are; it's an obvious strategy. The only question is how many—i.e., what percentage of the Gab.ai users—consist of such faux racists.

Such trolls aside, there are at least two broad categories of people on Gab.ai. In one category there are the bona fide racists, Nazis, anti-Semites, and other such miscreants, and in the other category there is everyone else—mostly conservatives, libertarians, and Trump voters who do things like share videos of (black conservative) Candace Owens and shill for Trump (I voted for Gary Johnson, and I've always been bored by political hackery). The latter category of user mutes those of the former category, apparently.

So, feeling desperate for an alternative to Twitter, I spent a few hours today on the site, mostly muting racists, and a bit of getting introduced to some people who assured me that most of the people on the site were decent and non-racist, and that what you had to do was—especially in the beginning—spend a lot of time doing just what I was doing, muting racists.

Boy, are there a lot of racists (or maybe faux racists) there to mute. I still haven't gotten to the end of them.

But I'm not giving up on Gab.ai, not yet. Maybe it'll change, or my experience will get better. A lot of people there assured me that it would. I love that it's as committed to free speech as it is, and I wouldn't want to censor all those racists and Nazis just as I wouldn't want to censor Antifa and Communists. Keep America weird, I say!

If it's not Gab.ai, I do think some other network will rise. Two others I need to spend more time on are Steemit.com, a blockchain blogging website, similar to Medium and closely associated with EOS and Block.one, and Mastodon.social, which is sort of a cross between Twitter and Facebook. Steemit has become pretty popular (more so than Gab.ai), while Mastodon has unfortunately been struggling. I also want to spend more time on BitChute, a growing and reasonably popular YouTube competitor.


Is it time to move from social media to blogs?

This began as a Twitter thread.

I've finally put my finger on a thing that annoys me—probably, all of us—about social media. When we check in on our friends and colleagues and what they're sharing, we are constantly bombarded with simplistic attacks on our core beliefs, especially political beliefs. "This cannot stand," we say. So we respond. But it's impossible to respond in the brief and fast-paced media of Twitter and Facebook without being simplistic or glib. So the cycle of simplistic glibness never stops.

There are propagandists (and social media people...but I repeat myself) who love and thrive on this simplicity. Their messages are more plausible and easier to get upset about when stated simply and briefly. They love that. That's a feature, not a bug (they think)!

I feel like telling Tweeps and FB friends "Be more reasonable!" and "Use your brain!" and "Chill!" But again—everything seems sooooo important, because our core beliefs are under attack. How can most people be expected to be calm and reasonable? People who take high standards of politeness and methodology seriously naturally feel like quitting. But social media has become important for socializing, PR, career advancement, and (let's face it) the joy of partisanship. "I can't quit you!" we moan. But, to quote a different movie, this aggression will not stand, man. Our betters at Twitter and Facebook agree, and so they have decided to force the worst actors to play nice. But they can't be trusted to identify "the worst actors" fairly. They're choosing the winners.

What's the solution for those of us who care about truth, nuance, and decency—and free speech? I don't know, but I have an idea. Rather than letting Facebook and Twitter (and their creeping censorship) control things, I'm going to try putting content updates on my blog. I'll still use Twitter and Facebook for Everipedia announcements and talk, and I'll link to blog updates from both places. But you'll have to visit my blog to actually read my more personal content. Anyway, I'm going to give that a try.


EU copyright reform could threaten wiki encyclopedias

If we are to believe its critics, under the pending EU copyright reform legislation, the EU would implement a "link tax" across all of Europe. So if you link to a news article, for example, including a text snippet, then you'd have to pay a fee. When Spain tried this, Google News simply discontinued service in the country—that didn't go over too well.

Maybe worse, the new law would require websites that engage the public to set up review processes to proactively remove violations of copyright rules. Those of us who have designed and used collaborative and participatory websites (that'd be most of you reading this) can well understand the difficulty here: it mandates a review process. It would be against the law to follow the publish-then-filter principle that is at the core of open source and open content projects. This could be disastrous for those projects—including, of course, Everipedia and Wikipedia. Let me explain.

The current regulatory regime in the U.S. is defined to a great extent by the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), which enables websites to declare themselves to be Internet service providers who are not directly responsible for what their users post. If they receive a "takedown request" from someone whose rights are violated—for example, someone whose copyrighted work is reproduced without permission—they must simply take the work down promptly, and the problem goes away. And of course, the DMCA has no requirements whatsoever regarding hyperlinks. (Why on earth would it?)

But under the new EU regime, the Internet wouldn't work that way. You'd have to pay to link to news articles—that would have made Infobitt impossible (among many more). And whenever you designed a form allowing a user to upload information for public consumption, you'd also have to design a whole system enabling the information to be checked for copyright infringement before being posted. Web developers naturally find both ideas absolutely ridiculous, not only because of the expense and technical difficulty, but also because it would interfere with and potentially ruin the social dynamics that make the sites work properly.

Of course, Internet giants like Facebook and Twitter might be able to satisfy the requirements of the law, but so many smaller projects would not. And while Everipedia's new blockchain review process might satisfy the review mechanism requirement (see our white paper), it seems impossible that the literally millions of links from our articles could be paid for—if, as seems likely, they would have to be under the new regime. (Any link to content that is under 20 years old would have to be paid for.)

Wikipedia never would have been able to get a start under this regime. Nor would any small, independent startup. Only giant corporations would be able to satisfy the law's requirements.

But then, maybe that's the point.


Infobitt's Future, and Mine

I've just posted the following announcement to the big Infobitt mailing list.

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Friends,

I have some unfortunate news. While I don’t wish to give up on Infobitt, we have run out of money. I’ve let the programmers go, and I’m looking for a job myself. But I'll still be contributing, and I hope you will too.

Before I say anything else, let me say thank you to the investors, my advisers (especially Terrence Yang), and especially the contributors. Thanks also to Vivy Chao, who has written the daily updates very well; Tim Chambers, who provided the awesome audio editions; and Ben Rogers, our technical adviser. And, of course, the readers!

Infobitt deserves to be rescued. It’s got an active, committed community, it’s an awesome idea, it works quite well at a small scale, and I'm confident it can be made to work at a large scale. So we’re very much open to new opportunities for Infobitt. Maybe you can help? I’ll explain how below.

Contents of this mail:

• If you keep at it, so will I
• What’s the core problem?
• Why I'm still excited about Infobitt
• What does Infobitt need?
• Potential partners
• How it can happen
• If not Infobitt: gigs I’d like to consider
• Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
• Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool

Please do continue contributing to Infobitt!

If you keep at it, so will I.

If you continue to support Infobitt by writing bitts, adding facts, and so on, then I will too. I do hope that in the next few weeks or months, we’ll re-emerge, re-invigorated, with a new configuration of people who can really make things happen fast.

What’s the core problem?

1. Why don’t we do a proper launch? Because the software works OK only at a small scale. It desperately needs certain features if we are to benefit from the massive traffic we’d get after a proper launch. If we launched now, we simply wouldn’t be able to absorb the new arrivals. (That’s what happened after my Reddit AMA.)

2. So why don’t we just code up the features we need? Because our outsourced software is buggy, complicated, and lacks automated tests, all of which means it’s hard to maintain, and would become more so as we add more (badly needed—see below) features.

3. So why don’t we just raise the money? Because we’re out of money, which makes fundraising very hard. Besides, we need an active, productive team to raise money, and at this point it’s just me, a sole founder.

4. So why don’t I get some co-founders? Yes, just my thinking...read on.

Why I'm still excited about Infobitt:

• Unlike every other news startup I know of, we are actively, daily creating a purely volunteer, Wikipedia-like front page news site. Infobitt works as no other crowdsourced news startup does. It's been working, in its current version, for about a year now—really working, even if our traffic numbers are still small. That can change (see below).

• People are still working on it, and not just a few, but over 25 every week, and that's on an obscure project that still hasn't been properly launched and is rarely discussed in the media. Regularly, I see old hands getting excited again and new people getting into it. We are onto something.

• I absolutely love your loyalty and I don't forget the people who have helped my projects. You are the lifeblood of Infobitt.

• I've seen evidence of deeper support for Infobitt from outside our active community. There are people waiting in the wings, waiting for the software to get better, waiting to be able to share their work, waiting for it to get easier (e.g., a browser plugin to add facts by selecting text on a page and pressing a button to add to Infobitt), etc.

• When I work more on it, you do. If I were enabled to work full time just on growing the community—if I had the time to write 10 bitts per day, comment and add facts, do more tweeting and blogging, and especially if we were launched and I could do interviews about it, then the community would grow like gangbusters.

What does Infobitt need? So...why aren't we there yet?

• We need a better API. (Our automatically-created Python/Django API lacks many features, although it works.)
• Then we need apps (which use the API). (But a high school kid has actually made one based on our existing API, but it’s not released yet.)
• We need to add some insanely obvious features:

• Fact editing!
• View counts!
• Choose a bitt's rank from within the bitt!
• Social sharing!
• FB/Twitter login.
• Email notices.
• Automatic newsletters.
• Tags/categories.
• Browser plugin to start/expand bitts quickly.
• We've also got serious bugs to fix.
• Any one of these would inject new life into the project. All of them would make this a popular and growing website, I think.

• Then, we need to be properly launched.
• We've got to make the software faster and more resilient for when high traffic arrives.
• I’ve got to start doing interviews. But first we need to be positioned to benefit.

To be brutally honest, I never should have tried to start a startup as a sole founder. I need others on board as partners, who are passionately committed to our mission and to making it a success. I'm doing too many jobs at once, when my forte, what I need to be focused on, is community and project development.

Potential partners. I assume that many of Infobitt’s best potential partners will be reading this, or will know people who are reading this—and you can forward this mail to them. Here is what we need:

• Awesome engineers: Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL. Solid sysadmin type skills, including experience on AWS, would be most welcome. Somebody who can improve our API so people can make full-featured apps around our (open content) data. Maybe more exciting would be somebody who is inspired (and, of course, positioned) to write Infobitt from scratch, in a more reliable form.

• Designers. (But we need engineers on board first, to be able to use design work.)

• Maybe eventually one or two community people to help me.

How it can happen. Here are some categories of people or organizations who might be interested in joining me and helping to turn Infobitt around:

• Remarkable individuals, especially those are free to work for equity or who might want to buy into the company. Especially awesome engineers who are on top of Python/Django, Javascript/Angular, PostgreSQL, sysadmin, AWS.

• Existing startups, or idle startup teams, that want to pivot to Infobitt, who are interested in working with me. Again, free to work for equity or who want to buy into the company.

• Big nonprofits or fast-moving universities (ha ha). Theoretically, we could become nonprofit, open source, and open content. This would probably make it easier for Infobitt to succeed, assuming the project funding were adequate, but Infobitt's investors obviously would like to make money.

• An investor that wants to buy Infobitt, build a team, and will hire me (with significant equity) and assign me to work on it.

Such people (or entities) would have to buy a major stake in the company and, presumably, hire me as an employee. I’m cool with that.

As far as I'm concerned, everything is on the table. I’ll be interested in anything that has a reasonable chance of making Infobitt a success.

Other gigs I’d like to consider

If nobody bites on Infobitt, here are some opportunities that would intrigue me:

• Full-time worker on somebody else’s startup. Community leader, project manager, or you tell me. I’d prefer to work from home most of the time.

• Adviser. For the right sort of project, I can help a lot. I’m an endless fount of ideas and very useful critical feedback.

• Writer/analyst/advocate. About education, homeschooling, very early reading, the Internet, rescuing the Enlightenment, philosophy, etc. (from a libertarian, rationalist perspective, if relevant). I’m also a practiced public speaker. I’m interested in working for a nonprofit advocacy group.

I'd be excited to execute either of a couple ideas I've had:

Idea 1: write Philosophy for Children and create a complete set of free philosophy videos for kids to go with it
I started writing an intro to philosophy for elementary students, a chapter book, back in 2012. Here’s the first chapter. I’d love to finish it quickly, and use the text to make the world’s first complete set of videos about philosophy for kids approximately 5-10 years old. Here’s the first video. It would take about three months for me to finish if I work on it full time.

Thing is, to support this project, I need at least $17,500. I’d love to do this and make the next generation a bit more hip to the liberal arts and the Enlightenment. I started designing a Kickstarter about this, but I haven't finished it.

Idea 2: making educational videos for little kids—a free online preschool
Are you a philanthropist? Want a high-impact way to support online education for kids everywhere? Pay me me to make 2-3 videos per day like these. Most of those 24 videos got over 10,000 views after a few years, and my top ten have over 50,000 views apiece (with one at 750K). They’re easy for me to make, I’m good at it, and I love to do it. Also, my 4-year-old will beta-test for free! I envision a library of thousands of videos like these...think of it as an awesome free online preschool. By the way, if you want to pay me per video, to make sure I don’t waste your money, let’s do it!

Please continue contributing to Infobitt!

All the best,
Larry


4 Reasons the World Needs Infobitt

This week, Infobitt will welcome thousands of new members (people waitlisted following my Reddit AMA). So, in the coming days, I'll be sharing a different reason why the world desperately needs Infobitt.

Reason #1. We have a right to edit the news. We have a voice in government—we also deserve a role in the Fourth Estate, one we don't currently enjoy. We desperately need a way to make our voices heard about how the news is prioritized and presented.

There's no reason for journalists to be the sole or primary deciders of what we all should know.

Journalists—and I say this with respect for my several friends who are journalists—are experts at some important functions:

• Knowing where and how to find the most important stories of the day.
• Writing quickly and yet readably.
• Forming trusting relationships with newsmakers.
• Summing up the basic facts about a complex situation fairly accurately from scratch (this looks easy but is extremely difficult, and journalists are a whole lot better at it than most of us would be, if we tried).

Journalists serve a crucial and deservedly respected function in society. But they're not any better than other reasonably intelligent, well-informed people at:

• Forming a wise judgment about what the most important stories of the day are.
• Understanding what the hell is going on (there are great reporters who are experts in some things, but most of them aren't anything like experts on what they normally report about).
• Telling you what to think about the news.
• Avoiding bias and corruption in articulating the news.

As reporters of basic and important news, journalists serve an absolutely crucial role in society. But as news presenters and editors, journalists enjoy certain roles that also properly belong to us—to "we, the people."

Simply having reported on some parts of the news doesn't give a journalist an expert perspective on the whole of the news. There's no such thing as an expert perspective on something so vast—"the whole of the news." NBC anchor Brian Williams (just for example) is no better a picker of the top stories than any reasonably intelligent, well-informed person presented with the same breadth of stories. And the idiosyncratic judgment of Mr. Williams and his producers is certainly not better than the average of all of our choices.

Deciding which stories matter and deserve to be placed first is a deeply political one. That decision does not deserve to be made by elites handing down the truth to us lowly plebeians. Top journalists in particular are very powerful: they shape how society thinks about what's going on. They can drive political agendas, boost politicians, make and break reputations, foster revolutions, affect economies, even change our personal habits. And they have important relationships with some of the most powerful people, governments, and corporations on earth.

Only a few journalists are the big decision-makers who determine which stories to highlight and which to tank, of course. But rank-and-file journalists also make important decisions, too—about what facts deserve to be placed in the headline and first paragraph of a story, and which deserve to be buried or ignored altogether.

Before the Internet, it was simply impossible to give us all a seat at the table when it came to ranking news stories and facts within stories. But now it is possible. Infobitt gives you precisely that ability: to rank stories and to rank facts within stories. We're empowering people with editorial functions that they have never had before. The result is a readable, interesting, genuine, and a really useful summary of the news.

Just think: what happens when many thousands, or even millions, of us go to work on it?

So that's one reason to get busy on Infobitt. You're both exercising your own right to occupy the Fourth Estate and supporting the rights of others to do the same.

What do you think? Do "we, the people" have a right to occupy the Fourth Estate? Should we help determine what order stories appear in, how the facts are represented, and what order facts should go in?

Or should we leave these crucial functions to the professionals?

Please return tomorrow for reason #2. For more blogging about the project, please see the manifesto.