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My theory is that people have a hard time keeping away from Facebook because Facebook scratches a certain kind of online socialization itch. Well, since I'm leaving Facebook on #DeletionDay (Feb. 18), I reasoned, I should provide another outlet for that socialization behavior. But I wanted to be in control, and I didn't want anybody's privacy violated (especially mine). So I made a mailing list! I actually installed it myself, on my own bought-and-paid-for Internet space, and you're all welcome to my party/salon/hoedown.

UPDATE: If you tried but failed to subscribe, because you didn't get a confirmation mail, will you please try again? The sanger.io domain is now properly authenticated, so mails from it should now go to your inbox rather than spam folder. (Of course, still check the spam folder if it doesn't come to your inbox.)


Why I quit Quora and Medium for good

It's not a temporary rage-quit; I've deleted both accounts. I have zero followers, no content, and no username. I'm outta there.

This is going to be more interesting than it sounds, I promise.

When I first joined Quora in 2011, I loved it, with a few small reservations. Then, after some run-ins with what I regarded as unreasonable moderation, I started to dislike it; I even temporarily quit in 2015. Then the events of 2018 gave me a new perspective on social media in general. I re-evaluated Quora again, and found it wanting. So I deleted my account today, for good. All my followers and articles are gone.

I went through a similar process with Medium two weeks ago.

Why? Glad you asked.

Digital sharecropping

Until maybe 2012 or so, if you had asked me, I would have said that I am a confirmed and fairly strict open source/open content/open data guy, and the idea of people happily developing content, without a financial or ownership stake, to benefit a for-profit enterprise had always bothered me. It bothered me in 2000 when Jimmy Wales said the job he hired me for—to start a new encyclopedia—would involve asking volunteers to developed free content hosted by a for-profit company (Bomis). I was happy when, in 2003, the Bomis principals gave Wikipedia to a non-profit.

(Ironically, not to mention stupidly, in 2011 Jimmy Wales tried to blame me for Bomis' original for-profit, ad-based business model. Unfortunately for his lie, I was able to find evidence that, in fact, it had been his idea.)

In 2006, technology journalist Nicholas Carr coined the phrase "digital sharecropping", saying that "Web 2.0,"

by putting the means of production into the hands of the masses but withholding from those same masses any ownership over the product of their work, provides an incredibly efficient mechanism to harvest the economic value of the free labor provided by the very many and concentrate it into the hands of the very few.

This bothers me. I'm a libertarian and I support capitalism, but the moral recommendability of building a business on the shoulders of well-meaning volunteers and people merely looking to socialize online struck me, as it did Carr, as very questionable. I even remember writing an old blog post (can't find it anymore) in which I argued, only half-seriously, that this practice is really indefensible, particularly if users don't have a governance stake.

The moral recommendability of building a business on the shoulders of well-meaning volunteers and people merely looking to socialize online struck me as very questionable.

The rise of social media, and joining Quora and Medium

By 2010, despite having been an active Internet user for over 15 years, my perspective started changing. I didn't really begrudge Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube their profits anymore. The old argument that they are providing a useful service that deserves compensation—while still a bit questionable to me—made some sense. As to the rather obvious privacy worries, at that stage they were mainly just worries. Sure, I knew (as we all did) that we were trusting Facebook with relatively sensitive data. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. (That sure changed.)

If you were plugged in back then, you regularly joined new communities that seemed interesting and happening. Quora was one; I joined it in 2011. It struck me as a somewhat modernized version of the old discussion communities we had in the 1990s—Usenet and mailing lists—but, in some ways, even better. There was very lightweight moderation, which actually seemed to work. A few years later I joined Medium, and as with Quora, I don't think I ever heard from their moderators in the first few years. If I did, I was willing to admit that maybe I had put a toe over the line.

Within a few days, Quora actually posted a question for me to answer: "What does Larry Sanger think about Quora?" Here is my answer in full (which I've deleted from Quora along with all my other answers):

Uhh...I didn't ask this.  It's a bit like fishing for compliments, eh Quora team? But that's OK, I am happy to compliment Quora on making a very interesting, engaging website.

Quora is pretty interesting. It appeals to me because there are a lot of people here earnestly reflecting--this I think must be partly due to good habits started by the first participants, but also because the question + multiple competing answers that mostly do not respond to each other means there is more opportunity for straightforward reflection and less for the usual bickering that happens in most Internet communities.

A long time ago (I'm sure one could find this online somewhere, if one looked hard enough) I was musing that it's odd that mailing lists are not used in more ways than they are. It seemed to me that one could use mailing list software to play all sorts of "conversation games," and I didn't know why people didn't set up different sorts of rule systems for different kinds of games.

What impresses me about Quora is that it seems to be a completely new species of conversation game.  Perhaps it's not entirely new, because it's somewhat similar to Yahoo! Answers, but there aren't as many yahoos on Quora, for whatever reason, and other differences are important.  Quora's model simply works better.  Quora users care about quality, and being deep, and Yahoo! Answerers generally do not.  I wonder why that is.

But unlike Yahoo! Answers, Quora doesn't seem to be used very much for getting factual information. Quora users are more interested in opinionizing about broad, often philosophical questions, which I find charming and refreshing. But for this reason, it's not really a competitor of Wikipedia or Yahoo! Answers (or Citizendium...). It's competing with forums.

I think it needs some more organizational tools, tools that make it less likely that good questions and answers aren't simply forgotten or lost track of. Or maybe there already are such tools and I don't know about them.

As I re-read this, some points have taken on a new meaning. I chalked up Quora's failure to provide more robust search tools to it being at a relatively early stage (it was started in two years earlier by a former Facebook CTO), and the ordinary sort of founder stubbornness, in which the founders have a vision of how a web app should work, and as a result don't give the people what they actually want. I see now that they had already started to execute a new approach to running a website that I just didn't recognize at the time. It was (and is) very deliberately heavy-handed and top-down, like Facebook. They let you see what they want you to see. They try to "tailor" the user experience. And clearly, they do this not to satisfy explicit user preferences. They don't care much about user autonomy. Their aim is apparently to keep users on the site, to keep them adding content. If you choose to join, you become a part of their well-oiled, centrally managed machine.

Quora and Medium, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, make it really hard for you to use their sites on your own terms, with your own preferences. You're led by the hand and kept inside the rails. Before around 2008, nobody could imagine making a website like that. Well, they existed, but they were for children and corporations.

I could see this, of course. But all the big social media sites were the same way. I guess I tolerated what looked like an inevitable takeover of the once-decentralized Internet by a more corporate mindset. I suppose I hoped that this mindset wouldn't simply ruin things. By 2012, I was already deeply suspicious of how things were turning out.

But now it's just blindingly obvious to me that the Silicon Valley elite have ruined the Internet.

Increasingly heavy-handed and ideological "moderation"

Maybe the first or second times I heard from Quora's moderation team, I was merely annoyed, but I still respected their attempts to keep everything polite. I thought that was probably all it was. That's what moderation used to be, anyway, back when we did it in the 90s and 00s. But I noticed that Quora's moderation was done in-house. That struck me as being, well, a little funny. There was something definitely off about it. Why didn't they set some rules and set up a fair system in which the community effectively self-moderated? They obviously had decent coders and designers who could craft a good community moderation system. But they didn't...

I see now only too well that the reason was that they wanted moderation to be kept in house, and not just because it was important to get right; it was because they wanted to exert editorial control. At first, it seemed that they had business reasons for this, which I thought was OK, maybe. But as time went on and as I got more moderation notices for perfectly fair questions and polite comments, it became clear that Quora's moderation practices weren't guided merely by the desire to keep the community pleasant for a wide cross-section of contributors. They were clearly enforcing ideological conformity. This got steadily worse and worse, in my experience, until I temporarily quit Quora in 2015, and I never did contribute as much after that.

Similarly, Medium's moderators rarely if ever bothered me, until they took down a rather harsh comment I made to a pedophile who was defending pedophilia. (He was complaining about an article I wrote explaining why pedophilia is wrong. I also wrote an article about why murder is wrong.) I hadn't been sufficiently polite to the pedophile, it seems. So, with only the slenderest explanations, Medium simply removed my comment. That's what caused me to delete my Medium account.

They don't care much about user autonomy. Their aim is apparently to keep users on the site, to keep them adding content. If you choose to join, you become a part of their well-oiled, centrally managed machine.

You don't have to agree with my politics to agree that there is a problem here. My objection is not just about fairness; it's about control. It's about the audacity of a company, which is profiting from my unpaid content, also presuming to control me, and often without explaining their rather stupid decisions. It's also not about the necessity of moderation. I've been a moderator many times in the last 25 years, and frankly, Internet communities suck if they don't have some sort of moderation mechanism. But when they start moderating in what seems to be an arbitrary and ideological way, when it's done in-house in a wholly opaque way, that's just not right. Bad moderation used to kill groups. People would leave badly-moderated groups in droves.

Lack of intellectual diversity in the community

Being on the web and not artificially restricted by nationality, Quora and Medium do, of course, a global user base. But they are single communities. And they're huge; they're both in the top 250. So whatever answer most users vote up (as filtered by Quora's secret and ever-changing sorting algorithm), and whoever is most popular with other Quora voters, tends to be shown higher.

Unsurprisingly—this was plainly evident back in 2011—Quora's community is left-leaning. Medium is similar. That's because, on average, intellectual Internet writers are left-leaning. I didn't really have a problem with that, and I wouldn't still, if we hadn't gotten absolutely stunning and clear evidence in 2018 that multiple large Internet corporations openly and unashamedly use their platforms to put their thumbs on the scales. They simply can't be trusted as fair, unbiased moderators, particularly when their answer ranking algorithms and the moderation policies and practices are so opaque.

In addition, a company like Quora should notice that different cultures have totally different ways of answering life's big questions. The differences are fascinating, too. By lumping us all together, regardless of nationality, religion, politics, gender, and other features, we actually miss out on the full variety of human experience. If the Quora community's dominant views aren't copacetic to you, you'll mostly find yourself in the cold, badly represented and hard to find.

Silicon Valley, your experiment is over

Look. Quora, like Medium, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others, have been outed as shamelessly self-dealing corporations. It's gone way beyond "digital sharecropping." The problem I and many others have with these companies isn't just that they are profiting from our unpaid contributions. It's that they have become ridiculously arrogant and think they can attempt to control and restrict our user experience and our right to speak our minds under fair, reasonable, and transparent moderation systems. And while the privacy issues that Quora or Medium have aren't as profound as for Facebook, they are there, and they come from the same controlling corporate mindset.

So that's why I've quit Quora and Medium for good. I hope that also sheds more light on why I'm leaving Facebook and changing how I use Twitter.

As if to confirm me in my decision, Quora doesn't supply any tools for exporting all your answers from the site. You have to use third-party tools (I used this). And after I deleted my account (which I did just now), I noticed that my account page and all my answers were still there. The bastards force you to accept a two-week "grace period," in case you change your mind. What if I don't want them to show my content anymore, now? Too bad. You have to let them continue to earn money from your content for two more weeks.

Clearly, they aren't serving you; you're serving them.

We've been in an experiment. Many of us were willing to let Internet communities be centralized in the hands of big Silicon Valley corporations. Maybe it'll be OK, we thought. Maybe the concentration of money and power will result in some really cool new stuff that the older, more decentralized Internet couldn't deliver. Maybe they won't mess it up, and try to exert too much control, and abuse our privacy. Sure! Maybe!

The experiment was a failure. We can't trust big companies, working for their own profit, to make good decisions for large, online communities. The entire industry has earned and richly deserves our distrust and indignation.

So, back to the drawing board. Maybe we'll do better with the next, more robustly decentralized and democratic phase of the Internet: blockchain.

We'll get this right eventually, or die trying. After all, it might take a while.

We've been in an experiment. Many of us were willing to let Internet communities be centralized in the hands of big Silicon Valley corporations. Maybe it'll be OK, we thought. ...

The experiment was a failure.


A plea for protocols

The antidote to the abuses of big tech is the very thing that gave birth to the Internet itself: decentralized, neutral technical protocols.

  1. The thought that inspires
    my work.
    Ever since I started
    work on Nupedia and then Wikipedia, a thought has always
    inspired me: just imagine the stunning possibilities when people
    come together as individuals to share their knowledge, to create
    something much greater than any of them could achieve individually.

  2. The sharing economy. There
    is a general phrase describing this sort of laudable activity: the
    “sharing economy.” The motivations and rewards are different
    when we work to benefit everyone indiscriminately. It worked well
    when Linux and OSS were first developed; then it worked just as well
    with Wikipedia.

  3. The Internet itself is an
    instance of the sharing economy.
    The Internet—its ease of
    communication and publishing together with its decentralized
    nature—is precisely what has made this possible. The Internet is a
    decentralized network of people working together freely, for mutual
    benefit.

  4. The Internet giants have
    abused the sharing economy.
    About ten years ago, this all
    started to change. More and more our sharing behavior has been
    diverted into massive private networks, like Facebook, Twitter, and
    YouTube, that have exerted control and treated contributors as the
    product.

  5. Facebook’s contempt for
    our privacy.
    All you want to do is easily share a picture with
    your family. At first, we thought Facebook’s handling of our
    private data would just be the price we had pay for a really
    powerful and useful service. But over and over, Facebook has shown
    utter contempt for our privacy, and it has recently started
    censoring more and more groups based on their viewpoints. We don’t
    know where this will end.

  6. This aggression will not
    stand, man
    . We need to learn from the success of
    decentralized projects like Linux, open source software, Wikipedia,
    and the neutral technical protocols that define the Internet itself,
    that we don’t have to subject
    ourselves to the tender mercies of the Internet giants.

  7. How.
    How? Just
    think. The Internet is made up of a network of computers that work
    according to communication rules that they have all agreed on. These
    communication rules are called protocols and
    standards.

  8. Protocols
    and standards...
    There
    are protocols and standards
    for transferring
    and displaying
    web pages, for email, for transferring files, and for all the many
    different technologies
    involved.

  9. ...which
    are
    neutral.These
    different standards are neutral. They explicitly don’t care what
    sort of content they carry, and they don’t benefit any person or
    group over another.

  10. We need more
    knowledge-sharing protocols.
    So here’s the thought I want to
    leave you with. You evidently support knowledge sharing, since
    you’re giving people awards for it. Knowledge sharing is so easy
    online precisely because of those neutral technical protocols.
    So—why don’t we invent many, many more neutral Internet
    protocols for the sharing of knowledge?

  11. Blockchain is awesome
    because it creates new technical protocols.
    Probably the biggest
    reason people are excited about blockchain is that it is a
    technology and a movement that gets rid of the need of the Internet
    giants. Blockchain is basically a technology that enables us to
    invent lots and lots of different protocols, for pretty much
    everything.

  12. Why
    not Twitter- and Facebook-like protocols?
    There
    can, and should, be a protocol for
    tweeting without Twitter.
    Why should we have to rely on one company and one website when we
    want to broadcast short messages to the world? That should be
    possible without
    Twitter. Similarly, when we want to share various other tidbits of
    personal information, we should be able to agree on a protocol to
    share
    that ourselves, under our
    own terms—without
    Facebook.

  13. Wikipedia centralizes,
    too.
    Although Wikipedia is an example of decentralized editing,
    it is still centralized in an important way. If you want to
    contribute to the world’s biggest collection of encyclopedia
    articles, you have no choice but to collaborate with, and negotiate
    with, Wikipedians. What if you can single-handedly write a better
    article than Wikipedia’s? Wikipedia offers you no way to get your
    work in front of its readers.

  14. Everipedia,
    an encyclopedia protocol.
    Again,
    there should be a neutral encyclopedia protocol,
    one that allows us to add
    encyclopedia articles
    to a shared database that its creators own and develop, just like
    the Internet itself. That’s why I’m working on Everipedia, which
    is building a blockchain encyclopedia.

This is a little speech I gave to the Rotary Club of Pasadena, in the beautiful Pasadena University Club, January 31, 2019.


How to stop using social media

Updated January 28, 2019.

It's no longer a matter of whether—it's a matter of how.

It's sad, but for social media addicts, quitting seems to require a strategy. By now, some of us who have tried and failed know that it is simply unrealistic to say, "I'm going to quit social media," and then just do it. There are reasons we got into it and why it exerts its pull. We must come to grips with those reasons and see what—if anything—we can do to mitigate them.

Why we participate in social media, and why we shouldn't

We participate in social media because we love it; but we want to quit, because we also hate it.

Why we love social media

  1. Social visibility. Active users of social media want social visibility. We want to be understood. We want to be connected with others who understand us, respect us, or like us.
  2. Staying plugged in. So much of social and political life seems to have moved onto social media, we simply won't know what's going on if we quit.
  3. Political influence. Unless we have entirely given up on political participation, we want to "have a voice," to play the game of politics.
  4. Ambition and narcissism. Quite apart from 1 and 2, we are drawn to platforms particularly like Twitter and LinkedIn because we think these accounts will advance our careers. We follow and are followed by Important People, we stay in touch with them. This is where valuable connections and deals can be made.
  5. Staying connected to family and friends. Golly, your family and friends are on Facebook. You really do have fun with them. How could you give it up, even if you wanted to? You don't want to miss out, of course.

We've tasted the forbidden fruit. We surely aren't giving up the clear advantages that social media offer. That ain't gonna happen.

The fear of missing out—that lies at the root of all five reasons. If you leave any of the networks, you just won't be seen. It'll be like you're invisible. If you leave Twitter, you won't really know what's going on in the world's most influential news and opinion network, and you will be leaving the field wide open to your political enemies. If you leave Twitter and LinkedIn, your career might take a blow; how could you possibly justify just giving up all those followers you worked so hard to get? And if you leave Facebook, you might be cutting yourself off from your family and friends—how could you do such a thing?

So, look. We've tasted the forbidden fruit. We surely aren't giving up the clear advantages that social media offer. That ain't gonna happen.

And yet, and yet. There are reasons we should stop participating in the current configuration of social media. I've written at some length in this blog about those reasons, as follows.

Why we hate social media:

  • We're giving up our privacy and autonomy: By leaving the management of our online social presence in the hands of giant, privacy-disrespecting corporations, our information, even our digital lives, becomes theirs to sell, manipulate, and destroy. We must trust them with the security of our data, which is thrown in with that of billions of others. We must endure the indignities of their control, and the various little ways in which we lose our autonomy because we are part of a giant, well-oiled machine that they run. This is dehumanizing.
  • We're irrationally wasting time: Like most mass-produced, mass-marketed entertainment, social media is mostly crap. Too many of us are basically addicted to it; our continued participation, at least the way we have been doing so, is simply irrational.
  • We're complicit in the dumbing-down and radicalization of society (see also 1, 2, 3, 4). Nick Carr famously said in 2008 that Google is making us stupid. Since then, social media systems have blown up and have made us even dumber. Their key features are responsible for things like (especially) artificially shortened statements of opinion and reflection, having to take special actions to write more than one paragraph, all-or-nothing "upvoting" and "downvoting," and letting posts fall into a hard-to-search memory hole.

What a horrible conundrum. On the one hand, we have terrifically compelling reasons to join and stay connected to social media. On the other hand, doing so shows contempt for our own privacy, autonomy, and rationality, and undermines the intelligence and toleration needed to make democracy work. It is as if the heavy, compelling hand of corporate-driven collectivization is pushing us toward an increasingly totalitarian society.

So what's the solution? Is there a solution?

Non-solutions

Let's talk about a few things that aren't solutions.

You can't just quit cold turkey, not without a plan. If you've been hooked and you try, you'll probably come crawling back, as I have a few times. I'm not saying nobody has ever done so; of course they have. But so many people who say they're giving up or restricting social media do end up coming back, because the draws are tremendous, and the addicts aren't getting their fix elsewhere.

You can't expect "alt-tech" to satisfy you, either. This would include things like Gab.ai instead of Twitter or Facebook, just for example; other examples would include Voat instead of Reddit, BitChute instead of YouTube, Minds instead of Facebook, and the Mastodon network instead of Twitter. For one thing, some (not all) of the alternatives have been flooded by loud, persistent racist/fascist types, or maybe they're just people paid by the tech giants to play-act such types on those platforms. More to the point, though, such sites don't scratch the itches that Facebook and Twitter scratch. At best, they can appeal to your narcissism and provide some social visibility; but this isn't enough for most people. They're not happenin' (yet); they almost certainly won't help your career.

What about blockchain solutions? I, at least, am not satisfied to wait around for awesome crypto solutions, like Steemit, to grow large enough to challenge their main competitors (Medium, in that case). I mean, I probably will join them when more influential and widely-used decentralized platforms show up. The startup I joined a year ago, Everipedia, has plans to develop a platform for hosting a decentralized competitor of Quora. That's exciting. But I want to quit these damn networks now. I don't want to wait any longer.

Even if those are non-solutions, we do, at least, have the requirements for a solution: we want to secure the advantages of the first list above (1)‑(5) without falling prey to the disadvantages of second list (a)‑(c).

The advantages of social media—without social media?

Let's review (1)-(5). I think there may be ways to secure the advantages of privacy-stealing social media. I would really, really appreciate it if you have any other bright ideas about how to secure these advantages, because this is where the rubber meets the road; please share in the comments below.

  1. Social visibility without social media. Social visibility is probably the easiest thing to secure online. If you just want to connect with others and feel heard, there are lots of ways you can do that. So I'm not going to worry too much about that one; I think it will probably take care of itself, if the other advantages are secured.
  2. Staying plugged in without social media. Staying plugged in, too, is very easy. You can simply consume more traditional media, for one thing. Another idea is that you could create throw-away accounts on Twitter or Facebook, for example, and follow the people you were following before. As long as you, yourself, don't actually participate, then you're still more or less as plugged-in as before. But one big disadvantage of that idea is that you might be tempted to get back in because it's just so darned easy to interact with friends and family on Facebook, and to call out or refute the benighted on Twitter. But if you don't use Facebook at all, even to read, you can always stay in touch via email, especially if you use old-fashioned cc email groups or email lists, and you use it, and you manage to get your friends to use it. If you get into the habit, I think they'll get into the habit, too. It is mainly just a matter of habit.
  3. Political influence without social media. Twitter plays an almost unique role in our political discourse, and there is no way to make up the influence you'd have over that community, if you leave it. The question, however, is whether your participation on Twitter really does have that much influence. If it does, then you probably have other ways to get the word out. I have 3,000 followers, which despite being a high percentile but not especially influential. I could throw that away without much hand-wringing. After all, I could easily put in the same amount of time on my blog, or on mailing lists (i.e., listservs), or writing for publication (which I might do more of, but it's kind of a pain in the ass), and I think I might ultimately have more influence, not less. But more on this further down (you can use Twitter in a particular way that I think is OK).
  4. Ambition and narcissism without social media. I don't mean to say that narcissism is a good thing, mind you. I hope I don't much too care about securing the ability to preen more effectively in public. But I have gained a reasonable professional following on Twitter and LinkedIn, and a smaller one on Facebook (mostly because I've mostly used it for actual friends and family). When I came back from my September-October 2018 social media break, I told folks it was because of professional obligations. I thought I would Tweet less, and only about career stuff. But I wasn't serious enough. I was sucked into all the rest of it, too. I can only hope I'd be able to resist the pull. And I can support my "personal brand" (really, my professional brand) via my blog, writing for publication, and perhaps a mailing list; the latter sounds like a good idea (expect an Everipedia email discussion list!). Another idea is to post to Twitter only via some service, and never, ever replying on-site, but instead telling people to look for my replies on my blog.
  5. Staying connected to family and friends without social media. This also strikes me as being particularly easy. I know that my family and my real friends will be happy to write to me by email if I start writing to them, especially if I get into the habit of using email cc lists and maybe, again, mailing lists. We could also use other networks or sharing services that (say they) have more commitment to privacy and self-ownership.

So much for the suggestions. I haven't really discussed whether they're actually feasible qua solutions, so next I'll tackle that.

Evaluating the solutions

A lot of the solutions suggested so far might sound like "rolling back" to older technologies. There's something to that; but I'll also consider some other, privacy-respecting solutions. Besides, the older technologies are still very sound, and the newer social ones that have replaced them are obviously problematic in various ways.

Consuming more traditional media

Like many, as I started spending more time on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, I started spending less time consuming professionally-produced content. Maybe, the suggestion goes, we should just regard this as something of a mistake. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm a crowdsourcing guy at heart and I hold no brief for the merits of traditional media, especially mainstream media. But insofar as one of the purposes of social media is to clue us in to what's going on, news reports and good blogs can be used. They probably should be, too; when I started Infobitt in 2013, one thing that really struck me was how poorly informed we would be if we just looked at the stuff that came across our social media feeds. I discovered this when I helped to prepare news summaries daily. There were a lot of important news stories that we found that were not widely discussed in social media, or even in most of the mainstream media. You'll probably be better informed if you stop using social media to keep up with the news; of course, your mileage may vary.

Going back to email, cc lists, and listservs

There are many social functions that social media can do, that email and traditional email discussion lists can't, or not as easily. But many of these functions have turned out to be unimportant and not worth preserving.

  • Short public and semi-public back-and-forths. Facebook and Twitter both excel at a kind of communication that is pleasant and easy, usually banal, and rarely profound. If you're actively using these services and occasionally get into rapid-fire discussions about some controversial subject, ask yourself: Is anyone really improved by these exchanges? Again, they're fun. They're hard for me to resist, that's for sure. But when I take a step back and look at them, I have to admit that short messages might be good for marketing, but as a method of public discourse, they're an ultimately insidious and harmful. Advantage: email.
  • Registering instant support or other reaction. If you ask me, this is one of the more obnoxious features of social media, one that addicts us but for no good reason; it merely appeals to our petty egos. There's little useful information conveyed by the fact that a tweet or a post gets a lot of likes, and this also tends to make us "play to the crowd" instead of revealing our most authentic selves. Advantage: email.
  • Memes. They're possible on email, but there's more support for them on social media. They can be funny or rhetorically effective, but they're one of the things that is making us dumber and coarsening our discourse. They're better off gone. Advantage: email.
  • Sharing multimedia. It's true that pictures and especially videos are more difficult to pull off in email and even more so on listservs. Video is neat to share with friends. If I could trust Facebook, I'd be happy to share family videos with family and close friends—I've never been foolish enough to trust them that much. And email has nothing on YouTube. That's why I actually haven't shown my extended family many pictures in the last several years; regrettably, I got out of the habit of one-on-one sharing. Other (and perhaps ultimately superior) methods of sharing multimedia socially among those we trust might be necessary. Advantage: social media.

There are many social functions that social media can do, that email and traditional email discussion lists can't, or not as easily. But many of these functions have turned out to be unimportant and not worth preserving.

And here are the ways in which email, email cc lists, and listservs are perfectly fine, if not superior to social media:

  • Actually communicating personal news and opinion. The main and most important thing we do with Facebook is to share news and opinion. Email is perfect for this. It's a "push" notification in that people can't ignore it. But that pressures the sender to make sure the announcements really are important and aren't just cat pictures, or whatever. (Yes, I know some people love cat pictures. Mostly, though, they love sharing their own cat pictures.)
  • Long-form messages. As my friends know, I sometimes like to go on...and on...and on. This isn't a bad thing. Long-form text is a good thing, a necessary thing for actual intelligence. The ability to easily have our say at a length as great as we please means that those of us with more complex and voluminous thoughts on a subject won't feel we're doing something frowned-upon when we wax, er, eloquent.
  • Threading. Email (whether one-on-one, in small groups, or on a listserv) naturally comes in threads by subject. If you change the subject, you change the email subject line. Easy-peasy, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with it. As to side-threads, in a whole-group discussion, remember how we did this? We said, "Take it off-list, guys." Sometimes, we did. Sometimes, we recognized that it wasn't worth the bother. And a lot of times, those endless public exhibitions of rhetorical ping-pong really weren't worth the bother.

I'm not meaning to say that we must choose between email and social media, here. I'm saying that email (and listservs) can probably be considered a sound substitute for social media. There are other possible substitutes, too.

Blogs and traditional publishing

I've created a fair bit of value, I imagine, for Quora, Medium, Facebook, and even Twitter, with various long-form posts. I know that what I've written has given them well northwards of a million impressions over the years (I think several million), free of charge. I could have put those posts on my blog, or in some cases cleaned them up a little and submitted them to professionally published websites and magazines. Why did I end up spending so much time on Quora and Medium in particular? (By the way, as of this writing, I've saved my old Medium writings and I have deleted my Medium account. I will do the same with Quora soon.)

In the case of Quora, I joined because it looked like (and was, surely, and to some extent still is) a powerful and successful engine for extracting really interesting opinion and insight from some smart people. My problem with it is the same as the problem I've had with Medium. It's a multi-part problem. First, over the years, the platforms have grown greatly, each a single enormous global community. (Federated sub-communities a la Stack Exchange would be better.) Second, partly as a result of that, they have come to be increasingly dominated by the left. As my regular readers know, I'm a libertarian and an individualist, but all groupthink I find to be a turn-off, especially when my contrarianism is no longer tolerated. Third, the left has become increasingly censorious. I've found my sometimes prickly remarks, once accepted without comment, increasingly censored by "moderators" who rarely explain their often arbitrary-seeming decisions, unlike the more honest and polite older-style listserv moderators.

While censorship is part of the problem I have with these platforms, another part is the fact that I am writing to financially benefit people who set themselves up as my digital masters. This was acceptable to me for a while, as it has been to many of us—mostly, I suppose, because I think it might have gained me a larger and more active audience. In retrospect, however, I'm not so sure. I think that if I had simply stuck with my blog and had written as much there as on Quora and Medium, I would have ultimately had a larger and higher-quality audience.

If I have an important message that I really want to get out there, then I hope I'll try to get it traditionally published more often than I have been.

Will I ditch all social networks? What about alternative social networks?

The big exception will be Twitter; more on that in the next section.

There are some social networks I won't leave. One is Stack Overflow, the question and answer site for programmers. As far as I can tell, it really does seem to respect its audience and to be well-run. I might well be inspired to check out the other Stack Exchange sites. I'll stick around on Reddit for a while, too, at least for work-related stuff. It seems relatively OK.

Messaging services are generally OK—but that, of course, is because you're not the product. I hate Facebook, so I'll stick around on Messenger only as long as my work colleagues use it. I'll tell my friends and family to start using other services, like Slack or the awesome Telegram, if they want to message me. (Of course, good old text messaging is usually my favorite for people who have my phone number, but that's for things that demand an immediate reply.)

I certainly see no reason whatsoever to leave any of the web forums that I occasionally frequent. Web forums are still robust and have few of the problems listed here. I'll consider them over mailing lists, but I think mailing lists are a bit better for meaningful discussions.

I might well consider some alternative networks that respect privacy and practice decentralization more (I intend to study them more; see below). One is Mastodon; another is MeWe. I have great objection to such networks. The problem, as I said above, is that they don't scratch the itch. The root problem is that they don't have critical mass and I can't guarantee that my friends and acquaintances will follow me there. Email is different: everyone has it, everyone uses it.

Even quit Twitter?

After much soul-searching, I decided to keep using Twitter, but only following one strict rule about how I use it: I will not post, retweet, respond to, or like anything else, including my many pet topics, unless I'm promoting something I or a work colleague has written.

I'll just include a Twitter thread I posted:

https://twitter.com/lsanger/status/1089940575946723328

Do I merely want to roll back the clock?

Traditional media, email, listservs, and blogs: Are those really my answer to social media? Do I want to roll back the clock?

At this point, my honest answer is: Not really. I'm actually reluctant to leave social media, because what used to be called "Web 2.0" really does contain some useful inventions. The tweet is excellent for advertising and promotion. Multimedia sharing on YouTube, Facebook, and (if you use it much—I never did) Instagram is very convenient. The moderation engine on StackExchange sites is excellent. I might be able to get behind some variant on the general Facebook theme. I'm very sympathetic to some newer styles of social networks.

Centralization is what we got. That led directly to decisions that degraded our experience in the service of profits and political influence. The centralization of social media has proven to be a blind alley. It's time to turn around and find a new way forward.

It will prove to be the downfall of all of the older, soon-to-be-dying social media giants that, at root, they chose centralization over neutral protocols. They chose to concentrate power in the hands of corporate executives and bureaucracies. That is neither needed nor welcome for purposes of connecting us online; once we knew what we wanted, Internet protocols could have been invented to deliver them to us in a decentralized way. But that would have made the platforms much less profitable. Centralization is what we got. That led directly to decisions that degraded our experience in the service of profits and political influence. The centralization of social media has proven to be a blind alley. It's time to turn around and find a new way forward.

Do I want to stick with email and the rest forever? Of course not. I've had (and often proposed) all sorts of new technologies. I think we need decentralized versions of social media, in which we participate on our own terms and enjoy the benefits of ownership. That would bring me back.

But...but...but...what about...?

We've already discussed these things, but you didn't believe me the first time. Let's review:

  • What about my followers? If you have a certain number of followers on Twitter, you will probably have a following on most other services proportionate to your Twitter percentile. If you have thousands of followers on Twitter, chances are you could start an email discussion list and, particularly if you loudly announced over a period of some weeks that you are going to leave Twitter forever and delete your account on such-and-such a date, you'll get a fair number of your followers to join you on that mailing list. You might, perhaps, get them to follow you to another social network, but this is much more of a crapshoot, as far as I'm concerned. Again, everyone has email, but almost nobody is on whatever also-ran privacy-loving social network you're considering.
  • What about missing out on all the essential controversies that are going on on Twitter? Think now. How essential are they, really? Most of those conversations are merely pleasant, and frequently insipid, crappy, or vicious. You might as well wring your hands because you'll miss out of an important article in the New York Times because you don't read it cover-to-cover, or because you don't attend every professional conference in your field, or a zillion other venues. Of course you're missing out. You can't avoid missing out all sorts of things. Here's a liberating thought: you really aren't missing out on much that is really important, in the long run, if you leave Twitter (and Facebook). Your mileage may vary, but I'm pretty sure this is true for 95% of us. It's certainly true for me.
  • What if my family and friends stay on Facebook, and my work colleagues stay on Twitter, and... And what? Finish the thought. You can't, in any way that should give you pause. Share a picture? Look, you can and should start sharing pictures and videos privately. There are lots of ways (even fairly simple, automatic, and secure ways) to do that. Learn the latest gossip? Well, use email. Anyone close enough to have gossip you have any business caring about will be happy to chat one with you (and maybe an ad hoc group of your close friends) if you start it up and keep up the habit. And say something that is outrageously false and cannot stand? Well, of course you know that's just silly. There are people saying stupid things all around the Internet. Sorry, but you have no way of intervening with your righteous indignation everywhere. So, why not do it in communities that respect your privacy? Maybe ones you make yourself?
  • OK, what if they don't follow me to email or whatever? What, you're going to email your family and friends, and they know you've left Facebook, and they won't reply? Nice family and friends you have...I think mine will respond fine as long as I start the habit.

It's OK. Really. Just remember: Facebook and Twitter really, actually, sincerely do suck. You're not missing out on anything important, especially if you scratch the itches that they scratch in other ways.

So what will the next steps? Should I just, you know, delete my account?

If you, too, find yourself wanting to quit social media, maybe you'll be asking me for advice on how to do it. Well, I can't do better than tell you what my plans are. Obviously, though, your requirements are different from mine, so you should make your own damn plans.

I'm not saying I'm definitely going to do all of these, in just this order; this is more of a draft plan. The first step in every case is to figure out exactly what's going on and think it through. I'm also pretty sure that locking down my contacts is the first thing to do.

  1. Lock down my contacts. Since so much of the solution (for me) involves email, my first step will be to consolidate my email and phone contacts, putting them 100% out of the hands of Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Frankly, I've left my contacts to the tender mercies of these companies for so long that the data formats and redundancies and locations (etc.) confuse me.
  2. Email updates for family. Start regularly interacting with my family more regularly with a cc list and texts, or maybe I'll persuade them to use Telegram. Not like formal Christmas letters; more like the usual joking, self-pitying, and boastful notes we post on Facebook.
  3. Replace Facebook and Twitter conversational patterns and groups with specific email lists or maybe forums. Create some email cc lists or listservs, for friends, for cultural/philosophical allies, about Internet and programming, a replacement for the "Fans of Western Civilization" group I started, and no doubt a big list for all my acquaintances. Others as well. I'm going to look into and see if there aren't some improvements on the old ways of doing things available now. I might install some web forums, as I tried a year or two ago, but I doubt it. I don't think they'd get nearly as much use as email.
  4. Pull the trigger: delete my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I'll download all my data first, for posterity. I'll also give my Facebook friends my coordinates for the various lists (above) that might interest them. I'll leave my account up for a couple weeks, making regular announcements that I'm leaving and urging people to join my lists (or, if I use another technology, whatever that technology is).
  5. Move Medium, Quora, and maybe Facebook data to my blog. This could prove to be labor-intensive, but it'll eventually get done.
  6. Delete Medium (done) and Quora accounts. Won't be sorry to be gone from there. For me, anyway, this is a long-overdue move.

It's OK. Really. Just remember: Facebook and Twitter really, actually, sincerely do suck. You're not missing out on anything important, especially if you scratch the itches that they scratch in other ways.

When is deletion day for you?

I will actually press the delete buttons on February 18, about a month from now. I'll update this blog with specifics of how I do each task, and spam my social networks with repeated invitations to join various lists, because I'm going away, permanently this time.

I'm giving myself time because I want to talk about people about what I'm doing via social media, and try to spark a mass exodus among my friends, family, and followers. And who knows? Maybe we'll get Silicon Valley to notice, and they'll start competing to make better products, ones in which we aren't the product. If not, we're sure to benefit anyway.


How I set up private email hosting for my family

Here's how I actually set up my own private email hosting—sanger.io! I already finished choosing a private email hosting provider. So what was the next step?

I still had to choose a plan with my chosen provider (InMotion Hosting, which didn't pay me anything for this) and pay for it. The details are uninteresting; anybody could do this.

Now the hard work (such as it was) began. I...

(1) Read over the domain host's getting-started guide for email. InMotion's is here, and if you have a different host, they're bound to have some instructions as well. If you get confused, their excellent customer service department can hold your hand a lot.

(2) Created a sanger.io email address, since that's what they said to do first. In case you want to email me, my username is 'larry'. (Noice and simple, ey?) InMotion let me create an email address, and I was rather confused about how this could possibly work since I hadn't pointed any DNS, hosted by NameCheap, to InMotion.

(3) Chose one of the domain hosts's web app options. For a webmail app (InMotion gave me a choice of three), I went with Horde, which is, not surprisingly, a little bit clunky compared to Gmail, but so far not worse than ZohoMail; we'll see. Unsurprisingly, when I tried to send an email from my old gmail account to my new @sanger.io account, the latter didn't receive it. Definitely need to do some DNS work first...

(4) Pointed my domain name to the right mail server. In technical jargon, I created an MX record on my DNS host. This was surprisingly simple. I just created an MXE Record on NameCheap, my DNS host for sanger.io, and pointed it to an IP address I found on InMotion. So basically, I just found the right place to paste in the IP address, and it was done. Now I can send and receive email via sanger.io (at least via webmail).

(5) Created email addresses for my other family members. Very easy.

(6) Installed a desktop email client. Why? I wasn't using one before because I just used Gmail in a browser and Apple's mail app on my phone. I could keep using webmail (on InMotion) but a desktop client is apt to be nicer. I'd tell you which one I used, but I'm not confident it's particularly good.

(7) Installed a new email client for my phone. As I no longer trust or want to support Apple if I can at all help it, I wanted to stop using their email client. I paid $10 for a privacy-touting mail client which is quite good so far: Canary Mail.

(8) Change the mail address registered with the big, consequential apps and services. This is the most labor-intensive step, and the step I most dreaded. Sure, it was a pain. But it turns out it was tremendously satisfying to be able to tell them to stop using my wretched Gmail address and instead to start using my slick new permanent and personalized address. Was that fun? Heck yeah it was! Anyway, such apps and services include (click on the links for useful privacy tips):

  • The massive Internet and tech services: Google, Microsoft, Apple.
  • The big social media/community accounts: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Quora, Medium, LinkedIn.
  • Companies I pay money to: Amazon, Netflix, PayPal, Patreon, InMotion, GoDaddy, NameCheap, Heroku, LifeLock, The Great Courses, any other bills.
  • Important stuff: my employer, the bank, medical info systems/apps, dentist, Coinbase.
  • Family, friends, and work and business people. Send them the message three times spread over a month or two, because if they're like me, they ignore such emails or don't act on them right away, and some old aunt of mine will keep sending mail to my gmail address for years and years. (I haven't actually done this one yet, but will soon. Gmail makes exporting of all your relevant contact info surprisingly difficult.)

(9) Create a Gmail forwarder! Buh-bye, Google! No need even to visit your crappy, biased, would-be totalitarian service for email any longer.

(10) Clean up and consolidation. There are a zillion little consequences when you change your email on all these big services, and I expect I'll be dealing with the consequences (nothing major!) for a few days or weeks to come. Among the things I know I'll have to do: (a) Install and configure mail clients on my laptop and iPad, and in other ways get those other devices working as expected again. (b) Update various email clients with address book information, as needed. (c) Actually collect my contacts from Google and Apple (harder than it sounds). (d) Change entries in my password manager from @gmail.com to @sanger.io. (e) Actually, get a new password manager...but that's a whole nuther thang. (f) Get Microsoft and Google and whatever else to forget my contacts...ditto.

This was installment three in my series on how I'm locking down my cyber-life.


How I chose an email hosting service to replace Gmail

I want to lock down my cyber-life. One basic constraint is that I want to replace Gmail, and when I do so, I never want to change my email address again. My biggest concern is that I never again want to be beholden to any major Internet corporation that has shown its contempt for privacy and censorship concerns. But if I can get "the last email address I'll ever need" while I'm at it, all the better.

The natural solution is to own my own domain name and seek out email hosting. This is not as difficult as it might sound, but it isn’t as easy as registering a new Google account. But then, that is exactly what Google is counting on: your laziness.

My new address will live at the newly-registered sanger.io domain. I and my family members can have unique and easy to remember email addresses for all the rest of our lives. After purchasing sanger.io (from NameCheap), I listed a number of features I knew I wanted: reasonable price, unlimited (or more than I could reasonably need) email storage space, IMAP support, a webmail app built in to the hosting provider (or else software that they make it easy for me to install on my new domain), and finally, enough email addresses for my purposes.

I ended up weeding out a fair few on grounds that they were too expensive (e.g., ProtonMail) or didn't offer enough storage space or accounts (e.g., NameCheap). I also weeded many out because their Alexa ranking was above 10,000, and while that isn't a make-or-break deal, I didn't want to have to deal with a fly-by-night operation and maybe have to move operations again.


Private email hosting comparison (Jan. 2019)

 PriceSpace limitIMAP supportWebmail app# of addressesWeb Hosting Geeks.com ratingIncludes web hosting
BlueHost Plus$5.95/moUnlimitedYesYesUnlimited2.5Yes
InMotion Hosting$6.39/moUnlimitedYesYesUnlimited4.5Yes
Rackspace Email$2/user/mo (so for me, $6/mo)25GB/ accountYesYes1/$2 accountnot reviewedNo
Zoho$3/user/mo (so for me, $9/mo)30GB/ accountYesYes1/$3 accountnot reviewedNo

I also discovered that some competitive email hosting (in the case of BlueHost and InMotionHosting) comes packaged with shared web hosting, which would be handy. I mean, then I could finally ditch GoDaddy, which I've used since time immemorial. (I dislike their upselling and bait-and-switch tactics, and detest their clunky user interface.)

I use Zoho Mail for work, and it's quite decent, but it costs half again as much and doesn't bundle shared web hosting. RackSpace email hosting seems high-quality, but it fails by comparison with BlueHost and InMotionHosting, in that those two offer unlimited email addresses and unlimited email storage space. And between the latter two, InMotionHosting seems to be the better reviewed by WebHostingGeeks.com and in other reviews. Besides, it supports Ruby; I could host my Rails projects there.

I looked at a number of other reviews of InMotionHosting, and it does indeed look good. It also has spam protection (which I didn't think to check on at first), lots of PostgreSQL databases if I want them, and free website data migration from GoDaddy.

I understand that this is not a route that most people will take. Paying for email seems unnecessary, many people would say. And certainly most people don't need their own domain name for email, they think. But just think: you can have the same, perfectly appropriate email address for the rest of your life. And you no longer have to feel beholden to the privacy practices of an Internet giant like Google.

Look, you don't have to be an uber-geek to do this. If you can't do it yourself, and you can get a geeky friend to set this up for you—it's not that expensive, and then you'd have your own address forever.

And you'd no longer have to support the growing monster that is Google. Gmail is admittedly a pretty awesome web app, but frankly I find I haven't missed it much when using ZohoMail for work, and I don't even use the Google email client on my phone. So the slightly slicker quality of the Gmail web app really doesn't make that much difference after all.

Next: how I set up my new private email hosting.

This was the second installment in my report about how I'm locking down my cyber-life.


A Free Speech Credo

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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.


I am informed; you are misinformed; and the government should do something about this problem

Poynter, the famous journalism thinktank, has published "A guide to anti-misinformation actions around the world." This sort of thing is mostly interesting not just for the particular facts it gathers but also for the assumptions and categories it takes for granted. The word "misinformation" is thrown around, as are "hate speech" and "fake news." The European Commission, it seems, published a report on "misinformation" (the report itself says "disinformation") in order to "help the European Union figure out what to do about fake news." Not only does this trade on a ridiculously broad definition of "disinformation," it assumes that disinformation is somehow a newly pronounced or important problem, that it is the role of a supernational body (the E.U.) to figure out what to do about this problem, and that it is also the role of that body to "do something." Mind you, there might be some government "actions" that strike me as being possibly defensible; but the majority that I reviewed looked awful.

For example, look at what Italy has done:

A little more than a month before the general election, the Italian government announced Jan. 18 that it had set up an online portal where citizens could report fake news to the police.

The service, which prompts users for their email addresses, a link to the fake news and any social media networks they saw it on, ferries reports to the Polizia Postale, a unit of the state police that investigates cyber crime. The department will fact-check them and — if laws were broken — pursue legal action. At the very least, the service will draw upon official sources to deny false or misleading information.

That plan came amid a national frenzy over fake news leading into the March 4 election and suffered from the same vagueness as the ones in Brazil, Croatia and France: a lacking definition of what constitutes "fake news."

Poynter, which I think it's safe to say is an Establishment thinktank, mostly just dutifully reports on these developments. In their introduction, they do eventually (in the fourth paragraph) get around to pointing out some minor problems with these government efforts: the difficulty of defining "fake news" and, of course, that pesky free speech thing.

That different countries are suddenly engaging in press censorship is only part of the news. The other part is that Poynter, representing the journalistic Establishment, apparently does not find it greatly alarming about "governments" that are "taking action." Well, I do. Just consider the EU report's definition of "disinformation":

Disinformation as defined in this Report includes all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit.

This implies that if in the opinion of some government authority, some claim is merely false and, like most professional publishing operations it is published for profit, then it counts as disinformation. This means that (with an exception made for non-profit publishers, apparently) the E.U. considers anything false to be an item of disinformation, and thus presumably ripe for some sort of regulation or sanction.

Well, of course this sounds ridiculous, but I am just reading. It's not my fault if that's what the report says. I mean, I'm sorry, but it certainly does look as if the E.U. wants to determine what's false and to then to ban it (or something). Of course, the definition does first say that disinformation is designed to intentionally cause public harm, but anybody who reads legalistic texts needs to bear in mind that, as far as the law is concerned, the parts that come after "or" and "and" are just as important as the parts that come before. The text does say "or for profit." Is that because in the E.U., seeking profit is as suspect as intentionally causing public harm?

The difficulty about texts like this, aside from the fact that they are insufferably dull, is that they are so completely chock-full of bad writing, bad reasoning, false assumptions, and so forth, that it would take several volumes to say everything that needs saying about the E.U. report and Poynter's run-down of government actions. What about all the important issues associated with what looks like a worldwide crackdown on free speech? They have been solved, apparently.

Poynter at least has the good sense to acknowledge difficulties, as they do at the end of the discussion of Italy's regulatory scheme. The government positions are appalling, as if they were saying: "We know what fake news and disinformation and misinformation are, more or less. Sure, there's a small intellectual matter of defining them, but no big deal there. It's just a matter of deciding what needs to be done. Free speech, well, that's just another factor to be weighed."

Just imagine reading this page just twenty years ago. It would have been regarded as an implausible horrorshow. I imagine how someone might have responded to a glimpse 20 years into the future:

What are you saying--in 2018, countries all around the world will decide that it's time to start seriously cracking down on "misinformation" because it's too easy to publish false stuff online, and free speech and freedom of the press? That's ridiculous. It's one thing to get upset about "political incorrectness," but it's another thing altogether for the freedom-loving West, and especially for journalists (for crying out loud!) to so bemoan "hate speech" and "fake news" (really?) that they'll give up free speech and start calling on their governments to exert control. That's just...ridiculous. Do you think we'll forget everything we know about free speech and press freedom in 20 years?

Well, it would have been ridiculous in 1998. Twenty years later, it still should be, but apparently it isn't for so many sophisticated, morally enlightened leaders who can identify what is true and what is misinformation.

It's time to push back.