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.


If you want government censorship through the back door, advocate for social media regulation

Last week, Facebook permanently blocked the accounts of a motley assortment of conservatives, libertarians, and anti-Semites. This set the Internet, especially the free speech loving parts of the Internet, in an uproar. (That would include me.)

It's a trap!

Conservatives, who normally cheer for deregulation, demanded the government start regulating social media. This includes two that Facebook booted. Alex Jones predictably and literally screamed for it (no, really; I looked in on the InfoWars website, which still exists, and there he was, screaming for regulation), while Paul Joseph Watson asked, "When are we going see any kind of sensible kind of regulations or laws to stop this?"

We might see them faster than you'd think. Social media critic and free speech liberal Tim Pool is very enthused about a couple of laws in California and in Texas that would indeed make “social media censorship illegal.” They were introduced earlier this year, February in California and last month in Texas.

So, if you're in favor of free speech, that's a good thing, right? Not so fast.

Among those who have
been calling for regulation of Facebook is someone you might not
expect: Mark Zuckerberg.

No, this isn’t a joke. I’m perfectly serious. I wasn't even surprised by the news when it came out last month. If you know enough about giant corporations and the giant bureaucracies that regulate them, you aren't surprised, either. Last month, I went on at great length explaining why it was a bad idea. (I encourage you to read that piece.)

If you call for a law that “guarantees” that Facebook not ban people for political reasons, your public servants will not stop there, and they might not do that at all. They will inevitably create a new three-letter agency, which we, also inevitably, will soon call words with four letters. Its purview will not be “stop Facebook from banning Republicans for political reasons.” Governments rarely pass legislation aimed at individual corporations, and rarely do they limit themselves to such narrow purposes as "stop banning Republicans for political reasons." No, its purview will, soon enough, be “to regulate Internet content for fairness” or something equally broad.

If you're conservative, think about that being implemented by the state of California. If you're liberal, think how Texas will implement it. Or, if you're from either side, think about the risks inherent in a federal Internet content regulator.

We must not let this horse out of the barn. It would be potentially disastrous.

A federal Internet content regulator (the phrase is chilling) will doubtless be staffed by former “moderation” executives from Facebook and Twitter, as well as academics who specialize in Internet policy (almost 100% left-wing) and lawyers who specialize in Internet law (ditto).

Approximately half of the laws passed for this agency, at the federal level, will be passed by the Democratic Party; in California, 100% of them will be. Surely well over half of the language of any federal regulations will be crafted by Democratic bureaucrats.

Think about all those bright, progressive Internet activists, the ones who call for Facebook to shut down "hate speech" under its ever-expanding definition. Where do you think they will want to go to work, to make a difference in the world?

And Democrats: imagine what damage the agency might do if staffed by Trump appointees. You often complain about Trump's attacks on free speech. Imagine if a Trumpist appointee were responsible for a newly-empowered bureaucracy that picks winners and losers whenever someone complains that somebody else should (or should not) be banned.

Still, don’t be surprised if the Democratic-controlled House passes an “Internet fairness” bill with a half-hearted protest at best. The California bill made it through several votes and readings in committee with no protests at all; and remember, California has a supermajority of Democrats. Some of them might eventually put on a show of resistance, but the votes will not be hard to find. Sure, sure, they’ll say to each other: we’ll make the Internet fair. (Seriously, the Republican who proposed this bill must be an idiot.) The Texas bill got push-back from Democrats—doubtless because they knew they wouldn't be operating the regulatory apparatus—but still passed 18-12. Votes were almost perfectly along party lines. That is very telling: both California Democrats and Texas Republicans are fine with trying to be Facebook's referee, presumably because it empowers them to regulate political speech. And what if they make different calls? Surely the federal government will have to step in.

So suppose a federal measure is passed. Once that horse has left the barn, Democrats will very reasonably suggest sensible, pragmatic regulations that prevent disinformation, fascism, bullying, Russian meddling, and other Bad Things. Who could oppose such eminently reasonable regulations?

After all, if the Republicans pass this law to prevent themselves from being banned, Democrats will expect something in return. What, you thought this body of law will forevermore be stamped “Republican” if Trump signs it? Not likely. That’s not how it works. You must expect the other side to tweak whatever you pass; that’s what happened to Obamacare, to take the most obvious example.

Look, this situation perfectly illustrates why we have an enormous government today. There's a problem; both sides agree that the government oughta do something about it; so laws are passed, and refined, and a body of regulations and agencies to write and enforce them are created, and grown, and funded.

Do you really think that, in the end, our speech will be freer? Take the long view. The chances are basically zero.

You know
I’m right. Don’t be a fool. Think this through.

There’s
another reason to oppose Internet regulations: they require
expert lawyers and engineers on staff to
guarantee compliance. This will substantially increase the difficulty
of making a website, which, having once been possible for kids to
create in their basements or dorm rooms, will be out
of their reach. As with businesses of old, it will be possible to
start one only with substantial capital.

Oh, sure—for a while, the rules might be applied only to websites over a certain size. But you know how it goes: regulatory agencies will expand their scope. The usual suspects will spot “loopholes” in the laws that permit “unregulated and abusive” smaller websites.

"Oh, but that won't happen," you say, "because we're proposing a law that will make free speech stronger!" No. Haven't we learned this yet? Your intentions for a new type of law will not determine the shape of that area of law in the long run. Government takes on a life of its own. The only question we need ask ourselves is: "Do we want to 'go there' at all?"

The answer is no, we don't. You are proposing a law that empowers government drones to supervise censorship by corporations and make it "fair," effectively controlling content, and making it official who may and who may not participate in the public square, and under what circumstances. You know what that sounds like to me? A censor.

This is a terrible idea. It will have precisely the opposite effect to the one you want it to have. That's why Zuckerberg is now encouraging more regulation and was perfectly happy to work with Angela Merkle four years ago, which became the NetzDG law. Regulating social media is precisely what the would-be censors, similar to the German ones, have proposed in the U.K.

Those are the horror stories free speech defenders tell their children. And you are rushing madly in the same direction because you think you can control the government. Well, good luck with that.


A Free Speech Credo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkNSRPDu5ak

I. Free speech is nothing if not offensive.

  1. Free speech just is the right to say offensive things.
  2. Popular, safe speech needs no protection; only unpopular, unsafe speech does.
  3. Free speech needs protection precisely because and to the extent that it bothers, annoys, dismays, infuriates, emotionally wounds—and, yes, offends—other people.
  4. You have the right to offend me, and I have the right to offend you.
  5. I find attacks on free speech deeply offensive.
  6. You have a free speech right to attack the right to free speech.
  7. To oppose free speech is to favor censorship.

II. What free speech is not.

  1. Free speech extends well beyond the First Amendment.
  2. Free speech is a moral right that should be protected by legal rights in all countries on earth.
  3. You do not gain more free speech if you are given a louder megaphone, a larger podium, a bigger audience; but you lose free speech if such things are seized from you by an authority.
  4. It is incoherent to suggest that you win "more" free speech for yourself by silencing your ideological foes.
  5. Free speech never was equivalent to some fair quantity of speech; it was always about whether or not you were being silenced by some authorities.
  6. The appalling ignorance spewed about free speech in the last few decades demonstrates how important it is that we teach philosophy, logic, and especially American civics (or the civics of liberal, open societies) in schools.
  7. Those who do know the issues behind free speech—professors, lawyers, philosophers, historians, journalists—must step up to teach and correct about free speech, or this principle will be lost.
  8. Defending important principles of democracy, like free speech, demands courage.
  9. Citizens of a free republic, perhaps especially intellectual and well-spoken citizens, have a positive obligation to exercise that courage.

III. The politics of free speech.

  1. A generation ago, free speech was not just another liberal cause—it was one of the most essential and defining of liberal causes.
  2. A person who is not a free speech absolutist does not deserve to be called a "liberal."
  3. The Old Censorship that liberals railed against in the 1960s—conservative demands for censorship of both obscenity and far left propaganda—is moribund.
  4. For several decades, until very recently, free speech was a cause that united American liberals and conservatives.
  5. There is a New Censorship on the left as well as, to an extent, the right.
  6. The New Censors are governments eager to rein in hate speech; some Silicon Valley corporate executives and their employees; some university administrators, professors, and student agitators; and those journalists and activists who agitate for more.
  7. The New Censors are dominant in most of the centers of power—they are leaders in today's Establishment.
  8. The New Censorship is, especially in its rapid rise, quite new and genuinely alarming.
  9. The attack on free speech has become so striking and dismaying to some liberals that some have gotten into the business of denying that an attack exists; but this is wishful thinking.
  10. Former defenders of free speech are contemptibly hypocritical or cowardly not to stand against the new censorship.
  11. That goes double for academics.
  12. Academics not willing to give a full-throated defense of free speech on campus betray academic freedom—freedom of inquiry.
  13. Campus speakers who take views offensive to the left now need police protection; some campuses require the speakers to pay protection fees.
  14. Political speeches safely delivered on campus in the past were more shocking and "offensive" than speeches shouted down today—the standards have changed.
  15. Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Apple, Patreon, and a few others have more real-world power and influence than many U.N. members.
  16. Moral panic about trumped-up charges of bigotry is being used to justify not just censorship, but political censorship—the worst kind.
  17. It is now a well-established fact that the Internet giants are intolerant of certain political speech.
  18. Much of the speech controversially censored by Silicon Valley, campus authorities, and governments has an important political aspect.

IV. Hate speech must be protected despite its offensiveness.

  1. Most people who want to protect hate speech also happen to abhor hate speech.
  2. People want to protect hate speech not because they approve of it, but because they have a much greater horror of censorship.
  3. The New Censors often pretend not to understand the difference between defending free speech and approving hate speech. They deserve to be excoriated on this essential point.
  4. There is no First Amendment exception for "hate speech."
  5. The essential problem about a "hate speech" exception to free speech is that the phrase is irreparably vague.
  6. There are no widely-agreed standards of "hate speech"; there is little agreement on what constitutes "hate speech."
  7. A great deal of what now passes for "hate speech" is, in fact, merely political speech that somebody else hates.
  8. It is morally wrongit is outrageous—to censor political speech.
  9. Sometimes, the "hate" in "hate speech" is most accurately understood as a feeling not of the speaker, but of the person damning the speech.
  10. The best short definition of "hate speech" in this dishonest sense is: speech that enfuriates the Establishment, i.e., our would-be censors.
  11. "Hate speech" used to be restricted to speech clearly motivated by bigotry against race, religion, or sexual orientation.
  12. You must defend, without hesitation, the freedom to utter hate speech—even speech that is outrageously bigoted—or you have abandoned free speech as a civil right.
  13. Until very recently, this was the position of the ACLU and of liberals generally. Many still believe this.
  14. It is absurd to suggest that anyone who defends free speech is ipso facto bigoted, racist, or—ironically—fascist.
  15. The actual fascists of history did a great deal of censorship.
  16. The irony is that censorship, rejection of free speech, and indeed thought control are essential to the totalitarian mindset—an irony lost on certain uneducated and miseducated youth.
  17. We could still return to more enlightened standards of free speech, having realized the enormity of error in this abandonment of principle.
  18. Many well-intentioned social movements, once considered "progressive," have deservedly died out; the New Censorship, like Prohibition and Eugenics, should be one of them.

V. To abandon free speech is to confer arbitrary power.

  1. As people have different values and emotional make-ups, people are capable of hating and being offended by many things.
  2. Historically, people have found different religions, philosophy, cultures, races, research, and even language—even art and music—to be deeply offensive, malevolent, and, yes, hateful.
  3. Permitting censorship based on disagreements overs facts and aesthetics empowers the authorities to determine facts and aesthetics.
  4. Similarly, permitting censorship of political discourse empowers the authorities to determine who wields political power.
  5. Once the authorities gain the power to mold our thoughts, they will not easily give up that power.
  6. Once they gain sufficient power to censor, authorities always grimly impose their values and their vision of reality by force.
  7. The values of the powerful, the elite, the Establishment, are guaranteed to change; they always have; and how often have they been 100% correct?
  8. Therefore, if you are worried about right-wing censorship, you should also be worried about left-wing censorship.

VI. Censorship violates our right to autonomy.

  1. Those who are most eager to take away your right to free speech want to impose their own beliefs on you.
  2. Censors are would-be thought controllers.
  3. If you want to be in control of your own thoughts—your own values, religion, philosophy, aesthetic, etc.—you must support free speech.
  4. Censors are worthy of the deep contempt of the free citizens of an open, truly diverse republic.
  5. No one—absolutely no one—can be trusted to wield the power to determine what millions or billions of people shall believe.
  6. I value the right to think my own thoughts.
  7. The thought controllers are utterly convinced that they know best and that others are wrong.
  8. "Why is there a need to think your own thoughts?" the heretics are told. "The truth is known. If you deny it, you are anathema, a heretic, an enemy of the people, a traitor to the state."
  9. The New Censors insist that their concerns are merely pragmatic, obvious, and eminently reasonable; but that is what most censors have said.
  10. All censorious regimes have in common a furious hatred of the free-thinker, rejection of the individual, hatred of the outsider—the stern demand that we subject our minds to that of a controlling group.
  11. You cannot support censorship without ultimately wanting to impose an entire thought-world.
  12. Indeed, the most passionate new censors today are entirely convinced of their own thoughtworld, indeed they want to impose it on the rest of us, and indeed they have the deepest contempt for those who differ from them, even slightly.
  13. It might be hard for some citizens of an established, old democracy to understand, but thought controllers throughout history have had contempt for the dignity of most people.
  14. Respect for the diversity of individual minds absolutely requires free speech.
  15. This standardizing, collectivizing, controlling impulse is inherently dehumanizing.
  16. We will inevitably lose the habit of thinking and speaking for ourselves, of fearing being ourselves.
  17. Our very dignity rests in our being responsible for our own thoughts.


I hereby license this document under the Creative Commons nc-by-sa 2.0 license. Please feel free to circulate copies, as long as you don't profit from them and you use my name (and note any changes you happen to make, such as additions and deletions).


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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 make it official. The details are uninteresting; anybody could do that part.

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

  • 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 rankings were above 10,000, and while that isn't a total deal-breaker, I didn't want my email host to quit on me, which would be a pain.


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 imagine: 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.


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.