What’s in a name?

I have been wondering recently if the name of this blog, Social Thoughts, is still relevant or valid.

When talking about 'social' in the context of the web we are normally referring to social networks - the mainstream players like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram - but I haven't been writing about them very much lately.

But then I remind myself that being social on the web is far more than engaging on these networks or silos.

Being social online predates the web, just go back to bulletin boards where people came together in one place because of a mutual interest or purpose, communicating and sharing over impossibly slow dial-up connections.

Then we had forums and chat providing a multitude of ways for people to connect. They were actually the social networks of their day - predominantly enclosed "spaces" with specific rules and access requirements.

And then came blogging.

Eli took my framing of the subject to be that "the indieweb is more social network-y than the big-name social networks because those are each self contained" - and outside them the network is more, perhaps, genuine. Maybe he's right.

Maybe it's just that the openness grants us certain affordances that the more self-contained networks never could.

But what of social thoughts?

Originally this was just meant to mean my thoughts on social - simple and clean. Over time, however, it has taken on a new dimension.

Our thoughts are our most private of things; in internet parlance they are like the posts of a single member in their own silo - inaccessible to others.

A lot of them we wouldn't want to share, and rightly so, but it's no fun only playing in your own sandbox, and we are inherently social animals. We want some of our thoughts and ideas out there, we want them exposed to an audience.

And that's where social comes in.

Just look at the etymology of the word: social is derived from the Latin socialis and socius meaning ally, friend, companion. By sharing our thoughts we are seeking discourse with our intellectual allies, those with similar beliefs and ideals, those who can appreciate or build on them.

We seek to become part of something, whether as the seed or the gardener, looking to grow our thoughts and ideas into something useful, meaningful.

So, while I may not frequently write about, or now even engage on, social networks I am being inherently and deliberately social.

The name still applies, albeit in a different way.

What’s in a name?

Ownership and control: how much do we really have?Comments

The ideals behind the #indieweb and, to an extent, Micro.blog are about ownership and control: you own your content, not the network, not the platform, not a silo.

But let me play devil's advocate for a moment.

I wrote back in 2010 that the real social currency is relationships. Not likes, not retweets, not the number of followers but the actual relationships we have with them.

It is the relationships between people, relationships between us and our interests, relationships between data points and their intersections.

Big data.

The value of a social platform lies within its graphs, social and interest, the connections between its users, what they like and how that relates to others. Trends, patterns, spikes, correlations - everything that makes the data useful.

Who owns what?

What do we mean by ownership? Do we associate it with having control over our data or just mean having a copy of everything we post should the services we use disappear?

If it's the former we are deluding ourselves.

Even though we may hold the original version of our posts or photos, and even hold the keys to our base online identity, how much control do we actually have?

As soon as we pass our data to platforms or silos, as soon as we express our interests and connect with others we are handing control of so much more than our posts to those platforms.

Ownership extends far beyond the items themselves to the relationships and data points surrounding them as there is no way for us to own that.

Should we also be asking how much of this we need to own?

Do we need to hold every post, or reply? Is there really value in retaining everything? Or, is it merely our vanity?

Control

We claim to be taking back control from the silos but, if we cross-post in the name of distribution, they still have the power to mine our data (of which we freely hand them a copy) and use it for their own ends.

Unless we keep all our data within a silo of our own we will never have full ownership and total control but that flies in the face of the interactivity the indieweb movement tries to promote.

Ownership and control: how much do we really have?

The duality of microbloggingComments

Further to the points I made in "Self-hosted microblogging - where does it fit?" I've been having more thoughts on how best to use Micro.blog and fit it into my own online ecosystem.

As I carry my microposts on my own blog I opted not to use the two free months hosting reward from the Kickstarter campaign - although that is still an option I could exercise later - it was the different approach of being self-hosted that really interested me more than just the social networking side.

There is a duality to the service between hosted accounts and self-hosted that impacts what I do psychologically and introduces a second, virtual duality.

There are two approaches to data publishing and use as discussed on the #indieweb site:

  • POSSE, Post (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere
  • PESOS, Post Elsewhere, Syndicate (on your) own site

The self-hosted side of Micro.blog takes items from your own site and publishes them to the network (POSSE) but using the iOS app makes it feel like a PESOS environment where you post to the network and it then feeds back to your own site.

There is an element of cognitive dissonance and takes a bit of getting used to.

The actual process is that the iOS app posts to your site using XMLRPC or micropub (depending on the type of site) which then pings the Micro.blog servers letting them know a new post is available. Micro.blog then pulls in that new post via your sites RSS feed.

Except for replies - which are held solely on the server (at least for now) which I feel is right, having written:

"Webmentions may provide reply notification to your blog but the conversation itself is purely, and should be, a social construct thanks to the context of its creation."

Holding back

Another duality exists in the nature of microblog posts which comes back to where you post influencing what you post.

Using the app with full view of the timeline is more likely to encourage social or conversational entries as opposed to posting off-network. It's an interesting challenge to maintain consistency even though everything is effectively coming from your own property.

For someone who backed the service and is, therefore, a de facto beta tester I'm not posting anywhere near as much as I could or should be.

I find myself resisting the urge to post so as not to have platitudes or socially oriented posts fed back to the blog. Context, in this regard, has a lot to answer for!

It's very much in my head and I need to either get over it or come up with a way around it.

I could just accept that I won't be posting directly to the service very much or separate the microblog from the long form posts. I like the juxtaposition of different post types, however, so think removing them from the main flow would be a loss.

It's going to take some time to settle on a compromise.

The duality of microblogging

Pioneer spiritComments

I used to be an early adopter, I was among the first to put my name down for anything.

I joined Twitter early before hardly anyone even knew what it was, or what it could be. I signed up for every clone that came after and virtually every other service that appeared.

I have long abandoned social accounts strewn all across the web because I just had to be there and try "the new thing." Some accounts I've closed but most I've forgotten so, if the service survives, they exist as little forgotten pieces of a fragmented social identity.

Bragging rights

I was a beta tester for anything I could get my hands on, a total geek veering into nerd territory.

I used to think that being at the forefront was an adventure, an opportunity to see and shape the future but, much of the time, it was for the wrong reasons. I wanted to be first to be cool, for bragging rights.

The realisation that I didn't need to be this person, combined with a period of consolidation and stagnation on the social web, meant that I stopped diving headlong into things.

A few products seemed exciting but weren't really sticky for me and the dominance of the major players, gathering data into their silos, meant any new players didn't really stand a chance.

App.net was an attempt at breaking the control of the big social companies but, while it was a very solid product and had massive potential, seemed to come from the wrong place. It was born out of bitterness and resentment of how Twitter had treated the developer community.

It was incredibly capable but became synonymous with its proof of concept app Alpha - an ad free Twitter clone. Most couldn't see beyond this and its closure was, sadly, inevitable.

Is it time?

Now, micro.blog has got me excited again. It takes us back to the roots of the open web, to good old fashioned RSS and hosting our own content.

The pioneer spirit of the old web feels like it's making a comeback.

There may be a frustration at the status quo and the dominance (and long term uncertainty) of the major platforms, but micro.blog strikes me as a genuine attempt to build something that improves and simplifies short form web publishing whilst leaving control in the hands of authors.

Why should it survive when so many others have failed?

Although micro.blog will act like Twitter - there will be an app with a timeline where you follow others, reply and favourite posts - it is not just a social network but an extension of our existing blogs.

Control and ownership are paramount.

Against a backdrop of online abuse and fake news there is a real sea change, a rising swell of distrust. Algorithms are everywhere with their inherent biases and, although they promise to show you more of what you like, it is becoming harder than ever to see what you want.

Compromise

We have traded privacy for convenience but are always going to be on the losing side of that deal while networks rely on advertising and lock-in to survive. Everything on the social web is about compromise.

Medium's recent move may be a step in the right direction but, with a general reluctance to pay for content, there is no guarantee of a new business model succeeding.

App.net may have come too soon, maybe the web wasn't ready, or the environment that spawned it may have been too toxic for it to flourish.

But attitudes are changing. Perhaps the time is right for a new approach and something like micro.blog can succeed.

Things feel different now.

Pioneer spirit

Is federated microblogging about to become a reality?

Way back in 2008 Dave Winer wrote "Microblogging should be decentralized" arguing that reliance on a single, for profit platform such as Twitter was a bad idea.

Admittedly, this was against the backdrop of the fail whale but the idea of a federated service seemed sound - the catch would be that Twitter would have to enable it and build the required tools (or allow developers to build them and we all know how that went!)

In 2011 I wrote a post arguing that calls for a federated network were probably unrealistic but I just stumbled across a Kickstarter project that may have changed my mind.

Micro.blog

Manton Reece, a developer and podcaster, is writing a book called "Indie Microblogging" but also developing a new service called, unsurprisingly, micro.blog using RSS to deliver updates.

Micro.blog will be a combination of a paid platform to host microblogs (no advertising here) and a social network allowing you to follow updates from others, reply etc. It will also be open allowing you to connect your own blog rather than relying on the centralised hosting.

Twitter clones and alternatives have come and gone but this is something I would really like to see succeed so I've backed it on Kickstarter.

Why not check it out.

Is federated microblogging about to become a reality?

Social isn’t over, it just grew up

A couple of months ago it was reported that Facebook users were undertaking less "original sharing" - that is: personal updates as opposed to third party content. Facebook sees this as a big problem because it changes the very nature of the service.

Roll forward to the beginning of May and Mike Elgan authored a piece at Computerworld entitled "I'm calling it: social networking is over" in which he said:

And just like that, social networking is no more. The sites formerly known as social networks are pivoting to something else.

I said in a tweet at the time:

According to The Verge, Facebook is testing a new way of posting to help counter this which appears on the New Feed only and does not remain on your timeline. This new post type is intended to increase personal sharing and the article argues that it works more like a tweet, being more short-lived, as it falls off the bottom of the News Feed quickly.

Tweets, however, remain on your personal timeline so, in that regard, News Feed only posts are better although they can still be found by search. Still, I doubt that this will increase personal sharing to any great degree, if at all.

Public to private

There is no doubt that we have seen a shift from public networks to more ephemeral services and messaging based platforms such as SnapChat and WhatsApp.

With over 1.6 billion users, 1 billion of whom are active on a monthly basis, you can hardly argue that Facebook is "over" but the company recognised early that the nature of social sharing was changing - this is not a new thing. The $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp may have seemed crazy at the time but has shown itself to be a most prescient move.

Combined with Facebook's own Messenger platform, WhatsApp has accelerated the move away from public updates which is obviously a worry for Facebook - hence the new post type. The network has always been predicated upon existing relationships but if these relationships are being taken private then the whole house of cards starts to look very shaky.

If personal updates are removed from the core product (by its users) Facebook is left with a more Twitteresque reliance on news and current events, but it it not set up to be this kind of network.

Scale and scope

Elgan contradicts himself: on the one hand, as mentioned above, he states "social networks are pivoting to something else" but also says that, with the exception of Facebook, none of the others were ever really social networks to begin with.

During the social explosion that was Web 2.0 social functionality was stapled on to everything in the hope of capitalising on the apparent "user created content" gold rush, but when a dominant player (Facebook) appears to have won it is not surprising to see them refocus on their core purpose.

The social explosion was just as much a psychological phenomenon as a functional one. Social was a novelty, largely unseen by the real world. The arrival of mass broadcast media was a novelty and the default position became "share everything" - each tiny nuance and facet no matter how banal or potentially embarrassing. As social grew more mainstream, however, the realisation kicked in that the consequences of your online actions were just as real, especially when tied to your identity.

The days of reckless abandon are over.

Elgan is right: there is a behavioural shift, just not in the way he describes. People have not stopped being social, it's just that their engagement is shrinking in scope from global broadcasts to targeted conversations with specific groups.

The actual scale of social is bigger than ever.

What is social?

Elgan distinguishes between social networking and social media as personal content versus professional content but I would challenge his definitions. He asserts people haven't realised that social networking is in decline as they equate the two.

Not so.

I would, instead, revert to the more straightforward definitions below:

  • social networking - the physical act
  • social media - the places we do it

We don't need to make it any more complicated than that.

In the beginning, how much personal sharing was considered pointless or trite? How many saw social networking as rubbish because it was filled with rubbish? You can't have your cake and Instagram it.

What if we make it even simpler by looking at the definition of social; a quick search returns:

  1. relating to society or its organisation
  2. needing companionship and, therefore, best suited to living in communities

We have an even more coherent, and perhaps relevant, definition from Miriam Webster:

relating to or involving activities in which people spend time talking to each other or doing enjoyable things with each other.

We actually have two separate definitions of social in play simultaneously, and Elgan is really just lamenting the move from one to another. The act of being social has not gone away, it has just moved, shifted.

With the emphasis moving from personal updates to news, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter (yes, I'm still calling Twitter a social network here) are now fulfilling a role that better reflects that first definition of social: relating to society.

Social networking has matured, platforms and behaviours have changed, but it is still as alive as ever. It is positively thriving.

It just grew up!

Social isn’t over, it just grew up