In the summer of 2016, I gave a talk at a small TEDx conference in northern Virginia. I began by admitting that I’ve never had a social-media account; I then outlined arguments for why other people should consider eliminating social media from their lives. The event organizers uploaded the video of my talk to YouTube, where it languished for a few months. Then, for unknowable reasons, it entered the viral slipstream. It was shared repeatedly on Facebook and Instagram and, eventually, viewed more than five million times. I was both pleased and chagrined by the irony of the fact that my anti-social-media talk had found such a large audience on social media.

I think of this episode as typical of the conflicted relationships many of us have with Facebook, Instagram, and other social-media platforms. On the one hand, we’ve grown wary of the so-called attention economy, which, in the name of corporate profits, exploits our psychological vulnerabilities in ways that corrode social life, diminish privacy, weaken civic cohesion, and make us vulnerable to manipulation. But we also benefit from social media and hesitate to disengage from it completely. Not long ago, I met a partner at a large law firm in Washington, D.C., who told me that she keeps Instagram on her phone because she misses her kids when she travels; browsing pictures of them makes her feel better. Meanwhile, because she also worries about her phone usage, she’s instituted a rule that requires her, before looking at Instagram, to read for at least thirty minutes. Last year, she read fifty-five books. Many of us have similar stories. Even as we dream of abandoning social media, we search for ways to redeem it.

In recent months, some of the biggest social-media companies have begun searching for this redemption, too. Facebook and Twitter, in particular, have promised various reforms. In March, Mark Zuckerberg announced a plan to move his platform toward private communication protected by end-to-end encryption; later that month, he proposed the establishment of a third-party group to set standards for acceptable content. Around the same time, Jack Dorsey brought one of Twitter’s head lawyers onto Joe Rogan’s podcast to better explain the platform’s evolving standards for banning users. Legislators are also getting involved. Elizabeth Warren shared a plan for breaking up tech giants like Facebook; others admire the European Union’s sweeping and byzantine General Data Protection Regulation, which deploys aggressive fines to coerce companies into better protecting user privacy.

All of these approaches assume that the reformation of social media will be an intricate, lengthy, and incremental process involving lawyers, Ph.D.s, and government experts. But not everyone sees it that way. Alongside these official responses, a loose collective of developers and techno-utopians that calls itself the IndieWeb has been creating another alternative. The movement’s affiliates are developing their own social-media platforms, which they say will preserve what’s good about social media while jettisoning what’s bad. They hope to rebuild social media according to principles that are less corporate and more humane.

Proponents of the IndieWeb offer a fairly straightforward analysis of our current social-media crisis. They frame it in terms of a single question: Who owns the servers? The bulk of our online activity takes places on servers owned by a small number of massive companies. Servers cost money to run. If you’re using a company’s servers without paying for the privilege, then that company must be finding other ways to “extract value” from you—and it’s that quest for large-scale value extraction, they argue, that leads directly to the crises of compromised privacy and engineered addictiveness with which we’re currently grappling.

In their view, freedom of expression is also affected by server ownership. When you confine your online activities to so-called walled-garden networks, you end up using interfaces that benefit the owners of those networks; on social media, this means that you are forced to choose among what the techno-philosopher Jaron Lanier has called “multiple-choice identities.” According to this way of thinking, sites like Facebook and Instagram encourage conformism because it makes your data easier to process and monetize. This creates the exhausting sense that you’re a worker in a data factory rather than a three-dimensional individual trying to express yourself and connect with other real people in an organic way online.

When the problem is framed this way, the solution promoted by the IndieWeb movement becomes obvious: own your own servers. On a smaller scale, this is an old idea. For the past twelve years, I’ve hosted my personal blog using a server that I lease in a Michigan data center; I’ve enjoyed knowing that I own what I post there and that no one is trying to monetize my data or exploit my attention. And yet, running a personal blog that you write yourself is quite different from running a social network. To create social platforms that work on servers owned by users rather than big corporations, the IndieWeb developers have had to solve a tricky technical problem: decentralization.

In 2017, Manton Reece, an IndieWeb developer based in Austin, Texas, launched a Kickstarter for a service called Micro.blog. On its surface, Micro.blog looks a lot like Twitter or Instagram; you can follow users and see their posts sorted into a time line, and, if you like a post, you can send a reply that everyone can see. When I checked Micro.blog’s public time line recently, the top post was a picture of a blooming dogwood tree, with the caption “Spring is coming!”

Even as it offers a familiar interface, though, everyone posting to Micro.blog does so on his or her own domain hosted on Micro.blog’s server or on their own personal server. Reece’s software acts as an aggregator, facilitating a sense of community and gathering users’ content so that it can be seen on a single screen. Users own what they write and can do whatever they want with it—including post it, simultaneously, to other competing aggregators. IndieWeb developers argue that this system—which they call POSSE, for “publish on your own site, syndicate elsewhere”—encourages competition and innovation while allowing users to vote with their feet. If Reece were to begin aggressively harvesting user data, or if another service were to start offering richer features, users could shift their attention from one aggregator to another with little effort. They wouldn’t be trapped on a platform that owns everything they’ve written and is doing everything it can to exploit their data and attention.

Mastodon, another popular IndieWeb service, exists in the middle ground between centralized and decentralized social media. Founded, in 2016, by a young programmer named Eugen Rochko, Mastodon offers an experience similar to the one available on existing social-media platforms: after setting up an account on a Mastodon server—called an “instance”—one can post and browse text and images presented in a chronological time line. What distinguishes Mastodon is that anyone can download the software and begin running their own instance. When you set up an account with Mastodon, you do so on a specific instance that becomes your home; you see the posts of others users on your home instance, and they see yours. Together, the independent instances make up a “federation.” A “federation protocol” allows independent instances to talk with each other, so that a user with an account on infosec.exchange, say—“a Mastodon instance for info/cyber-security-minded people”—can follow updates from a user on queer.party. Most Mastodon users, however, tend to focus their online interactions on a small number of instances representing communities to which they feel a strong connection.

Each Mastodon instance can set its own rules about formats, acceptable speech, privacy, and other issues. The rules of the infosec.exchange instance, for example, emphasize civility (“don’t be a jerk”), while the queer.party instance allows not-safe-for-work content. As Rochko explains on his Patreon page, this model aims to return “control of the content distribution channels to the people.”

Because most Mastodon instances are small—typically, each numbers a couple of thousand users—and crowdfunded by their members, they feel different from mass social media, with an enticing free-form energy reminiscent of the Internet’s early days. The contrast between this atmosphere and the one found on existing social networks is striking. Thanks to its cavernous scale and the dynamics of retweet-driven virality, Twitter has devolved into a place where users seem desperate for attention, shouting at influencers and competing to see whose snark is most cutting. Mastodon, at least for now, is a human-scale environment in which users are happy to chat about quirky things with other quirky people. Recently, when I logged into the Mastodon instance sunbeam.city—a “Libertarian Socialist solarpunk instance”—I found a photo of someone’s blooming spider plant next to a conversation about the consequences of ethical transparency in hierarchical systems. It struck me as the quintessential early-Internet experience.

Could the IndieWeb movement—or a streamlined, user-friendly version of it to come—succeed in redeeming the promise of social media? If we itemize the woes currently afflicting the major platforms, there’s a strong case to be made that the IndieWeb avoids them. When social-media servers aren’t controlled by a small number of massive public companies, the incentive to exploit users diminishes. The homegrown, community-oriented feel of the IndieWeb is superior to the vibe of anxious narcissism that’s degrading existing services. And, in a sense, decentralization also helps solve the problem of content moderation. One reason Mark Zuckerberg has called for the establishment of a third-party moderation organization is, presumably, that he’s realized how difficult it is to come up with a single set of guidelines capable of satisfying over a billion users; the IndieWeb would allow many different standards to emerge, trusting users to gravitate toward the ones that work for them. Decentralization still provides corners in which dark ideas can fester, but knowing that there’s a neo-Nazi Mastodon instance out there somewhere may be preferable to encountering neo-Nazis in your Twitter mentions. The Internet may work better when it’s spread out, as originally designed.

Despite its advantages, however, I suspect that the IndieWeb will not succeed in replacing existing social-media platforms at their current scale. For one thing, the IndieWeb lacks the carefully engineered addictiveness that helped fuel the rise of services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This addictiveness has kept people returning to their devices even when they know there are better uses for their time; remove the addiction, and you might lose the users.

It may be, too, that people who are uneasy about social media aren’t looking for a better version of it but are instead ready to permanently reduce the role that smartphone screens play in their lives. Many of those who flocked to social media out of a sense of exuberance or experimentation are now losing interest. Some are people my age, who signed up for services like Facebook in college but now have families and responsibilities in their real-world communities and find the obligation to like posts or comment on photos increasingly superfluous. Others are older people who tried social media later in life, when it seemed like the thing to do, but now doubt that it’s worth the effort. Increasing numbers of teen-agers are rejecting the ceaseless pressure for digital performance; in March, Edison Research released a report claiming that young people made up the largest share of the fifteen million users Facebook has lost since 2017. To be sixteen and offline has become countercultural.

At the end of my TEDx talk, I note that people often ask me what life is like without social media. By way of an answer, I project a photograph of a bench overlooking a quiet pastoral landscape. As a technology enthusiast, I’m a believer in the IndieWeb movement and think it will play an important role in the future of the Internet. For the exhausted majority of social-media users, however, the appeal of the proverbial quiet bench might outweigh the lure of a better Facebook. In this vision of the future, there will be many more social-media platforms but far fewer people spending significant time on any of them. Social media has reshaped our culture, and this has convinced us that it is fundamentally appealing. Strip away its most manipulative elements, though, and we may find that it’s less rewarding than it seems.

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