It's Wednesday, 4 October 2023, and I've typed for a long time today. Today is over four thousand words but I swear it shouldn't be hard.
Here you go: a case study in a thing that caught my attention, what it connected to, and being exposed to my thinking out loud.
I was thinking about what you could learn from the food industry (and FMCG, I guess) in terms of branding "good" or "healthy" things.
(As with most things, I blurted this thinking-out-loud as a post on Mastodon first2, so thank you to everyone who replied and joined in on the conversation.)
I'm just talking about the branding and comms aspects here -- and yes, I'm aware that branding is also what you do, not just how you communicate.
So. Assuming you developed a non-shitty, non-enshittified app or service that you wanted to have mass appeal, how might you go about describing it?
First, examples of terms I think don't fit, because they feel too technical:
And then some comparisons in an effort to explore equivalents, or attributes that might map to the same space or meaning:
Some of the suggestions I liked the most were:
(I still have a chip on my shoulder about humane and lots of opinions about the Center for Humane Technology, though. I feel sad about that word. Also, calm has been claimed)
A problem here is that many of these words were co-opted by companies that were, well, plain lying. Apps that claim intimacy and privacy were found not to actually follow through on those descriptors, never mind in many cases just doing the exact opposite, their users perhaps even being described as "stupid fucks". But again, whomst among us has not ever described someone as a stupid fuck?!
One of the words that really stuck with me from the list above though was personal. Without testing it, I wonder if it has more to do with my nostalgia for an earlier age of computing what with its immediate association with 80s and 90s personal computing and personal software, never mind being tied to a phase of my childhood and teens.
Are today's apps personal? I think the majority aren't. They may serve personal needs, as in "as a person, I want to x so that I can y", but do they act in a personal way? Which I suppose means are they discreet? Can they be trusted? Are they honest?
The difficulty with the environment that we're in at the moment is that privacy preservation can only go so far. At the end of the day, data can be subpoenaed, and if you're in a hostile state, you're, well, in a hostile state. It is very hard to win against a hostile state, not impossible, but it involves doing things differently, in ways that will be less convenient and take more time.
Health tracking software like tracking periods is clearly intimate and personal. But we've seen that many aren't discreet. Many of them can be compelled by force of law, much in the same way that a personal, handwritten diary could be searched for, and yes, both could be encrypted.
And what would wise apps look like? This also feels like nostalgia (wise comes with trusted, and so on -- and as an aside, this exactly the kind of time that being able to search language embeddings would be useful, but again, a byproduct of AI research, not intelligent, artificial or not). A wise app would demonstrate the benefit of experience in design, appearance, communication, behavior. A wise app might not, say, implement the rollout of a new design instance by instance, rather than across an entire app at the same time. You know who I'm talking about.
What would natural mean, or free-range? For some reason, free-range brings to mind somewhat the opposite: of software that's got the space to operate, but that space is bounded, strict delineations of privacy. Enclosed, perhaps? But again, that's not a particularly accessible term, I think.
What's the natural state of software? At this point I might argue that natural software is software uncontaminated by enshittification, so by association we might also mean software uncontaminated by the ad-surveillance complex. Natural software doesn't try to take over an entire market, natural software doesn't attempt, tooth and claw, OKR and presentation deck, to create and preserve a monopoly, or even monopolies.
I suppose from natural it's a little step toward healthy. Lots of things to think about.
I've been thinking about something Katie Dreke posted on LinkedIn the other day about the original promise of the internet. Dreke relayed a phrase that came up in conversation with Ian Fitzpatrick, describing "an artifact from a friendlier internet".9
Fitzpatrick was talking about BERG's Little Printer10, which is now 11 years old. Here's some words attempting to describe and mark out the Little Printer, er, vibe:
(Cosy is funny, because a while back I imagined early 90s print ads for Data TinyHouse, a rebranding of Simon Willison's Datasette and made an album of them on Flickr11. Just going super hard into that kind of copy was really fun.)
Dreke linked to something recent evoking that same sense of small-scale, personal internet: Printernet12, a service that prints out bookmarks and articles and then sends you to them in the post. I semi-joked about this before when I was watching Bridgerton and wondered what it would be like to receive emails, delicately addressed, delivered by hand to your residence, then passed to you from a butler, and received in a special room where you could reply to them at your leisure. Actually, I think it wasn't even emails. It was probably tweets, what with the connection between Bridgerton's social drama and, well, the drama of the Internet. Obviously there's some nostalgia there, and creating order out of the chaos of inboxes feeds.
Printernet, of course, recalls Tom Taylor et al's work on Newspaper Club, and then later PaperLater13, a frankly ingenious repurposing of existing newspaper printing capacity to on-demand internet content. I still have some newspapers left over from conferences. Newspaper Club was wonderful.
Anyway. This is just recapping and providing context for Dreke's post, which ended up for me at least most interestingly, pointing via Jess Greenwood, to Rick Webb's Internet Mea Culpa14. That reminded me of a talk I gave at Foo Camp, not coincidentally, I think, the month before, that I retitled "No one's coming. It's up to Us."15. Both essays take a look back at what we thought the internet and networked computers were going to bring us, took a look around us, and then asked: are we the baddies? (narrator: yes, in many ways, we were, or at the very least we were operating in a world run by sociopaths who either know they're the baddies, or don't care, in which case see previous comment regarding sociopathy).
My talk got into one of Webb's points: that my generation, the one after Kelly's and Brand's were the ones who bought the line completely, as young adults we wanted that shiny future and tried to build it. Arguably, in important ways, we failed.
This isn't to say that the internet and networked computing hasn't wrought wonderful things, and it isn't even necessarily a sorry-for-ourselves mea culpa, to the extent that fine, you recognize what happened, then you ask: well, what did we learn from this and what are we going to do about it?
The worry of course is that we're too late to do anything about it, because the technology that was supposed to be freeing instead ended up co-opted by those with the money and the power, the racism and sexism, the bigotry and the hatred, and they used that to increase their power and hold and, whether consciously or not (see above re: sociopathy) reinforce those beliefs. Musk (sorry) isn't even a decade older than me, loves the same science fiction, names his assets after Iain M. Banks novels, and clearly, decidedly doesn't get the point other than a surface level "woah, cool". He too bought into this future that was being described and sold, just like everyone else who seemingly thinks that Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash was an instruction manual and not a warning, or not even a high-octane script for a film, then earnestly sought to recreate their favorite bits without much consideration, as Dr. Ian Malcolm exasperatedly point out, as to whether we should, just because we could.
But I digress.
What's there to be optimistic about? What, I suppose, nicely coincidentally, are the aspects of "the internet" that we might create, cultivate, and nurture, and most importantly ensure are sustainable? What would need to happen for things like Little Printer to survive in 2023 and beyond? How might we protect them?
I suppose part of the answer involves understanding better the costs and the hostile environment. I'm getting at more than something like "product market fit" and "go to market strategy", those problems and challenges are always going to exist. What I'm thinking about is different models, or understanding the costs behind them better, then communicating them.
Here, let's think about this: the implosion of Twitter cracked the door of "maybe we don't have to be on giant networks" just the tiniest number of planck lengths. I've written about this before, I think: self-hosted networks like Mastodon are an alternative that more people than ever before have experienced. There is more awareness that running these servers and instances in a way which meets the minimum bar of reasonableness costs time and money. And not an insignificant amount. These small communities that are safe, welcoming and adaptive require work. For a long, long time, the costs of that work have been externalized and minimized: I'll skip the long tirade about the difference between community management and moderation and content moderation.
You want to remember the older, more nostalgic internet? Or if you're like me, you have some reference points?
Those points are things like the Television Without Pity forums. Or, I don't know, any of the other web forums you loved. The mailing lists you loved. And do you know how much work it took -- never mind calling it emotional labor -- to keep those forums running and not descending into chaos or worse? Imagine throwing a party, or if you've experienced it, remember being someone who's organizing a wedding and needing to care about all those people. It's exhausting. And we've never really paid those people or compensated them for their time in other ways (although interestingly I read a piece about AOL's early community leaders who were compensated in AOL hours, then later sued because -- guess what, and let me know if this sounds familiar -- they weren't volunteers, they should've been classed as employees16. The volunteers filed their class action lawsuit in 1999, a settlement was approved over 10 years later, in May 2010).
But I digress again.
Dreke explored the analogy that this original promise internet wasn't dead, but dormant, "asleep and groggy, but willing to be awakened again"9.
My perspective is more that the Silicon Valley adtech enshittification finally pushed too far. That the original promise of technology allowing people to connect and find each other had been suffocated, intentionally so, but that the optimistic narrative is that no matter where, people will find and make the spaces to connect where they can be free. That occasionally, awareness will spread that certain spaces are not free, and something egregious will happen, or a number of egregious things will keep happening and stack up until a trust-dam has been broken (I forget how John Bull put it earlier this year), and if there happens to be an alternative that satisfies a bunch of context-specific criteria, then there exists the potential for change in behavior. I suppose a thing to remember is that changes both take a short amount of time and a long amount of time. Successes, I've found, take about ten years, but that beginning, the start, feels much bigger because it's a discontinuity from the status quo. It's also persistence that wins out.
The enshittification is about increasing desperation and pressure to grow in usage, share, market, profit and so on. So a question is: what are things that are protected from enshittification, like I asked above. What attributes and environments are needed to nurture and protect against attack?
At the same time, the deal with monocultures is that I believe they're susceptible to collapse. Mastodon was (is) interesting because of its openness in terms of API: just this year, Twitter and Reddit demonstrated that when push comes to shove, openness in terms of allowing third party invention and connection just isn't possible if it conflicts with or affects the ability to profit. Although I should be more accurate and say "affects the ability to profit too much", in the "make line go up and to the right forever" sense.
So if we're talking about interventions then some of the questions include how you compete with free, or how you compete with cheaper. They include, as I always point out, regulatory regimes that protect and encourage innovation (sorry) and recognize the signs of platform lock-in, or what platforms even are. That the E.U. has come out with the Digital Services Act twenty years after the popularization of Web 2.0 in 2004 says a lot, I think!
I started this episode wondering about organic and natural and so on, and how those attributes might translate to software and services, and I like to think that this isn't happy coincidence and is just the way my brain works in making connections.
See, people pay more for natural and organic. They perceive -- whether the benefits are real -- that those attributes are important enough to pay more for. There are still cheaper, substitutable goods. There are still Regular Eggs, battery, cage farmed, pumped full of antibiotics. But, in our market driven world, sure, you can Pay More for Healthier.
The adtech world though has meant (and I think I'm rather struck by this observation) that you actually pay less for convenience. And it's not just adtech, sure, it's free zero interest rate phenomenon money and blood money, too. But if I turn this around and look at it from the growth marketing perspective and that bugbear of reducing friction (at all costs, unless, well, it's the wrong kind, like making it harder to unsubscribe from a service), then yes, eliminating friction and convenience includes making something free at the point of use or consumption.
But the economics don't work if more humanely farmed and produced eggs actually cost more. Or, rather, and this is the enshittified world we live in, people seem to have persuaded themselves of this fiction that there is more money in the future in terms of selling ads than there is in charging you for organically farmed eggs, in which case, surprise! Now your organic eggs are free, or much, much cheaper, and in return there's an app or they're a loss-leader for Samsung and your fridge. Meanwhile the egg producers start getting squeezed because profit, of course. When we talk about software eating the world, what I really mean is that wanting to make more money is eating the world, and software ready and willing (and, by implication, the people making that software) to help.
Okay, let's turn this around again, and not take the enshittified route.
Humane eggs cost more. People understand and buy into the health benefits. Perhaps those health benefits have been proven. There's awareness, both industry-wide marketing and brand marketing. Organic is seen as a differentiator. And it's reasonable that organic costs more even though, well, citation needed?
Then, like I asked above, what's humane software? If you took the adtech out, if you took the zero interest rate money out, then do we understand the real cost of these cosy bits of software? I bet most readers can make an educated guess about what it would cost to fund BERG the studio and its staff and what their P&L would look like. How much would Little Printer need to cost, and how much per month? Would people be willing to pay that? Maybe not then, but like I say above, I do think a crack has opened in the door just that tiny bit. Maybe still not enough, but certainly more than before. Patreon launched ten years ago and is clearly the least shitty way right now for people to directly fund the creation of, well, things. It's the least shitty and yet also so important to an ecosystem that there is a stupendous worth of free advice in the recent dreamwidth post, How to Compete with Patreon17. And come on, that post is on Dreamwidth, of all places, a refuge from the enshittified acquisiton of Livejournal, if we're talking about the history of cosy, community-oriented places.
Bringing this back to money is irresistible, I feel, which I also feel is a bit of a cop-out, because you can just gesture at everything these days and say "well, money fucked it up" and it's not like you're wrong. Another way of looking at this is that all of these cozy products were -- are -- independent businesses. They are the indie bookstores that we loved and had to shut down when Borders or Barnes and Noble came in and crowded them out because, I don't know, they had branded commoditized Starbucks coffee, sofas (paid attention to certain parts of the user experience, if you will), a bigger selection and, I think, were able to undercut because they had more money. This phenomenon of the small business crowded out by mega business is so well-known that it formed the background plot of You've Got Mail of all things, a film these days that I don't think would take much to be remade, now that GenX and related are the ones paying for premium streaming services. It's the story of That Website You Love and how it was Fucked Over by the Big Mean Bad People who only care about money. Same as it ever was.
We don't even know how to protect small businesses, do we? In the real world? In Gibson's meatspace (which I maintain there's a strong argument to be renamed because most of the living matter on the planet is vegetation?!) small businesses are closing all the time and at threat (citation needed!).
There is a trite argument or observation in my head here which is that there are some fixed costs involved in delivering "cosiness" or "personal" in "personal computing", in a way that was intrinsic to these early or earlier services, products and community forums: that human labour just costs money, and good human labour costs (and should) cost more. That's it. Everything else can get cheaper (and has) or get more automated. Hosting gets cheaper. (Kind of! AWS is a lot of the time more expensive). So things might get not cheaper but more accessible, anyway they all live in the world of "not costing as much as their true cost because externalized or whatever". But Printernet? Printernet costs as much as it does for the person who's running it, and they need to devote their time to it. Same for Justin Duke, who runs the Buttondown service I use for sending mail. Buttondown, at least, doesn't need to grow. It's a small business: one that wants to do one thing well and be comfortable. I don't believe Justin is looking for an exit.
So I suppose if you want to find more examples of cosy, then one place to look is volunteering, because that's when the cost of human work drops to zero because it is being freely given for nothing for whatever reason. And we know that the cost of volunteering over time can be burnout.
The sad, hard story that I think goes along with all of this is that sure, you can have your Volunteer Thing, sure you can have your cosy product. I mentioned above that all those regular challenges like go-to market strategies exist and won't go away, and that is a problem that I keep hearing about because of the collapse and monopolization of routes to customers. Twitter was in part great because it wasn't a single public square in a way that Facebook could never be, but that it allowed people to reach each other and "create awareness" and relationships. Again, at a singular, personal, "authentic" manner. But you want to get to an audience right now, what are your choices? Advertising? Facebook advertising, Instagram advertising? Starting a newsletter, going down a content arms race? The deal we made -- or didn't make, as we were just forced into it, or that it was the cheapest, most convenient one -- was aggregation of what formerly felt like democratizing of access because we could reach the most people. You couldn't afford a TV ad or a newspaper ad, or direct marketing, or whatever, but this new fangled internet thing, with its search advertising, offered a new avenue of reaching customers. But no, they had to go and fuck it up, because some money wasn't money + x, and x needed to increase; the rate of change needed to increase, too, to the extent that we've just learned that Google will rewrite your search query just to make a little bit more money.
That reach got us speed, and that was the thing: the world was getting faster and if you didn't go faster as well, you'd get left behind. You'd lose health insurance, if you lived in an uncivilized society! So another arms race for speed when one attribute of cosy and personal is slow, I think. Reach and speed. The fastest one, the furthest one wins.
So perhaps that means changing the terms of the argument or goal. Perhaps, for the medium-term future at least, "winning" and replacing this enshittified monoculture (yes, I really need to read Cory's book), if it isn't possible, is more about cultivating a base layer, I don't know, some sort of mycelial network that's impossible to nuke out of existence, that lives, forever, in the cracks and just keeps seeping and seeping. Resilient and tolerant, not just sustainable, and also human.
Goodness. That was long.
Twitter has lost millions of daily active users, but I realize I'm still one of them. While I'm not posting on my account anymore, I am still looking at tweets. So I'm wondering about whether you could have a browser plugin restricting or limiting your use of Twitter so you don't contribute to the DAU totals.
I just had to share this because it's made my day.
This is what happens if you take someone read A Brief History of Time as a precocious child, continued to be interested in and read about cosmology and astrophysics etc through their adult life, and also was really into blogging:
Me: can't believe that thanks to light, the universe is laid out in reverse-chronological order Associate Professor of Physics, specializing in general relativity, cosmology, string theory and quantum field theory Robert McNees: furious that this never occurred to me Me: holy shit this just made my day18
I mean honestly, I should've switched to the other keyboard for this one, my knuckles are actually aching.
I might even take a break tomorrow, just for some compassionate balance. Yes. Perhaps I'll do that.
How are you?
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Twitter / X is losing daily active users. CEO Linda Yaccarino confirmed it. | Mashable, Matt Binder, 29 September, 2023, Mashable ↩
Let the Right Hon In: "For all its faults, still wond…" - Mastohon, me, 3 October, 2023, Mastohon3 ↩
Yes, I have the best vanity Mastodon domain ever, you're welcome. ↩
Irenes (many): "@danhon "network-free" (free a…" - Mastodon via @firstname.lastname@example.org ↩
Irenes (many): "@danhon "community-driven" is …" - Mastodon via @email@example.com ↩
Assemblag.es - Tristan Ferne: "@danhon doesn’t use do anythin…" via @firstname.lastname@example.org ↩
Gretchen Anderson: "@danhon “user-friendly” “Respe…" - SFBA.social, via @email@example.com ↩
Daniel Durrans: "@danhon Safe Protected Unado…" - mastodon.me.uk, via @firstname.lastname@example.org ↩
PaperLater turns your favourite online content into a £5 newspaper sent to your door | Daily Mail Online, Ellie Zolfagharifard, 4 August, 2014, The Daily Mail (of all places!) ↩
My Internet Mea Culpa. I’m sorry I was wrong. We all were.* | by Rick Webb | NewCo Shift | Medium, Rick Webb, 26 December, 2017. ↩
No one’s coming. It’s up to us.. Adapted from “We Are The Very Model Of… | by Dan Hon | Medium, me, 4 November, 2017 and 9 February, 2018, Medium ↩
siderea | How to Compete with Patreon [New Media, Tech, Patreon], siderea, 28 September, 2023, Dreamwidth ↩