I’m going to do my best to keep this short and sweet:
We don’t need social media.
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk!
Ok, fine: I’ll ellucidate. The great social media experiment has run its course and it is time to return to the traditional web, with site ownership and self-hosting as the foundation.
As any sex worker or sex-worker-adjacent person can tell you, social media is an unfriendly at best, hostile at worst, landscape. Posting content relating to your work is discouraged. FOSTA-SESTA had done incalculable damage in the name of “curbing sex trafficking.” Posts and whole accounts are removed under the flimsiest pretenses, usually because someone looking for naughty stuff–surprise!–found it and reported it.
Then there are the algorithms, which can be even touchier than the humans. I had one post, which did not even involve nudity, removed for “soliciting sexual activity” and a vintage 1980’s anti-drug PSA flagged for “spreading misinformation.” So stupid.
Oh, and let’s not forget that whatever you post grants these companies “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content” (Facebook ToS).
Selling content is hard enough. Why grant someone with an incredible power advantage over you the rights to make money off of your efforts without compensation?
Oh, wait! You are being compensated, at least on Twitter. Your posts are “made with no compensation paid to you with respect to the Content that you submit, post, transmit or otherwise make available through the Services as the use of the Services by you is hereby agreed as being sufficient compensation for the Content and grant of rights herein” (italics mine).
In the words of the prophet: Oh for fuck’s sake…
There is also a growing body of data on social media addiction and its impact on mental health. For details check out Instagram and Facebook are intentionally conditioning you to treat your phone like a drug and Your Addiction to Social Media is No Accident, published by Business Insider and Vice, respectively. Both current and former employees of social media companies are confirming what has long been suspected: you are being manipulated into engaging on social for as long as possible.
I could go on and on, but anyone (still) reading this has felt the pain. You know what it is like to be shadow banned and have your content hidden in search. You know the agony of losing an account you’ve worked hard to build. You know what it like to be algorithmically flagged as deviant and issued warnings. You know how hard it is to fight back against a ban when there are so few real humans actually moderating content.
The Solution: Return to Site Ownership
We need to return the web to what it was before the rise of social. In the pre-Facebook days of the web people ran their own websites, unfettered by any ToS. On these sites you would find a “blogroll”: a collection of links of people you found interesting. Kindred spirits peddling a brand of weirdness that intersected with your own. Other photographers perhaps.
Driving the rise of this was RSS, a syndication system that is still in use today. Let me repeat that: it is still in use today. You would download a newsreader app, subscribe to a person’s content, and the app would aggregate it in one place. To keep it manageable free RSS services sprung up that helped you organize your feeds. The most famous of these, Google Reader, was ignominiously killed off by Google when they launched Google + in the hopes that people would use G+ as the new news aggregation host. G+ did not end well for Google and the angst people felt for the demise of Google Reader has most people convinced that RSS is dead and gone.
It’s not. It’s just been laying in wait.
My proposal is simple in concept (but may be difficult in execution for reasons I will lay out with a soupçon of sass later): Content creators should go back to putting their content on a site that they own and grow their network via the lowest of high tech: blogrolls and RSS.
You own your content. Are you like me and do not want people making derivatives of your work? Then you hit up Creative Commons and slap an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) notice on your site. Sure, it’s largely unenforceable unless you want to lawyer up every fucking time, but it is a damn site better than giving explicit permission to a large corporation to create derivatives of your work and pocket whatever they make with no compensation to you.
More importantly, you’re not assigning the rights to anyone. Those rights are transferrable under the ToS, which means if Facebook transfers the rights to content posted on FB to a company that makes coffee mugs, that company can sell coffee mugs with your content on it and keep the money.
Facebook made $84 billion last year, up from $70 billion the year before. How much of that sweet, sweet cheddar did you see?
No ToS. Within reason, you are not bound by lengthy legal contract, that, by the way, grants a corporation “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content”, before posting a photo of your breakfast.
Can you be an unrepentant shitbird or post damaging or harmful content? Of course not. Your hosting provider is going to have rules you have to follow. But few would take down a nude, because reasons.
Freedom of expression. You can post pretty much whatever you want, within societal limits. If your content is not for public consumption, wall it off and make it available to subscribers only. Install WordPress and password protect posts. Install WooCommerce and sell your crap on your own site and keep all the proceeds. Yes, even digital goods.
You break the cycle of digging for likes. Here’s a dirty little secret from a person who did social media professionally for years: these companies have scores of highly-educated behaviorists on staff devoted to creating an environment that maximizes the endorphin hit that keeps you on their site.
You’re being manipulated into staying, and yet study after study shows that the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and the comparisons to others isn’t healthy.
Break the cycle. Own your shit.
Here’s where I get sassy.
TANSTAAFL (There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch). Hosting costs money. Buying a domain costs money. Learning the basics of a content management system such as WordPress takes time. Some plugins are going to charge you for the really good features. You’re going to have to learn a few tricks and make a bunch of mistakes.
We have all fallen under the siren song of social media, which is free to use. But is it, really? You can’t post whatever you want, you’re granting them an unlimited license to do what they want with your content, they are either maliciously indifferent or actively hostile towards your activities, and on a whim years of effort can go poof!
You own your shit by taking ownership of your shit. “Account deleted at 80K. Follow me here!”? Did you consider the possibility that you built your brand in a hostile environment? That you shouldn’t have been posting that particular content on that particular social media platform because the ToS actually discourages it?
If your “brand” is that valuable to you, own your shit. Spend the money, invest in yourself, and create something no one can take away.
No, WIX or Squarespace do not count. TANSTAAFL, people! Next to social media, SAAS (software as a service) is possibly the third biggest tech mistake of the last decade (second is the internet of shit. I mean things).
These website builders are fantastic…but not for what you’re aiming to do. Like the social media companies, they have ToS’ that are incompatible with your aims. Do not give them your money and complain when they take down your site because your bondage pics led to a bout of pearl-clutching.
Also, if they go out of business, your site ceases to exist. And since they are SAAS and not a real website, you can’t just export your site and host your content elsewhere.
Own your shit.
You’re going to start from scratch. Remember that hypothetical “Account deleted at 80K!” example above? Pro tip: when starting to rebuild your network, do it anywhere else than the place that axed all your hard work on a whim.
So yes, we’re going to have to start from scratch. We’re going to have to create these networks. But you know what? We’ve done it before and we can do it again. And honestly, it’s not as hard as it seems.
Here’s how it used to work: you’d hit a blog that was interesting and start perusing their blogroll. Boom – in minutes you had a half-dozen new feeds you were following.
Find something new? Feature their page in your next blog post.
See something you’d like to share? Repost their stuff.
Comment on their page or posts.
OM to the G! It’s like…social media, except you own your fucking content.
Facebook (and other social media companies) have been trying to kill the traditional web for at least the last half decade…and they have largely succeeded. They have been working hard to ensure that all interaction takes place within the walls of their social networks (while at the same time mining every one of your interactions for sale to the highest bidder).
And they have been so effective at it that people are reluctant to leave social media platforms, even when they know it is bad for them and they hate being there. That is, to use a sociological term, some fucked up shit.
The solution is simple: build your own site, host your own content, and re-create a network outside the social media ecosphere.
It will be hard at first. You’re stepping away from “free” services, but “free” also means they’ll shut off years of hard work with no explanation and no recourse. Plus, reputable shared hosting providers like Bluehost and Siteground will hook you up with a hosting plan for $4-7/month AND toss in the domain name (pro tip: go with Siteground. They’re awesome).
Most other tools you’ll need to protect your site from hackers, create subscription forms, or send newsletters have fremium models.
You’re stepping away from your established network, but one that is the source of anxiety and FOMO.
You will have to start from scratch, but didn’t we all do that at some point? At least now you’ll be owning your content instead of giving it away to a company that’ll delete your account without warning.
Social media is not a necessity, and this is coming from someone who used to run social media for the second largest art museum in the nation. The traditional web is still there. The tools are still there, they are more affordable than you think, and they are really robust (e.g. Reeder, my RSS app of choice). Plus, your site can live in peace and harmony with all of the other services, except you’ll be the one in control.
If you want a place where you can post whatever content you want and retain 100% ownership of that content, you can build it today. So let’s get started.