Early September check in

September 7, 2021

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these. The problem is, it keeps getting harder—the longer I wait to write, the more time there is since I’ve written and the more I have to write about. The themes and impulses and interests, which from one week to another seem so clear, start to blend in hindsight into an opaque mud. This week I am thinking about maintenance, building, living.

The main theme of the last two months for me: I’m going to need a source of income. I’m still comfortably within the amount of money we saved for this experiment, so I’m not being forced to make this choice by circumstances. But it’s getting lonely, working by myself[1], and the next big task for this system—to patiently, over a remaining lifetime of thought, make it the most useful system a person can have—will neither use my full-time attention nor will it ever really be finished.

There’s a fault line here. What’s the purpose of social media? Not the cynical purpose—not the weary and obnoxious “you are the product” refrain of us disgruntled practitioners—but the pro-social purpose. The reason not to push a big red button labeled “immediately and permanently shut down all social media systems” even if one could. What should social media be, if it is to help humans individually and collectively make the most of our time in the universe? The social media systems we see have not attempted an answer. Like the Texas marksman[2], they implemented lots of features and they let the set of features that caught on define the system as a whole. Their metric for success was revenue and investment. That’s the kind of low-effort solution[3] that it makes sense to try first. But it doesn’t seem to have worked, so what metric do we use next?

My answer basically boils down to “operator satisfaction” in the same sense as I might say that about a car. I want people to be able to choose the social media experience that’s most suited to their own lives, regardless of whether that experience helps prop up any particular business model. As with cars, we can argue endlessly over which social media designs are better or worse, but when everyone can choose for themselves at a meaningful level, the stakes are not winner-take-all. As with every type of human system, social media systems occupy and delineate cultural space that affects everyone, so everyone deserves a say in how they work. I believe that this project is starting to demonstrate that it is technically feasible to put these systems under the direct control of each person who uses them, at least in the same way as can be done with a car—a person need not be able to build it to be able to choose between different models.

The next steps require that I come up with a few initial models and see how they work. That can’t really be a full-time job, partly because there’s no one to pay for it, but mostly because the iteration cycle includes too much unavoidable waiting around—building something, then spending a few weeks using it in my day-to-day life isn’t a full-time workload.

In 13 months, I’ve managed two preliminary releases and expect to publish a third. The serverless design that I’ve implemented is proving itself nicely; each plugin is noticeably easier to write than the last. I’m happy to use this blog, and I feel pretty confident that it will be fun to use the social features soon when I finish them.

This week I signed an offer letter to work full-time for Coil, a company that is building online payment services around the Web Monetization standard. I’m excited to begin on September 20. This means that progress on this project will slow (but it is still the center of my own online presence, so it’s going to continue indefinitely). I’ve written before about how I see payments as an important part of personal social media systems, and I’m delighted to be able to contribute to that effort with Coil.

  1. I described this to a friend a couple weeks ago as “If I want to think through a decision and I need to talk to someone with context, I need to write down everything I’m thinking and then wait a week so I can do the other side of the conversation with a fresh perspective.” ↩︎

  2. A person driving along a road in Texas sees a barn. On the barn are hundreds of circular targets, each with a single bullet hole in the middle of the bullseye. The person asks the farmer, “how did you do that?” the farmer says, “Easy. I just shot the barn a bunch of times and then painted the targets around the bullet holes” ↩︎

  3. Why would I describe this as a “low effort” solution?

    When you build a system that needs continuous power, part of the task is finding a power source. If you’re building a medieval blast furnace or mill, you divert a small stream off a larger river to power the works. If you’re building a modern social media system, you design a channel of investors, workers, advertisers, and users to provide the sustaining energy for the system. This is simply the most obvious and, logistically, the most available power source we have. Because this type of power structure is common and well-understood, trying to use it to build social media is low-effort compared to trying to find an alternative. ↩︎