On Beasts and Bridges

Vivaldi has expanded their social media platform to include Mastodon. They will not be the only ones.

art by Thomas Herbrich

This is a good time to describe what I would want from social media.

  1. A way for me to have full control of all my social media content,
  2. and the interactions they are a part of,
  3. handled by software I can trust, and replace.

I — We — All: What social media?

There are many ways to describe and divide social media. While they cover any form of digital communication, we primarily talk about interactive mass media with fluid cliques. The standards organisation IETF has focused on the media themselves and divided them into types like text, image, audio, video, and [3D] model.

In this document I have a more unusual (and incomplete) division into projects, topics, documents, and glue. The examples below should show what I mean by that.

Messaging (email, Slack, Discord, Zoom)

Email, a form of targeted file copying, was the first messaging application. In base setup it was one-to-one, but could be one-to-many. Fairly easily email could be set up to be many-to-many, in the form of a mailing list. That way we got group messaging. This fits projects pretty well, and those who work on a project do so with some form of group messaging.

Chat was to email what microblog became to blogs, a more fluid, realtime format of essentially the same. From IRC to Teams, they got managerial role and then video and more, and are all bunched under “messaging”.

Forum (Usenet, Reddit, StackExchange)

Usenet was essentially a branch-off from mailing lists, with a more flexible and scalable protocol. Unlike messaging, forums are discussions on topics. This does not fit businesses as well as project messaging, but as company products also are topics, forums were often maintained as low-cost self-serve support forums.

While topics are forever, or at least long-lasting, the forums serving them generally don’t last long. Not successfully anyway. When they fall, they usually don’t get up again.

Blog and self-publishing (Youtube, Medium, Substack)

With the web came the personal web site, and with them the web log, the blog. While it could be little more than a diary, and back when there was something they called a blogosphere, they were often longer standalone opinion pieces in a larger debate, or other forms of documents. Since these are assumedly finished products, usually by a single author, monetising is a thing.

Microblog (Twitter, TikTok, Mastodon)

Very early Twitter was lampooned as often inane diary entries, “I had pancakes for breakfast today”, the then open nature of the platform made it useful as glue between systems (e.g. as commented links to URLs), and of course soon enough a battlefield for unending gang warfare. Due to the malleability of platforms, microblogs can do the functions of messaging, forums, and blogs, just not as well.

Marketplace and MUD

Just to fit Meta/Facebook into the taxonomy, these are a couple functions I’m not too interested in here. There are other many-to-many exchanges than collaboration of information. A Multi-User Dungeon (Second Life, Metaverse) not only have a sense of place (metaphorically channels and topics), but also a map of how these places are connected. This map can map to other maps, including our analog world, like digital twins.

Trolls, spam, and regime change

Not a form of social media, but since the beginning a part of them.

One standard to bind us all

There are many standards for digital presence, and more keep coming. They roughly fit into formats (how data is structured) and protocols (how they communicate). We also do addresses, where to find data, URL schemes is one such. Given “https://medium.com” software can (with help of other software) find this site.

We generally agree on formats, and when we don’t, we just create more. Protocols is where the game is at. In the above example, HTTPS was the protocol we used.

Mastodon uses many of these standards, including ActivityPub.

The reason I highlighted this one is that it handles glue, but not all our other social media needs.

What about me?

Social media are transient. So are we, but our lifespan is generally much longer. Facebook has reached 18 years of age (during which the typical user has shifted from student to retiree), and is still alive. Most social media have died in that period (sure, Usenet is twice that age and still exists, but hardly in a healthy state).

Some of what we create we’d like to keep, perhaps indefinitely, others we’d rather forget. Most of it will gradually decay together with the rest of our past.

But the now is also at risk. Either we want to move to better pastures, or those maintaining our data have a change of plans. Either way our data is in the wrong place, or in no place. We can get a data dump from Twitter or Facebook, but will have nowhere to put them afterwards.

The social network of me

Mastodon does it much better, including supporting moves. However, there are still many shortcomings, including if a web site goes down, so does your data.

Mastodon and Medium have the concept of publishing. You publish your data on a website (theirs). They may help you publicize this on other web sites, e.g. a tweet on Twitter linking back here. Most users don’t take it much further than that, but organisations can manage a fairly complex operation of publishing and publicising their content in a number of social (and non-social) media sites.

Publishing is a good concept, but it should be a form for replication, also for those of us with simpler publishing needs than large organisations.

We should have our private repository, possibly with backups, in cloud storage and/or on a local device. From this we publish to social media web sites according to our rules. If a certain web site is no longer available or desirable, we can republish to another. If we no longer are happy with what we created, and the publishing site supports that, we can retract published content. Content we no longer want or need can be either archived or deleted from the repository.

The user interface/experience will not be “which website will you be publishing your thought in?”, but you just toot or tweet or post or publish like before, only that this contribution is also stored into the repository.

What about us?

The above section, and basically all publishing infrastructure, look at us as solitary creative geniuses. But much or most of what we do, we do in collaboration. Context may matter as much as text and subtext. If we only have The Daily Me, we lose out on all of that.

This is where the forum is a better model than the blog. A thread is a collection of individual contributors in context. If we are part of that thread, our repository should include the whole thread as well as our own contributions.

This could conflict with the “me” section above—all mine is mine to use or remove as I see fit. But if you participated in a discussion, your contributions should be available at a minimum in the repository of the other participants unless explicitly removed. That doesn’t give me the right to republish your contributions in another of my contexts (I can of course link to it).

What about Vivaldi (or someone else)?

Vivaldi is not just a social network site, but primarily a browser-making company. W3C-speak for browser is “user agent”, and in my view a browser is not merely software that renders formats on screen and navigates the various protocols, but truly should be the user’s representative.

Thus, assuming open formats and protocols and states, a browser could either manage their users’ social networks themselves, conveniently and safely, or integrate seamlessly with software that does.

Social media cache

Browsers already securely store local cache of sites users have been browsing. It need not be a huge extension to also store (or access) their social media repositories.

Exactly what can be cached and how will depend upon how standards and norms develop. But at least a unified private view of our activities is a real possibility.

Social integration

The Silicon Valley social media are invariably closed and consider any form of open integration a threat to their business model (Twitter was relatively open in early days, but that openness was a threat to their stock valuation, so it gradually shut down). If more open platforms and protocols become the norm, that will give scope for improving capabilities and experiences, possibly to such a degree that closed platforms become non-competitive, even those who had early mover benefits (the network effect).

Vivaldi could for instance have a social management tab for maintaining both repository and interactions with all open and semi-open sites.

And it would not have to be Vivaldi. Going from one walled garden to another, even if that has the users and not the advertisers in mind, is a risky move. Whatever Vivaldi stores can be exported to (or imported from) some other repository maintainer.

Building it, the story continued

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