silos of people

I’ve been experimenting with bits of software to take control of my online content. The functionality is all there for me to run my own stuff, without feeding corporate silos. I can post text, images, photos, videos. I can store files and access them from anywhere. Without having to hand my bits over to any company.

Except when I want to play with others. To do that, I still need to wade into the silos. Flickr isn’t about photo storage or hosting – it’s about seeing what my friends and family are photographing. Twitter isn’t about posting 140char updates – it’s about seeing the flow of activity from the people I care about.

Although I can reproduce the content-centric functionality for posting and sharing content online, I can only do it in an extremely antisocial way. I do it by myself, on my own. Away from others. Alone.

I’d nuked my Facebook account long ago. I was happy to not be feeding Zucker’s beast. Until I realized that (nearly) everyone I cared about was there – people who would never post to a blog, or maintain a photo site, or anything that’s content-centric and close to the metal. They just want to hang out and share stuff with people they care about. So I sucked it up and recreated a Facebook account. I’m torn – on the one hand, it felt like a failure. On the other hand, it feels like a great way to keep up with what friends and family are doing – especially since many of them would never venture out of the corporate silo to post things on their own.

But the feeling of failure is pretty strong. I think we’re failing as a culture, when the only effective way to connect with people is to hand our social (online- and offline) network graphs to a corporation to monetize at will. Our social connections are far too important to trust them to Google, Facebook, Twitter, or the next big shiny thing. We need to step up, somehow, and take control back. I have no idea how that could happen. There have been many false starts1234, but they’ve been so highly technical that the people that really need them wouldn’t have even known that options existed (and so they didn’t, really). That’s why corporate silos have been so successful – they make the plumbing of online social connection disappear as much as possible.

We need a human-scale, non-technical way for individuals to manage their connections with other individuals, without having to hand control over those connections to any company to mine and monetize. It’s not about content – it’s about managing connections to people, and to the things they are doing.

Update: As usual, Boone Gorges is already thinking about this, in far greater depth than I managed. Awesome. I’ll be thinking through how I should Reclaim. Sign me up.

  1. OpenID – own your online identity! []
  2. Diaspora – Your own personal Facebook []
  3. FOAF – xml describing your identity and social graph []
  4. probably a bunch more that I just can’t think of right now… []

14 thoughts on “silos of people

  1. In the medium term, I think that the most viable solution is not individual hosting, but collective. That is, you might start a little co-op with a few dozen friends, which runs an installation of a blog server, a social-networking thingy like BuddyPress or Diaspora, a micro-blogging service like StatusNet, etc. Only one or two people have to have any chops for this stuff, and everyone chips in a few bucks per month to pay the server overhead and to buy a few beers for the sysadmin folks.

    Then, the technical problem is less about making this stuff immediately available to everyday folks who are apathetic about data ownership, and more about making these nodes, of a few dozen people each, talk to each other in a way that feels seamless. This is the idea of the federated social web. Strides are being made. StatusNet is a good example – you can have your own little private Twitter-like network, but it can also pretty easily link out to identi.ca, or other StatusNet installations, or Twitter, or (in the future) things like BuddyPress installations.

    1. the idea of co-op or community hosting really appeals to me. pooling cash for a VPS would be an easy way to get going there… feels like the old FIDONET BBS days – play on a local server, and it connects to the rest of the ‘net (well, the couple dozen other servers out there… 😉 )

  2. I think you’ve nailed it – much of the sharing ethos came from geeks, who really only connect with other geeks. Once things got common enough, some edge geeks joined in, but things were still “too close to metal” to allow the “great unwashed” to be comfortable. Take blogging as an example – even with plugins for Word, things never really too off because there was a technology barrier – people are fearful enough of physical plumbing jobs, to say nothing of cyber plumbing. There was also a real social barrier – if nobody else is doing it, is it important?

    So once others start doing it, things become important. Take Facebook or Huffington Post for example, there was a tipping point achieved at some point where some manner of revenue stream was required for the system to continue. Once a revenue stream is required, things start along the slippery slope to commercialism. Once commercial, the entities that started with the most noble of intentions become corporations that are, almost by definition sociopaths. Taking what they need to achieve their goals to sustain and grow.

  3. Two separate problems:

    1) Create an alternative
    2) Get the masses to use the alternative

    It’s not about ideas, it’s about entrepreneurship in the face of the masses who could care less about autonomy. In such cases, usually the answer is legislation of some sort is the answer; and often good government obliges. In this case there are billions of dollars and thousands of jobs involved in a country that cares very much about those things….

    Legislation does not seem to be forth coming… and the government has certain interests in security that also cause them to hesitate. In the end, I really doubt an alternative will ever exist; for instance there are no alternatives for communication without getting some company involved in most cases. We could all be encrypting our e-mails but we don’t…

    The masses don’t care about the same things that you do, and never will. So push government to legislate; I believe that’s the best that can be done. Even if you could get people on board for a short period of time, over time capital will produce better, more interesting, more fashionable solutions that will draw them away back to the corporations.

    I can’t think of any counter examples in tech where what I am saying is not true… But you can try. If you care about the masses, then you will be drawn to where they are and they can always be coerced with mechanisms of capital to serve it more than any other rhetoric about autonomy or freedom.

    I personally now side with capital.

    1. Legislation won’t/can’t work – there would be riots in the streets if The Government tried to restrict Facebook etc… People don’t care about posting to silos, but they do care about government control of their actions. Strange contrast there – corporate control is OK because it’s (mostly) invisible…

      I don’t think it’s realistic to expect (or even want) everyone to Reclaim. It’s just not going to happen – people don’t care about freedom. They care about convenience. (just typing those sentences made me want to wretch, but it’s painfully true – at least here in North America)

      But, I’m really liking Boone’s thinking on the role for people to show that it’s possible. I can’t change the world, but I can experiment and show that change is possible.

      1. No one said anything about banning anything. The legislation would simply limit what can be done with any information that it has, how it may be shared, and with whom. Recently California attempted to pass the do not track legislation which was resisted by Google. We could pass much in the way of limiting what may be done with the data.

        There are two approaches, one is that you trust government and its ability to limit certain activities and protect you from other entities. The other is that you don’t and want that control in your own hands. I think many North Americans are in the latter category. This however is a difficult proposition considering that government has power, an individual does not… and really never will as you don’t have a collective will, etc.

        But best of luck, it’s worth a try. I am skeptical as of the outcome… having tried and failed myself.

  4. I hate to give out “I agree” or “+1” style comments, but I’m left with nothing else to contribute except that I think you are completely right on this one.

  5. I started by my so-called online life as part of a hosting co-op started by Zach Davis in 2003. It cost me 2 bucks a month, and it is whe eI first got wind of web hosting, domains, CPanel, fantastico, etc. It was amazing, and I still host all my stuff with Zach, but not so much in the coop model anymore. I have everything I reall want to archive and preserve on my blog, and my videos on YouTube are all backed up there, though i would really like to create Video press/Media Server and get my video off of YouTube, which is increasingly become the handmaiden to copyright police.

    Anyway, the coop model makes total sense, and it is a way of pooling resources, support, and framing a community outside the corporate silos. What’s more, if you have people with a wide-range of technical expertise, you can actually help others learn more about what this all means. ds106 is trying to be an entre to this vision with the hosting and domains—and while lost on some—the idea of owning your own data is central to the vision of that class.

  6. Hi Darcy – You might also be interested in the FreedomBox effort.

    They describe it this way:

    FreedomBox is the name we give to a personal server running a free software operating system, with free applications designed to create and preserve personal privacy.

    FreedomBox software is particularly tailored to run in “plug servers,” which are compact computers that are no larger than power adapters for electronic appliances.

    Eben Moglen is involved. A tech advisory team was just announced.

    Sounds interesting to me.

    1. Freedombox is definitely interesting. Thanks for the link. If it is set up so that it’s literally a plug-and-play appliance so non-geeks can use it, it sounds pretty ideal.

  7. You can scare off some businesses from Facebook etc- when they realize that their competitors can see their friends, post ads next to their content- etc.
    But- most people, especially politicians, have no clue how any of this works.
    Take the recent “interest” of the US Congress in iPhone and Android tracking data- yet- forget that Google and Facebook track every move online.
    Or- when they stopped Google and Yahoo from merging their online ad auctions- for the ability to price fix- when the companies don’t set the prices- the customers do. Don’t get me started on CAN-SPAM the worthless law with no teeth.
    The reality is the big online properties aren’t going to go away- not because of government- or because the masses finally figure out they are being played, one day they may change their minds- and say- Search and FB aren’t free anymore- then things will change.

    1. The fact the world is ruled by American politicians (soon to be Chinese politicians) and that fact that they are often poor human beings — much less leaders, I think that needs fixing. That would be much easier to fix then say for people to stop behaving how they have been behaving for the past 2000+ years. FB Goog are not going away. They may at some point be disrupted by newer technology, but welcome to new emperor same as the old emperor… except perhaps not Nero.

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