The Internet in 1999 was comprised mostly of individual websites run by individual people. WYSIWYG website builders were new and exciting, allowing laypeople and ten year-olds to make sites without much technical expertise. People of similar interests found each other through webrings and message boards and chat rooms. Digital word-of-mouth was limited, and virality wasn’t possible.
I’ve had a personal website since this bygone era, and in those days, if people wanted to know when I updated with new art, they needed to go to the site manually and check. The Internet was small, so this wasn’t too arduous a task.
Nowadays, the Internet is pretty big.
It’s not practical to manually check lots of individual sites anymore. Besides, while most creators posting stuff online in 1999 had websites, this isn’t true of their 2019 brethren. Some might have both, but many artists now only have social media accounts. Social media is convenient. Not only do you not need any technical expertise, you don’t have to build anything at all. It’s much easier for people to find you, and they don’t have to manually check your feed every day. Everyone they follow is combined into one feed. So handy!
Creators and small businesses complain regularly about algorithms penalising their content, judging it low priority, and hiding it from their audience. This runs antithesis to the reason most of them are on social media in the first place: to find and reach their audience.
And yet algorithms wouldn’t be a thing if they didn’t do their job, which is to show the most interesting content to their users so they stay on the site longer. Despite vocal and seemingly omnipresent user-expressed frustrations with algorithms, more people like them (or are indifferent to them) than don’t. If algorithms didn’t work, they wouldn’t continue to be introduced everywhere, and creators wouldn’t have to fight them.
But there’s no real winning that fight.
There are lots of strategies out there for gaming the system: posting at optimal times on a regular schedule, using hashtags and keywords, etc, but algorithms change and update as quickly as users adapt, and a battle where you can only react to your opponent’s moves isn’t one that can be won.
The problem isn’t the algorithms
The problem is that everyone is stuck on social media.
The problem is that social media networks are centralised platforms that aim to monopolise their users’ attention and time. Their bottom line is in advertisement dollars, and the longer users are on the site, the more opportunity there is for ads (and data mining). It’s therefore in the platform’s best interest to show what is most likely to entrap their attention — and if the platform judges that you don’t make the cut, too bad. The problem is neither the artist nor their audience has any control over the platform. They can complain all day every day, and they do, but the platform gods aren’t beholden to their requests. The users aren’t the customers; they’re the products.
Centralisation means that everything is on and is connected to one source, and that source has full control. The users you follow on Twitter are all on Twitter, with content and profiles published and hosted on Twitter, and so it’s down to Twitter to decide what you see at any given time. Centralisation gives total control to its single source.
The Decentralised Internet and RSS
Before social media, the Internet was largely decentralised. There were small network platforms here and there, but they were limited and insular. (They also weren’t very profitable.) Everyone who had their own website had their own source, and they had full control over that source. No central source means no central way to follow everyone though, so how did people get around having to check fifty different websites for their daily content?
RSS is Really Simple Syndication, and it’s basically a standardised way for websites to create a feed of their content, which can then be syndicated and read in a feed reader. A user can add feeds from all the websites they want to get updates from, then just check their feed reader as their one source of updates. This way, they don’t have to check fifty individual sites. The feed reader brings all of the sources to one place for the user, but each source is still independently controlled and separate from the feed itself.
Feed readers typically allow users to sort feeds into custom categories and have options to display the contents of feeds chronologically or reverse chronologically. These days, some readers also have the option for an algorithmic feed (further proving that some people actually like and want them). But feed readers don’t benefit from trying to monopolise user attention because unlike with social networks — users can just leave a feed reader.
Users are tied into social networks because all of the stuff they want is there — the people they follow, the news and other content they want. Even if the people and content are available elsewhere, on other networks, you can’t instantly find and follow everyone again very easily. It’s a pain in the ass to move between social networks.
But feed readers? None of the actual content is hosted on the reader — it’s external, de-centralised, independent. You can easily export a list of the RSS feeds you follow and import them into a different feed reader. While some small settings and options (like sort order or categories) may be unique to your reader, the actual content you follow isn’t, and it’s a lot easier to move between different readers because the RSS protocol is consistent. This also means that anyone (techy enough) can build their own reader and display feeds however they want. There is healthy competition.
Can you imagine if anyone could just write their own way to display their Twitter feed? And if that way to show tweets became more popular than Twitter’s native way, Twitter would have a huge problem. (Why do you think third-party Twitter clients aren’t a thing anymore? Tweetdeck started sucking as soon as Twitter bought them out.) It’s in Twitter’s best interest is to keep everyone on Twitter because that gives Twitter total control.
If everyone self-hosted their content and their audiences were accustomed to using RSS feed readers to consolidate and consume their content, then all the power is with the people, so to speak. Artists and creators control their own content. Consumers control their own news feed. The feed reader is a neutral tool and not a network.
RSS has been here the whole time, since 1999. As social media began to take over, many popular feed readers died tragic deaths (RIP Google Reader). But the only way to not have to deal with an algorithmic feed is to give RSS a proper revival. There are still plenty of good readers out there.
Control comes at a cost
Of course, having power comes at a cost, and that cost is time, to learn how to use that power, and money, to pay for hosting.
Part of the reason social media took off was because of how easy it is to use. Signing up takes five minutes and then off you go, tweeting and posting and sharing and liking. As an artist, it’s mind-blowingly easy to broadcast your things to the whole wide world. And as a consumer, it’s easy to get going, looking up your favourite creators and celebrities, following them, and adding them to your feed… who cares if they’re only on that platform-specific feed? It’s not like Instagram is going away anytime soon.
Meanwhile, setting up a website takes time. Even with many one-click solutions, readily available templates, and relatively intuitive site builders these days, it can still be a big hurdle for a creator to figure out how to make a website. And it can be hard to justify paying for hosting when there are so many free alternatives.
And while RSS had its time in the sun when blogs (the high point of decentralised networks) took off in the mid-2000’s, these days, most people don’t even know what RSS is. So what’s the point of building a website that can utilise RSS when no one is going to follow your RSS feed anyway? How do you convince your audience to sign up for an RSS reader and start curating their own platform-independent content feed? How do you take control away from Big Social Media?
I have no idea.
But spreading awareness is probably the only first step we can take, along with building those websites.
Build your house on land you own
Okay, that’s a bit misleading. Most people don’t want a physical server set up in their house, so web hosting is virtual land they rent.
Still, there’s a lot more security in Internet real estate you’re paying money for compared to real estate you’re allowed to exist on but only at the mercy of the landowners, who can evict you at any time for any reason, or otherwise only show off your pretty house to others some of the time, depending on what the algorithms think.
Web hosting is usually between $4 and $25/mo depending on the specifics of your plan. My current host, A2, has really affordable packages. This is an affiliate link and I get a lil’ kickback if you sign up, but there are plenty of options. I’ve had good experiences working with Bluehost, Hostmonster, Linode, and many others. Some hosts are more layperson-friendly than others, but for the most part, the main differences between hosts are in customer and technical support. Do your research and figure out what’s right for you!
It’s so much easier to build websites now 20 years ago, and 20 years, even a ten year-old on Geocities could figure it out. RSS is built-in on many modern Content Management Systems like WordPress, and just about every web host supports auto-installations of WordPress.
Retraining your audience (and yourself)
It’s not practical for most artists to leave social media. It’s probably an objectively bad business decision to leave the place where most of your audience spends their time, even if they’re only seeing your content some of the time anyway.
But it’s good to set up alternatives and to let people know about those alternatives. Where can they find you if Twitter randomly suspends you? Where can they look if they haven’t seen your stuff come up on Instagram in a while? Even if your audience doesn’t set up an account with a feed reader any time soon, it’s good to have a feed ready for them if they do. (An email list is also a good idea.)
For my part, I used to blog a lot more before social media was a thing. Lamenting long-form writing and the willing consumption of it is a post for another day, but I used to post more art here too, before Tumblr made it easier and more tantalisingly attractive to do it elsewhere. I’d like to go back to some of that. I have had my own website for 20 years, and it’s seen a lot of neglect in the last several. A website remodel has been a long time coming. This place could be easier to navigate, easier to use. And I could post more.
Social media will still be a thing. I’ll still use it. But I want to use it less and instead put more and better content in my own damn space, and I think others should strive for the same.
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