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Sanspoint.

Essays on Technology and Culture

Mastodon: A Different Way to Think About Social Media

Hey, have you heard about Mastodon, the Hot New Twitter Alternative that All The Kids Are Using™! Perhaps you’re interested in giving it a try, either because Twitter’s recent product changes have you feeling grumpy, or you’ve heard about Mastodon’s low-tolerance towards Nazis and other troublemakers, or maybe you just want to secure a username for your brand on a new social platform before someone else does.

Well, if you have heard people talking about Mastodon, ignore it, save for Sarah Jeong’s excellent piece. And certainly don’t register an account for your brand to avoid username pollution—it won’t work. Right now, many tech writers, chief among them Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff, are completely missing the point of Mastodon. Lance thinks it’s going to fail because you can’t monetize it, it’s decentralized, and William Shatner doesn’t like it, and had trouble deleting his account. Obviously, a lack of Shatner is the kiss of death for any social network.

Never mind that it’s way too soon to assume an open source project run by a handful of unpaid contributors and admins that hasn’t even existed for a year is going to be as fully-featured as Twitter. Or even has the same goals in mind. What Lance, and so many others aren’t getting about Mastodon is that it’s not meant to operate on the same scale as Twitter. Despite being named for a band that’s named after a large, extinct land mammal, being small is Mastodon’s strength.

Part of the problem with Twitter, and why so many people are frustrated with it, is that it’s too big. There’s too many people on a platform that was designed with too few barriers keeping them from each other. The fixes Twitter’s rolled out to ameliorate the problems are generally weak sauce as well. A giant network of unrestricted access to every user—unless they lock their account down to only approved followers—is not sustainable. Twitter’s twin failures of community management with its ongoing harassment problem, and inability to monetize are both symptoms of this.

That anyone can create an Mastodon instance keeps it from suffering the same issues of community management at scale that have turned Twitter into such a cesspool. Mastodon doesn’t need to be the new place for brands to connect with social influencers to be a success. If anything, Mastodon becoming a place for brands would mark it as a failure. Instead, Mastodon is about communities—a network of small, decentralized groups of real human beings (and fursonas) that communicate and share with each other.

I joined Mastodon.Social’s flagship instance back in January, when news came out that App.Net would be shutting down. I didn’t know what to expect, but I found the community on there to be welcoming, and entertaining. It leaned, and still leans, as far as I can see, heavily queer, furry, communist, and focused on open source— of which, only the first applies to me, but I stuck around all the same. While communities like this exist on Twitter, they’re both subsumed by the larger mass, and risk harassment as an effect of any sort of visibility. No wonder they’re the first to jump ship.

The influx of attention, despite temporarily crippling Mastodon’s flagship instance at mastodon.social, at least has the benefit of letting other disgruntled Twitter users know that there is an alternative. Plus, it’s put Mastodon on a more solid financial footing. Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s creator, is now pulling on over $2k a month in support on Patreon for developing the platform. This is great for a platform that’s not even six months old. New instances are popping up, and according to https://instances.mastodon.xyz/, the total users across all of them is about 100,000. That’s a long way from Twitter’s 302 million users, though it may be closer if you don’t count all the spammers and Russian Troll Bot accounts.

And yes, there’s growing pains to come, and growing pains happening now. Eugen and other Mastodon admins are figuring out how to manage these new communities, deal with federated harassment, and just get the software up to snuff. (Yes, Lance and Bill, account deletion is an open issue.) I have confidence these issues will be addressed, and that the network of Mastodon, and other federated social networks like micro.blog will help us rethink social networks as something that can be on the scale of a neighborhood instead of a planet.

Let a thousand Mastodon instances bloom! In fact, I might just spin up my own instance, if I can bring a few friends along for the ride. We’ll see how that goes. I do have a free Heroku account I’m not doing anything with… A world of decentralized, community-run instances of Mastodon may never replace Twitter or Facebook, but their mere existence proves that there’s another way. I want to be part of it.

You can learn more about Mastodon and how to set up an instance on the project’s GitHub.

Winding Down

It’s no fun anymore.

I got into blogging because I had a lot to say, and it was fun to put words on the internet. It was also fun to make the sites to put words on the internet. When I graduated High School, I asked my parents for one gift: a domain, and a year of web hosting. That was almost fifteen years ago, and it’s the best gift I ever received—though I’ve changed web hosts and registrars since.

Of course, you’ll notice that there aren’t fifteen years worth of posts on here. That’s because I have a tendency to burn my life’s work, sometimes to start a new life, sometimes to start a fire. I started, and restarted Sanspoint several times before settling on what you see today: blogging about technology and culture. It gave me seven years of solid content ideas, even if the volume was inconsistent.

But it’s no fun anymore. I’m burned out. Technology either infuriates me beyond the point of rational analysis and good writing, or it feels like a distraction from the bigger issues in the new political world. As Patrick Rothfuss put it so elegantly on Twitter: “When I was younger, I could run endlessly on rage. These days, it’s not sustainable for me. It clouds my reason. I burn out and shut down.” I’ve been feeling the same way, and now I’ve hit the “burn out and shut down” stage.

I can’t force the words to come when there’s nothing in the well, and while the well isn’t dry, it’s damned close. It takes far more effort to make the words come and put them on the screen than is worth the return I get from it. I don’t mean financial return, though I won’t deny that’s a factor. If Sanspoint were my full-time job, I could probably find it in me to push on a little further. How much further, though, I don’t know. I just know I’ve hit my limit.

So I’m not going to push any more.

I’m not giving up writing, let alone on Sanspoint, by any stretch, but I’m also not going to beat myself up for not writing. Since making that decision, I’ve felt better than I have in months—maybe years. It’s just a load off my back that I am more than happy to let go. Where I’m going, I don’t need it. I’m much more fulfilled in my new day job, working for one of the country’s premier performing arts organizations, and doing work that is meaningful, even in dark times like these. Instead of fighting elephants with thumbtacks, I’m making an impact in a different way for something I believe in.

I don’t make this decision lightly. I mentioned the financial incentive to continue writing earlier. Last year, I’d set out a goal of making Sanspoint a self-sufficient project. I came close, bringing in about $82, which is a bit over two-thirds of my hosting bill. The idea was that I’d have some kind of incentive structure beyond just regular content to entice sign-ups. (Never mind, of course, that regular content often failed to materialize anyway.) The only thing i came up with was a newsletter, which I’ve steadfastly produced for 25 issues. A couple were late, but it’s been way more consistent than anything on this site.

So, I’ve cancelled the whole $3.00 a month subscription offer for Sanspoint. The support page still has an option for free-will donations, but if I’m not promising regular updates, there’s no reason why you should give me money on a regular basis either. On top of that, I’m opening up the newsletter, officially, to anyone who wants it. I want to keep writing the newsletter around because writing the newsletter is much more fun than writing for the site. It’s a looser, freer format, with less constraints. I hope you enjoy it.

I’m rather proud of most of the stuff I’ve written here over the past seven years. Proud enough that I won’t set it on fire, literally or figuratively. I’ll write again when I have something of value to say that isn’t mere angry grumbling about the technology industry. I have some ideas, and when the words come, they’ll go up. And maybe I’ll explore some other media options too, in time. I won’t rule out anything.

But for now, I’m freeing myself of obligation, and it’s a very good feeling. I’ll see you all when I see you.

Star Trek, Cyberpunk, Douglas Adams, and Our Technology Future

This tweet has been circulating for a few years, but it remains relevant to technology discussion today, if not moreso.

Unlike so many people I follow online, I never came up on Cyberpunk. When it comes to Sci-Fi, I grew up on Star Trek—specifically The Next Generation. This might be why, when it comes to technology, there’s still some optimist under my cynical surface. You just need to scratch hard. Though later series and movies would muddy the waters (in a good way), Star Trek retains a utopian view of technology. Not one where technology undoes all human foibles, but where it helps us usher in a more peaceful world, free of material want, and with the freedom to seek fulfillment among the stars. Technology is the vehicle through which humanity’s better nature manifests into the universe.

Instead, I see technology turned against our better natures. Whether it’s governments and corporations alike spying on us through our communication tools, attempts to shove more consumer garbage down our throats, or just predicting our wants before we know we want something for the benefit of a corporate partner, I get mad. Can you blame me? This is not the future I signed up for, but as one of my favorite bands put it, “The future that [I] anticipated has been cancelled.”

So, we get the Cyberpunk future, with all the exploitive techno-capitalism, environmental disasters, and crappy music, but none of the cool fashion. At least we also don’t have to carry around as much gear. If this is the sci-fi view of the world you grew up on, I suppose it’s easy to accept it. While I read a bit of cyberpunk literature as a teen and young adult—Neuromancer and Snow Crash, specifically—I didn’t fall in love with the concept. Likely because I wouldn’t be the elite hacker, slashing his way through cyberspace, merely an office drone at one of the MegaCorps. Maybe there’s a story idea there, though.

But, the Cyberpunk dystopia is hiding its true face behind the lofty utopian rhetoric of the Star Trek future. Not that this is anything new, of course. Utopian rhetoric has been the marketing methodology of new technology for centuries. Which is why, I suppose, if there’s any Sci-Fi that truly reflects the state of technology today, it might be the other major Sci-Fi influence of my adolescence: Douglas Adams.

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas extrapolates a view of technology that’s much the same as we have today: a bunch of pie-in-the-sky utopian promises that never work as advertised. This holds true whether it’s robots with “Genuine People Personalities”, or food synthesizers that analyze your body’s dietary needs and your brains desire before spitting out something “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.” Hell, “Share and Enjoy” may as well be the slogan for Facebook, if not The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

The great thing about Douglas’s view of technology is that it adds the right spice of cynicism to my utopian Star Trek dreams. Even if we get our post-scarcity utopia of starships and matter replicators, they’ll probably still hang, and take every other system down with it, if someone asks for a cup of tea. But to get there, we need to decide which future we want. And we need to see past the doublespeak and false utopian nonsense spouted by Valley douchebags seeking another round of funding for their newest startup that promises to make your life easier by letting you pay someone to do menial work at a lower pay rate.

I don’t know about you, but I’m still gunning for the Star Trek future. The only way it arrived, however, was after political turmoil, and brutal war that left the planet devastated. Perhaps we must go through the cyberpunk future, the dystopia, and the horror, to reach the technological utopia on the other side. But if we can skip to utopia—or at least make the dystopia short—why shouldn’t we? Where’s my generation’s genuine Sci-Fi optimism? It sure isn’t coming from Silicon Valley.

Fighting An Elephant With A Thumbtack

Even before the election, I was angry at the tech industry for all the usual reasons. Here’s a short sampling of them:

The election flipped a switch for me, however, and I’ve gone from merely angry to outright furious. I’ve gone from concerned about how my data is being used to outright afraid of tech companies colluding with a government to create registries of Muslims, or other “dangerous” groups. I’m furious that the lack of moderation and oversight on social media has resulted in radical white nationalists dominating the platforms.

It’s tiresome, to be honest. All this anger and rage, it doesn’t make for good writing, and it doesn’t make for pleasant reading either. Beyond that, what good is my raging and screaming into the void even accomplishing? Maybe if I had the audience of Kara Swisher, who wrote a scathing editorial about the tech CEO’s coming to Trump’s “summit”, my words could have an impact on the industry. Instead, it feels like I’m trying to defend against a charging elephant while armed with a thumbtack.

The reason I write about technology is because I care. I complain because I love. I got my first computer in 1992, and I got online in 1997. Both events changed my life, and spawned a continuing fascinating with the potential of computers, the internet, and related gizmos that still lingers. Through technology, I made friends when I was a socially isolated teenager, I found love while I was a socially awkward college student, and I found a voice as an adult. There’s so much power and potential for good embedded in technology that seeing it all twisted to serve the ends of the greedy, the violent, and the hateful… well, can you blame me for being angry?

But what am I going to do about it? That’s the tricky part. I’m burned out, and I’ve been burned. Two short stints in the tech industry, even if one was on the periphery, taught my only that I don’t want to work in the tech industry—even if I were working for one of the better, more progressive tech companies. There’s no joy in being part of the solution, and no success in trying to solve the problem from outside—which also brings no joy. I find myself at an impasse.

In turn, I have to reassess the goal of the Sanspoint project. My technology writing has, ostensibly, been guided by a sense of wanting to use the technology we have better. I don’t mean this in just a personal productivity sense, but also towards the ends of peace, love, and economic equality.(Yes, there’s still the slightest bit of an idealist under my cynical exterior if you scratch hard enough.) What’s clear is that the direction my writing as of late is not going towards those goals. It’s past time to change that. I just don’t want to leave behind the important struggle for the future we face to do it.

You may not be aware of it, but we are in the middle of World War III. It is not nuclear bombs we must fear. The weapon is the human mind, or lack of it, on this planet. That will determine our fate.

DEVO – “General Boy Visits Apocalypse Now”, 1979

Your Privacy is Worth More than what Tech is Selling

I’ve had debates online about the theory Apple needs to weaken their stance on privacy if they want to be a leader in consumer AI products. My stance on this is simple: no. If anything, Apple should strengthen their stance on user privacy, both as good practice and as a way to protect its customers against the incoming Presidential administration. And if this means Apple can’t compete in the AI and machine learning space with Google, Facebook, Amazon, or whoever, I am more than happy to accept that.

Why? For one, I’m skeptical that all of this data is actually giving us better products. Big data, AI, and ML may certainly be useful in specialized applications, but in the consumer space, I’m not seeing the benefits. All you need do is look at the current space of consumer AI and ML. There are two main consumer-level applications, and both have the same general purpose in mind: getting you to consume things. It’s obvious in the case of the ad-supported model used by Facebook and Google. The more data they collect, the more accurate the ads will be. Whether this is the case or not is up to you, but the last thing I need is more ads telling me to buy shit I don’t need based on some random link I clicked.

The second is in the realm of home virtual assistants, of which the Amazon Echo is the most popular. Google’s also entered the game with the Google Home. The last thing I need is a hot microphone to Amazon or Google’s data centers living in my apartment, but let’s explore just what the heck these things actually do. At a fundamental level, these are devices that compel you to consume more from the companies that make them, along with their partners. The Amazon Echo lets you buy things (from Amazon), play music (from Amazon), and control various smart home devices you likely bought through Amazon. Google Home is similar, though I don’t know if its e-commerce functionality is as built out as Amazon’s.

Every command you issue: “Alexa, order more paper towels,” or “Hey, Google, start playing my Christmas playlist” is stored, analyzed, attributed to your profile, and used to sell you more stuff. And would be quite surprised if Amazon doesn’t have an agreement with whoever makes your various smart home devices to share usage data. The whole thing is a home spying device designed to build a profile of its users that will be monetized. It’s just given a servile, yet slightly snarky personality to make you feel at ease when you give up another useful nugget of personal data. And for what? To make it easier to buy paper towels, or control the lights?

We keep being promised us better products, if we just give up more data. We give up more data, and we still get crap that’s only better at selling us more crap. It’s crap all the way down. A more accurate playlist of music recommendations only keeps you paying $9.99 a month for more music—of which the artists only sees pennies. Better Alexa speech recognitions means you can order paper towels with the water running in the kitchen. Big whoop.

But all this data can also be used for more disturbing things down the line, and that’s what bothers me most.

In a 2015 talk, Maciej Cegłowski made the apt comparison of user data to nuclear waste, and notes

“The data we’re collecting about people has this same odd property. Tech companies come and go, not to mention the fact that we share and sell personal data promiscuously.

“But information about people retains its power as long as those people are alive, and sometimes as long as their children are alive. No one knows what will become of sites like Twitter in five years or ten. But the data those sites own will retain the power to hurt for decades.”

By way of an example, Maciej uses LiveJournal, and how a “gay blogger in Moscow” who started a LiveJournal account in 2004 is now at risk of being outed because “[I]n 2007, LiveJournal [was] sold to a Russian company…” And, well, we know how the current Russian government feels about homosexuality right?

Even a company that is generally on the good side of user privacy, like Apple, could change its tune at any moment. Tomorrow, Tim Cook could step off the wrong curb, and get hit by a bus. Or, Wall Street could decide they’ve had enough and kick him out in favor of a CEO who is more willing to work with the Federal Government and the Trump Administration. Having sanctions slapped on every iPhone imported from Shenzhen isn’t going to be great for the stock price.

But we don’t even have to wait. Right now, a member of Facebook’s board, Peter Thiel, has the ear of a President-Elect who promised to deport Muslims, even those who were born in this country. Don’t tell me Thiel wouldn’t compel Facebook to help. They’ve already said they would do it if asked. Facebook is the largest of the tech data brokers we surrender our personal data to, wittingly or not. They promise us relevance, and they’ve given us filter bubbles full of fake news stories. This is what I’m paying my privacy for?

It’s not hard to imagine how all this data could be turned against us. Imagine a suspicious explosion in a major city. The FBI compels Apple and Google to hand over location data on every iPhone and Android device in the area before the explosion, along with device owners email addresses. (Currently Apple deletes last known location data after two hours, but as noted, this could change.) Run that data against everyone who has identified themselves as Muslim on Facebook. Then, scan all the profile and tagged pics of those Facebook users and compare them with the camera footage picked up by Peter Thiel-founded Palantir—who is already working with the NYPD. Now you have your suspects, ready for “enhanced interrogation” and potential imprisonment or deportation.

Creeped out yet?

And it’s all because you wanted better location-aware alerts and suggestions on what crap to buy. When giving up privacy is worth only crap products and enabling government and corporate surveillance, it’s not worth it. Unfortunately, as I’ve noted, before “our online lives run on data.” We can no more extricate ourselves from the web of services that collect and store our personal data than we can extricate ourselves from the plumbing in our houses. At least the water company isn’t analyzing our leavings to find new things to sell to us Yet.

These are all linked. You can’t demand a company roll back user privacy in one area without compromising everything. It’s not immediate, but like a single torn thread in a pair of jeans, that hole is going to stretch and tear more threads with every movement. You won’t be terribly happy when something gets through that you didn’t intend. I suppose I’d be less skeptical if someone could show me one useful product that genuinely improves lives beyond offering new things to consume, and does so in a way that won’t put the lives of its users at risk. Right now, we don’t have it, just a bunch of vague promises that could be broken in a heartbeat. If the alternative means that we have no AIs in our pockets and homes, well, that’s a trade I’d be happy to make.