Specifying Spring ‘83




  • Indeed, I want to make a case for pro­to­cols — for whole lit­tle social net­works — as inves­ti­ga­tions and experiments. It doesn’t take a mil­lion users, or a thousand, or even a hun­dred, to learn gen­uinely inter­est­ing and impor­tant things: about the pro­to­cols them­selves, about new ways of relat­ing online, about peo­ple in all their glorious weirdness.
  • Give it a few evenings. Imag­ine something new; describe it as clearly as you can. You don’t have to actu­ally build your some­thing — you don’t even have to pub­lish your descrip­tion. It’s the imag­in­ing and the describing, the chal­leng­ing work of express­ing your dreams and desires clearly, that turns out to be use­ful and bracing … and fun!
  • Mentions seem sim­ple, but I think they’re hugely fraught, and not only when they become a vec­tor for harass­ment and abuse. I suspect the fairy tales tell us some­thing real and true: names have power, and the invo­ca­tion of a name always car­ries an impact. Even when it’s noth­ing but nice! Like ring­ing a bell. I don’t, however, think the solu­tion is a jet cockpit’s worth of access controls. Rather, I suspect there might be some clever new for­mu­la­tion of the “mention” waiting out there, just wait­ing to be discovered …
  • Platform design seems to me now like a sharp hill­top with steep slopes descend­ing in both directions. A platform built around twitchy com­pul­sion will trend towards addiction; a plat­form built around stolid patience will trend towards … for­getting about it.
  • So, the par­ti­sans of patience need some new tricks. We need ways of claim­ing space on screens — asserting the exis­tence of our alter­na­tives — without con­ced­ing an inch to the twitchosphere. Email works, of course; it’s likely you’re read­ing this newslet­ter because of an email. I just think there ought to be more than one (1) crusty dig­i­tal dis­tri­b­u­tion chan­nel we can depend on.
  • It takes a weird kind of per­son to want to host other peo­ple’s con­tent. Like, it’s kind of insane! Host con­tent for peo­ple who you don’t KNOW? And take on, perforce, either (a) the oblig­a­tion to mod­er­ate it upfront, “read­ing every­thing”—impos­si­ble — or (b) the bur­den of know­ing you didn’t, so those weirdos could be out there post­ing any­thing, right now?
  • Digital spaces are some­times analo­gized to homes or restaurants, with the impli­ca­tion that of course you’re free to kick some­one out, just as you would in your home or restaurant. Back before I’d ever hosted any­thing for any­one, I nodded along to this anal­ogy, but now I see that it’s incom­plete, because peo­ple only visit your home or restau­rant while you’re there. These real spaces are, by the stan­dards of dig­i­tal spaces, almost impos­si­bly well-mod­er­ated.
  • This sug­gests a challenge: could you design a pro­to­col that truly makes people respon­si­ble for their own content, elim­i­nat­ing or at least blunt­ing the peril and stress of hosting? That puts us back in the world of “every­body should just host their own con­tent on their own web­site”, which is, of course, what some peo­ple have been say­ing is nec­es­sary for decades. Well, it hasn’t caught on yet, and I don’t see any indi­ca­tion that it will … but maybe there is some anal­ogy avail­able, some repro­duc­tion of that arrange­ment on a dif­fer­ent level, that could begin to address this challenge.
  • But we, as users of the global inter­net, can­not just ride the same roller­coaster again. It’s too embar­rass­ing to be trapped inside these hun­gry cor­po­rate gambits, these dumb proper nouns. The nouns and verbs of our online rela­tion­ships should be lowercase, the way “mag­a­zine” is lowercase, the way “movie” is lowercase. Anybody can make a movie. Any­body can try.
  • Does this pro­to­col recre­ate some­thing that already exists? The oppor­tu­nity before us, as inves­ti­ga­tors and exper­i­menters in the 2020s, isn’t to make Twit­ter or Tum­blr or Insta­gram again, just “in a bet­ter way” this time. Repeat­ing myself from above: a decen­tral­ized or fed­er­ated timeline is still a timeline, and for me, the time­line is the prob­lem. This dig­i­tal medium remains liq­uid, protean, full of potential. Even after a decade of stasis, these pixels, and the ways of relat­ing behind them, will eagerly become what­ever you imag­ine.