Despite all the rhetoric and trending hashtags and everything else, people didn’t delete Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data appropriation scandal. That was never really realistic.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a move toward other, newer social networks and platforms. A recent Quartz piece featured some recommendations from a Y Combinator partner on what networks and apps people might choose if they’re looking for something new. The founder of Path, a network that limited the size of your network, is considering revamping the app to present it as a viable alternative. There might even be a market, as proffered here, for social networks that charge users and so only need to serve one master and are only populated by those willing to shell out a bit of cash to join.
One point in the extract displayed via RSS for that FastCo story about Are.na jumped out at me. The app was described as an “ethical social network, indicating that contenders for the throne will at least in part attempt to tap into the tendency among younger audience segments for values-based decision making.
There’s already an option, though, for those looking to be more conscious of what they post online, those feeling burnt by the fact that data mining is the business model of social networks. As presented here, that option is to revisit the idea of blogging and owning your material instead of placing it on someone else’s property.
Let’s be clear here: I’m specifically talking about blogging on open platforms like WordPress. Medium and Tumblr are great and there are a lot of good blogs being published there, but because their fates are tied up with the fortunes of the companies that manage them they come with a lot of the same issues social networks themselves do. Medium has always had issues with search and discovery and Tumblr could turn on an algorithmic, engagement-based feed at any time.
The key value proposition of those two platforms has been that the network is baked into the platform. That they were a mix of both concepts was part of the sales pitch. They positioned that feature as one designed to solve the problem of discovery, because, for example, you could follow topics on Medium and find relevant information from sources you may not be otherwise aware of.
That’s cool and useful, but it’s a feature that may disappear tomorrow because the engineering team no longer feels it’s of sufficient value to support.
More than that, we solved the problem of discovery before. New solutions may emerge if there’s a real, sustained movement back to blogging (which I hope there is) but the old answers, the ones we worked out over a decade ago still work: RSS, search and backlinks.
Like the best blog platforms, RSS is an open standard anyone can adopt and which is free from corporate interference. That may seem odd to say just weeks after Digg Reader shut down, but it’s true. The RSS distribution technology was baked in to early browsers like Netscape, powered MyYahoo personal home pages without people knowing about it and still exists in Safari and other places. Just because Google hasn’t done much of anything with Feedburner and shut down Google Reader years ago doesn’t mean it has decided the fate of RSS, it just means it couldn’t figure out how to monetize it. It’s still part of the backend of most all blog platforms, even if they don’t publicize it. You can subscribe to the feeds of any Tumblr or Medium blog just like you can WordPress. Try it. It’s awesome.
(Side note: Yes, I know email is also a delivery option. But email doesn’t scale like RSS does. 200 RSS items that have built up in the hour you were working on something else can be scanned through and triaged in a half hour or less. 200 emails in an hour will take you much longer because you will likely throw your computer to the floor and reconsider all your life choices.)
Then there’s search. There’s data that search continues to gain market share from social, sending more and more traffic to the websites of publishers and any increase in search behavior will have a secondary positive impact on smaller publishers, who can compete on quality more easily. But it’s not like Google is an altruistic agency devoted to the common good. It’s just as interested in your data as Facebook and its algorithm is just as subject to gaming and manipulation.
Not only that, it has its own corporate goals that take priority over any lip service paid to the value of an open, unregulated web. Not only has it largely ignored Feedburner and Blogger and killed Google Reader, but it’s launched a number of initiatives designed to keep people using Google products and services as opposed to those of anyone else. It’s surely touting how its Chrome mobile article recommendations are sending increased amounts of traffic to publishers, overlooking how black box feed curation anathema to open networks.
The other major solution to the problem of “discovery” is linking. I’ve written on numerous occasions about how linking has evolved over the years to a distortion of what it once was. Instead of linking out to other people as a way support a point you’re making, the big sites started just linking to their own previous posts or category pages, a strange case of circular logic that seems to believe “Because I’ve said this before it must be true.” Referencing old material is fine, but using it as a proof point for your current argument is flawed rhetoric.
Instead, let’s get back in the habit of linking out, free from the concern of sending traffic elsewhere. In fact, sending traffic to others is the whole point! If that person you’re linking to is a friend, you’re helping them out. If they’re someone you don’t know, the thinking has always been that they will see you linked to them and check out your own stuff, hopefully becoming a reader themselves (via RSS) and sending you traffic in the future. Links are love, we used to say, and do the work of building communities. You expose your readers to new thinkers, clearly establish the credibility of your position by borrowing the credibility of others and generally create an ongoing, free-flowing conversation.
Should blogging become once again on-trend, there will be a great amount started that are abandoned within six months. It’s hard, a commitment that’s much more substantial than what’s implied when joining a social network. Hopefully many of those who discard their own efforts will remain as readers and commenters, still contributing to the conversation in their own way.
“Own your stuff” has always been a good idea when it comes to corporate publishing programs since you maintain direct control over the data and user experience when doing so. It’s no less true for personal publishing. In fact it may be more so. We need to rediscover how powerful blogging can be as we fight for the future of our own privacy and our own freedom to control what we the consumer, where we consume it and what kind of fresh ideas we can be exposed to.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.