The Problem of Old-School Long-Form Writing
I’m an engineer. I’m a nerd. Most of my social life is online. And that was before 2020, when pretty much everyone’s social life had to get online.
I enjoy writing, and given the above intro, that means I’m writing things online.
Back in the day, if you wanted to write long-form things online, you set up a a blog. Blog is a weird phrase: originally short for Web Log, but of course it’s become its own noun, and even become a verb. Platforms such as MovableType and WordPress were platforms originally put out to be installed on a normal web host, so that people could blog. (This was before WordPress became a really bad, really bloated, content management system/plug-in ecosystem riddled with security issues).
And, let me be clear about this: the purpose in doing most of this blogging was to share your words. In the early days of the internet, images were slow — sometimes there were one or two images shared, but it wasn’t a constant stream of 5 meg images running down the page. Text is simple, and compresses, and is compatible with screen readers, it can be easily resized, copy-pasted, and cited. It can be spell-checked. It can be edited. It can be translated.
Back in the day, I used Livejournal extensively. Like most of my friends, I was just “on there”. It was the social network that we gravitated toward. And it was glorious. There were such groundbreaking features as:
- Being able to read all of your friend’s post and not complain that an algorithm had hidden one.
- Being able to bookmark a specific post.
- Being able to share the mood and music you’re listening to. I know, this sounds silly, but it really DID put you in the room with a person, with two simple lines of text.
- Being able to FIND a post in your friend’s feed.
- Being able to read a friend’s feed (or a list of all your feeds) from off-site via an open standard: RSS.
- Being able to pull other RSS feeds into your reading roll. So if your friend was a blogger that used Wordpress or MovableType, you could have it in your feed, too!
- Being able to write a post as long as you want.
- Being able to opt out of ads.
- Being able to spoiler-cut something. Sometimes even multiple-expanding times.
- Oh yeah, and the company believed in open-source, too.
I know it sounds like I’m being trite here, but those features are incredibly absent from both Facebook and Twitter.
When I was hospitalized for a month, with a liver abscess, my LiveJournal was the place to stay updated on my status. And the fact that they had a voice-post feature that my friends could transcribe for me was…just killer. It was beautiful in a lo-fi fashion.
Back in the day, they even made a commercial. And I still tear up at it.
It was not to last — they were bought by a Russian company and they slid downhill hard. They still exist, but it doesn’t feel to me like a bastion of free speech given the Russian Government’s stance on…well, lots of things.
Thinking about using either Facebook or Twitter these days makes me think of a joke (which is in turn based on a motivational saying):
Inside you are two wolves. You should see a doctor. The correct number of wolves inside you is Zero.
Twitter started as a microblogging platform. The 140-character tweet limit was originally designed to be the length of an SMS (again, before smartphones). Just a general update on “what you’re doing right now”.
That short character limit was designed to Keep it Simple. It failed.
In order to describe how I see Twitter, we need to talk about constrained writing. This is a way of writing a story despite some kind of literary challenge: No verbs, for example. No letters. No proper names. Keeping it below a certain number of words. There’s a book called Gadsby, that was written without the letter “E”. There’s a translation of Moby Dick into Emoji. There are haiku that are also limericks. These are all cool and fun things to do with language, but they are not what I’d call classic literature.
People took to twitter and started writing threads, commenting on their own comments of comments. Writing words on their phones in short self-contained bursts. It got so insane that there’s an Thread Reader bot to undo this.
Or you have someone reposting a screenshot of a post into a tweet. And you see it, and think it’s cool and want to show someone later and…you can never find it again.
Some amazing things have been written on twitter, but none of it brings me joy to read. It’s like trying to read everything in another language that I speak, but also written in Comic Sans.
I lived for more than a decade in silicon valley. I lived in the same town as Facebook, and I actively watched as they made the traffic in the area worse. In an area where the income gap was incredibly polarizing, I watched as it would take an hour or more to drive past Facebook HQ with its rooftop gardens and open-plan offices on display like some WELCOME FRESHMEN college brochure. I watched as fleets of air-conditioned, wifi-enabled luxury buses lined up to transport their employees to and from work every day. Make no mistake, I’m salty at them for that alone.
And I’ve seen as they break their code on a regular basis (one post which took weeks to fix was “words would type in the wrong order”. Another was “they broke the backspace key in their post dialog”) I’ve watched as they constantly feel the need to mess with their UI — and not even in a user-consistent way. I’ve seen as they block inane comments for “community standards” while at the same time not being able to figure out why a brand new account is sending me friend requests, or when an account has been “cloned”. I’ve watched as they give me content warnings for showing a person in a gag, but fill my wall with ads for viagra.
And depending on a number of factors — if you’re writing to have your post seen, it just won’t be. When I link to a Medium post from my Facebook wall, it gets consistently fewer views than, say, a picture of my cat. I don’t mean that people don’t click the link. I mean that Facebook never shows it to them. Because it takes them off-site, and stops them from reading their wall.
Social Media in General
And then there’s what’s wrong with BOTH of them: The signal-to-noise ratio.
On both of them, there’s no easy way that I’ve found to say I just want to see this person’s content. Not the things they re-tweet. Not the memes they share. Just…their writing and their words and thoughts. This is a feature that I guess has just never garnered enough demand to be implementable.
On neither of them can you turn off the ads and sponsored posts, for any amount of money. And even trying to tune the ads (“Stop showing me ads for a thing I already own” or “stop showing me ads for back-the-blue companies” or “stop showing me half-formed sponsored pages”) make the failure of the system even more obvious.
Both of them suffer from the Starbucks Effect: there’s some amazing coffee shops in town, but they can’t compete with Starbucks. Starbucks is Not Good Coffee, but it’s consistent and it’s accessable. And Starbucks doesn’t care if it puts the little guys out of business. Or causes diabetes. So long as it increases shareholder value. Things are only a problem for Starbucks when there’s bad PR.
Like Starbucks, these are the ones with the traffic. They’re the ones all your friends are on. To have a chance at all at being seen, you have to be on them. Or get all your friends to change. Which they won’t.
Both suffer from a rampant spread of misinformation. The ease of swaying views. The rampant Twitter bots (when the only metrics are number of followers and number of retweets, it’s easy to exploit this). The whole Cambridge Analytica debacle. The experiments Facebook does on their users, and the way that their algorithm will generally only show you things you agree with — effectively polarizing you and making you think you’re smarter than you are.
If the 2016 US election was “hacked”, it was done so at least in part by exploiting the algorithms on both these platforms.
Both of them acted for years like they couldn’t hold hate speech by a political figure up to the same standards as the rest of their member base. And then they did.
Both platforms claimed for years that they could not (legally or practically) implement content filters: and then they did. And that specifically feels like they weren’t taking the problem seriously, until it was something they could be legally held responsible for and needed to make a best-efforts showing.
And on either of them, if I write my words — if you get to see them at all, they’ll be used to sell you things. Used to analyze your behavior. And maybe even sell that analysis to other advertisers.
My writing here on Medium is behind a paywall, but at least I get a tiny piece of the pie. And when I’m ready, I can take these posts and put them on my own blogging site.
Or Dreamwidth. (which is basically all the old Livejournal employees doing what they love).