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Unauditible algorithms are the enemy of social media users

Pattern

Writing about Elon Musk trying to buy Twitter, Dorian Taylor reflects that:

What Twitter does really well is put you on equal footing with people you would otherwise never think to reach out to, and in other contexts, probably wouldn’t give you the time of day. These people put themselves out there to be interacted with, so you have implicit permission to interact with them.

I would say Twitter perhaps used to do this, at least for me. I find these kinds of interaction these days on the Fediverse, where people aren’t trying to please algorithms.

Chris Trottier, someone I have recently started following, wrote a post explaining the difference between interacting in a centralised, algorithm-controlled space, and setting up shop in a decentralised one.

I have managed to attract 35 followers. This is for a fresh new instance barely two weeks old. The network effect is low. There’s no social algorithm pushing my posts because the Fediverse has no algorithms like that.

Likewise, I am nobody particularly notable – just a guy having fun on social media. All anyone sees is pictures of computer games, cassette tapes, food, and stuff from nature walks. In effect, just stuff a typical person would share.

People respond to incentives: if algorithms are set up to reward users who interact in a certain way, then this is what (most) users end up doing. Proof of this comes through behaviours such as like-farming declarative statements on centralised social media, designed to maximise ‘engagement’ with a post.

It’s not so radical to wonder whether, when users of a system are posting things with the intention of ‘going viral’, perhaps authenticity suffers? Are algorithms used by centralised social media serving the needs of the humans using it?

Algorithms that cannot be audited are a feature, not a bug, of centralised social media. They are what provide ‘shareholder value” by allowing advertising content to grab the attention of users, whether they like it or not. These systems are focused on behaviour modification and are not going to change.

Capital, which is what centralised social media serves, loves hierarchy and social stratification. People knowing their place. People having a different experience based on their ability to pay, and, of course, monetising the ‘follower’ dynamic.

The Fediverse is a messy, weird, human place. It reminds me of Twitter in the early days. Everyone on a truly equal footing, being themselves — whatever that happens to be today. The experience isn’t sanitised, or corporate, or algorithmic. And, for me that’s perfect.

Two years of spending more time in ‘dark forests’

Trees in a forest

Back in 2019, Yancey Strickler wrote:

Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay silent.

Is our universe an empty forest or a dark one? If it’s a dark forest, then only Earth is foolish enough to ping the heavens and announce its presence. The rest of the universe already knows the real reason why the forest stays dark. It’s only a matter of time before the Earth learns as well.

This is also what the internet is becoming: a dark forest.

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.

In doing so, he gave a name to something many of us had been feeling: that the fully-public spaces we previously inhabited in a carefree way are increasingly ideological battlegrounds. In response, we crave “depressurized conversation… possible because of… non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments”.

I’ve spent a lot less time on Twitter in the last couple of years. But it’s changed and I’ve changed, and I find more joy, fulfilment, and recognition elsewhere these days. Slack channels, corners of the Fediverse, and Signal chats have become a lot more important in my life.

As Strickler wrote in a follow-up post, however, we can’t just stay in the forests all of the time. To “expect anything to change for the better”, he says, “we have to actively engage”. For some people, that will look like the digital equivalent of punching nazis. But for others, it will look like building, maintaining, and evangelising spaces which are more conducive to the depressurised conversations we often seek.


In a bid to be ever-more-present for my family and my own mental health, I’ve been experimenting again with Pinafore, an alternative front-end for Mastodon. Devoid of commercial imperatives to ‘hook’ users, this webapp implements easy-to-use toggles based on guidelines from the Center for Humane Technology. (You may remember the latter from the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.) For example, you can turn the interface to greyscale, hide boosts and unread notifications, and make it so you have to press a button to reload the timeline.

Small differences, to be sure. But I’ve noticed that it makes a noticeable difference in lessening the number of times that I may mindlessly pick up my phone to do the dreaded ‘stare and scroll’…


Image based on an original by Kilian Kremer

Identity, obedience, and social media

One of the things I find invidious about social media is the ‘norming’ that happens at scale. People are simultaneously performing for others and conforming to their status as member of a particular group.

Identity is important. It’s the way we understand the world around us and our place in it. It’s also a fluid construct that changes over time. That’s why groups have a vested interest in ensuring that either their members change to conform to a shared group identity (usually) or the shared group identity changes to reflect the times (rarely).

One way of thinking about group formation is in terms of customs and habits of that group, but also, as Michel de Montaigne’s best friend pointed out, voluntary servitude:

Nevertheless it is clear enough that the powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely, habituation to subjection.

Etienne de La Boétie, The Politics of Obedience

We are all born into groups which define our reality, becoming habituated to the subjection imposed by them. Sometimes by accident, often due to some form of crisis, we find our way out of them and discover a world we didn’t previously know existed.

Let us therefore admit that all those things to which he is trained and accustomed seem natural to man and that only that is truly native to him which he receives with his primitive, untrained individuality. Thus custom becomes the first reason for voluntary servitude. Men are like handsome race horses who first bite the bit and later like it, and rearing under the saddle a while soon learn to enjoy displaying their harness and prance proudly beneath their trappings. Similarly men will grow accustomed to the idea that they have always been in subjection, that their fathers lived in the same way; they will think they are obliged to suffer this evil, and will persuade themselves by example and imitation of others, finally investing those who order them around with proprietary rights, based on the idea that it has always been that way.

Etienne de La Boétie, The Politics of Obedience

As I approach 40, I’m determined to check ways in which I’m acting in ways that could be considered servile. And remove them from my life.


This post is Day 23 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

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