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by Jacob O'Bryant

We need better tools for online speech

For the past three years I've been working full-time on various recommender system startup ideas. The current one (and most long-lived) is The Sample, a newsletter recommender is Yakread. However, as I've thought constantly about this area over the past several years, I've realized that recommendation is only one slice of the problem domain I'm interested in.

Recently I came up with a term that I believe captures that domain: "tools for online speech." Inspired by the tools for thought community, which seeks to create computer systems that extend people's thinking and creative capacities, I think there are still lots of opportunities to create software that improves the way ideas travel over the internet. I plan to make it my life's work.

Some examples of tools for online speech are recommender systems, search engines, social media, blogging and newsletter platforms, discussion and community software, email and RSS clients, bookmarking tools, chat apps, .... Admittedly that's a pretty broad category, but I do think it's distinct from any already common labels ("communication software" comes to mind, but would that include recommender systems or bookmarking tools?). I also think it's worth creating a new label so that we can try to form a community of people interested in improving these tools.

Why it matters

It's helpful to think in evolutionary terms. The information environment, which includes technology, social structures, and other human factors, defines a fitness function for information. The environment determines which information spreads and which doesn't.

Tools for online speech are important because each one has an effect on the information environment. One of the ways we can improve the environment is by thoughtfully designing, building, and distributing better tools. We can work towards an environment that favors well-supported arguments over memes and misinformation; that helps good ideas find an audience even if the author doesn't already have a large following; that gives influence to voices from marginalized communities and helps to combat discrimination; that helps people to learn instead of just being entertained; and so on.

It's true that social problems often can't be solved with technology. We shouldn't expect that our problems will all be solved by writing code. But we can strive to understand how existing power structures, human motivations and incentives, and plain-old entropy affect the information environment; and look for ways that better tools could help us balance things out.

Decisions in all areaswhether at an individual level like parenting or career choices, or at a global level like climate change or the decline of democracyare affected by the information at hand. Thus there are enormous potential benefits to improving our information environment, even incrementally. If you're interested in this domain, it might be one of the most valuable ways to spend your time.

Example: unbundling social media

To make the idea of tools for online speech a little more concrete, I'd like to share some of my personal opinions on the space. I'm not intending to include any of these opinions in the definition of tools for online speech, so it's fine if you disagree with my arguments or are interested in other kinds of tools. Hopefully this just provides a starting point for discussion.

As a first step, I think we should strengthen alternatives to the social media platforms. I want to make it easier for anyone (not just product managers at Facebook or Twitter) to experiment with different ways of doing things. My rough mental model is that there are four big needspublishing, consumption, aggregation, and discussionand there should be separate, interchangeable services for each. Then if someone has an idea for e.g. a better publishing app, they can build it and have it plug into the other existing services for consumption, aggregation, and discussion. No need to bootstrap an entire network from scratch.

This model already exists in a nascent form. For example: you can publish a newsletter with Ghost, Beehiiv, or Substack; I can subscribe to it (consumption) with Gmail, Matter, or Readwise; we can discuss your posts on Slack, Discourse, or Reddit; and we can discover more writers (aggregation) with The Sample (wink) or Refind.

(It sure is fortunate that thanks to email, we have a protocol for publishing and subscribing that already has massive adoption! Email makes this scheme much more plausible. As such, I'm particularly interested in tools that are compatible with email-centric workflows.)

So the task ahead is to further develop these kinds of tools, get them into the hands of more people, and make the user experience seamless. We don't have to "beat" the platformsbut the larger this unbundled ecosystem becomes, the easier it will be for people to experiment with new kinds of tools and create sustainable businesses on top of them. The experimentation that happens in the unbundled ecosystem might even provide insights that platforms can incorporate.

Building a community

At the moment, my top priority is to get The Sample at least to the point where it can support myself. I can't spend all my time on tools for online speech if I have to start freelancing! However, I don't want to wait until The Sample is a thriving business before I start collaborating with others. Thus, I would like to build up a community of people interested in tools for online speech so that we can coordinate and support each other where possible.

At a minimum, that could involve discussion. We can talk about what kinds of tools we wish existed; we can discuss workflows we've developed using existing tools; we can share tools we've built, get feedback, and find early adopters; we can find other people to collaborate with; we can debate relevant topics like my unbundling-social-media idea; we can share job opportunities. I'd like to build a community with lots of different kinds of people, not just coders.

If the community grows enough, I'd also be very interested in finding ways to provide funding for individuals and teams in this space—perhaps this would start out as an open-source funding organization like Clojurists Together (I received a grant from them myself earlier this year). Hopefully The Sample will be successful enough to provide some of that funding!

In the mean time, we can start small. For the past year I've been writing weekly updates to writers who have submitted their newsletters to The Sample. I'm going to start publishing these updates publicly via this "Tools for Online Speech" newsletter (for lack of a more distinct name), which you can subscribe to below. Mainly I'll be talking about my work on The Sample, since I have limited time and talking about stuff I'm already doing is easy. Gradually I will experiment with including other relevant things in the newsletter.

I've also set up a Discourse forum to go with the newsletter, which will at a minimum be used to embed comments on this website. Feel free to introduce yourself. (Update: I decided to stick with Discord.)

Published 13 Jun 2022

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