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by Jacob O'Bryant

You can help unbundle social media

It's official; Netcraft has confirmed: Big Social Media is dying. And from their ashes we can begin anew. The opportunity to build a better Internet is hereThe Internet wants to be fragmented!  And my personal favorite—2023 is a year of new avenues.

For my own contribution to the zeitgeist, I'd like to make a few simple, practical suggestions for anyone—not just software developers—who wants to be part of the movement. These obviously aren't the only ways to participate! They're just areas that I personally think are worth your attention.

Build your reading habits on neutral ground

When you've got a few minutes to kill, where do you go? What website or app do you open without even thinking about it?

Next question: does that app (or website, but hereafter "app" for simplicity) favor content that's hosted on a particular platform? For example, my default "reading app" for a while, up until several months ago, was Twitter. And Twitter favors content that's hosted on Twitter. People can of course post links to articles and such on other websites, but Twitter (like most/all social media sites) is optimized to keep you on-platform. They'd prefer the entire write-read-discuss cycle to happen inside Twitter.

You want your main reading app, your check-this-first location, to give an equal chance to writers, without requiring them to go through a central gatekeeper. Today, the most widely adopted app of this kind is Gmail. And email's not a bad place to start! You probably already have a habit of checking your inbox regularly. So as a first step, figure out how to get more of your content via email. Do the people you follow have newsletters? If you like to go to Twitter for the news, can you instead find a good daily or weekly newsletter that covers your industry/niche?1

You can also look for services that deliver content from various places via email. Like Mailbrew. And Mailist. Set up a filter or two so you can keep your newsletters in their own folder. Try out Hey.

This email-centric workflow will work well enough for many people. I personally did it for a while with Fastmail, my preferred email client. Ultimately it didn't quite do it for me. If you reach the same conclusion, you can try out a dedicated reading app. These apps often give you an email address for subscribing to newsletters, and they work out-of-the-box with other kinds of content too. I built one called Yakread, which is what I currently use. I also recommend checking out Matter, Readwise Reader, and Feedbin.

If you already use an RSS reader as your main app, congratulations—you aced this section!

Engage in small communities

What reading apps generally don't do is handle discussion. That's fine. We should outsource discussion to places that are better suited for it. And it doesn't need to happen all in one place! Smaller communities are often better moderated and more interesting anyway. Especially if you don't already have a large social media following, it's way easier to have meaningful discussions in smaller, focused groups where there's less competition to be the one talking. (Can you tell I'm an introvert?)

So join that Slack workspace/Discord server/subreddit/Facebook group/Discourse forum/Mastodon instance. And figure out how to build a low-effort habit of checking in with those groups. I found a way that's super easy and works great for me: I made a folder in Firefox's bookmarks menu called "Communities." I've got six links in there currently. When I get to my desk each morning, I right-click on that folder and hit "Open all bookmarks," which opens each link in a new tab. I have a few apps installed on my phone so I can get reply notifications.

Another great thing about using bookmarks is that it's easy to add a new community regardless of where it's hosted. It could be an experimental forum that someone hacked up in their spare time, and I would be just as likely to engage with it as I would be with any of the communities hosted on more established platforms.

Start a newsletter

What do you do if you want to write something for more than just one community? You write a blog post! You can share the link in any relevant communities you're in, and maybe some people in those communities will post it elsewhere too. If people want to follow you specifically, they can subscribe to your newsletter via email (or RSS).

If you don't already have a blog/newsletter set up somewhere, I recommend starting with Postcard. It's super simple, free, looks great, and has all the essentials. If you outgrow that, you can check out Ghost, Beehiiv, or Buttondown, to name a few.2

Setting up a newsletter is easy, figuring out what to write is hard. That's why this step is optional! Not everyone cares about broadcasting their ideas or building a following, and that's fine. If everyone had a neutral reading app and a handful of communities they enjoy, I'd say "mission accomplished."

But if you are interested in starting your own newsletter and nevertheless aren't sure what to write, make it easy on yourself. Once a month is fine. Start out just sharing links to good stuff you read. Once you have a reading app/workflow you like, you'll accumulate such links easily. You don't even have to give any commentary. And by doing this, you'll help writers get discovered without them needing to go viral on some platform.

Write about what's missing—and if all else fails, build something

As you go down this road, you'll inevitably hit pain points. Pay attention to those; try to articulate them. Write a blog post about what you wish existed or how you'd prefer some feature to work. For one thing, writing about it will help clarify your thoughts. Maybe with some searching you'll find that there is a way to solve your problem with tools that already exist. Write about that too! Help other people discover tools and workflows that work for them.

If you try at that for a while and you still have an itch that isn't being scratched, then maybe there's an opportunity for a new app. You know what to do: write about it! Ask around! Perhaps someone is already working on something that might do what you need. Maybe they even have a prototype you can try out. Be an early adopter! Help them make their app great. When it is, spread the word. This is how the ecosystem will grow.

If you're a developer, you can be the one to make something new—but take your time, and try earnestly to solve your problems with existing tools first. Don't skip the writing step; it'll help you hone in on a real need before you get distracted by implementing a particular solution. Again, when you have an itch that won't go away—that's when you know you might be on to something.



[1] Larry Sanger, in How to stop using social media:

... one thing that really struck me was how poorly informed we would be if we just looked at the stuff that came across our social media feeds. I discovered this when I helped to prepare news summaries daily. There were a lot of important news stories that we found that were not widely discussed in social media, or even in most of the mainstream media. You’ll probably be better informed if you stop using social media to keep up with the news...

[2] The most common newsletter provider for individuals is of course Substack. However, on the axis relevant to this article, they're no different from the large platforms we're trying to get away from. They're creating yet another monolithic platform where reading, writing, and discussion all happen primarily in one place. For example, every email sent from a Substack newsletter—even paid ones!—includes an advertisement for their reading app, and that reading app favors Substack publications. That's not good for the ecosystem.

Taking a step back, I am very much in favor of commercial activity. Businesses will help to make the unbundled web sustainable and bring it into the mainstream, but we need to have realistic expectations. It's probably not feasible to build a traditional VC-backed, hypergrowth startup while still keeping the core functions of reading, writing, and discussion independent. Instead of scaling companies up, let's scale them out. Let's grow a thriving rainforest of small- and medium-sized businesses, and leave the VC to B2B SaaS.

Published 10 Jan 2023

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