Distributed toxicity and the IndieWeb

This tweet has been making the rounds in IndieWeb spaces, and reflects a thing I’ve been thinking about on and off lately for obvious reasons:

I’ve seen several other related sentiments lately; with a certain prominent politician being deplatformed from all of the mainstream social media platforms, and all of the platforms that accept him being in turn shut down or otherwise made ineffective, people have been (quite reasonably!) wondering what happens if he ends up starting up his own IndieWeb site, and causes a resurgence in self-hosted or otherwise privately-run, single-author blogs.

I feel like the threat model for IndieWeb is very different than the threat model of so-called “silo” social media. Silos are built around increasing engagement and spreading popular posts far and wide, and ensuring that people stay addicted to the site. As such, they’re also biased towards fast-spreading, viral content, and quick, hot takes that give people an adrenaline and/or dopamine rush.

One way in which self-hosted platforms are different is that it’s up to people to seek out and spread the information they want to. At least with current platforms it’s pretty unwieldy to do a quick repost and propagation of content, and there’s also no central source of post propagation. You posting something to the IndieWeb doesn’t mean that it’ll automatically propagate to anyone who isn’t already subscribed to you, and audiences tend to remain a lot smaller and more deliberate.

Mastodon still has the concept of a federated timeline, where anything that gets posted will spread far and wide based on connections between instances. This is, in effect, very similar to the algorithmic discovery stuff that makes Twitter work the way it does too.

There’s also the whole fire-and-forget quick-post hot-take nature of conversations which just plain doesn’t happen in IndieWeb spaces, at least not right now. Some future stack might make Twitter-like updates more convenient. I know that I personally wouldn’t subscribe to sources of those, though, and there’s still a much greater onus on the reader to be able to subscribe to and process those feeds.

A future IndieWeb platform could very well make the same mistakes, though, and lead to automatic discovery and propagation of stuff. Centralized readers in particular would be a pretty obvious source of this sort of thing.

But the great thing about IndieWeb, at least, is that people are still in control of their experience. There isn’t one specific publishing or reading model that people are stuck with, and this is by design. There will certainly be pockets of IndieWeb stuff that becomes just as objectionable as the worst parts of Twitter/Mastodon or the entirety of Parler/Gab, but people can still participate in IndieWeb without having to be a part of it.

I also feel that having personal responsibility for the content you host also makes you much more accountable for that content. If someone were to start posting illegal stuff to their website, their hosting provider would be well within their rights to shut it down. They could then move to a hosting provider that’s more amenable to that or not under the same jurisdiction, but fundamentally, if nobody is subscribing to their site content, it’s still not going to spread.

For that matter, nothing stops any currently-deplatformed troll from running their own website. There are plenty of ways that people can launch a quick-and-easy WordPress blog, for example. But just because someone is posting it to the web doesn’t mean they’re going to have an audience. Nothing automatically makes their toxic material spread through the universe.

I think IndieWeb developers do need to be careful about the tools they develop. If you’re working on IndieWeb stuff, make sure you’re solving the problems that need to be solved, and not reinventing the same problems as the silos the long way around. And if you’re building a shared-hosting platform or a centralized reader, you’d better damned well be putting safety and accountability as the top priority for everything you provide.

So, yeah. I can imagine some facet of IndieWeb going in a very dangerous direction that would be much more difficult to stop than on a centralized server. But IndieWeb is an ethos and a set of opt-in protocols, and participating in IndieWeb in general doesn’t mean having to participate in all of it. I feel like that’s already a huge advantage.


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