Hell site

from Aral Balkan

May 10, 2021, 3:20:00 PM

Pigs talking about the “free” model: Pig 1: Isn’t it great? We have to pay nothing for the barn. Pig 2: Yeah and even the food is free.

They have a word for Twitter on the fediverse.

They call it “hell site”.

It’s very apt.

When I first joined about 15 years ago, at the end of 2006, it was a very different place. A small, non-algorithmically curated space where you could have group chats with your friends.

What I didn’t know back then was that Twitter, Inc., was a venture-capital-funded startup.

It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d known, either, as I was clueless about funding or business models. I thought everyone in tech was just trying to make the new everyday things that improved people’s lives.

Even six years later, in 2012, I was still fixated on improving people’s experiences within the current system:

“Objects have value not because of what they are but because of what they enable us to do.

And, as the people who make objects, we have a profound responsibility. A responsibility to not take for granted the limited time that each of us has in this world. A responsibility to make that time as beautiful, as comfortable, as painless, as empowering, and as delightful as possible though the experiences that we craft.

Because this is all there is.

And it’s up to us to make it better.”

This is all there is

What a fool, right?

Please take as much time as you need to point and laugh.

OK, done? Let’s move on…

Privilege is just another word for not having to care

Back then, I took for granted that the system in general was mostly good. At least I didn’t think it was actively evil.1.

Sure, I was on the streets of London, along with hundreds of thousands of others, protesting the looming war in Iraq. And sure, I understood that we lived in an unequal, unjust, racist, sexist, and classist society (heck, I studied critical media theory for four years, so I had Chomsky coming out of my ears), but I somehow thought tech existed outside of this sphere. That is, if I thought about it at all.

Which clearly just meant that things weren’t bad enough to be affecting me personally to a degree where I felt I should even educate myself about it. And that, folks, is what we call privilege.

Sure, it felt odd whenever one of these startups did something that wasn’t in our best interests. But they told us they made mistakes and they apologised so we believed them. For a while. Until it became impossible to. And hey, I was just making “cool stuff” that “improved people’s lives” – first in Flash and then for the iPhone and iPad…

But I’m rushing ahead.

Back to me being entirely ignorant of business models and venture capital. Hey, you might find yourself at this point today. There’s no shame in that. So listen closely: here’s the problem with venture capital.

What happens in Venture Capital stays in Venture Capital

Venture capital is a high-stakes game of roulette and Silicon Valley is the casino.

A venture capitalist will invest, say, $5M in ten “startups” in full knowledge that nine of them will fail. What this gentleman needs (it’s almost always a “gentleman”) is for the remaining one to be a billion-dollar unicorn. And he (it’s almost always a he) doesn’t invest his own money either. He invests other people’s money. And they want 5×–10× their money back because this game of roulette is very risky.

So how does a startup become a unicorn? Well, there is one battle-tested business model that is known to work: people farming.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Addict people.

Offer your service for free to your “users” and try to get as many people as possible hooked on your product.

Why?

Because you need to scale exponentially to get the network effects and you the need network effects to lock in the people that you originally attracted.

Heck, highly-celebrated folks have even written best-selling how-to guides about this step like Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products .

That’s Silicon Valley for you.

  1. Farm them.

Collect as much data about people as you can.

Track them on your app, across the web, and even in physical space to create detailed profiles of their behaviour. Use this intimate insight into their lives to attempt to understand, predict, and manipulate them. Monetise this with your actual customers, who pay you for this service.

This is what some folks call Big Data and what others call surveillance capitalism.

  1. Exit (sell).

A startup is a temporary business and your endgame is to sell it to a wealthier startup or to an existing Big Tech company or to the public via an initial public offering (IPO).

If you made it here, congratulations. You might just become Silicon Valley’s next douchebag billionaire and Bitcoin philanthropist.

Many startups fail at the first step but as long as the VC gets their one unicorn, they’re happy.

Calling bullshit (part 1)

So I didn’t know that having venture capital meant Twitter had to grow exponentially and become a billion-dollar unicorn. I didn’t understand that those of us using it – and helping it improve – in those early days were ultimately responsible for its success. We were hoodwinked. (At least I was and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.)

All this to say that Twitter was destined to become the Twitter it is today the moment it took its first bit of “angel investment” at the very beginning.

That’s just how the Silicon Valley game of venture capital and unicorns goes. It is what it is. And what it is everything I’ve been spending the last eight years to raise awareness about, protect people from, and build alternatives to.

Here are some recordings of my talks that you can watch from this period:

As part the “raising awareness” part, I was also trying to use platforms like Twitter and Facebook against the grain.

As I wrote in Spyware vs Spyware in 2014: “We must use existing systems to promote our alternatives if our alternatives are to exist at all.” Even back then, that was perhaps rather optimistic but one crucial difference was that Twitter, at least, didn’t have an algorithmic timeline.

Algorithmic timelines (or gaslighting 2.0)

What is an algorithmic timeline? Let me try and explain.

What you think happens when you tweet: “I have 44,000 people following me. When I write something, 44,000 people will see it.”

What actually happens when you tweet: Your tweet might reach zero, fifteen, a few hundred, or a few thousand people.

Based on what?

Fuck knows.

(Or, more precisely, only Twitter, Inc., knows.)

So an algorithmic timeline is a black box that filters reality and decides who gets to see what and when based on an entirely arbitrary set of criteria determined by the corporate entity it belongs to.

In other words, an algorithmic timeline is just a euphemism for mass socially-acceptable gaslighting. It is gaslighting 2.0.

The algorithm is an asshole

The nature of the algorithm mirrors the nature of the corporation that owns and authors it.

Given that corporations are sociopathic by nature, it should come as no surprise that their algorithms are too. In short, the algorithms of people farmers like Twitter and Facebook are shit-stirring assholes that get off on causing as much conflict and controversy as possible.

Hey, what did you expect exactly from one billionaire who has “#Bitcoin” as their bio and another that calls the people who use are used by his service “dumb fucks?”

These bastards delight in showing you things they know will upset you in hopes that you will retaliate. They revel in the resulting fallout. Why? Because the more “engagement” there is on the platform – the more clicks, the more time their addicts (“users”) spend on it – the more money their corporations make.

Well, enough of that, thank you very much.

Calling bullshit (part 2)

While I feel it’s important to raise awareness of the harms of Big Tech, I have probably said and written everything there is to say on the matter over the past eight years. I’ve given over a hundred talks at various conferences alone over that time, not to mention media interviews in print, and on radio, and television.

Here are some links to a relative handful of the things I’ve written on the subject during this period:

Has any of it done any good?

I don’t know.

I hope so.

I also challenged countless folks at surveillance capitalists like Google and Facebook on Twitter and – before I left a few years ago – on Facebook, and elsewhere. (Anyone remember the time I got Samuel L. Jackson to call out Eric Schmidt for Google mining people’s email?) That was fun. But I digress…

Did any of that do any good?

I don’t know.

I hope so.

But here is what I do know:

Does calling people out make me miserable? Yes.

Is it nice? No.

Do I like conflict? No.

So enough is enough.

People come up to me sometimes to thank me for “speaking out.” Well, that “speaking out” comes at a very high price. So maybe some of those folks can pick up where I left off. Or not. Either way, I’m done with it.

In your face

One thing you have to understand about surveillance capitalism is that it is the mainstream. It is the dominant model. Every Big Tech company and startup is part of it2. And being exposed to their latest bullshit and to hypocritical posts by people who proudly affiliate with them while purporting to work for social justice is not good for anyone’s mental health.

It’s like living in a factory farm owned by wolves where the loudest proponents of the system are the chickens that have been hired as line managers.

I’ve spent the last eight years, at least, responding to such things and trying to point out how Big Tech and surveillance capitalism cannot be reformed.

And it makes me miserable.

So I’m through doing so on platforms with shit-stirring asshole algorithms that get off on inflicting as much misery on me as they can in hopes of getting a rise out of me because that “makes the number go up.”

Fuck you, Twitter!

I’m done with your bullshit.

What next?

In a lot of ways, this decision has been a long-time coming. I set up my own place on the fediverse using Mastodon several years ago and have been using it ever since. If you haven’t heard of the fediverse, think of it like this:

Imagine that you (or your group of friends) own your own copy of twitter.com. But instead of twitter.com, yours is at your-place.org. And instead of Jack Dorsey, you make the rules.

You’re not limited to just talking to people on your-place.org either.

I also own my own place at my-place.org (let’s say I’m @me@my-place.org). I can follow @you@your-place.org as well as @them@their.site and @someone-else@some-other.place. It works because we all speak a common language called ActivityPub.

So imagine a world where there are thousands of twitter.coms and they can all talk to one another and Jack has fuck-all to do with it.

Well, that’s the fediverse.

And while Mastodon is just one way to get your own place on the fediverse, joinmastodon.org is a good place to start learning about it and get started in a way that is friendly and doesn’t require any technical knowledge.

As I already mentioned, I’ve been on the fediverse since the earliest days of Mastodon and I was already manually forwarding posts from there to Twitter.

I’ve now automated that process using moa.party and, going forward, I will no longer be checking Twitter or responding on it.3

As my posts on Mastodon are now automatically forwarded there, you can still use it to keep up with what I’m doing, if you like. Or, why not take the opportunity to join the fediverse and have a play?

Small is Beautiful

While I still believe that having good critiques of Big Tech is essential to influencing effective regulation, I don’t know if effective regulation is even possible given the levels of institutional corruption we have today (lobbying, revolving doors, public-private-partnerships, corporate capture, etc.)

What I do know is that the antidote to Big Tech is Small Tech.

We must build alternative technological infrastructure that is owned and controlled by individuals – not corporations or governments. This is a prerequisite for a future with personhood, human rights, democracy, and social justice.

Otherwise, we face a bleak tomorrow where our only agency is to beg some Silicon Valley king or other to “please sir, be kind”.

I also know that working on building such alternatives makes me happy while despairing at the state of the world just makes me utterly miserable. I know it’s privilege to have the skills and experience I have that enable me to work on such things. And I intend on making the most of it.

Going forward, I plan to concentrate as much of my time and energy as possible on building the Small Web.

If you’d like to talk about that (or anything else), you can find me on the fediverse. You can also chat to me on my S’update live streams here and during our Small is Beautiful live streams with Laura.

Here’s to brighter days ahead…

Stay safe.

Be well.

Love one another.

💕️

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  1. Not that good and evil are the best ways to talk about all this. True evil is much more mundane and often far less intentioned that what you see in the movies. Usually, it simply involves remaining neutral in situations of injustice. In the words of Desmond Tutu, who I must have quoted a hundred times in the past eight years or so, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” ↩︎

  2. If you’re not a venture-capital-funded new tech company, don’t call yourself a startup, that’s their brand and, if they’re in the same area as you, they have $5M in the bank to undercut and destroy your sustainable small tech business with. So don’t legitimise them by calling yourself that. ↩︎

  3. I’m also planning on unfollowing everyone on Twitter so folks are not mislead into thinking I will be seeing their posts (which, given what we know ­– or, more precisely, what we don’t know – about Twitter’s algorithm, was never a given anyway). It might take some time for me to fully realise that as it’s not a priority. ↩︎