L. Rhodes


Returning to the Personal Web

As alarm over the personal and political costs of social media continues to rise, Jason Koebler at Motherboard suggests rolling back the clock with a return to personal websites:

When I think about my own Facebook use, I think often about that first website I made, and how that site served the exact same purpose then that Facebook does now. My original sin wasn’t making a Facebook account, it was abandoning my own website that I controlled…

Given that I operate my own personal website, it should probably come as little surprise that I am in some sympathy with Koebler’s argument. Yes, each of us should exert as much control over our digital manifestations as we are capable of doing. Yet it’s overstating the case to say that Facebook merely replicated social functionality that was already prevalent online. Arguably, social media’s bigger impact was the “Here Comes Everybody” factor. By lowering the bar for entry, social media ushered in masses of people who might otherwise never have participated online. Giving up social media may be easier for those of us who staked our claims on the internet before the start-ups moved in, but we’re no longer the online majority.

So the question becomes: What happens to everyone else? While there is little in principle to stop people from migrating away from commercial social media platforms and replicating most of their functionality on personal websites, practically speaking, two chief obstacles stand in their way.

The first is cost. Web space is cheap, but it isn’t free. Domain names can be cheap, but again: cheap isn’t free. For some of us, the yearly cost of renting server space is trivial, but there are people who can justify participating in social media only because it doesn’t divert money away from the necessaries. As things currently stand, a popular movement toward personal websites would thus have the social consequence of excluding people who first appeared on the internet only because the monetary cost of entry had been driven down to effectively zero.

If you believe that the privacy practices of many of the companies that handle our digital data is nothing short of abusive, then the issue has a moral component that’s about more than just the relative costs of quality. Right now, we’re all more or less in the same boat when it comes to the non-monetary costs of social media, trading our privacy and attention for the broadest possible channel of communication. But if our solution to the problem is a shift toward more personal websites, then the privacy costs of social media will fall more heavily on the poor.

And not just the poor. The second obstacle to a widespread adoption of personal websites is useability. While carving out a space on the web as a whole has gotten easier over the decades, there’s still a learning curve that bends higher the closer you get to ownership. Even if we were to allot server space to every current social media user – say, in the digital equivalent of a land grant – once everyone has a plot to call their own, the complexities of putting something there remain sufficient to exclude the vast majority from actively participating. Once upon a time, when the internet was a niche for autodidactic enthusiasts, that seemed like less of an issue. Social media has reset the lowest common denominator, though, and if you can’t imagine the least tech-savvy social media user you know learning their way around a system, then its viability as a replacement for proprietary social media is limited.

Some companies work to meet users halfway – for example, this site’s host, Media Temple, offers a small catalog of “One-Click Apps,” automating the process of installing and configuring several free software suites, like the blogging platform Wordpress. But even those apps can be dauntingly complex compared to the accessibility of a platform like Facebook. And while there are open source alternatives to most social media platforms (like those connected on the so-called “fediverse”), hosting those alternatives still requires a high degree of technical know-how relative to the ease of opening an account on Twitter or Facebook.

What the social media platforms offered was a suite of tools that required virtually no specialized knowledge to operate. Moreover, it offered them for free – or, at least, for a cost that was frictionless and payable by everyone. In terms of what those platforms brought to the table, we should probably understand the “social” in “social media” to mean not the functionality that allowed people to communicate online – as Koebler points out, most of that was already in place – but rather the ease of access that enticed millions of people into their databases.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t push for a shift toward networked personal websites, but making that a practical solution for everyone – and we should aim to make the alternatives accessible to everyone – will require some changes in the way that we distribute the Web. It will mean, first of all, the extension of low cost, low capacity hosting to the broadest possible swath of people. Institutions could carry some of the burden here, much as they did in the early days of the internet, when a generation of budding web developers got their start using server space provided by their alma maters. Not everyone has an ongoing connection to a school, of course, but public libraries could step in to cover some of the gaps. ISPs and mobile phone carriers could include basic parcels of space to customers as part of their internet or phone plans. Many already do, in fact, but dedicate that space exclusively to email; the trick would be to open it to other uses, as well. A one-click feature for installing and configuring basic, open source social media apps to that space – perhaps with more complicated options for more technical users – would help overcome the usability gap. Done thoughtfully, with a keen eye toward keeping the bar for entry low, the result could be a Web that gives individuals more control over their privacy and self-presentation as a matter of course.