Thursday is projected to be a lovely summer day: high of 86, slight breeze and slightly overcast, no chance of rain—in New York anyhow. It’s also a national holiday. If all that sounds like good conditions to get away from the computer and enjoy the sunshine, incidentally, you’re part of a protest!
Dr. Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia, is declaring a social media strike for July 4 and/or 5, complete with its own patriotic Declaration of Digital Independence. That Sanger could not decide on which day to coordinate the inaction of the 900 or so people to sign his petition on Change.org gives some indication as to the fuzziness of this protest.
Social media is increasingly being seen as a source for great social evil, a vast collection of negative externalities with shrinkingly few benefits where nearly every company running such a platform is controlled by amoral capitalist vampires. On this Sanger and I agree completely. Rather than call for antitrust regulation and an overhaul of data privacy law—the direction the tide seems to be heading in—Sanger intends to use this protest instead to “urge the global developer community to perfect a new system of decentralized social media.” There’s something naive and almost sweet in presuming market competition and ingenuity is enough to topple the Facebooks of the world—especially with the express parameter of not monetizing user data, essentially taking on one of the toughest industries with both hands tied.
Utopian? Sure. Sanger sounds like he just woke up from a 25-year coma and is asking why no one’s posting on USENET anymore. Ideologically sound though, in that social media’s ills need to be addressed, preferably yesterday. But beyond users asserting control over their own data, Sanger also wants social media services to “become interoperable. If we make a post on one service, it can appear on another service.” Jesus Christ, I can’t imagine anything worse.
What comes to mind also is that, well, a decentralized social network isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s been tried—repeatedly! The federated alternatives to Facebook (Diaspora) and Twitter (Mastodon) exist, and while they’re home to some niche communities, they don’t even remotely pose a threat to reigning platforms.
Sanger of all people should be keenly aware that these sorts of initiatives only provide refuge for a very specific subset of people: After leaving Wikipedia, he founded Citizendium, a competing online encyclopedia I had never heard of until writing this very article. The depressing last paragraph of Citizendium’s Wikipedia page states, “a referendum was held to abolish the governing Citizendium Charter and the Council in favor of Wikipedia-style discussion and consensus. It attracted nine votes, and was passed. A new Managing Editor was to be elected at the same time, but there were no nominations.”
In any case, the only real element of Sanger’s protest is to not post (unless you’re posting about not posting). So turn your phone off at the barbecue—it might not birth the decentralized internet, but you’ll probably feel better looking away from a screen anyway.