The internet, once a hand full of websites, grew rapidly. In July 2008, Google announced it had an index of 1 trillion URLs. Nearly 15 years later, the internet is larger but, in some ways, still a handful of websites.
I frequently lament Meta and Alphabet swallowing the web. In a post about TikTok, an app with over 1 billion monthly active users, itself representing a large site that makes the internet feel small, I complained forums and directories are gone. A kind of gentrification for the web where the cool message board is now on Facebook and independent blogs are concentrated on a few platforms owned by companies that can act out in petty ways.
In most revenue share models, a large platform, Medium, Twitch, YouTube, and so forth, collect payments from ads or subscriptions and split profit with creators forming a not-technically-an-employee-but-still-kind-of-anemployee-with-extra-steps relationship. A relationship where someone may not work for [platform], but [platform] can suspend income or even remove that non-employee-etcetera’s work or access to the platform without warning or reason.
I don’t think social media is a utility that must be regulated and forced to act with neutrality. Except for actual utilities, housing, and certain banking and adjacent technologies, that sort of regulation would be undesirable.
I don’t want Daily Kos prohibited by law from removing Alex Jones from the comment section. I also don’t like the world where people work for platforms creating content units with no substantive legal protection. It’s bad when companies can be petty and retributive while controlling much of someone’s income and reputation.
Here are a few examples of large sites using an employee with extra steps model, acting outside of stated terms or norms. This is not an endorsement of any parties mentioned. It’s just that, in my opinion, these companies acted to be punitive, and these are high-profile examples.
Fiverr and VoiceoverPete
Fiverr ban VoiceoverPete for “attempt[ing] to defraud or scam others,” at least that’s implied as the reason based on a statement from Fiver to Mel Magazine. The crime of VoiceoverPete was recording a meme format, literally one listed by Know Your Meme. The format is a fictional character who “needs your help,” followed by a list of needs and a long, clearly satirical request for a credit card number.
Patreon and Sargon of Akkad
When Patreon banned user Sargon of Akkad, the creator did not actually violate the platform’s terms of service. Patreon’s terms of service did not at the time they ban Sargon of Akkad, have a policy for hate speech made off the platform. And from Patreon’s own statements, it was an interview, unrelated to and never mentioned on Patreon, that caused the ban hammer.
Ninja and Twitch
When internet personality Ninja left Twitch, the company removed his verification badge and started promoting other streamers on his page. Ninja was, at the time, the largest streamer on Twitch, and the press about his leaving for a deal with Microsoft probably drove over-the-top traffic to his page. But at one point, Ninja’s Twitch page ended up having porn streamed onto it because Twitch was promoting other streamers indiscriminately.
Twitch was completely in its right to use Ninja’s abandoned feed to promote other Twitch streamers’ content. But at the time, their behavior was completely outside of the norm for how Twitch handled offline streamers or streamers who left the platform. It was petty and dumb.
Out of Control
I get something out of Twitter, but not money. Unlike most social networks, Twitter doesn’t share revenue with creators. Twitter needs creators, or it dies. If they designed the product to make Steven King happy, it would be better for everyone.
Instead, Twitter’s been trying to remove old verification badges and failing, pissing off Steven King, pissing off Mark Cuban, banning an account Tweeting about Musk’s jet, making the Twitter logo a Doge, cutting API access for most developers, creating a massive memory leak, labeling NPR as state-affiliated media and many more stupid choices.
Today is my seventh day of Twitter limbo. On March 31st, I became Elon Musk’s mother for several hours. But the account was put into a type of quarantine. My username replaced by a dot, my photo removed, I cannot log in. But my profile, with the years-old blue check still stands like a head on a pike warning others that Elon Musk has mommy issues.
We Lost Control
From my Twitter purgatory I realized that for much of the last 14 years Twitter replaced bookmarking, and a swath of general notes. I’ve long searched my Tweets regularly seeking links I’ve shared or liked. The typos and voice to text errors don’t make me look contemplative, but being able to find a link to an interesting story about AI from a few years ago is nice.
Before Twitter people used to microblog. Clipping to the CMS is a sort of joke in online media circles now, but it’s something everyone once did. Find something you loved and wanting to bookmark and amplify, people would copy the title, and lede, add a paragraph of thoughts and click publish.
Some people would, maybe, see the post from an RSS reader. If no one saw it, well Google still used (and uses) links as a ranking factor, so value was added to the original publisher. It’s not so different from an account with only a few followers sharing a story.
Twitter took over the microblogging slot. A handful of news aggregators and social sites now poorly substitute RSS. Social media generally replaced comment sections. A few large platforms are the home of many independent bloggers. We gave up control of the web.
I Want Control
Twitter is not an open system but an open-facing system. The same is true for many social and blogging sites. For example, Substack, a platform I use, makes the user’s ownership of the content center to the marketing messaging.
On Substack, I cannot add URL redirects or canonicalize syndicated content. Users may own what they create. But Substack is very much trying to frame itself as the home of that content. And making it hard to leave in a way that doesn’t improve the product. I acknowledge these restrictions may help prevent spam, but they aren’t open.
I will add a microblog for resharing links to my site in the coming days. I could use Pocket or Flipboard, but I’m tired of giving control to platforms that give the illusion of openness.
The Verge, added a microblog feed last year. The Verge is a massive media company, it pays those who create for it, as employees, not some weird not-technically-an-employee deal. More websites should add microblogs.
The moral warning of the blue check on a pike is stop giving up control of your data, your content, and your income without understanding the deal you’re making. We need an open web, not digital land grabbing.
Article by Mason Pelt of Push ROI. First published in MasonPelt.com on April 7, 2023. Photo by Tristan Higbee is licensed under CC BY 2.0 [modified]