I watched the start of The Social Dilemma documentary yesterday evening. The documentary provoked so many thoughts that I was unable to fully engage with some of the discussions I had with family members later in the evening. My mind was fixated on what I have heard. I am presently reserving my full thoughts on the documentary because I have not yet seen the end. I would recommend giving the first 45 minutes a watch.
I saw people in the IndieWeb Slack group talk about the documentary. My first impressions were that this was another piece of journalism that was attacking big tech. I do have my own reservations about big technology, to the extent that I have conducted a few privacy audits in the past. I use ProtonMail because I do not trust Google with my email data. I now realize I did not go far enough.
I am glad that members of the IndieWeb community started to talk about this documentary otherwise I may never have watched it. I did have to pay Netflix $5 which is somewhat ironic given how the documentary is about how much data big technology companies collect about us. Nonetheless, the trade-off appears to have been worth it.
My IndieWeb Site
As I was watching the documentary, I started to think about how what I was seeing related to me. I will save the personal experiences for another post. All I will say is that I now recognize that the wool was pulled over my eyes. I work in technology and I did not fully appreciate the extent to which algorithms and “growth hacking” influences our actions.
I’d rather not just ruminate on the issues. I’d rather take action. This begins with a fundamental re-think of what this website is about. I have been adding in a new feed onto this website over the last few days. Let’s call the feed what it is: a social feed. I built a way for you to keep up to date with what I am doing. If the feed were to work correctly (I got stuck on a final deployment issue), I would be streaming all of my bookmarks to this site. When I like an article, a notice would appear on my feed.
Is this data useful to the average user? I do not believe so. I implemented support for bookmarks and likes and replies because these are commonplace on the IndieWeb. I understand why. Many people who join the IndieWeb come from social media and want to take control over their data. Many people still use social media and use their website as a method of syndication. This is not me. I left social media, aside from Instagram, earlier this year. Adding these features to my site has meant incorporating new social features into my life that I know I can do without.
Removing the Feed
I am about to remove the feed from my website and go back to an article-based structure. I am confident in this decision. I know I have invested a lot of time in building a micropub server but I now realize that the intent behind this server does not match my needs. I do not need to share my likes and responses in a feed that will go on and on as I create more content. Most people, I would reason, come here for my blog posts. I like to write long-form content. I do not want to dillute what you see on this site with less significant content.
I was talking with Ana Rodriguez yesterday about the “bookmarks” page on her site. I like her approach to bookmarks. She writes one post every month with all of the articles she has bookmarked. What I appreciate most about this is that she shares bookmarks at her own pace. Every bookmark is in one place at the end of the month. There is no need for continuous maintenance. I want to share bookmarks because I rely quite heavily on links lists and IndieWeb blog rolls to discover content. The web is… a web. I have to link.
I am going to remove all of the quantified self and music data from my site effective immediately. I have decided that I am no longer going to use my Fitbit to track my exercise data. When I think about it, the amount of data they collect is not normal. I use my Fitbit for two main purposes: for quantified self tracking and for the stopwatch I need when I am brewing coffee. I can just use a regular watch for brewing coffee. I can live without quantified self if it means not giving away my most personal data. Let me be candid: seriously, why do I need to track this data?
Removing these feeds means I have one less thing to worry about. I don’t need to bookmark everything that I read and submit it through a micropub server. It also means that you, the visitor, can read more about what I really want to share with the world. This post matters more to me than any content I have bookmarked. This is a post I want to last.
My Relationship with Tech
The Social Dilemma has made me rethink the people with whom I share my data, and also the relationship I have with technology. There were moments in the documentary where I was very scared. What scares me the most is that I am in technology and I was blind to the actual human impact of many of the techniques used in the technology industry to promote growth. How do other people stand a chance who have not spent years programming, reading about the technology industry, and being surrounded by startups? I have no idea.
There is somewhat of a temptation to live off-the-grid. I do not believe this is feasible. I do want to instutite meaningful change to how I use technology because I know that, in many cases, technology is a force for good. The IndieWeb has connected me to people who are just as passionate about web development as I am. I do feel more connected. I’m not influenced by a social algorithm when I send an email to my friend. I choose what to say. I feel good about using technology. But I do recognize some disturbing patterns.
The first thing I done this morning after waking up was I checked my notifications. I had two emails. I have most notifications disabled but I let my emails go through. Every time I look at my phone, I get a rush. It makes me feel good. When I am bored, I can always look at my phone. It does not make sense for me to be this attached to my phone. When I was falling asleep, I got an email. I decided to open it. How could I resist? That is a good question. There are engineers who are paid to ensure that we do not resist.
The Social Dilemma portrays technology in a way I’ve never thought about it. They have humans, real humans, narrate what an algorithm thinks. “Let’s serve this person another add. Should we send more friends and family content?” (This is paraphrasing.) It’s not until I heard in words what algorithms do that I realized how they work. They are still mostly a black box.
I’ll end with a sentiment I have heard so many times over but never fully thought about: if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.