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Own Your Content

by cthos
About 3 min

Shutterstock vector art of some computer magic
Andrey Suslov @ Shutterstock #1199480788

Not too long ago Anil Dash wrote a piece for Rolling Stone titled “The Internet Is About To Get Weird Again” and it’s been living rent free in my mind ever since I read it. As the weeks drag on, more and more content is being slurped up by the big tech companies in their ever-growing thirst for human created and curated content to feed generative AI systems. Automattic recently announced that they’re entering deals to pump content from Tumblr and to OpenAI. Reddit, too, has entered into a deal with Google. If you want a startling list, go have a look at Vox’s article on the subject. Almost every single one of these deals is “opt-out” rather than “opt-in” because they are counting on people to not opt-out, and they know that the percentage of users who would opt-in without some sort of compensation is minimal.

Lest you think this is a rant about feeding the AI hype machine, it’s not (though you may get one of those soon enough). This is more of a lament from the last several decades of big social medial companies first convincing us that they are the best way to reach and maintain an audience (by being the intermediary) and then taking the content that countless creators have written for them and then disconnecting the creator from their audience.

Every bit of content you’ve created on these platforms, whether it’s a comment or a blog post for your friends or audience is being monetized without offering you anything in return (except the privilege of feeding the social media company, I guess). Even worse, getting your stuff back out of some of these platforms is becoming increasingly difficult. I’ve seen many of my communities move entirely to Discord, using their forums feature. However, unlike traditional website forums you cannot get your forums back out of Discord. There’s no way to backup or restore that content.

I’ve personally witnessed a community lose all of its backup content due to a leaked token and an upset spammer. It was tragic and I still mourn (but hey, we’re still there).

In one way, this is the culmination of monetizing views. As Ed Citron argues in Software has Eaten the Media, the trend from many of these social media companies has been “more views good, content doesn’t matter”. We’ve seen this show before, Google has been in a shadow war with SEO optimizers for over a decade, and they might have lost. The “pivot to video” Facebook pushed was a massive lie, and we collectively fell for it.

So what do we do about this? One thing I’m excited to see that Mr. Dash rightly points out is that there’s a renewed trend of being more directly connected to the folks that are consuming your content.

Own a blog! Link to it! Block AI bots from reading it if you’re so inclined. Use social media to link to it! Don’t write your screed directly on LinkedIn - Don’t give them that content. Own it. Do what you want to with it. Monetize it however you want, or not at all! Own it. Scott Hanselman said this well over a decade ago. Own it!

Recently, there was a Substack Exodus after they were caught gleefully profiting off of literal Nazis. Many folks decided to go to self-hosted Ghost instead of letting another company control the decision making. Molly White of Citation Needed (who does a lovely recap of Crypto nonsense) even wrote about how she did it. Wresting control away from centralized stacks and back to the web of the 90s is definitely my jam.

Speaking of Decentralization, we’ve also got Mastodon and Bluesky that have federation protocols (Bluesky just opened up AT to beta, which is pretty cool) allowing you to run your own single-user account instances but still interact with an audience (which is what I do).

Right, anyhow, this rant is brought to you by the hope that we’re standing on the edge of reclaiming some of what the weird web lost to social media companies of yore.

Edit: 03-10-2024: Turns out there's a name for this concept! POSSE: My internet pal Zach has a fun 1-minute intro on the concept: Go watch it!