Ye Olde Blogroll is a growing blogroll of personal blogs curated by Mr. Raymond Hines (you can find The New Leaf Journal in the Poets & Writers & Books section), who demonstrates his varied interests in running a community site for fans of the University of Florida’s college sports teams and a personal blog about his nomadic life on the road (I featured one of his posts in a July 2022 Leaflet). He also occasionally posts to Ye Olde Blogroll itself. His most recent post at Ye Olde Blogroll: Blogs are the Soul of the Web, touted the virtues of personal blogs maintained by real people. I largely agree with his sentiments, and below I will use his thoughtful post as a springboard for considering how to promote these sorts of humane websites in an increasingly centralized, algorithmic web.
The Soul of the Web post was inspired by Mr. Hines’ experience reading through the personal blogs that he has added to his blogroll. See, for example, the opening passage:
One of the great things of wandering a sea of personal blogs is it feels as if I’ve been traveling through people’s backyards, living & dining rooms, bedrooms (some mischievously dark) and so forth in their uniquely beautiful minds.Raymond Hines
While I describe The New Leaf Journal as an online writing magazine rather than a personal blog (I think my description is apt), it is, as I described it in a 2021 post on the small, personal web, an artisanal website. The New Leaf Journal is less personal than some of the personal blogs out there, but we do humbly welcome our readers to The Emu Café, where we hope to cultivate a certain aesthetic energy. But personal blogs of all types do serve a humane purpose – digital homes and establishments serving writing and other media to real people instead of bots. Mr. Hines’ post touches on the distinction between the personal blogs he has collected for Ye Olde Blogroll and the modern, centralized, and algorithmic web:
It’s as if these blogs are carefully placed mines (minds?) scattered across a faded internet to jar us free from loops of mindless algorithms.Raymond Hines
He praised the humane quality of personal blogs in contrast to the mindless algorithms:
Indeed, these mines blow us back into our humanness as a reminder of who we are and let us know we’re most definitely not alone in cyberspace (despite rumors to the contrary).Raymond Hines
The personal blog never died, but many people who may have, in a different time, run a blog, turned to centralized social media platforms instead. The platforms take away the pain of managing a site and presence and ostensibly offer some guarantee of an audience, but often in return for subjecting writers, video makers, photographers, or other types of creators to the whims of algorithms and advertisers.
The title of Mr. Hines’ post, Blogs are the Soul of the Web, piqued my interest. I have penned more words at The New Leaf Journal on the ideal way to read articles online than to create them myself – although I suppose my creating those articles speaks for itself on the latter point. Mr. Hines approaches the issue as a reader, but from a different angle – noting that he appreciates humane, hand-crafted websites by people and for people.
Much of the discourse surrounding alternatives to social media goes in one of two directions. Either we have articles about abstaining from social media entirely or articles about small, niche alternatives to the commercial big tech platforms. Running The New Leaf Journal and learning more about the online ecosystem caused me to kick around ideas in my head about what the ideal social web would consist of. I have not yet put together a comprehensive essay on the subject, and the instant essay will not be comprehensive. But I have a general idea for advocating for artisanal, personal websites (either run by one individual or a group of individuals) to be the centerpiece of a new social web. Individual sites, rather than profiles with a service, serve as a digital home, while protocols and standards make it possible for readers and viewers to communicate with digital homes in a decentralized way.
Could personal blogs be the soul of a social web?
I had these general concepts in mind as far back as in 2021 when I wrote a piece applying insights from an excellent 1922 speech about home by then-U.S. Vice President Calvin Coolidge to the concept of a digital home (see Coolidge-digital home article). I pondered the commonality of the physical home to a concept of the digital home. My piece was general in nature, neither singularly addressing creating media online or reading or viewing it, but instead addressing a broader idea of home in the digital space. While I recommend that those who are interested read my original piece (as well as Coolidge’s 1922 remarks on the home), I will reproduce two key Coolidge quotes for consideration here.
First, Coolidge on the importance of having a home of one’s own:
[Public works] contribute to the general welfare of all the people, but they are too detached, too remote; they do not make the necessary contribution of a feeling of proprietorship and ownership. They do not complete the circuit. They are for the people, but not of the people. They do not satisfy that longing which exists in every human breast to be able to say: ‘This is mine.’Calvin Coolidge
While one may question whether social media “contribute[s] to the general welfare of all the people” in the same way as the public works referenced by Coolidge in 1922 (understatement intended), the general idea is applicable to the current issue. We can assume arguendo that making it easier for people to join online conversations – as easy as signing up for a service in less than five minutes – serves some sort of public benefit. But these platforms, so to speak, are always rented. One may not fully own his or her words or creations in a rented space. “They do not satisfy that longing which exists in every human breast to be able to say: ‘This is mine.’” The ability of someone to carve out a home on a social media platform is limited, and the people who use social platforms tend to become someone else’s product. There is humanity on the social platforms, but they are not humane (as in for humans, by humans).
Second, Coolidge on the solution to over-emphasizing public works for the general good over individual flourishing:
It is time to transfer some of the approbation and effort that has gone into the building of public works to the building, ornamenting, and owning of private homes by the people—attractive, worthy, permanent homes.Calvin Coolidge
We can again assume arguendo that making it practical for people to have some sort of platform, online or otherwise, serves a benefit. But even the most charitable assumptions leave room for the view that too much effort has gone into building centralized, communal spaces on the internet, and that those efforts have come at the expense of the “owning of private [online] homes,” personal or group spaces by people for people – where the ultimate end is sharing something for human beings.
Before continuing, I will throw my cards on the table – so to speak (a favorite expression of one of my college professors when he stated his opinion on a philosophical issue for full disclosure of any potential bias in a discussion).
- Mr. Hines is correct in the main that personal blogs are good. I would extend the point further to artisanal sites for which producing meaningful writing and other media for human beings is the end goal that is good in and of itself. (Note: Paywalls are beyond our scope, but I submit for the record that I do not oppose paywalls or using a personal blog to support one’s own commercial writing or media. That, however, is a subject for another day.)
- I agree generally with a position of Mr. Haruki Murakami, which I discussed here on site, that the popular social media formats pushed by the big tech platforms have a tendency to inspire vapid writing and other media. This is not to say that there is no good writing on Facebook or Twitter, no good photos on Instagram, or no good videos on YouTube (there are certainly many good videos on YouTube), but rather that the formats and incentives cut against the production of good things. Many alternatives to big tech social media such as Mastodon fall into the trap of replicating formats not conducive to meaningful writing and media (see my discussion).
- Encouraging people to post meaningful writing and media for human beings is a good thing.
- Making it easier to engage with meaningful writing and media on one’s own terms, rather than through an algorithmic intermediary, is a good thing.
- To the extent that one must use the internet, encouraging the building of digital homes is a good thing.
- The ideal online social community begins, and ultimately rests on, a real-world foundation.
Making it practical for personal blogs and small sites to form a social web is in accord with the cards I threw on the table. But how do we go from point A to point B? In the spirit of my essay on productivity – which was largely an essay against the productivity industry – we should consider what would promote a better, personal, social web:
- Solutions that allow people to subscribe directly to things they find interesting without an algorithmic middle-bot; and
- Solutions that allow creators to own their online creations and have a direct line to people who are interested in reading, admiring, watching, listening, or playing.
These points are somewhat interdependent. In order to incentivize creators to make it easy for people to follow directly through standards such as RSS and ATOM feeds (not exclusive), there must be a significant number of people who are interested in following in that manner instead of through social media. In order for people to take control over their own following, they must be convinced that they will be able to discover new and interesting people and topics to follow without a big tech helper.
While I am not a fan of social media generally, the goal here should not be to destroy the big tech players (except for TikTok which should be banned). If anything, I would like to see those big, centralized players, which are a fact of life for the foreseeable future, to be more open in allowing people to follow writing and media from their walled gardens (I praised Substack for producing RSS feeds, and YouTube is another example of a platform that allows following via RSS, albeit it is not too vocal about it). Many people prefer, and will continue to prefer, viewing the internet first through a social media app or a search engine-attached chatbot. Moreover, it is not the case that every person needs a blog or website. The goal should be to reach people who would be inclined to take ownership of their online media following. To this end, the way is not bashing social media (except TikTok), but promoting co-existing alternatives. From a section from my productivity essay titled The Positive Path to Productive Leisure:
If one removes something from his or her leisure time because it is unfulfilling or outright harmful, one should also look to fill the void with something fulfilling and beneficial. This could be great or pleasant media, something instructive or educational, or something relaxing and healthy. The goal is not to punish oneself for spending time poorly, but to open the door to spending time well.N.A> Ferrell
Pointing out that Facebook is bad or Twitter is mostly dull is all well and good, but doing so lacks purpose without a positive alternative. The emphasis should be on promoting a positive alternative. In so doing, one ought to correctly diagnose the problems with the former (hence my view that the benefits of replicating the formats of the former without ads and de jure centralization are limited). I have endeavored to do just this in promoting reading with RSS and ATOM feeds as an alternative to Facebook and later as an alternative to Twitter.
While this essay will not offer a grand plan, I will offer some general principles (maybe “musings” is more accurate in this particular case) for promoting digital home ownership for readers and also for writers, perhaps social digital homes, for lack of a better term:
- Promote following sites and media through feeds. Also promote ways to use feeds as a means of discovery. I discussed how to use a feed reader in conjunction with a read-it-later solution to discover out-of-feed articles and websites without needing to rely on an external algorithm.
- Encourage personal sites to link externally effectively and maintain lists of sites that their readers may find interesting. Ye Olde Blogroll is one example.
- Promote ways to search for personal and small web sites. I have noted the Marginalia Search Engine in several articles as one of the most useful tools for this purpose.
- Promote solutions for facilitating site-to-site communication, where site A’s interaction with site B exists on both sites A and B. The Indieweb Project has many ideas toward this end, granting its current flaws and limitations (see my post on Indieweb and standard RSS/ATOM feeds).
- We should promote decentralized commenting, where people can comment on sites from their own digital home without necessarily needing to run their own blog. My model here is Hypothes.is, which allows for granular annotations and commenting – its only flaw for this purpose is its centralization. I like the idea of combining this concept with a feed reader, and I know that there are some small Indieweb projects to this effect. However, I will mull it over further.
This essay already ran quite a bit longer than I had originally intended, so I will leave it here for now and build on some of these idle musings on a social web based on personal sites and commenting silos in the future. For the time being, I conclude by encouraging readers to look for interesting, independent websites from around the web – and Ye Olde Blogroll is a fine resource to assist in the search. While feeds and feed readers may not be the ideal solution for every use case, you can learn more about feeds generally in my introduction to the subject and stay abreast of my posts on the subject in our subject-matter tag. We of course also provide a full selection of feeds, including feeds for our newsletter and an entire static New Leaf Journal feed aggregator site.
Taking ownership of your own online writing, reading, and viewing is one small step toward a better web.