black box

The greatest sin of any developer is thinking they are cleverer than the users of what they build. “I can guess what you want.” In truth, guessing what someone wants is far easier than helping them achieve what they actually want.

Even the word algorithm is so intimidating. We’ve built it up in the media to be something magical; something transcending frail, fallible humans. But an algorithm is nothing but code, and all code is built by the hands of those humans. To portray it as something more is not only dishonest but dangerous.

In the beginning, we ordered our content by time, usually by making the newest content first. In some places, we still do. Next, we ordered by votes and time as Slashdot, then Digg, then Reddit came into fashion. Already the criteria was becoming fuzzy — how do you weight votes against time, exactly? But the platforms have decided the algorithm is the experience you now must have. Ever ponder why?

The platforms all started out with two basic functions: syndication & 1:1 contact. Getting Facebook enabled you to: 1. See a syndicated feed of what your friends were doing and 2. Reach out to them, even if you lacked other contact info. Getting Twitter enabled you to: 1. See a syndicated feed of what folks were publishing on their blogs (!) and 2. Interact with folks outside your friend groups you’d never been able to interact with before. The problem, of course, is the fickleness of the network effect and how easy it was to displace their predecessors. There is no “stickiness”, no lock-in to a platform that sticks to its actual best use: syndication. The open web lets anyone syndicate, and thus the barrier to entry for competitors is quite low.

To build monetary value, you can’t let those taps & clicks escape, and there aren’t many ways to prevent that. The first is to sever connections from the open web: prevent outward syndication, make it uncomfortable to use without an account, and generally hoard & silo all the data it can. The second is to obfuscate the remaining connections. How is that “News Feed” built exactly? A magic algorithm! Where do these links actually go? Who cares! It’s all just content wrapped inside the monopoly of the platform. “Trust us.”

To trust a platform is foolish, because a platform has no values but pure capitalism, straight into the vein. It ultimately cannot have other values, because those values would undermine the breadth of its reach, and its reach is why it exists.

What, then, is left? If platforms cannot be trusted and are not regulated, they must be balanced with community. But if no community can exist on a platform, and our last generation of community software (forums) has failed to keep up, you must first build an anti-platform.

An anti-platform purposefully adds friction and removes magic from the system, and puts human choice and interaction at the center of it. It eschews the idea of “Internet scale” for “human scale.” It values the individual, but it does not put the individual above all else. It is, in short, what most of us meant all along when we said ‘community’ without realizing the contradictions of the path we followed towards platforms. We thought we were building the ultimate digital commons, but all we did was watch as they burned.

It’s time to build something new.

Next: binary consensus