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Roll Your Own Social Network
An open note to people who hate how Elon is running Twitter. And a plea to those who love what he’s doing with the place
”If you hate it so much, then why don’t you leave?”
We are a few months into Elon running Twitter and some of the worst discourse has revolved around this question. You have people airing out reasonable critiques of how Elon has been running the company then have supporters mocking them and showing people the door. You also then have major celebrities leaving Twitter in the most performative way imaginable.
What’s lost in this is that both the current Elon Era Twitter (that has existed for 2 months) and the Pre-Elon Twitter (that existed for 16 years) has been a mess. Many of the things people are complaining about now are issues that have always been there. The problems that form, when a single CEO brokers the discourse of millions, are well known.
So what do we do about it?
One idea is to turn the challenge on ourselves. How can we, personally, make better social networks?
This could mean cloning Twitter and going for massive scale right out of the gate as some are attempting. Or it can mean starting on a much smaller and more tangible scale.
Roll your own social network or help nurture an independent one
You’re already doing it for friends and fam
Have you ever formed a group chat? Or rage quit one? Congrats, you’re basically Mark Zuckerberg. These smaller chat groups have been so ingrained into our life that I don’t think people realize the degree to which sustaining them, in a positive way, is a skill that people can get better at. There’s no 3rd party moderator to call when things go off the rails in the fam group chat. You often have to learn the hard way but the first step is to realize that what you’re involved in, is a digital social network, and there are nuances to the chat box everyone is typing into.
There have never been more accessible tools for you to bring your people together
You have Discord, Slack, Geneva and many other new ones attempting to get your attention. At their core, all of these apps give you the ability to make a place that you can moderate as you wish and integrate with the rest of the internet as you wish. You have to use their interface but the amount of integrations and customizations you can do is a sight to behold.
It may bring you more joy than tweeting about how much you hate Elon
The amount of emotional energy dedicated to dunking on Elon for how he’s running Twitter… with tweets, is a sight to behold. I get it, there’s plenty to target, but at what point is it a self own? You’re still there. If your conviction is that high, live by your values and exit. Or try something on the side until you feel more comfortable to take the leap!
If it goes well, rolling a social network is a path to meet new people, make money, and nurture creative relationships
This trend of carving out private, independently moderated spaces online isn’t new. It’s the trend that created the internet as we know it (shout out to The Well circa 1985). What’s new is that the internet is now both normal (~5b people use the internet daily) and the frustration with the major platforms has never been as pointed. We’ve come full circle and people are searching for their own version of The Well.
It’s time to grow up
The deal we’ve accepted from Twitter and Facebook is a convenient deal but a cheap one. We are promised a “public square” for free on the condition that we’re not citizens in that public square, but subjects.
It’s taken us a decade to realize how few people this satisfies in practice. It’s hard to understand how bad it is until you’re the one pressing the report button on a Tweet threatening a friend and then waiting weeks for a reply. Or what it feels like to be told there is no such thing as shadow banning only to see the interface for shadow banning emerge years later. When things go off the rails on Twitter, there is no due process, no jury of your peers, and no transparency about how consequential decisions are made.
Even Elon understands an aspect of this. A few weeks into owning Twitter he kicked some of its most major decisions to a 24 hour Twitter Poll.
But he misses the other side of this. That poll was a sham. It didn’t go to all of Twitter in any organized way, it went out to people who follow him and happened to be online on a Friday night.
Transitioning the users of these mega platforms from subjects to citizens requires something different. Continuing to wait or encourage Elon and Zuck to do this doesn’t seem like the best strategy.
If we’re tired of kings, it’s time to grow up and build on land they don’t own.
There’s already momentum
Some of the most fascinating new sites are niche social networks. Shout out to New Models, FWB, Do Not Research, Farcaster, Poaster, Def, Are.na and so many others that go beyond my own immediate interests.
All of these spaces have run, head first, into issues with moderation and community stewardship. All of them have codified rules and guidelines that are unique to them.
These networks are all tiny in comparison but that’s also the point. I think we’re much more likely to find better practices for conflict resolution, due process, and treasury management in smaller spaces than to start at huge scale and then work backwards.
Elon has (inadvertently) given us a rare window for something new
Elon owns Twitter now and the meta conversation about how to run a social network has blown up in a way we haven’t seen in a decade.
Many people are actively looking for new spaces to go. They are debating the details of social platform policy in a way that just didn’t get attention before. And it’s a beautiful thing.
If we’re serious about a future online where we aren’t the playthings of boy billionaires, then we’re the ones who are going to need to grow up.
It’s on us to realize we have a choice of where we spend time online. And it’s on us to remember that building and refining social networks isn’t some weird or nerdy thing reserved for the Zuck’s of the world—it’s the thing that, quite literally, made our world.
We’re better at creating social networks than we give ourselves credit for and there’s so much more we can do to translate that skill online. In 2023, the tech required to make this happen has never been more accessible.
I realize It’s one thing to talk about rolling your own social network and another to have some skin in the game. I recently tossed my hat into the ring with some friends (more on that soon).
For the rest of the year, I’ll chronicle attempts to start a few mini social networks from scratch, post some thought experiments for ones I think could exist, and continue to back the ones I love.
To follow along, follow me on Twitter and this Substack.