September 25, 2020

Where now, brown cow?

Where now, brown cow?

First let me say that I fully aware that my thoughts so far on social media are from unique or revolutionary. I've been thinking about these issues for quite some time and needed a place to quickly jot down the main through lines to allow myself to focus on potential solutions.

It is in my nature to solve problems. I enjoy taking large complex issues, breaking them down into smaller pieces, again and again, until they are a collection of manageable problems that can be sequenced and tackled. I'm fairly good at it and it keeps a roof over my head.

I can, however, get sidetracked. One problem gets broken down to the point where there is a path to pursue and I can go down that path, neglecting the rest of the problems, and how they might overlap or inform the current one. So, ensuring that an overview is done allows me to see the bigger picture.

Like many, I've thought "There has to be a better way!" The first thought that many have is to replace Facebook or Twitter or whatever with a better app. I've thought that. I've written code in support of that idea. In doing so, I realize that many of the problems that I feel are outstanding would simply be shifted. It might do better in one arena but at the cost of what others.

No, the answer is not to build a better mousetrap. The answer is to remove the mice. (I don't know. It kinda made sense when I wrote it.) FWIW, I've looked at Mastodon, BlockStack, Zinc, and other attempts at this. There are a lot of good concepts out there, ripe for the picking.


The first thing that we need to replace is the network. Platforms provide new users an audience for their content. Most Facebook-killers die when people realize that none of their friends have signed up, or if they have, can't be bothered to check it on a regular basis.

There needs to be an independent persona provider that maintains who you are and how people can connect to you. Think of it like an email directory. You look me up, get my email address, and with any email client on my side, and any email client on your side, you can send me mail. And then in return I can reply to you.

Now, in addition to an email address, what if I were to include a way to see my photo stream, or my location, or my latest thoughts on the cost of rent (too damn high!).

Much like a domain name, your persona data would be federated and replicated across the net, allowing people to connect to your content, much like web browsers connect to web sites.

And don't confuse persona with identity. I own multiple domain names serving up different types of content. Why not have multiple personas for the same reason? Personas don't necessarily need to be publicly linked to your real life identity. Lots of nuance to this challenge, but it can be worked out.

I kind of envision a non-profit responsible for maintaining the backbone of this system, much like ICANN does for domain names.

Value adds around discovery, reputation, and other topics could exist as for-profit extensions.

A number of identity providers exist that support some or most of these features now. OpenID is a great example. It is telling that Facebook used to support it but does no longer. A good from scratch starting point would be to look at mixing together a little IAM with some WebID and OAuth.


With a network in place, there needs to be a way to communicate between all those people. ActivityPub is a really good basis for this and would probably be my starting point.


I envision a network where people own their own content. Ideally, it sits on a storage device that lives in the same place they do. Personally, I've been playing around with Docker images on a Synology NAS. I realize not everyone has the technical savvy, bandwidth, or means to do this. Cloud based solutions and advertising-supported solutions would be a business opportunity for those interested. Advertising is not inherently evil. Even targeted advertising.

So what are these solutions hosting, besides your unending collection of dog pictures? The tools to create, share, and view this data. Do you like Flickr or SmugMug over Facebook's image solutions? Great. Use something more like them. Do you want to write your political screeds using Markdown instead of a plain text editor? Cool. These tools should be able to integrate with the Persona Network and communicate using the open source protocols established.

One of my side side side projects is building an open source clone of Flickr, minus the Groups and Community features. If you were to view my pictures in your activity stream, you would see them in whatever tool you choose to view pictures, but if you come to my site, you get to see them in my app.


Now that we know where everyone's stuff is, we can access it, and have the tools to consume it (while creating our own) all we need to do is connect and blam - social media. Almost.

Not everything we do is for public consumption. We need to limit who can see what content. The enhanced persona system will help us to identify and easily target who is able to see what.

Beyond groupings and lists, however, I envision a couple of other features.

Machine Learning

ML/AI should be trained on your incoming feed to help you identify content. It should be both generally applied and specified to each user. A general Politics tag can be applied to anything containing a candidate's name, while your Uncle Phil might also have Politics applied if he is talking about Fluoride in the Damn Water. Applying these tags will help you filter out specific content without completely silencing someone.


No, not Klout 2.0. More like LinkedIn recommendations. You should be able to endorse someone for something they are practically good at or knowledgeable about. Attached to the Persona Network, you can easily see "which of my friends know about home repairs" or "across the network, friend or not, who is into the band Stiff Kittens". Discovery of this nature will complement Machine Learning. One to filter down content, one to expand content.

Next Steps

What? You want me to code all this? Sure thing. How's next Monday for you? Like I said there are a lot of people interested in this space and a lot of good open source projects to borrow from.

If I had to pick one area that I think I could add the most value to is in the creation of the Persona Network. It is the linchpin that the others need to be successful. It also could possibly exist without them - promoted as a tool of connection, discovery, reputation, etc. Build the network first, then allow others to use it.

I'm going to go back into thinking mode and see what comes of it.