Apparently, there’s no evidence that Gandhi ever said
Be the change you want to see in the world
though he did say something not wildly dissimilar.¹
Either way, the saying could be have been invented for Manton Reece, author of the remarkable, soon to be self-published book, Indie Microblogging (full draft available online).
I think a good argument can be made that Manton may have spent more time thinking carefully about what makes healthy and unhealthy social networks than anyone else running a social network, and the evidence is collected in his book.
Manton’s own story is interesting. He was a very early and enthusiastic Twitter user who created various tools using the Twitter API,² most notably Tweet Marker, a service that allowed people to synchronize their positions in the Twitter timeline across different devices and apps. Early Twitter had a very open API, allowing third-party developers to build a thriving ecosystem around Twitter itself. In fact, many of the things people now think of as core parts of Twitter were created by the third-party client ecosystem, with Twitteriffic, from the Icon Factory, having had a particularly large influence on the development of the service. But around 2017, after floating, Twitter developed a much more hostile relationship with third-party developers, curbing API access and actively discouraging third-party clients. It was around then that many of Twitter’s more active users started actively considering moving to other services, including the then very young Mastodon.³ On 13th January this year (2023) Twitter effectively finally killed off API access for some of the most popular third-party Twitter clients, including Twitterrific and Tweetbot, at least on iOS, leading to this magnificant rant from Twitterrific developer Craig Hockenberry.
Manton Reece was way ahead of others in losing faith in Twitter. By 2012, he had grown so offended by the company’s behaviour and vision—to the extent that it had one—that he stopped posting to his account, @manton, and moved to app.net, an early, and fairly short-lived, would-be Twitter competitor created by Dalton Caldwell.
In 2017, some time after the closure of app.net, Manton launched a Kickstarter campaign for a book—the very book I’m here reviewing, Indie Microblogging—and an associated “microblogging” service—Micro.blog.
The headline for the Kickstarter was “Indie Microblogging: owning your short-form writing”, and the opening sentence was:
I'm writing a book about independent microblogging, and launching a publishing platform called Micro.blog.
The Kickstarter goal, which was the minimum backing for the project to go ahead, was $10,000. This was reached in a matter of days. After a couple of weeks, Manton added a stretch goal of $80,000, saying:
If we reach $80,000, I'll hire a community manager for Micro.blog to help build a safe community from the start. See this update on Kickstarter for details on the stretch goal and a new feature called Safe Replies.
3,080 people backed the campaign to the combined tune of $86,696, so Manton duly hired as Micro.blog’s first employee, a Community Manager—Jean MacDonald. Straight way, that tells you something about Manton’s priorities for Micro.blog.
The Idea of Micro.blog and Indie Microblogging
You can get a really strong sense of what Manton is trying to do with a couple of key excerpts from the book:
Remember, most Twitter clones fail. With the platform based on blogs, the worst case if Micro.blog doesn’t work out is that you’ve still got your own blog! Instead of being left with nothing, you have all your microblog posts, domain name, and design. You can still cross-post to other social networks and move on to the next thing without starting over.
This is how the web was supposed to work. We’ve gotten away from it and now it’s time to find our way back. The IndieWeb has long been working toward this.
— From the chapter Your Blog, in Part 5, Decentralization in the book.
There’s quite a lot to unpack here:
- Microblogging is (broadly) a name for “Twitter-like” activity—people putting short “posts” online, each containing a few words, links or photos, with some mechanism to allow other people to subscribe to the “feed” of posts from chosen microbloggers.
- Microblogging is so called because it is a kind of blogging.
A blog (short for “weblog”)
is a website consisting of a series of not-necessary-short posts,
again with a feed mechanism allowing other people to subscribe so that
they are notified when there are new posts. Blogs are
traditionally arranged newest to oldest, with each post having a title,
a datestamp, a URL (a so-called
“permalink”) and some content.
The fact that these links are known as permalinks is significant:
Manton is a supporter and active member of the self-styled “IndieWeb” community,
one of whose core principles is longevity on the web. Like many
of the web’s most ardent supporters, IndieWeb people hate
- With services like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and even Mastadon, your posts (tweets, in the case of Twitter) live at twitter.com, on Twitter’s servers, under a user’s (user)name, but not their own domain.⁵ So Manton’s tweets appear at https://twitter.com/manton on Twitter, and his “last” tweet in 2012 had the permalink https://twitter.com/manton/status/254228056657494016. On Micro.blog, users are encouraged to bring (use) their own domain, which might be hosted on Micro.blog’s servers, but the address is owned by the user. So although you can see Manton’s posts on Micro.blog at micro.blog/manton, their “canonical” location is actually at Manton’s personal domain manton.org. Similarly, when I post to Micro.blog, I do it from my domain, njr.radcliffe0.com (though my setup is non-standard and more complicated). The point is, either of us can move that content somewhere else and still serve it from the same URLs at https://manton.org (in Manton’s case) and https://njr.radcliffe0.com in my case. Manton is encouraging people to protect themselves from the possibility that Micro.blog goes away, or goes bad, by making their permalinks ones they control, avoiding losing content and preventing link rot. (It’s true that if Micro.blog disappeared then users whose content is actually stored at Micro.blog and who don’t have any kind of backup might lose their content; but Micro.blog supports a very full export, and I think we can be fairly confident that if Micro.blog were to fail, users would be given plently of notice and encouragement to export their content in a form that would be easy to relocate.)
Better Social Networks
Micro.blog is a social network unlike any other. It eschews public likes and follower counts. It has no equivalent of retweeting or quote tweeting. It doesn’t use hashtags or have a global search function. There are no ads, for while there is a limited free tier for people who fully host their own content, most users pay actual money for the service. There is no algorithmic recommendation or promotion: you see the posts from people you choose to follow in reverse chronological order. Although it isn’t a Mastodon instance, you can follow Mastodon users on Micro.blog, and they can follow Micro.blog users, because they both use ActivityPub, a key IndieWeb protocol for which Tumblr has also announced planned support. Micro.blog posts are HTML, just like the traditional web, and can include ordinary good-old-fashioned hyperlinks—a blue, underlined, clickable word or phrase that points somewhere on the web.
Micro.blog is curated by a human, and that human is Jean Macdonald, the very same person Manton hired when he hit his Kickstarter “stretch” goal. She (mostly) hand curates a set of interesting posts that she collects together in a “Discover” section that users can browse if they choose. And if people behave badly on the network, they are kicked off. It is, in my experience, a remarkably unshouty, civil, positive, place, with none of the anxiety or compulsiveness we see elsewhere, no trolling, and little content that would drive people to “doom scroll”.
All of these features are conscious choices, explained in detail in the book, and they all serve the overlapping goals of promoting a strong, decentralized web where people own their own content (the “IndieWeb”), of creating safe, pleasant, non-toxic communities, and of removing anxiety.
Manton argues that (public) likes and follower counts are drivers of anxiety and take focus away from the content, leading to a popularity contest. He thinks that hashtags, retweeting and quote-tweeting combine with engagement-seeking algorithms to promote destructive virality, misinformation and mob culture. And he focuses on microblogging, because it has the lowest barrier to entry—just a box you start typing into, or attaching a photo, video or link to, without the need to come up with a title or to categorize anything. In fact, slightly confusingly, Micro.blog is actually a “full” blogging platform, and if you go past its micropost limit of 280 characters, a title box appears allowing you to turn your micropost into a full-blown blog post. But there isn’t much of a difference—just the (still optional) title and the fact that it’s longer. Microposts and full posts co-exist, and Manton usually calls someone’s collection of Micro.blog posts simply a blog.
Part Book, Part Manifesto, Part Service, Part Guiding Light
Indie Microblogging is a remarkable book, unlike anything I’ve read before. As I was reading it, until close to the end, I thought it was slightly spoiled whenever Manton talked about specific features and choices in Micro.blog itself, because eighty or ninety percent of the book is really just what its title suggests—a book about Microblogging independently. But now I’ve read it all, I think the book is actually stronger for talking about Manton’s concrete implementation of his ideas, in the specific form of Micro.blog. I can think of very few software passion projects (which Micro.blog clearly is) that are as strongly grounded in a social rather than a primarily technical vision and purpose. Although Micro.blog only launched in 2017, it’s clear that its roots go back at least to 2012, when Manton left Twitter and adopted the ill-fated app.net. It’s also obvious from the way in which the service continues to develop that the ideas, as expressed in the book, form a very bright guiding light, and it’s almost impossible to imagine Manton making decisions that violate the core principles and obectives he outlines so clearly in the book.
Micro.blog is strong evidence that Manton Reece not only talks the (IndieWeb) talk, but walks the (IndieWeb) walk.
¹ Gandhi did say: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” Originally published in Indian Opinion, August 9, 1913, and reprinted in: The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, vol. 13, chapter 153, page 241.
² API. Applications Programming Interface. APIs allow different pieces of software to communicate with each other programmatically. Twitter’s API allows programmers to write software that fetches tweets, posts tweets, retrieve followers and so forth.
³ In fact, I created accounts on two Mastodon servers in 2017, but didn’t really start using them until this year.
⁴ Tim Bray, a venerable Web grey beard writes about link rot on his long-running blog, Ongoing.
⁵ A is the bit of a web address after the
www, or after the
in an email address–
w3c.org are domains. Anyone
can buy a domain, and many of them cost only $10 or so a year.
Once you own a domain, if you keep paying the fee each year, you can
have it in perpetuity. Micro.blog lets you associate your domain
with your account on Micro.blog so you that people see your content
at URLs on your domain. But you can relocate the actual place your
content is held, and from where it is served, to anywhere else on
the internet. This is the sense in which owning your domain
give you full control of your own content.