Why I left algorithm-based social media and what happened next

Per Axbom standing at the back of a room, holding a beer, getting ready to speak to audience members in a lounge setting.
Photo credit: Anders Thid

This is a blog adaptation of a recent 15-minute talk I was asked to do at an Ambition Empower event. Having noticed that I am no longer on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn people are naturally curious as to my reasoning and how this works for a small business owner. At the very end I've addressed some questions that came up and shared my thoughts on. You will also find links to tools and resources. I'd certainly enjoy giving this talk again, and in a longer format.

1. Caryn

In 2017 a woman by the name of Caryn told this story. She had a friend who died. And she did not know, because of algorithms. Let’s call him Adam. Adam had fallen terminally ill and passed away within a timeframe of a few months. A mutual friend reached out to Caryn to ask her if she was aware that Adam had died. She was not.

An avid Facebook user, Caryn visited Adam’s Facebook page. They had met in-person once, but mostly interacted online for more than 15 years. She found a post he had made a month earlier, explaining his situation as he was in hospital. Caryn and several other people she reached out to had never seen this post.

Caryn understood what had happened. Because Adam did not post much, he mostly just liked and commented, the algorithm did not value his post enough. It chose to not show it to a number of his friends.

But she also realised what this could have meant for Adam. He may have passed away thinking that none of his online friends cared.

The average Facebook user has 2,000 different stories that they could potentially see every day, but they'll only end up seeing about 200 of them.

We talk a lot about the interesting things we find on social media. But rarely do we talk about the things that the algorithms decide not to show us, and why.

Imagine attending a cocktail party but you do not choose which people you hear. The people you hear are the ones who the algorithm decides should be heard. When you speak you do not know who will hear you.

You always have to wonder who built the algorithms and how voices are being valued. And if, perhaps, you are mostly hearing the people who stir up the most emotion.

Time and time again we are, within these systems, being experimented on without our consent as companies test and tweak their algorithm continuously. It's probably wise to remember that keeping people docile, or at war with each other rather than the oppressor, is straight from an authoritarian playbook.

2. The Current Situation

Note: For this segment of my talk I have a dollhouse and various figures and dolls that I use to illustrate the points I'm making. Here's a picture of the setup:

My setup with a small dollhouse and arrows pointing to the different actors: The Platform (the house), The Owner (a greek statue), The Advertiser (Evil Knievel POP figure), The Profiler (a mug with the face of the homeroom teacher from Assassination classroom), The Algorithm (Stripe from the movie Gremlins), The Troll (a troll-like figure), and The Moderator (a regular doll-person, in this case a black man).
Photo credit: Pia Löfving

Here is your typical social media situation: First, there is The Platform. A box with walls, furnished to look like a home. Inside are people who have managed to create accounts, interacting with each other. For this to work we also have The Owner, the person or persons involved in designing The Platform for their own agenda, in their own image. We have The Advertiser who will ask the Owner, "I want to market my product to teenage girls, can you make that happen?" The Owner will say yes, and tell The Advertiser all about how it works.

The Profiler collects information about everything everyone does on the platform. It will even collect information about what you are typing before you are posting. Even if you never post. It will collect data about what you are doing outside the platform as well, because many other websites will assist in this data collection. It will store all this data indefinitely in huge energy-intensive data centers. Your data and your behavior is the oil of the information age.

The Algorithm will interpret all this information according to an undisclosed proprietary code and autonomously decide what you see, but also what you do not see. It will show ads to the people who are most likely to succumb to the messaging. It will know who the most vulnerable people are. The people who are struggling, exhausted and too tired to resist. It may not be you, but it will be someone. The algorithm knows.

And then there is another actor we talk very little about: The Moderator.

The Moderator represents many thousands of people across the world who watch violence all day long so that you won’t have to. The Owner will tell you that they have an AI that filters out harmful content. And they do. But then there are humans who need to verify. Violent abuse, sexual abuse, real murders, torture of animals and humans... Hour after hour, day after day. They watch, so that you won’t have to.

And of course, under this pressure and under the vasts amounts of data published every day there will be many false positives. People who have done nothing wrong will be thrown out, losing all the data they have contributed to The Platform, sometimes years of photos and posts.

Often this will be the vulnerable people who do not have the capacity to object. Who perhaps do not even speak a language that The Platform has support for.

And so far I haven't even mentioned The Troll. The actor who is empowered by the platform, who can break into the house, gain people's trust and mess with them in disastrous ways. I'll just put him inside the house with the two teenage girls and move on.

3. My Tipping Point

What I have just told you should not be news. It gets reported on time and time again. But there are so many barriers to exit and so little visibility for alternatives. And why would algorithms want to show us alternatives?

While I left Facebook a fair while ago, the final tipping point for me came with observing and becoming aware of bothersome behaviors on LinkedIn.

Because visibility of our posts is so unpredictable, we have to scream louder in order to be heard. We have to game the algorithm. Be more “authentic”, be more “vulnerable”. We have to care more about the algorithm than the people we are trying to reach. We engage friends and employees to like and boost our posts, forcing people who truly don't want to into a difficult bind. Risking that they feel bad about obeying without protest, or feeling bad for not complying with a friend's request.

One common practice on LinkedIn to game the algorithm is to first talk about this interesting online content you want to share. And then you say, “the link is in the comments” with an arrow pointing down. Often an emoji like this: 👇

Supposedly this helps your visibility. At least in certain studies. The algorithm punishes you for external links in the main post. And so you make life harder for people with cognitive disabilities, people with screen readers and everyone else who has to hunt for that link.

Let me show you what this looks like in real life.

Note: At this point in the talk I walk up to an audience member and play out the following:

Me [Walking up to an audience member with a copy of my book in my hand]: "I have this book Digital Compassion. I’ve written about why we keep building the wrong thing and how we can build the right thing. With lots of practical templates and tools to help you. It’s free, do you want it?"
Audience member: "Yes…"
Me [Throwing the book backwards onto the floor, pointing at it.]: There you go, it’s in the comments.

The algorithm makes people act to the detriment of their own and other people’s wellbeing. People spend more time finding out what will make the algorithm happy rather finding out how to format content that makes it inclusive and available to more diverse groups of people. Content that treats people with dignity and respect.

4. The Reasoning

I have the privilege of having time for reflection. Time for understanding systems and myself. Time for recognising how my wellbeing is affected by cognitive dissonance when I participate in activities that clash with my own values of compassion, autonomy and inclusion.

Some people perhaps go to their friends and ask "What would you do?". I ask "What would Pooh do"? Winnie-the-Pooh is my conscience.

Note: Now I bring out a stuffed Pooh bear that I have hidden behind me on stage. I act out this exchange:

“Pooh bear…”, I say.
And Pooh says. “Yes?” Because he always listens.
I explain: “I’m visiting in this house but I’m not sure why people are saying the things they're saying or why I am hearing the things I'm hearing, or even why people like what I am saying.”
Pooh asks: “Are they your friends?”
And I say: "I don’t know. I’m not sure I know what the definition of a friend is anymore."
This is of course Pooh's area of true expertise: "Real friendship is when your friend comes over to your house and then you both just take a nap."
And I quickly realise: "No, there is very little space for being without talking. Some are friends sure, but inside this house, no I don't believe this is friendship.”
Thinking carefully, tapping his forehead, Pooh adds: "Hmm. Is there something to eat?"
I explain: "Oh no, there is no food at all in here."
Pooh says: "I think then perhaps you should go home and have a little smackerel of something or other."

When I talk to Pooh he is, of course, me. And having a little smackerel of something for me means to sit down and just be with your own thoughts.

5. Challenging Truths

I have always felt comfortable, as many designers do, with challenging accepted truths. It has become truth that no one can thrive online and grow a business without participating on the major platforms that make up Algorithm-Based Social Media.

And one day, while having a little smackerel of something, the absurdity of this just hit me.

How absurd it is that we create something like the Internet. A global web of interconnected computers. And someone makes us believe that to communicate with each other we need the help of a dysfunctional, closed building that shuts people out and harms people and the environment with their business model.

The internet is out here, outside those walls. And it won’t exclude anyone or throw anyone out.

The internet is already a social medium.

6. The Alternative

So I did follow Poohs advice, I went home to my own house.

I started blogging on my own domain in 1997. In November it will be 25 years. I think this is important to understanding how I perhaps see pathways that others do not as readily see. Or may not have available yet.

I’m now on my own virtual private server, using open source software for publishing, participating in federated social media. I am more free of algorithms for my online presence and for what I myself see and read. And I don't track or profile anyone who visits my online home. I don't track or profile anyone who reads my newsletters.

And for family and relatives I also use a newsletter, or email. I reach more of them with email and they can respond. I know they get my message and they always have an easy way to return to the content and to the photos.

And yes, I also reach clients with email. And my own space is where future clients can find everything they need.

Absolutely I may need to put more effort into helping potential clients find me than setting up a LinkedIn post. But because I know why I am putting in that extra effort, it’s worth it.

  • I am writing more. And reflecting more before I am writing. Not thinking about being first, or the number of likes or shares.
  • I’m feeling more calm.
  • I’m feeling more in control.
  • I’m feeling less angry.
  • I’m feeling more like myself.
  • I’m feeling more at home.
  • I’m feeling more like a friend.

Am I missing out on stuff? Yes of course. But I was also missing out on things before. Like all this time for reflection that I have now. It’s funny how we don’t recognise when we are missing out on time to ponder. Ask Pooh. He knows. He always has time for a little smackerel of something or other.

Again, the important thing isn’t what I am missing, but what I am finding.

7. The Message

I'm not primarily moving away from something. I'm moving towards something. Towards wellbeing.

Ethics is about building moral stamina. I can not personally do that in an environment that encourages me to digress from my values.

But I am not naive. I know this is a huge stepping stone for most people.

I’m not asking people to do what I do. I want people to make their own choices. But I can show there is another path for those who are looking for one. And be a guide. That is how I know I can help others without trying to help inside the unbalanced power structures of the platforms.

And if you are participating  and your wellbeing benefits from it. I won't try to change your mind, I won't question your reasoning. I will just leave you with this piece of advice:

Don’t feed the algorithm after midnight. 😉*

* That last sentence of the talk really only becomes fully understandable if you are aware of how I use a Gremlin figure to represent the algorithm and you have seen the movie Gremlins. When you feed a the cute little animal know as mogwai after midnight, it turns into a reptilian monster. The gremlin.

Here's a short clip where you can see this rule explained in the movie:

Extract from the trailer for the movie Gremlins.
Curious about Ambition Empower? As I mentioned this talk was part of an Ambition Empower event. This is a continuous learning program where I am one of the teachers on digital ethics and inclusive design. There are many more tracks to follow and they are all included in a price that gives you access to weekly learnings for a full year, available to start at any point. You should absolutely check it out.

Reflections and resources for more web independence

It's not about the tool

I will get questions about tools. And I will happily recommend tools. But I will also remind everyone that this is not primarily about finding another tool. You rarely will begin by finding a tool and then change your mindset. But when you change your mindset there are tools that can help you follow through.

The reason I'm passionate about digital ethics and why it matters to me is because it's about you as a human being. Your self-awareness. Your autonomy. Your intent. Your values. Your contribution. What you will have others sacrifice for you to get what you want. What you will, and are able to, sacrifice to be who you want to be. These are tough questions, but I feel it is always rewarding to work through them.

The quick start

If you at least want a place to start, I would consider these steps:

These two links are affiliate links, which means if you sign up for anything using them, I will get a small reimbursement. But you don't need to use these links at all, the important thing is the advice.

  1. Buy a domain name. If you don't already own one, a domain name is the first step to owning your own piece of the web. A home you can refer to by name.
  2. Buy space at a web host. A web host will provide a space for your website or blog and other web properties. This particular host (Hostup) will allow you to install a self-hosted version of Ghost, which you can use for your website, blog as well as newsletters. Ghost is what I use for this site and for all newsletters I send out (both public and private ones). It's not common for web hosts to offer Ghost in this way which is why Hostup is my recommendation. But if you'd rather use Wordpress for publishing you can of course choose that too. Or Drupal.

Important Note: I am not talking about Ghost(Pro) which is the commercially hosted version of Ghost that will cost a significant bit of money. Ghost is open source and you can install it for free, which is what I am recommending. Essentially you can do for free everything that the paid version can do.

You could be up and running with this in half an hour. A domain name, a web host and an install of Ghost. The domain name will cost about €10 per year. Hostup (the web host I'm recommending) will start at less than €4 per month. So, at less than €5 per month you are well on your way to assuming more control over your online presence.

The trick now is to focus on publishing your content in your space. Sharing your content somewhere else would then mean linking back to your own domain. This helps you maintain control over your own content. Your space, your rules. When you write your content somewhere else, someone else's rules apply. Publishing your content somewhere else can suddenly make it harder to find when people want to refer to it or read it again. If they remember your domain name they're all set. Even better if they subscribe to your newsletter or RSS feed, which is an automatic benefit of self-publishing.

When you are ready for a more advanced setup, you can do like me and upgrade to a virtual private server (VPS). Check out the next section and read about my Indieweb setup, where I'm also clear about what costs are involved.

Indieweb for independence

The word to use when searching for more online independence, and less vulnerability, is Indieweb. I have written about my own setup in a post here on the blog: Indieweb and self-hosting my own space.

Fediverse for social tools

The Fediverse is a concept wherein platforms for sharing content online are independently owned but can communicate seamlessly with each other. For example, I have my own installation of a social media platform called Mastodon. I can interact with anyone using that platform, regardless of where their installation is across the world. The only person on my installation (or instance as it's often called) is myself. It's one of my independent online "homes".

Here is my post on this: A Brief Mastodon Guide for Social Media Worriers.

I also recommend this video that explains the concept of decentralised social media, with a quick overview of terms like ActivityPub and Fediverse, as well as some tools: Mastodon, PeerTube and Pixelfed.

If you are (or have been) a dedicated Twitter user, checking tweets many times every day, you may find that you won't be as dedicated to these other tools. That is not because they do not provide value. It's because they are something else. It is helpful if your approach is about curiosity and discovery, not about finding replacements.

Feedbin for staying up-to-date

One big area of self-empowerment for me is choosing my own news sources. I have a single point-of-entry for blogs, news sites and newsletters with a website and app called Feedbin. Feedbin is not only an RSS reader, it also gives you a unique email address that you can use for newsletter subscriptions to make them end up in the same reader. This has the added benefit of keeping your regular email address private and free from clutter. When I want to read news, I'm in a different mode than when I'm reading email.

For those who still want to follow a selection of favorite people or lists on Twitter, Feedbin can also pull in tweets, and linked articles will also appear inside Feedbin, with no need for visiting Twitter itself.

Recommendation: Set up an account on the Feedbin website and then use one of the many apps (for iPhone/iPad, Mac and Android), for all platforms, to also read your selected content on another device.

Pro tip. To avoid information overload, set a limit to how many sources or newsletters you want to subscribe to in total. If you add one above the limit, remove one source.

For a news source of a more traditional kind you may want to try Inkl. You can "enjoy premium access to the world’s best coverage, and an incredible experience without noise, ads, or paywalls".

Final reflection

No matter where you land, I think it's a good idea for your own wellbeing to reflect on the type of Internet you would like to see in the future. And how your actions are contributing to, or counteracting, that desired future. Beyond that you may want to consider how you protect your own assets when so many of the platforms where content is shared will inevitably cease to exist, or at least grow irrelevant. And even further, who owns your content after your passing.

I can help make alternative paths and options visible, but I can't choose direction for you. In the end, you may very well benefit from something that is different from my experience.

If you need a coach, that's something I can help with. And of course, my newsletter will try to inspire and show more of what the web can offer. You can even subscribe to all blog posts straight to email if you like.

Let me know about your own struggles and decisions related to algorithm-based social media. It will help me address the most pressing issues in a mindful way.

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