This post started as a response to a thread on the Macpowerusers forum asking any users of the forum to share if they were users of micro.blog. As users chimed in with user names some also offered opinion and critique of micro.blog. It was something I’d thought about quite a bit myself and as I typed this I realized it should be a blog post rather than a forum post.
So, about Micro.blog I’ll start with a few specifics but then I’ve got a few things about the larger “open web” context that I want to begin working out.
I’ll start with the micro.blog interface! Yikes. Too clean, too simple. And somewhat dysfunctional. The official iOS app and website seem so devoid of personality. Some like a simple white page and I understand that appeal. It’s much better that than the cluttered mess of ads and wasted space on FB and Twitter. In fact, much better than most websites generally. I think this nice tidy look is at least in part due to the fact that micro.blog is a paid service and so, no ads! Also, as it’s been built from scratch I’ve seen in mentioned by it’s creator, Manton Reese, that he’s been very intentional and careful about adding new features. A good move I think.
But the iOS app is just too plain and, on the iPad, somewhat dysfunctional. When in full screen or split screen there are two columns, and the left column is mostly wasted space. In split screen the results are terrible unless it is made to be the smallest portion of the split screen, the iPhone pane size, in which case it’s not bad. But at 50% split screen the left pane persists and takes up far too much space leaving too little space for content. Another weird behavior is scrolling through posts, one has to be careful not to accidentally tap into a post as it stops further scrolling until tapped again. Tapping into the post is necessary to interact with a reply or to view a conversation, favorite or share. It’s a choice that keeps the interface clean but can make actual use a bit frustrating. Also, anytime I leave and return to the app I’m back at the top of my feed. Also frustrating.
A third party iOS app, Icro, is much better in its use of space. BUT, the website and both apps limit the reading of the “Discover” feed to 50 posts. That’s it. It just stops. The “timeline” of people I follow allows for unlimited scrolling. But it’s an smaller pool of people. It’s hard to discover new people when the discover feed is so limited. Why not an unlimited discover feed. Let me scroll for days if I so choose.
The community is, er, intimate? From what I can tell, it’s very small. TINY. I pop in every so often and near as I can tell, it seems like the same 30 users on my discover feed. It feels like a club or a big Slack channel. That’s not a bad thing but it feels like the opposite of the “open web”. The upside is that it always feels very polite, positive and affirming. There’s little to no snark. I love that. The overall result is that it feels like good, interesting, healthy sharing but really limited in diversity and because it’s such a small pool of people it doesn’t feel real. It feels too curated, controlled. Again, it feels the opposite of the open web.
My understanding of the open web is that, contrary to social media like Twitter and FB, it is meant to be something that is owned by creators and more openly accessible from anywhere on the web. And it’s true that in the case of micro.blog, posts can be viewed outside of the micro.blog website or apps. If I find a user that that I want to add to my RSS reader to follow via an RSS app I can do that. Or, I can just bookmark accounts. But RSS is something I do as an individual reader. It’s my RSS feed. But a part of the point (I think?) of the micro.blog experience is to help create a cohesive, connected community for source material that is both within the officially hosted micro.blogs as well as those from outside. It creates a community commenting system that sort of ties the sources together. And really, it seems to work very well. But did I mention how few people seem to be there?
People go to twitter and FB because it’s a convenient place to go where they can easily connect with a larger group of friends, family, etc. Micro.blog feels like a place to go to connect to a small group of strangers that are polite and have good taste. And I think micro.blog really lacks a certain stickiness for this reason. It seems many users set-up accounts and try it out for a few weeks and then disappear. Once set-up micro.blog is pretty easy to use. Creating a post, commenting on posts are easy. But the mass of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram seems to pull most most people away. Certainly something is missing as the user base of micro.blog seems stagnant. At least from my own observation which is, to be sure, very limited.
Put another way, when I’m browsing Micro.blog I am keenly aware that I am in a very tiny subset of humanity. If I’m browsing Twitter or Instagram there is the sense that I am tapped into all of humanity. Yes, of course it is a subset, but it is a very large subset and it feels expansive, open. That said, big is not necessarily better.I quit Facebook 4 years ago and have never regretted it. I’m still on Instagram though I spend very little time there and I’d like to quit and probably will at some point. I’m on Twitter and would also like to quit that and probably will at some point though I actually do spend a good bit of time there. I’m not satisfied with any of these options as it seems they are opposite extremes with no middle ground.
So, what is to be done? I don’t know. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have quite a bit of gravity on the web and they have a role that many people consider important. Not only that but they are perceived to be “free”. Those users are not likely to leave because they have nowhere to go that is as easy to use and equally important, no perceived cost. Those that I know and with whom I have talked about all of the many negatives have expressed little interest in leaving the services even with those known negatives.
As a builder of the web dating back to 1998 and a blogger dating back to 2002 I’m forced to conclude that as of this moment there are no viable, meaningful alternatives for the less technical, “average” users of the internet. . In recent days we’ve seen the sale of Tumblr to Automatic, the makers of WordPress. Many hold out hope that this might develop into something meaningful for the open web and perhaps it will. I’m far from being an expert and am not an active part of the open or Indy web communities. But the sense that I have is that ultimately the solution is growing the plurality of “open” options for users as creators and consumers. Perhaps, if viewed as an ecosystem, the outlook might be more hopeful? That is, after all, the original ideal is it not? Open and wide access to the web to everyone? There will be no one answer, no one challenger to the gravity wells created by big social media entities.
I write this and mull it over from the perspective of a creator and as a longer-term user of the “old web”. I have, at least, a basic grasp of the ideal (and importance of) the open web, ownership and access. I write it as someone frustrated with the nastiness of the business practices of the corporate entities that own the big social media as well as the lack of moderation on those sites making them potentially dangerous places. But even amongst the relatively tech fluent (and likely, financially affluent) community of tech/apple oriented users that I follow on Twitter, there is little impulse to move to alternatives such as Micro.blog or Mastodon. I’ve seen evidence of an almost complete lack of interest.
My hope is that more in the tech community might begin to take an interest and make more of a consistent effort to slowly fill in these alternative spaces. Additionally there are old-fashioned websites and moderated forums. These spaces already exist but they need to be consistently inhabited and expanded. Over time, technical capacity and mind/user share have to be consistently grown and grown in such a way that they are also an ethical improvement that is also sustainable.