Digital Postcards

I think social media and our approach to the internet is on the cusp of a major change, or perhaps just beyond the threshold. From the time of the internet's dawn until about a decade ago, most of it's services were decentralized. You'd visit someone's blog to hear their thoughts. Or go to their website to see their work. The past decade has brought in a huge paradigm shift in the centralization of our content. Instead of people's work being collected how they chose, it has been pooled on major providers. You know these as social networks, like Facebook and Instagram.

This was a serious trade-off. Of course, the has some positives, like making it more convenient for users. Instead of having to go to every photographer's portfolio website to see their work, I can just enter their handle in the Instagram search bar! However, the cost for this is also great.

Instead of presenting my work the way I want it to be seen, I have to conform and submit to the vocabulary of Instagram. In the early days, this meant cropping to square, but even now it means crunching your images down to 1080x1080, dealing with their compression, and having your work dropped in a big pond alongside ads for wrinkle cream and German design blue-jeans.

I think (hope, pray) the next decade of the internet is about finding the balance between these two spaces. We're starting to see a stronger division between communities on social network sites like different instances on Mastodon, as well as different subreddits on Reddit, different rooms on Discord, etc.

I think this will start to reflect across social networking at large, and my future network is no exception. Users should be able to group their friends by interests, perhaps those who post travel photography, those who post snapshots, and professional photographers. This would be used not only for viewing work of the genre they want to see, but for which groups each post was tailored to.

I think Google Plus had the right idea here, if perhaps the wrong execution, albeit far too ahead of their time. However, such a system would have to be as convenient to a user as adding tags for different people, or following pre-made groups.

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Another important trend for social networks in the future is the balance of intimacy and distance. Social networks, and the internet at large, are amazing to me primarily for their ability to shrink distance and allow connections between otherwise disparate people and groups of people. However, there are all sorts of perils in this setup, like making users feel bad or isolated in such a vast pool, or on seeing content created to mislead or generate envy.

My best experiences on social media have come from finding users with similar interests and forming communities with them, formal and informal. Some of these connections have gone on to become some of my biggest inspirations and motivators, creative collaborators, and closest friends. For me, the internet is at its best when even despite the vast pool you're placed in, still feels like a cozy, welcoming, and intimate space. These sorts of environments are ones that users want to contribute to and build on, and keep coming back to.

Having communities goes a long way towards creating this sense of familiarity between users. It's in spaces like these that users start to share work that is honest, personal, and genuine to themselves. This is very important to me. I want to build a collection of communities where sending a post comes with the warmth of sending a postcard to a cherished friend, and opening the app or website is like peeling back an envelope to a letter.

It should feel like pen-pals, all working on disparate projects and ideas, sharing something to a group they know will be supportive, and working towards building something bigger than we could do isolated and alone.

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In controlling the vocabulary of the user, platforms decide how users are able to interact with the work presented. Often, this consists of a single paradigm, one which you're probably familiar with: likes.

While I think that likes can have their place, I think they have been over-emphasized and over-utilized, leading not only to stagnation in the progression of the tech, but created a negative feedback loop with users. Users have been taught – or perhaps classically conditioned – to seek the like above all else. This drive influences the type of work users post, leading to repetition. It's like a microcosm of Hollywood. Why take risks when you know what sort of work will perform?

Not only is it bad for the users, the value these services have placed on the like is undue as well. With the focus the Algorithm gives to well-liked content, it only reinforces this loop.

In my ideal platform, this data would be shielded from users by default. Of course, it would not be hidden, as I'd like to respect the user as much as possible. However, it would not be placed so prominently at the fore-front like in other social platforms. Instead, for users to show appreciation, they could send responses to the creator about their work, or share the work even further with their friends.

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Finally, if this is going to be a place where users can feel like they're free and welcome to share work that is honest to themselves, it should be a place that values good work, and allows users to be proud to share it. It should showcases user's work in a format that's suited to the high resolution cameras and displays user's have access to these days. And it shouldn't be cluttered by useless ads or unlike work to diminish the experience.

  • It should be platform agnostic, allowing users to view work through their own clients, or collect their work on their sites.

  • It should be clear that the work belongs to the users, from the moment of creation through every time it's re-shared.

  • The code behind the technology should be open source, to make it transparent that no data is being stolen or sold.

  • In short, it should respect the users, who are the lifeblood of the platform!

I'm not a developer, and the path to making this a reality is far from clear to me. I'm not even sure how much use I could be in its actual creation aside from having the vision, communication, and eventually marketing. However, I think it is important to give people the platform they deserve, and to buck the trend that systems like Facebook and Twitter have created in harming their users, selling their data, and being disrespectful.

I believe a future is possible with a more healthy relationship to the web, and to social networks. But it won't be easy; in fact, we have to build it from scratch. I think it's worth the trouble though. I owe a ton to my personal development and the work I've been able to create to our flawed systems and the connections I've made on them. What sort of world could we build if those were even better?

— I


Ian Battaglia is a writer and polymath based out of Chicago. He loves learning new things, coffee, hard light, cycling, and reading. His writing can be found on and elsewhere online. You can reach him on Twitter — @IanJBattaglia, or via email —

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➥   Jim started this thread 4 years ago 3 responses.

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