Taking Responsibility for the Digital Future
Welcome to my website! The new mattcivico.com is the home of the Good Words newsletter, an old-fashioned personal web log, or blog, and all my former and future writing.
This website isn’t the only place on the Internet, but it is mine. Of course, I was all over the web before, on social media, Substack, a Squarespace site, and Patreon, so why the big change?
I care about the Internet, that’s why. Let me explain.
A Home on the Web
Around the time I started writing professionally in 2016, I got caught up in the “tech-lash” that’s very much still in progress. There is a growing unease with the power and influence wielded by the major tech companies. Big Tech—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft—has fundamentally altered the open and decentralized quality of the Internet. In exchange for a frictionless user-friendliness, we’ve traded what made the Internet a hopeful dream of connection, dialogue, and understanding.
Alan Jacobs, an English professor with an insightful interest in technology, reminded me that the rights of users of Big Tech are tenuous and fragile. We are tenant farmers in Facebook and Google’s industrial gardens, working for the platforms creating content and manufacturing engagement. And that content, the stuff of our digital lives, is vulnerable. You might not feel the same sense of attachment to a Tumblr or Twitter feed as Jacobs, but, writing in the Hedgehog Review, he frames the issue of digital ownership more broadly:
Those of us who live much of our lives online are not faced here simply with matters of intellectual property; we need to confront significant choices about the world we will hand down to those who come after us. The complexities of social media ought to prompt deep reflection on what we all owe to the future, and how we might discharge this debt.
A free and open Internet is not the rule; it is unavoidably linked to our choices, both consumer and ethical. What might it mean to act responsibly on the Internet, in the interest of the future? It starts with displacing convenience as the ultimate good and then getting our hands dirty, just a bit.
For all the misguided admonishments of “learn to code” from technocrats, I begin to see the point, although it isn’t theirs. The point is not to find a questionable, well-paid job with Google or Amazon, but to contribute meaningfully to the digital spaces we share. Jacobs quotes Gandalf from near the end of The Lord of the Rings to illustrate the nature of the responsibility we owe to those who will come after us, those who will walk this earth and surf something like this Internet.
The old wizard asks us to remember our limits, but also our power:
It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
I cannot save anyone from the future evil of others, yet it is within my power to resist the present powers that would salt the soil with surveillance and corporate control. We can work to ensure the future will have “clean earth to till” online.
A Better Foundation
How, then, can we uproot “the evil in the fields that we know”? It must start with caring for the ground. Online that means having a space where you make the rules, a website where you can see all the code. This rules out convenient free options because “free” anything on the current Internet almost always means being tracked, quantified, and sold to the highest bidder.
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t options. There are some free, or very affordable, options available to those who care about the health and future viability of the Internet. In fact, mattcivico.com is built with some of them.
Ghost is a CMS (Content Management System), similar to the well-known WordPress, which means its the software that helps writers and editors publish things to a website. Ghost is a completely open-source project by the non-profit Ghost Foundation. That means you can install and manage it on your own server, but if that's too much work, Ghost offers its own hosting solution which supports a virtuous development cycle and keeps it free, open, and independent.
Ghost wants independent publishers to succeed, so, when you subscribe to mattcivico.com, Ghost doesn’t take a dime.
I’m interested in an Internet that respects human attention, privacy, and agency. To this end my website is free of ads, tracking software, and any kind of persuasive design. I provide some (hopefully) good words and an invitation to think together and visitors are free to enjoy both and to support the work if they value it.
Unless you become a subscriber, I’ll know next to nothing about your visit to mattcivico.com because I don’t use Google invasive Analytics tracking code.
Ghost is open-source and pro-publisher, and provides the tools others charge for (either upfront or taking a cut) to independent writers, publishers, etc.
Being a writer is hard enough without understanding who you’re writing for, so my website does use analytics code to understand how readers find me and which posts get clicked. But this happens without tracking cookies or collecting personal data, thanks to Plausible.
Plausible Analytics is a privacy-focused alternative to Google Analytics that enables good Internet stewardship because “site measurement is carried out absolutely anonymously.” I just want the data I need to understand who, in general, reads my words. Plausible offers just that, and allows me to treat my reader the way I’d like to be treated online:
Cookies are not set and no personal data is collected. All data is in aggregate only. The website owner gets some actionable data to help them learn and improve, while the visitor keeps having a nice and enjoyable experience.
Plausible is worth much more than the few dollars a month it costs; it imagines an Internet that won’t record our every move or follow us home.
A smaller, more humble Internet is not out of reach; the tools already exist, but we need to do the work (and support the good people working to make it possible).
Room to Grow (With Help)
Here’s the hard part, though: Doing good isn’t always easy. I won’t lie; it’s more difficult! I took a free online course to learn the basics of HTML & CSS but I didn’t built this beautiful website. I purchased a Ghost-compatible template and have tinkered with its code to customize it and make it mine.
Still, I’m not a singular, autonomous being. I’m a human, which means interdependence and cooperation is as inevitable in 20xx as it was a millennium ago. That’s a fancy way to say I often need help.
Launching this website required several (helpful and pleasant) emails with my web host, lots of how-to reading, and a few video calls with friends who understand more about programming than I do. Is that inconvenient? Sure, but it’s a feature, not a bug. We all need help, and the Internet Big Tech has built is premised on treating people as means to ends, as resources to be extracted instead of people we bear a responsibility towards.
The big and easy corporate Internet exists. I can resist it but I cannot wholly escape it, and many may not want to. I’m planning to delete my Facebook account by the end of 2020, but I will remain on Twitter. These choices come with trade-offs, but each of us is free to make them, but, as Jacobs points out, we ought to consider the Internet our choices create:
The problem comes when, by living in conditions of such dependence, you forget that there’s any other way to live—and therefore cannot teach another way to those who come after you. Your present-day social-media ecology eclipses the future social-media ecology of others. What if they don’t want their social lives to be bought and sold? What if they don’t want to live on the bounty of the factory owners of Silicon Valley? It would be good if we bequeathed to them another option, the possibility of living outside the walls the factory owners have built—whether for our safety or to imprison us, who can say? The open Web happens outside those walls.
I hope every time you visit mattcivico.com, it reminds you of fresh air and clean earth.
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