To put our toxic relationship with Big Tech into perspective, critics have compared social media to a lot of bad things. Tobacco. Crystal meth. Pollution. Cars before seat belts. Chemicals before Superfund sites. But the most enduring metaphor is junk food: convenient but empty; engineered to be addictive; makes humans unhealthy and corporations rich.
At first, consumers were told to change their diet and #DeleteFacebook to avoid the side effects. But now, two years into the tech backlash, we know that cutting the tech giants out of our lives is impossible. So among some early adopters, the posture is shifting from revolt to retreat.
In September, for instance, Nicole Wong, a veteran of Google and Twitter, said it might be time for a “slow food movement for the internet,” reminiscing about the early 2000s, when algorithms focused on showing users useful information rather than whatever keeps people on the platform. Behavioral advertising is to blame for “this crazy environment that we’re in now,” she told Recode. In December, Jake Shapiro, CEO of Radio Public, a podcasting company, said podcasts are “the media’s slow food movement” because they’re hard to share on social media and therefore less dependent on ad tech. “It’s pleasantly ironic that some of the internet’s oldest open protocols are shining through,” he told Nieman Lab.
This vision of decentralization is more back-to-the-land than blockchain. If portals to the digital world are so exploitative, it asks, why not curate our own?
For consumers, this means forgoing convenience to control your ingredients: Read newsletters instead of News Feeds. Fall back to private group chats. Put the person back in personalization. Revert to reverse chron. Avoid virality. Buy your own server. Start a blog. Embrace anonymity. Own your own domain. Spend time on federated social networks rather than centralized ones. And when a big story breaks, consider saving your appetite for the slow-cooked, room-temp take.
At first glance, the advice sounds a little like Lean In: a call for individual action to address a systemic problem. After all, I learned about these newsletters on Twitter, discovered podcasts through Apple, and read about anonymity while logged into a Chrome browser on an iPhone, no doubt drowning in cookies. But when every aspect of our behavior online is surveilled and monetized, the prospect of clean living sounds sweet.
“I don’t know what the Michael Pollan version would be: Eat independent sites, mostly not Facebook?” says Glitch CEO Anil Dash, who helped create some early social web tools 15 years ago at Six Apart and has long argued that tech needs to reintroduce community and user control. Back then, the web could be unwieldy and unwelcoming. But imagining what a modern version of those experiences might look like is essential, Dash says, and could prompt consumers and regulators to ask: How come I can’t have that?
Former Facebook product designer Joseph Albanese decided to curate his way to a better relationship with social media after leaving the company last year. Now he uses little software hacks, like a tool to block the “feed” parts of social media apps. Albanese doesn’t blame Facebook for making it impossible to put down your phone, but he also doesn’t trust new features that are supposed to reduce screen time. “They’re going to do the bare minimum,” he says.
Of course, some of social media’s most vulnerable users already practice these principles, more out of necessity than as a lifestyle choice. At universities from Rutgers to Auburn, black students rely on private GroupMe chats rather than public networks for safety; for years, young women have used anonymous Instagram accounts, or finstas, to break free from harassment and cultural norms. “Just like hacker culture, people organically find workarounds to challenge these larger systems of power,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, a communications professor at Cornell University who studies digital labor and social media production.
There’s also a fair chance that the artisanal internet could become the digital equivalent of organic food: more expensive, hard to find, and catering to a small group relatively well-heeled people—deepening existing digital divides. Privacy has become a premium product and the teens who spend more time on Facebook tend to be lower-income and black, according to a Pew study from 2018. Moreover, tech practices frowned upon in the US and Europe are still prevalent in the developing world.
For some users, switching to organic also means losing their social currency. Janelle Shane, an optical engineer in Boulder, Colorado, joined Mastodon, a distributed social network, as an escape hatch from white supremacists on Twitter. “Imagine what a difference good moderation would make,” she says. The people are nice, but they’re not the same people and content isn’t designed to go viral, so she can’t post the kinds of threads with observations on AI that gained her tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and Tumblr. Rather than leave Twitter, she says, “in a typical day I use both platforms in quick enough succession.”
Silicon Valley doesn’t like to look backward, but this newfound willingness to move slow and make things coincides with the decay of beloved services like Flickr and Tumblr after they were swallowed by larger tech companies. Still, Flickr cofounder Caterina Fake sees the return to these values as cyclical, rather than regressive. “It’s not a lost paradise, but certainly the dynamics were different than they are now,” she says.
Problems began, Fake says, when tech companies introduced features that transformed online networks from communities to media platforms. Facebook may have used the same language of connection and community, but once it optimized News Feed’s algorithm to deliver what kept users engaged, rather than what their friends and family were up to, our attention became a product it could sell to advertisers. Fake says she tried to raise the issue in interviews, but “nobody was interested in telling this story because it was in the celebratory, gung-ho days.”
Now once-blasphemous ideas are emerging in the startup world. In the past couple of months, VCs who backed Uber and once-blustering startup founders are advising others to grow organically: Avoid venture capitalists. Seek out homegrown term sheets. Aim for sustainability, not a monopoly. Forget being a billion-dollar company. “Fuck scale.” (That one is courtesy of Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga, who once confessed to doing “every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues.”)
It’s too early to tell where this growing discontent is going, says Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, but it seems to combine anger over social media with inaction on antitrust, a trend he covers in his latest book, The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age. “It all orients around this bigger conversation: How did we let Facebook and Google go this far gathering data and letting targeted advertising become such a big part of people’s lives?” he says. Throughout history, when the terms of the deal with the attention economy have become too onerous, people rebel, Wu says, citing a counterculture movement in the late 1960s against TV studios that Wu says was ultimately co-opted.
The slow web’s search for purity also seems in part a reaction to an earlier wave of Silicon Valley whistleblowers, some of whom made billions manipulating our minds and subverting democracy—essentially crossing the street from Bear Stearns to the front lines of Zuccotti Park. Male executives whose crisis of faith came only after they had an IPO and a baby are their own subgenre. Their perspective, in turn, shapes the way the problem gets defined in TED Talks and tell-alls, in some cases prescribing changes that fail to interrogate the larger tech ecosystem.
The underlying argument for the slow movement, on the other hand, is effectively asking leaders of tech companies not to be capitalists. After all, the goal of News Feed on Facebook or AdSense on Google wasn’t just to boost ad sales, it was to become a gatekeeper of the attention economy.
It’s too much to ask early evangelists of the slow web to come up with a scalable alternative to an advertising-driven business model. Their goal seems more experimental, closer to early proponents of the back-to-the-land movement in the US in the early 1900s, whose efforts also got a bad rap as nostalgic or naive. As Dona Brown writes in her 2011 book, Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, progressives understood that real change to labor struggles and stock crashes would depend on fundamental shifts, like trust-busting or a socialist revolution. In the meantime, leaving the conveniences of the city to cultivate artisanal skills and personal autonomy offered a way out of “a rising tide of mechanization, monopoly, and consumerism,” Brown writes.
In the face of unchecked power, sometimes you want to do more than resist.
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