The Dead Internet

One of the most chilling insights of the past several years has been Dead Internet Theory.

For those unaware, I will summarize thusly: Dead Internet Theory describes a scenario in which the majority of internet traffic and posts on social media are secretly posted by either bots, paid corporate accounts, or state actors. What you see, what you perceive online, is all influenced from elsewhere, and none of it's real.

I have taken to referring to these illusions scattered throughout our world with the phrase, "no hay banda" - a reference to the infamous Club Silencio scene in David Lynch's film, Mulholland Drive. "There IS. NO. BAND." The announcer announces in a burst of unsettling aggressive honesty.

The shocking contrast between our perceptions, expectations, and the reality beneath the surface, all being blended together is hardly limited to trombones in Mulholland Drive. But I contend that "Dead Internet Theory" doesn't end with botnets. I believe there's another unexplored aspect to dead internet theory.

"If you're not posting online, you're as good as dead."

I tweeted this out on exactly Wed Aug 15 2018 14:33:54 on my now deleted Twitter account. I thought I was being snarky at the time, but after watching roughly three years of account purgings from various social media platforms - whether done by the individual out of fear, or forcefully by the platform owners, it seems more true than I realized in 2018.

When working, I occasionally like to search YouTube for solo piano covers of songs I know. One YouTuber, "Chocolate Bear"/cruzo67 has a big catalog of his solos/recordings. For whatever reason, he stopped posting several years ago. This was enough for his small fanbase to flock to his Facebook, having assumed the only explanation for him stopping is that he was dead.

For Chocolate Bear, "dead internet" took on a new meaning. I suspect that there are many more instances of this.

screenshot of chocolate bear's facebook profile

The Inhumanity of Canceling

The intent of canceling someone is to dehumanize and isolate them - a soft form of social assassination. The screams that “this is a private company platform with every right to kick users off!” and that those expelled should “Just build your own platform!” is intended to humiliate. The (unsaid) expectation being that the cancelled will never have the resources to rebuild elsewhere.

However, to the annoyance of the online powerbrokers, some are doing just that. We have seen numerous attempts - Gab, Truth Social, Gettr, and maybe most infamously Parler, which brought this issue to a head in January 2021. We've also got less controversial platforms as well, like Mastadon and micro.blog.

The most successful of the more popular alternative social platforms has been Gab, though it remains controversial. The three other networks haven’t made a dent. Then there are less controversial networks like Mastadon and micro.blog, but they too aren't notably active.

Even so, I ultimately expect that Gab will eventually have to become as restrictive as Twitter, with the main difference being that they're going to moderate it with a different set of rules.

We are past the point of admitting that censorship and moderation are the default trajectory of any centralized online platform, anyway.

Platforms Don't Work

Similar to Larry Sanger, I believe that trying to solve the problems of the mainstream platforms by building new platforms won't solve this issue - either with technical means, or interpersonal means.

For starters, most of the alternative platforms are not decentralized. And even if they are, it is no small task for the everyman to deploy a Docker image or Rails application. The complexity of these server applications also effectively makes them a "blackbox" for most.

I am an experienced software engineer and the last thing I want to do is peek inside Mastadon and figure out how to modify to fit whatever my own needs are. Hell, I don't even want to figure out how to deploy that thing.

Users need to be able to easily self-host, and to be able to easily get into the app and start posting.

Minifeed

One such attempt to divest ourselves of social platforms comes in the form of Minifeed, a project by Larry Sanger that allows you to turn any old WordPress instance into a self-hosted microblogging platform. Because it's built on WordPress, it's easily installed by any user on their own hosting and as well as portable, if the user ever needs to migrate away. It also interconnects using standard protocols like RSS.

So far, I think only Larry Sanger fully understands the issues with the current mainstream platforms, because he's the only one avoiding their mistakes.

Howler Blog

Where I differ from Larry is that I think that WordPress is the wrong technology stack to build such a system on. It's easy to deploy and requires little by way of server administration, but is difficult to extend unless you have solid experience building CMS-powered websites, the kind you'd find coming from an agency setting.

Having worked in agencies before, I'm also simply not convinced that a WordPress solution will scale out appropriately when instances get content heavy. Parler was reportedly built on WordPress, and was burning $300k/mo on AWS infrastructure - Yikes!

I believe that what we need is a PhpMyAdmin of microblogging platforms.

The ideal decentralized microblogging application would be: 1) self-hosted 2) highly portable 3) easy to deploy 4) doesn't use a complex framework, and 5) is the kind of barebones product that will just work for years and years

I'm introducing Howler Blog to do just that.

screenshot of howler blog

Howler Blog is built as a PHP web application, built on Laravel framework, and is as easy to deploy as many of the other classic PHP applications are (phpMyAdmin). While the project itself is of course using composer, it's easy enough to provide upload-ready zip files for end users to deploy onto their own hosting, which is just what we''ve done.

Currently, it has the following features:

  • Microblog feed.
  • Bookmarks (similar to a linking/linktree website).
  • Following section, so your readers can find and follow other howler blogs you find interesting.

With more coming soon:

  • Support for attached media in microblog posts.
  • Support for rich text in microblog posts.
  • Quoting (from other Howler Blog sites)
  • Support for microblog threads.

All you need to get started is a FREE copy of howler blog and any standard ~LAMP hosting package, available for a few

Howler is an open source project and you can find the source on GitHub.

If you'd like to get started with your own blog, grab a production-ready release , find a shared hosting package and upload!

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