Why We Need Private News Websites (Again)

Why We Need Private News Websites (Again)

A personal blog and informative op/ed site? What, is it 2005 again?

2021 might seem like a weird time to spin up a private blog with most of the important and active discourse happening on Twitter, Substack, and Clubhouse right now, but the newsletter splintering we're seeing and the decline of trust in traditional media apparatuses actually makes this the perfect time to do it.

I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with the state of the "open" media platforms in recent months. It's become more and more clear that they're taking an interest in not only providing a forum for discussion, but in taking an active role in deciding what discussion is acceptable on their platforms.

Taken at face value, this seems pretty reasonable. Private sites should decide what content they want on their platform, right? Except this puts the media giants in a weird place under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 says online companies such as Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Twitter Inc cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of information they provide. This largely exempts them from liability involving content posted by users, although they can be held liable for content that violates criminal or intellectual property law.

The problem with this is that when you start deciding what speech is permissible, it's really difficult to make the case that you're not a publisher. Choosing what content to broadcast and promote via your platform is literally what publishing is. Historically, we haven't considered things like shadowbanning or algorithmic deprioritization to be analogous to making publishing decisions, but are they really so different?

Especially as we move away from only applying signal limiters to clear cases of harm or misuse into an era where specific speakers appear to be being targeted (either intentionally or algorithmically) for limited reach, things get really murky.

Eric Weinstein gave another example of this recently with respect to highlighting past misinformation about COVID:

He goes on to discuss how he suspects his reach is being limited as is the reach of other large accounts he follows, and I've noticed this too. Many larger accounts who I enjoy interacting with show up less and less in my timeline.

Twitter has been great for me. I've made tons of friends there, and I use it every day for discussion and feedback on my projects and writing. But I've noticed lots of little oddities that give me pause, and I don't like the idea that my reach is being manipulated in ways that are completely opaque to me.

For one thing, I've noticed I get unusually low engagement on any tweets that point to articles off of Twitter itself. I've heard other people report similar things. I don't think it's paranoid to suggest that the algorithms are self-reinforcing to keep people inside of the Twitter ecosystem. That's just smart product design, and they're almost certainly doing this.

Even weirder is the advent of curtailing or labeling speech that they decide is harmful. I understand that arguments for why this might be good. I still think it's a very slippery slope.

But even aside from that, I also don't want to invest a ton of time and effort building a platform and sharing writing with an audience when I don't really control my own writing or reach. The idea that someone could pull the plug on me any time because they didn't like something I said, or even because I'm adjacent to someone who said something they didn't like, is chilling.

McCarthyism was a real example of people getting hit with guilt by association just for having the wrong ideas, and we're not at all far off from that climate in the modern discourse state with how polarized everything is at the moment.

Even announcing this blog produced some curious results for me on Twitter which really cemented my decision for me. When I announced that I was launching it, I immediately started getting "like" notifications from my followers. But they weren't showing up on my actual Tweet, which was pinned to my profile.

I'm used to some Twitter weirdness with likes, and in my circles we usually just chalk it up to the site having caching issues or being slow that day. Except that they're still persisting several days later... It looks like Twitter is downplaying how popular the announcement of a new external site is, and only for that Tweet, and doing so in a way that's inconsistent and opaque.

Here's a screenshot of my pinned Tweet right this moment (verified in both incognito and on my phone to make sure it's not a browser issue):

This has over 40 likes according to my notifications and when I check who liked it. If I look at my engagement numbers, it reports 2.

Here's a screenshot of it the first day and from my notifications 8 hours after posting.

Close friends that I interact with regularly report that it shows them around 40 tweets today, and when I click into my likes and count them, there are about 40. But when I look at my engagement numbers on the tweet itself, it reports this:

All of my other tweets are working correctly and displaying proper numbers, as far as I can tell. It's curious that the one tweet announcing an alternate channel to read my writing would be behaving so strangely. Paranoid? Maybe. But the bottom line is that I honestly have no idea what my "real" reach on this tweet was or how many people might have actually seen or interacted with it. I can't trust the numbers. This makes me uneasy.

As I pointed out the other day, shadowbanning or throttling or reach-limiting in an opaque way is basically gaslighting people into believing that their content is less useful than it is, which directly influences their behavior.

Forums didn't do this. Chat rooms didn't do this. Usenet groups didn't do this. Social media sites are engaging in notably different, controlling and self-serving behavior, and violating the implicit contract of the follow/follower model with their users. It certainly doesn't seem like Section 230 should apply to sites who control what information or discussion is visible on their sites outside of clearly communicated policy violations.

And even though sites like Substack are currently doing a good job of protecting people from things like questionably motivated media attacks, there's no guarantee that they won't flip on that in the future.

You don't want your whole audience tied up in a platform that can turn you off at any time, and this is only one of the reasons why I've moved away from Patreon and Substack in favor of a self-owned platform where I manage my own subscriber list.

If the only valid future of free speech and the open exchange of ideas is small, insular communities where people can say whatever they want without fearing being silenced or threatened, we're just going to get deeper into our echo chambers and the frothing polarization will continue apace. I don't think the country can afford to allow this.

So I'm taking control of my own messaging platform, as small as it might be at the moment. Expect more independent writing from me here and more editorial opinion from both me and friends of mine. If you're interested in anything I have to say, at least here you can be sure you won't miss it.

And if you'd like to join me in bucking the uncomfortable vortex of a managed platform where you don't actually control your own messaging, I've written an easy to follow how-to guide here that explains how you can own your own publishing platform as well.

If you're serious about writing and being heard, it's worth considering.