Five seconds

Careful observers posted to Hacker News this week – and the Washington Post reported – that the X formerly known as Twitter (XFKAT?) appeared to be deliberately introducing a delay in loading links to sites the owner is known to dislike or views as competitors. These would be things like the New York Times and selected other news organizations, and rival social media and publishing services like Facebook, Instagram, Bluesky, and Substack.

The 4.8 seconds users clocked doesn’t sound like much until you remember, as the Post does, that a 2016 Google study found that 53% of mobile users will abandon a website that takes longer than three seconds to load. Not sure whether desktop users are more or less patient, but it’s generally agreed that delay is the enemy.

The mechanism by which XFKAT was able to do this is its built-in link shortener,, through which it routes all the links users post. You can see this for yourself if you right-click on a posted link and copy the results. You can only find the original link by letting the links resolve and copying the real link out of the browser address bar after the page has loaded.

Whether or not the company was deliberately delaying these connections, the fact is that it *can* – as can Meta’s platforms and many others. This in itself is a problem; essentially it’s a failure of network neutrality. This is the principle that a telecoms company should treat all traffic equally, and it is the basis of the egalitarian nature of the Internet. Regulatory insistence on network neutrality is why you can run a voice over Internet Protocol connection over broadband supplied by a telco or telco-owned ISP even though the services are competitors. Social media platforms are not subject to these rules, but the delaying links story suggests maybe they should be once they reach a certain size.

Link shorteners have faded into the landscape these days, but they were controversial for years after the first such service – TinyURL – was launched in 2002 (per Wikipedia). Critics cited several main issues: privacy, persistence, and obscurity. The latter refers to users’ inability to know where their clicks are taking them; I feel strongly about this myself. The privacy issue is that the link shorteners-in-the-middle are in a position to collect traffic data and exploit it (bad actors could also divert links from their intended destination). The ability to collect that data and chart “impact” is, of course, one reason shorteners were widely adopted by media sites of all types. The persistence issue is that intermediating links in this way creates one or more central points of failure. When the link shortener’s server goes down for any reason – failed Internet connection, technical fault, bankrupt owner company – the URL the shortener encodes becomes unreachable, even if the page itself is available as normal. You can’t go directly to the page, or even located a cached copy at the Internet Archive, without the original URL.

Nonetheless, shortened links are still widely used, for the same reasons why they were invented. Many URLs are very long and complicated. In print publications, they are visually overwhelming, and unwieldy to copy into a web address bar; they are near-impossible to proofread in footnotes and citations. They’re even worse to read out on broadcast media. Shortened links solve all that. No longer germane is the 140-character limit Twitter had in its early years; because the URL counted toward that maximum, short was crucial. Since then, the character count has gotten bigger, and URLs aren’t included in the count any more.

If you do online research of any kind you have probably long since internalized the routine of loading the linked content and saving the actual URL rather than the shortened version. This turns out to be one of the benefits of moving to Mastodon: the link you get is the link you see.

So to network neutrality. Logically, its equivalent for social media services ought to include the principle that users can post whatever content or links they choose (law and regulation permitting), whether that’s reposted TikTok videos, a list of my IDs on other systems, or a link to a blog advocating that all social media companies be forced to become public utilities. Most have in fact operated that way until now, infected just enough with the early Internet ethos of openness. Changing that unwritten social contract is very bad news even though no one believed XFKAT’s CEO when he insisted he was a champion of free speech and called the now-his site the “town square”.

If that’s what we want social media platforms to be, someone’s going to have to force them, especially if they begin shrinking and their owners start to feel the chill wind of an existential threat. You could even – though no one is, to the best of my knowledge – make the argument that swapping in a site-created shortened URL is a violation of the spirit of data protection legislation. After all, no one posts links on a social media site with the view that their tastes in content should be collected, analyzed, and used to target ads. Librarians have long been stalwarts in resisting pressure to disclose what their patrons read and access. In the move online in general, and to corporate social media in particular, we have utterly lost sight of the principle of the right to our own thoughts.

Illustrations: The New York City public library in 2006..

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series she is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Wendy M. GrossmanPosted on Categories Media, Net life, UncategorizedTags , Leave a comment on Five seconds

Watching YouTube

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to figure out what to do about misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation online is the difficulty of pinpointing how online interaction translates to action in the real world. The worst content on social media has often come from traditional media or been posted by an elected politician.

At least, that’s how it seems to text-based people like me. This characteristic, along with the quick-hit compression of 140 (later 280) characters, was the (minority) appeal of Twitter. It’s also why legacy media pays so little attention to what’s going on in game worlds, struggle with TikTok, and underestimate the enormous influence of YouTube. The notable exception is the prolific Chris Stokel-Walker, who’s written books about both YouTube and TikTok.

Stokel-Walker has said he decided to write YouTubers because the media generally only notices YouTube when there’s a scandal. Touring those scandals occupies much of filmmaker Alex Winter‘s now-showing biography of the service, The YouTube Effect.

The film begins by interviewing co-founder Steve Chen, who giggles a little uncomfortably to admit that he and co-founders Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim thought it could be a video version of Hot or Not?. In 2006, Google bought the year-old site for $1.65 billion in Google stock, to derision from financial commentators certain it had overpaid.

Winter’s selection of clips from early YouTube reminds of early movies, which pulled people into theaters with little girls having a pillow fight. Winter moves on through pioneering stars like Smosh and K-Pop, 2010’s Arab spring, the arrival of advertising and monetization, the rise of alt-right channels, Gamergate, the 2016 US presidential election, the Christchurch shooting, the horrors lurking in YouTube Kids, George Floyd, the multimillion-dollar phenomenon of Ryan Kaji, January 6, the 2020 Congressional hearings. Somewhere in the middle is the arrival of the Algorithm that eliminated spontaneous discovery in favor of guided user experience, and a brief explanation of the role of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in protecting platforms from liability for third-party content.

These stories are told by still images and video clips interlaced with interviews with talking heads like Caleb Cain, who was led into right-wing extremism and found his way back out; Andy Parker, father of Alison Parker, footage of whose murder he has been unable to get expunged; successful YouTuber (“ContraPoints”) Natalie Wynn; technology writer and video game developer Brianna Wu; Jillian C. York, author of Silicon Values; litigator Carrie Goldberg, who works to remediate online harms one lawsuit at a time; Anthony Padilla, co-founder of Smosh; and YouTube then-CEO Susan Wojcicki.

Not included among the interviewees: political commentators (though we see short clips of Alex Jones) or free speech fundamentalists. In addition, Winter sticks to user-generated content, ignoring the large percentage of YouTube’s library that is copies of professional media, many otherwise unavailable. Countries outside the US are mentioned only by York, who studies censorship around the world. Also missing is anyone from Google who could explain how YouTube fits into its overall business model.

The movie concludes by asking commentators to recommend changes. Parker wants families of murder victims to be awarded co-copyright and therefore standing to get footage of victims’ deaths removed. Hany Farid, a UC Berkeley professor who studies deepfakes, thinks it’s essential to change the business model from paying with data and engagement to paying with money – that is, subscriptions. Goldberg is afraid we will all become captives of Big Tech. A speaker whose name is illegible in my notes mentions antitrust law. Cain notes that there’s nothing humans have built that we can’t destroy. Wojcicki says only that technology offers “a tremendous opportunity to do good in the long-term”. York notes the dual-use nature of these technologies; their effects are both good and bad, so what you change “depends what you’re looking for”.

Cain gets the last word. “What are we speeding towards?” he asks, as the movie’s accelerating crescendo of images and clips stops on a baby’s face.

Unlike predecessors Coded Bias (2021) and The Great Hack (2019), The YouTube Effect is unclear about what it intends us to understand about YouTube’s impact on the world beyond the sheer size of audience a creator can assemble via the platform. The array of scandals, all of them familiar from mainstream headlines, makes a persuasive case that YouTube deserves Facebook and Twitter-level scrutiny. What’s missing, however, is causality. In fact, the film is wrongly titled: there is no one YouTube effect. York had it right: “fixing” YouTube requires deciding what you’re trying to change. My own inclination is to force change to the business model. The algorithm distorts our interactions, but it’s driven by the business model.

Perhaps this was predictable. Seven years on, we still struggle to pinpoint exactly how social media affected the 2016 US presidential election or the UK’s EU referendum vote. Letting it ride is dangerous, but so is government regulation. Numerous governments are leaning toward the latter.

Even the experts assembled at last week’s Cambridge Disinformation Summit reached no consensus. Some saw disinformation as an existential threat; others argued that disinformation has always been with us and humanity finds a way to live through it. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect one filmmaker to solve a conundrum that is vexing so many. And yet it’s still disappointing not to have found greater clarity.

Illustrations: YouTube CEO (2014-2023) Susan Wojcicki (via The YouTube Effect).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Mastodon.

The horns of a dilemma

It has always been possible to conceive a future for Mastodon and the Fediverse that goes like this: incomers join the biggest servers (“instances”). The growth of those instances, if they can afford it, accelerates. When the sysadmins of smaller instances burn out and withdraw, their users also move to the largest instances. Eventually, the Fediverse landscape is dominated by a handful of very large instances (who enshittify in the traditional way) with a long tail of small and smaller ones. The very large ones begin setting rules – mostly for good reasons like combating abuse, improving security, and offering new features – that the very small ones struggle to keep up with. Eventually, it becomes too hard for most small instances to function.

This is the history of email. In 2003, when I set up my own email server at home, almost every techie had one. By this year, when I decommissioned it in favor of hosted email, almost everyone had long since moved to Gmail or Hotmail. It’s still possible to run an independent server, but the world is increasingly hostile to them.

Another possible Fediverse future: the cultural norms that Mastodon and other users have painstakingly developed over time become swamped by a sudden influx of huge numbers of newcomers when a very large instance joins the federation. The newcomers, who know nothing of the communities they’re joining, overwhelm their history and culture. The newcomers are despised and mocked – but meanwhile, much of the previous organically grown culture is lost, and people wanting intelligent conversation leave to find it elsewhere.

This is the history of Usenet, which in 1994 struggled to absorb 1 million AOLers arriving via a new gateway and software whose design reflected AOL’s internal design rather than Usenet’s history and culture. The result was to greatly exacerbate Usenet’s existing problems of abuse.

A third possible Fediverse future: someone figures out how to make money out of it. Large and small instances continue to exist, but many become commercial enterprises, and small instances increasingly rely on large instances to provide services the small instances need to stay functional. While both profit from that division of labor, the difficulty of discover means small servers stay small, and the large servers become increasingly monopolistic, exploitative, and unpleasant to use. This is the history of the web, with a few notable exceptions such as Wikipedia and the Internet Archive.

A fourth possible future: the Fediverse remains outside the mainstream, and admins continue to depend on donations to maintain their servers. Over time, the landscape of servers will shift as some burn out or run out of money and are replaced. This is roughly the history of IRC, which continues to serve its niche. Many current Mastodonians would be happy with this; as long as there’s no corporate owner no one can force anyone out of business for being insufficiently profitable.

These forking futures are suddenly topical as Mastodon administrators consider how to respond to this: Facebook will launch a new app that will interoperate with Mastodon and any other network that uses the ActivityPub protocol. Early screenshots suggest a clone of Twitter, Meta’s stated target, and reports say that Facebook is talking to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama as potential users. The plan is reportedly that users will access the new service via their Instagram IDs and passwords. Top-down and celebrity-driven is the opposite of the Fediverse.

It should not be much comfort to anyone that the competitor the company wants to kill with this initiative is Twitter, not Mastodon, because either way Meta doesn’t care about Mastodon and its culture. Mastodon is rounding error even for just Instagram. Twitter is also comparatively small (and, like Reddit, too text-based to grow much further) but Meta sees in it the opportunity to capture its influencers and build profits around them.

The Fediverse is a democracy in the sense that email and Usenet were; admins get to decide their server’s policy, and users can only accept or reject by moving their account (which generally loses their history). For admins, how to handle Meta is not an easy choice. Meta has approached for discussions the admins of some of the larger Mastodon instances, who must sign an NDA or give up the chance to influence developments. That decision is for the largest few; but potentially every Mastodon instance operator will have to decide the bigger question: do they federate with Meta or not? Refusal means their users can’t access Meta’s wider world, which will inevitably include many of their friends; acceptance means change and loss of control. As I’ve said here before, something that is “open” only to your concept of “good people” isn’t open at all; it’s closed.

At Chronicles of the Instantly Curious, Carey Lening deplores calls to shun Meta as elitist; the AOL comparison draws itself. Even so, the more imminent bad future for Mastodon is this fork that could split the Fediverse into two factions. Of course the point of being decentralized is to allow more choice over who you socially network with. But until now, none of those choices took on the religious overtones associated with the most heated cyberworld disputes. Fasten your seatbelts…

Illustrations: A mastodon by Heinrich Harder (public domain, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Mastodon.

All change

One of the reasons Silicon Valley technology company leaders sometimes display such indifference to the desires of their users is that they keep getting away with it. At Facebook, now Meta, after each new privacy invasion, the user base just kept getting bigger. At Twitter, despite much outrage at its new owner’s policies, although it feels definitely emptier the exodus toward other sites appears to have dropped off. At Reddit, where CEO Steve Huffman has used the term “landed gentry” to denigrate moderators leading protests against a new company policy…well, we’ll see.

In April, Reddit announced it would begin charging third parties for access to its API, the interface that gives computers outside its system access to the site’s data. Charges will apply to everyone except developers building apps and bots that help people use Reddit and academic/non-commercial researchers studying Reddit.

In May, the company announced pricing: $12,000 per 50 million requests. This compares to Twitter’s recently announced $42,000 per 50 million tweets and photo site Imgur‘s $166 per 50 million API calls. Apollo, maker of the popular iOS Reddit app, estimates that it would now cost $20 million a year to keep its app running.

The reasoning behind this could be summed up as, “They cost us real money; why should we help them?” Apollo’s app is popular, it appears, because it offers a cleaner interface. But it also eliminates Reddit’s ads, depriving the site of revenue. Reddit is preparing for an IPO later this year against stiff headwinds.

A key factor in this timing is the new gold rush around large language models, which are being built by scraping huge amounts of text anywhere they can find it. Taking “our content”, Huffman calls it, suggesting Reddit deserves to share in the profits while eliding the fact that said content is all user-created.

This week, thousands of moderators shuttered their forums (subreddits) in protest. At The Verge, Jay Peters reports that more than 8,000 (out of 138,000) subreddits went dark for 48 hours from Monday to Wednesday. Given Huffman’s the-blackout-will-pass refusal to budge, some popular forums have vowed to continue the protest indefinitely.

Some redditors have popped up on other social media to ask about viable alternatives (they’re also discussing this question on Reddit itself). But moving communities is hard, which is why these companies understand their users’ anger is rarely an existential threat.

The most likely outcome is that redditors are about to confront the fate that eventually befalls almost every online community: the people they *thought* cared about them are going to sell them to people who *don’t* care about them. Reddit as they knew it is entering a phase of precarity that history says will likely end with the system’s shutdown or abandonment. Shareholders’ and owners’ desire to cash out and indifference to Twitter’s actual users is how Elon Musk ended up in charge. It’s how NBC Universal shut down Television without Pity, how Yahoo killed GeoCities, and how AOL spitefully dismantled CompuServe.

The lesson from all of these is: shareholders and corporate owners don’t have to care about users.

The bigger issue, however, is that Reddit, like Twitter, is not currently a sustainable business. Founded in 2005, it was a year old when Conde Nast bought it, only to spin it out again into an independent subsidiary in 2011. Since then it has held repeated funding rounds, most recently in 2021, when it raised $700 million. Since its IPO filing in December 2021, its value has dropped by a third. It will not survive in any form without new sources of revenue; it’s also cutting costs with layoffs.

Every Internet service or site, from Flickr to bitcoin, begins with founders and users sharing the same goal: for the service to grow and prosper. Once the service has grown past a certain point, however, their interests diverge. Users generally seek community, entertainment, and information; investors only seek profits. The need to produce revenues led Google’s chiefs, who had previously held that ads would inevitably corrupt search results, hired Sheryl Sandberg to build the company’s ad business. Seven years later, facomg the same problem, Facebook did the same thing – and hired the same person to do it. Reddit has taken much longer than most Internet companies to reach this inevitable fork.

Yet the volunteer human moderators Huffman derided are the key to Reddit’s success; they set the tone in each subreddit community. Reddit’s topic-centered design means much more interaction with strangers than the person-centered design of blogs and 2010-era social media, but it also allows people with niche interests to find both experts and each other. That fact plus human curation means that lately many add “reddit” to search terms in order to get better results. Reddit users’ loss is therefore also our loss as we try to cope with t1he enshittification of the most monopolistic Internet services.

Its board still doesn’t have to care.

None of this is hopeful. Even if redditors win this round and find some compromise to save their favorite apps, once the IPO is past, any power they have will be gone.

“On the Internet your home will always leave you,” someone observed on Twitter a couple of years ago. I fear that moment is now coming for Reddit. Next time, build your community in a home you can own.

Illustration: Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman speaking at the Oxford Union in 2019.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on