Ivy Allie

On owning your web presence

Posted 04 Jun 2024


As you probably already know, Meta has announced that they’re going to start feeding all of our data (text, imagery, what have you) into AI models. This has led to an understandable exodus of artists from their platforms, Instagram in particular. Abandoning these platforms probably the right move and I am not here to try to talk anyone out of doing so.

But I want to take this moment to talk about how we can avoid ending up in this same situation again.

How we got here

What has happened with Meta (and with Google, and the-website-formerly-known-as-Twitter, and any other tech giant managing our personal data) has only happened because we all accepted something of a devil’s bargain. These companies offered us two things: convenience and “free” service. In return, they got to have our data.

About twenty years ago, when we collectively began to accept this state of affairs, it seemed fairly innocuous to most of us, me included. You get to share stuff with your friends on a relatively stable platform, and the only cost to you is that some algorithm scans your data and uses it to serve ads? It’s a compelling pitch, and I don’t fault us for falling for it.

But now the mask is off, and we all know a good deal about the ulterior motives behind these “free” services. It’s been said many times but it bears repeating: if you’re not paying for a web service, you are not the customer, you are the product.

The fear

What I’m concerned about now is the likelihood of our abandoning one trap just to walk straight into another. The main places where my artist friends are going are Substack and Cara. Either of these are probably better than Instagram, to be sure–but for how long?

Substack is a for-profit company and already has some kind of dubious decisions on their record. And as it gains popularity, so too will it become more likey to be acquired by something like Meta, or to just become dastardly all by itself. (Remember that Google’s motto used to be “Don’t Be Evil.”)

Cara is an interesting case. At the moment it appears not to be a for-profit enterprise, and does seem to have been set up with the best of intentions. But again, for how long? Running an operation like this is expensive, especially if you expect it to function as smoothly as something like Instagram. And, ultimately, users are taking on risk by trusting Cara to be the cornerstone of their web presence. They too could turn evil, or simply go kaput.

So what can we do?

What I suggest is this: we need to return our communities to Web 1.0 technologies. That means static websites, blogs, and forums. I realize that sounds difficult, and a bit less streamlined than the phone-app-based access we’ve all become accustomed to. And, well, admittedly yes, this is not necessarily going to be easy. But if we’re going to salvage the internet (and I do think it is worth salvaging) we have to stop outsourcing its maintenance to third parties who work for “free.”

As a creator, you should consider setting up a website, blog, or possibly both. And pay for it with money. A decent hosting service may not be free, but they can be ludicrously cheap. Many of them will even install WordPress or other site-building software for you, which will make the whole project pretty easy. While it may sound hard, it really isn’t, and your hosting service will do everything it can to make this work well for you.

Now, there is an obvious caveat here: you are still sending your data to someone else and letting them hold it on their computers. These services could also turn out to be evil and misuse your data in one way or another. But it’s less likely – you’re the customer in this case, so their goal is to keep you happy rather than to immediately sell you out to the highest bidder. But the real beauty of using a host instead of a social media company is that you can just up and switch to another one, and take everything with you. If Host A turns scummy, it’s relatively simple to just move all of your files over to Host B. Your domain name doesn’t even need to change. No one else will even notice you’ve moved if you do it right.

Of course most of us are simultaneously creators and audience members, so we must think about the receiving end of this arrangement as well. The “feed” was one of the game-changing innovations of the social media apparatus, because it was convenient to channel everything you might want to see onto a single dashboard. But there is an old-school equivalent to this, one that we can utilize again: RSS. This was (and still is) a simple technology that allowed applications (“RSS readers”) to get a listing of new content from a website and display it in a convenient way. By setting up blogs with RSS feeds, we can establish a system by which the audience can manage a feed from their favorite artists that would look much the same as the one we see on places like Instagram. The sole difference is that all of the content will be decentralized rather than being served up by a single corporation with its own ulterior motives.

Finally, we come to the question of community interaction. For basic individual-to-individual communication, this may be as simple as having a public-facing email address that’s easy to find. For more community-based discussion, online message boards can be established as easily as any other kind of website, and for all but the largest online communities they need not be very expensive. (Note: Discord is not the answer.)

Final thoughts

At the risk of sounding overdramatic, we have arrived at the day of reckoning. We now know exactly what Mephistopheles got out of the bargain, and it turns out to have been more dear to us than we had anticipated. But there’s a whole line of would-be devils lined up with new contracts. And maybe some of them are angels–as I said, I do think the Cara people have their hearts in the right place–but even those should give us pause. We got into this mess by entrusting our online identities to agents who didn’t need to answer to us, and we’re not going to get out of it by doing the same thing over again.

We need to take our online identities and manage them ourselves again. It will be less convenient. It also will cost a few bucks. But we’ll build something worth having, something that works for us rather than against us.

They stole the internet, and it’s high time we took it back.



I banged out the above as quickly as possible in order to get it out there, but when I have a chance I will come back and put some links here to hosting services, RSS readers, and other related things.

An aside regarding Discord

Discord is not the answer for creating community spaces, for all the reasons discussed above, and its proliferation is a scourge that must be stemmed as soon as possible. Discord is a problem because, like all the other social services, it’s a for-profit enterprise not answerable to its users, but what’s more, it is establishing a precedent of walling off its content from the open internet. This makes it essentially a black hole of information. Anything that exists solely on Discord could disappear at any time and would be lost for good, and even in the moment is hidden from anyone outside of its closed “communities.” There’s a place for private communities, certainly, but we will lose most of what made the internet great if we begin to make all communities closed by default.

Finally, a disclaimer

This website is hosted for free on GitHub, which is owned by Microsoft. While writing this I couldn’t help but think that everything I’ve said here applies equally to GitHub, and as such I should really consider moving this site back to paid hosting, as it has been in the past.