A few months ago I stopped using Facebook. I deactivated my account, deleted the Facebook apps from my iOS devices, and went cold-turkey. I have subsequently had to reactivate my account because of the need to engage with some groups that exist only on Facebook, but I continue to ignore my timeline.
It has been a great change for the better. Facebook adds a huge weight of nothing. It’s empty calories. It uses up time that could be better spent elsewhere. I haven’t missed any news; I don’t feel less engaged with the world. To the contrary, actually. I feel more engaged. I don’t crave the little dopamine hits of likes and comments. I’m still writing and recording aspects of my life, but now they are feeding content that I own, whether it’s on my own microblog, or in my Day One journal, or (heaven forbid) through one-on-one conversations.
It surprised me just how easily I was able to ‘kick the habit’ of using Facebook. I thought I would miss it. As if to emphasise just how hollow the platform is, I’ve not had any of my myriad followers reach out to check if I’m still alive since my departure! That point highlights the disconnected connectedness Facebook promotes. Sure, you ‘like’ somebody’s post, but do you remember it 30 seconds later? Would you notice if it were not there? The evidence would suggest not, and that spot in the timeline would just be filled by something else.
If I could dump the Facebook platform entirely I would. As it is, I will use it as little as possible, and only as required for specific functional tasks. I am not willing to gift my attention to Facebook, for it to leverage into profit. My hours on this planet are too valuable to give you them for free.
Twitter continues to descend into a morass of bad behaviour while simultaneously floundering in search of a viable business model that might deliver a return for the billions in capital it has consumed1. The future of Twitter does not look bright, either socially or financially. As a result, I am experimenting with other platforms for expressing my random and (inconsequential?) thoughts.
Facebook, while having a more profitable and successful business model, is still yucky for a bunch of other reasons. These are predominantly centred around the fact that all of the content is just grist for their sales model. Facebook is a classic walled garden, and the business depends on keeping you active and contained within their domain.
One of the things that got me interested in the internet in the early-to-mid 1990’s was the open-ness of it all. Anybody could publish anything, and it was all equally accessible. The Internet removed the barriers created by Bulletin Board Systems and Compuserve and delivered an open, level playing field. Since then, we have gone full circle, and now we are providing our content free of charge, directly to private companies like Twitter and Facebook (including Instagram) which they are then able to monetise for their own benefit.
Manton Reece has built an interesting alternative to these closed systems. With the help of Kickstarter funding, he created micro.blog. This is a system designed to allow the publishing of short posts, in the same style as tweets, but built upon a foundation of open access. In my instance, I can post an entry at micro.blog. Through the magic of RSS, micro.blog makes available a content feed but the material is actually being published and hosted via my own WordPress blog. For the time being, I have set up a separate page from this blog to display my micro.blog entries.
Of course, this is far from a mainstream approach. It’s not nearly as easy as setting up a new Twitter account. There is only a relatively small, pretty nerdy community using micro.blog at the moment. Of course, that’s also how Twitter started, back when it was good.
Discoverability of content becomes the challenge when working outside the established networks. For the moment, I still have my micro-blog entries cross-posting to Facebook and Twitter. If I didn’t do that, it’s likely that nobody2 would be able to enjoy my witty repartee. While cross-posting is not ideal, at least I’m only providing those sites with links that track back to my own content – I’m not just feeding their machines. If I quit the service, or if they fail, I will still have my content in my possession, at my own hosted site.
The Open Web
This concept of my content being mine, and to have it accessible outside the walled gardens created by the Internet behemoths that are private companies with their duty to act in the interests of shareholders – not users, is the essence of the open web.
Being able to link to content with direct URLs, and to have that content able to be indexed by search engines, is part of the open web also.
Of course there are still financial transactions and business relationships involved but they are apparent. I pay a hosting company money. In exchange they provide me with storage space, access to a web server and a connection to the Internet. There is no middle-man, no other services are trying to monetise or advertise against my content. It’s pure and straightforward. The content remains mine, to do with as I wish.
Finally, of course, noodling around with all of this is also a really great hobby.
On 26 December 2013, Twitter was valued at US$39.9 billion. On 20 October 2017, it’s valued at US$13.2 billion. ↩
On the Internet there is a weird user expectation that everything should be free. Over the past couple of years I’ve been bucking this trend and have determined that spending a bit of money on what is both a hobby and an integral part of my existence in our modern, connected world is something I’m willing to throw a bit of money towards.
I don’t want to be the product; I want to be the customer. Paying money for a service to avoid my usage being a vector to sell advertising is a trade-off I am happy to make.
The other nice thing about paying for services is that it facilitates access to genuinely useful customer support. As a paying customer companies tend to care a little more about ensuring satisfaction. Having problems solved by a system administrator instead of wasting my own time futzing about can make a subscription worthwhile. I value my time, and where money can buy time, I’m in.
I thought I’d take a quick audit and look at the areas online where I am willingly paying money in favour of a free option.
The biggest change was a move away from many Google services. While Google offers its GSuite as a paid option (and a pretty good one at that), I elected to go a different route.
I’ve always preferred native apps and have never loved the Gmail web interface. As a free service it’s fine but if I’m paying real money I don’t want to be spending it on something I don’t enjoy using.
If I were an Android user, the Google situation might be more compelling. On iOS, however, there always seems to be a little friction between what Google wants and what Apple is prepared to give.
So I bid adieu to Google, and took my business elsewhere.
My Paid Providers
Mail & Calendars: Fastmail. I evaluated Office 365, GSuite and Zoho when making the choice. I only wanted really good email and calendars; I didn’t need online storage, office applications, and other bolt-on services. I like that Fastmail is an Australian firm and that it has a focus on standards compliance.
Domain registration: Zuver. The little brother of VentraIP. It is a great no-frills option, and they were having a product sale when I signed up.
Web hosting: VentraIP. Another Australian company that offers great support service. Their servers are fast and I am provided a web hosting solution that is perfect for my needs.
Personal finance: YNAB. Our family is in the best financial position of all time thanks largely to YNAB. No arguments about money in our home! The cost of this service is a pittance compared with the value (both monetary and stress relief) it has delivered.
Password security: 1Password for Families. The best security is not even knowing your own passwords. I am totally willing to pay to ensure all my online accounts (plus credit card details, etc.) are unique, random and locked down. It’s peace of mind.
Entertainment: Netflix and Spotify. I’m hardly a special snowflake here, right? Broadcast media is dead to me.
Photo Storage: iCloud 50Gb. Apple has me over a barrel here. Despite maintaining local backups, the ubiquity of photos being available to all my devices is too good not to take up.
Bits and Bobs
I also pay for a few other subscription apps and online services but I don’t consider them to be part of my “infrastructure” so am not going to list them all here.
The Customer is the One Who Pays
Money makes the world go around. It pays employee wages, funds infrastructure acquisition and incentivises the implementation of new ideas. I’d rather be a direct customer paying my own way, and helping companies do good work than rely on the largesse of search and banner advertising to underwrite my online activity.
While I pay the bills, I call the shots. This is true in all business, and online services shouldn’t be seen any differently.
The internet relies on DNS servers that do the dirty work of translating human readable domain names to something that makes sense to a device on a network, which is where you see four sequences of numbers separated by a period.
I have been updating my homepage at andrewcanion.com such that it displays the three latest blog posts I have published by leveraging the RSS feed generated by WordPress. RSS feeds provide a method for other sites and services to subscribe to the work of the site offering the feed. Each new entry is included in the RSS feed, and for my homepage, I grab the latest three entries for prominent display.
What should have worked, didn’t
I had assumed that this would all work well until I stumbled across a strange problem. My site would only occasionally load and display the article entries contained within the feed. Other times the articles would not display, instead pausing in a state of permanent loading. I tried the site across a number of devices, and a number of browsers to eliminate a problem existing at the device level. As they all exhibited the same issue I presumed the problem must be occurring at a deeper level of the network.
I examined the source code of my site and it appeared to be fine. I checked to make sure the Yahoo API that grabbed the RSS feed and translated it for use on my home page was still active, and it was.
Next I tried connecting to the site through a VPN, which makes it appear that my point of origin was somewhere other than through my own internet connection. When using a VPN the site loaded every time. This was great to discover, as it moved me another step closer to the identifying the problem.
That problem had to be related to my ISP (or in the new nomenclature of Australia’s NBN, my RSP). Somehow, that provider must have been causing a problem because when I routed around them with the VPN (on any device) my site loaded completely. Yet when I visited the site on any of my devices that didn’t connect through the VPN there was a problem.
My theory is that my RSP is aggressively caching content to attempt to reduce global bandwidth consumption and that this is preventing my RSS feed from updating correctly. If my caching theory isn’t correct, then it must be some other shenanigans they are up to at the network level, no doubt to reduce their bandwidth bill.
Applying the fix
To resolve the problem I needed to reduce my reliance on my provider’s infrastructure. That meant transitioning to a different DNS provider rather than using the default, which is the DNS server of my RSP. I chose to connect to OpenDNS. Basically this means I have traded in the internet lookup tables that came with my broadband subscription in favour of an offering from a third party whose primary business it is to provide good DNS. Through the nature of their product and their business model they are incentivised to provide excellent DNS services. It is their core business. For my RSP, however, the provision of DNS services is a necessary sideline and their key driver is not to deliver excellent routing, but rather to use it as a point of leverage to reduce their own bandwidth costs to improve the profitability of their company.
As soon as I switched to OpenDNS my site loaded perfectly in every browser, on every device. My detective work had paid off and my willingness to not accept the defaults has improved the situation.
The only potential downside I was worried about was that OpenDNS might be a little slower to resolve sites simply because the distance to their server might be further than the default DNS server. I needn’t have worried though, because if anything, I think it might be a little bit faster.
Companies all share an incentive to maximise profitability. How they go about achieving this can vary greatly depending on their product and their business model. My internet provider only needs to provide a service that is ‘good enough’ for the majority of normal customers that want to browse the web and check Facebook. If they can deliver that to satisfaction and save some money on the back-end with caching and other network tricks, they’ll do it, even if it creates some edge-case problems.
I’m an edge-case and I wanted excellent DNS services. To get these I had to go to a company that is incentivised to provide quality DNS management. For them, only by delivering on that promise can the business generate revenue and grow its own profitability.
The character of Lester Freeman sums this up in this slightly NSFW scene from The Wire.