Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

For the last two decades, our social networking and social media platforms have been universes unto themselves. Each has its own social graph, charting who you follow and who follows you. Each has its own feed, its own algorithms, its own apps, and its own user interfaces (though they’ve all pretty much landed on the same aesthetics over time). Each also has its own publishing tools, its own character limits, its own image filters. Being online means constantly flitting between these places and their ever-shifting set of rules and norms.

Now, though, we may be at the beginning of a new era. Instead of a half-dozen platforms competing to own your entire life, apps like Mastodon, Bluesky, Pixelfed, Lemmy, and others are building a more interconnected social ecosystem. If this ActivityPub-fueled change takes off, it will break every social network into a thousand pieces. All posts, of all types, will be separated from their platforms. We’ll get new tools for creating those posts, new tools for reading them, new tools for organizing them, and new tools for moderating them and sharing them and remixing them and everything else besides. 

All that change could be hugely exciting, but it raises a complicated question. If you’re a person who posts — and by “posts,” I mean creates everything from tweets to TikToks for lulz or for a living — what do you do now? For two decades, the answer has been relatively straightforward: if you want to post somewhere, you log in to that platform, use its tools, and click publish. Going forward, in a vastly more open and decentralized world, how do the posters post?

POSSE and the future of posting are also the subjects of the most recent Vergecast episode. Subscribe here.

The answer, I think, lies in a decade-old idea about how to organize the internet. It’s called POSSE: Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere. (Sometimes the P is also “Post,” and the E can be “Elsewhere.” The idea is the same either way.) The idea is that you, the poster, should post on a website that you own. Not an app that can go away and take all your posts with it, not a platform with ever-shifting rules and algorithms. Your website. But people who want to read or watch or listen to or look at your posts can do that almost anywhere because your content is syndicated to all those platforms.

There have been people talking about POSSE, and practicing it on their own sites, for years now. (If you want a good example of how it works, check out Tantek Celik’s blog — Celik is one of the early POSSE believers in the IndieWeb community, and his website shows what it looks like in practice.) But as platforms grew and raised their garden walls ever higher, the open web gave way to centralized platforms in a big way. In the last year or so, though, particularly after Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition alerted users to how quickly their platforms can change or die, POSSE has gotten some traction again alongside ActivityPub and other more open ideas.

In a POSSE world, everybody owns a domain name, and everybody has a blog

In a POSSE world, everybody owns a domain name, and everybody has a blog. (I’m defining “blog” pretty loosely here — just as a place on the internet where you post your stuff and others consume it.) When you want to post something, you do it to your blog. Then, your long blog post might be broken into chunks and posted as a thread on X and Mastodon and Threads. The whole thing might go to your Medium page and your Tumblr and your LinkedIn profile, too. If you post a photo, it might go straight to Instagram, and a vertical video would whoosh straight to TikTok, Reels, and Shorts. Your post appears natively on all of those platforms, typically with some kind of link back to your blog. And your blog becomes the hub for everything, your main home on the internet.

Done right, POSSE is the best of all posting worlds. “As someone publishing, I want as much interaction as possible,” says Matt Mullenweg, the CEO of Automattic and one of the most important people working on WordPress. (Automattic also owns Tumblr, another of the internet’s biggest posting platforms.) “So why are you making me choose which network it goes to? I should post it once, ideally to my domain, and then it goes to X and Threads and Tumblr and all the other networks that can have all their own interfaces and network effects and everything like that. But my thoughts should go to all those places.”

People like Tantek Celik are already practicing POSSE. This is a tweet, and a blog post, and maybe the difference doesn’t matter.Image: Tantek Celik / David Pierce

POSSE makes sense, both philosophically — of course you should own your content and have a centralized home on the web — and logistically. Managing a half-dozen identities on a half-dozen platforms is too much work! 

But there are some big challenges to the idea. The first is the social side of social media: what do you do with all the likes, replies, comments, and everything else that comes with your posts? POSSE is a great unifier for posting but splinters engagement into countless confusing pieces. There’s also the question of what it means to post the same thing to a dozen different platforms. Platforms have their own norms, their own audiences, their own languages. How often do you actually want to post the same stuff on LinkedIn and on Tumblr? And if you do, at what point are you indistinguishable from spam?

The most immediate question, though, is simply how to build a POSSE system that works. POSSE’s problems start at the very beginning: it requires owning your own website, which means buying a domain and worrying about DNS records and figuring out web hosts, and by now, you’ve already lost the vast majority of people who would rather just type a username and password into some free Meta platform. 

Even those willing and able to do the technical work can struggle to make POSSE work

Even those willing and able to do the technical work can struggle to make POSSE work. “When I started,” says Cory Doctorow, an activist and author who has been blogging for decades and recently set up a new POSSE-ified blog called Pluralistic, “I literally had an HTML template in the default Linux editor. I’ve got Emacs key bindings on and I just literally would open that file and resave it with a different file name, append the day’s date to it, and then write a bunch of blog posts in this template. And then I would copy and paste those into Twitter’s threading tool, and Mastodon, and Tumblr, and Medium, one at a time, individually editing as I went, doing a lot of whatever, and then I would turn it into a text file that I would paste into an email that I would send to a Mailman instance where I was hosting a newsletter. And then I had full-text RSS as well, and Discourse for comments, which has its own syndication for people to follow you on discourse.” 

Doctorow estimates that, for a long time, he spent less time writing his posts than he did figuring out where they’d go. “And I made a lot of mistakes.” Now, he has a more automated system, but it still involves a lot of Python scripting, dozens of browser tabs, and far more manual work than most people will do to get their thoughts out to the world.

In a post-platform world, there might be an entire industry of tools to manage cross-posting your stuff all over the web. But we’re still living on platforms — and will be for some time. So for now, the best we have are tools like Micro.blog, a six-year-old platform for cross-posters. When you sign up for Micro.blog, you get your own blog (which the platform offers to connect to your own domain) and a way to automatically cross-post to Mastodon, LinkedIn, Bluesky, Medium, Pixelfed, Nostr, and Flickr. 

Manton Reece, the creator of Micro.blog, says he thinks of POSSE as “a pragmatic approach” to the way social networks work. “Instead of waiting for the perfect world,” he says, “where every social network can communicate and talk to each other and you can follow someone from Threads to Mastodon to Twitter to Facebook to whatever, let’s just accept the reality, and focus on posting to your own site that you control — and then send it out to friends on other networks. Don’t be so principled that you cut your content off from the rest of the world!”

Micro.blog is a blogging platform but also a place to post to other platforms.Image: Micro.blog

One thing Micro.blog hasn’t figured out is the engagement side of things. Reece says he’s interested in building tools to aggregate and make sense of replies, likes, comments, and the rest, but it’s a much harder prospect. But this, too, might someday be an industry unto itself. Reece mentions a tool called Bridgy, which both allows cross-posting and aggregates social media reactions and attaches them to posts on your site. This will forever be a fight with the existing platforms, which largely have no incentive or tools for getting engagement data out into the broader web. But some folks think they can solve it.

When it comes to maintaining many different networks, Mullenweg thinks, ultimately, POSSE is a user interface problem. And a solvable one. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s the right UI for this,” he says. “I think there might be something like, the first step is posting to my blog, and the second step is I get some opportunities to customize it for each network.” Where POSSE has gone wrong so far, he says, is by trying to automate everything. “I’m really into this two- or three-step publishing process to get around this.”

POSSE is really just one piece of the new social puzzle. Before long, we might have a slew of new reading tools, with different ideas about how to display and organize posts. We might have new content moderation systems. We might have an entire industry of algorithms, where people compete not to make the best posts but to show them in the most interesting order. Modern social networks are not a single product but a giant bundle of features, and the next generation of tools might be all about unbundling.

When I ask Doctorow why he believed in POSSE, he describes the tension every poster feels on the modern internet. “I wanted to find a way to stand up a new platform in this moment,” he says, “where, with few exceptions, everyone gets their news and does their reading through the silos that then hold you to ransom. And I wanted to use those silos to bring in readers and to attract and engage with an audience, but I didn’t want to become beholden to them.” The best of both worlds is currently a lot of work. But the poster’s paradise might not be so far away.

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