Saturday, October 3, 2020

If All You Can Do Is Shout Into the Wind, Shout Anyway

If you want to cut to the chase, look for me at VK:

I was a junior in high school when I discovered I had a knack for writing and editing. I was the bookkeeper for the school yearbook staff, and although I no longer recall the details of how it happened, our advisor asked me to step in as the editor midway through the year. I enjoyed the work, and I did it well enough that the advisor asked me to take over permanently as editor my senior year. I accepted with a mix of excitement and fear -- and thus began my formal relationship with the written word.

I went on to serve as the editor of the newspaper at my junior college, where I got a chance to cut my teeth on some political writing. I cringe when I think back to those early articles, but I had a budding interest in politics, and you have to start somewhere. Politics was always a hot topic in my family, so perhaps it was inevitable that I'd want to mix my love of writing with my growing interest in all things political. I thought more outside the box than my traditionally conservative parents did, and that was just all the more reason for me to want to express what I felt were my unique viewpoints.

By the time I got to the university, I knew I wanted to major in English and minor in political science. I still wasn't sure how I could make a living combining my two interests, so I decided to double-minor by adding journalism to the mix. I figured it would be easy enough to get my foot in the door as a freelance reporter and try to move up from there. 

And that's just how things played out -- but they didn't lead in the direction I'd expected. Turns out I was a better editor than I was a writer, as one of my journalism teachers later said of me in a letter of recommendation that I was the single best copy editor among any of the students he'd had over the years. His recommendation put me in touch with a newsroom editor at the local paper, which led to a reporting gig, which in turn led to a position on another newspaper's copy desk. 

I've been editing for a living ever since. Although I kept freelancing as a reporter for a few more years, my daily writing role decreased as my editorial duties increased. I still got to write some copy at my next job, but as one of two editors in a university publications department, I was primarily tasked with editing and laying out copy, in addition to mentoring the department's other editor. My boss, echoing my old journalism teacher, said I was the best editor his department had ever had. 

I'd still be at that job, had it not been eliminated in a departmental reorganization. My wife-to-be and I bounced around the country afterward as I pursued other editing gigs. Now middle-aged with a kid, we're settled down -- I hope for good -- in the Inland Northwest, and I'm fortunate to have a full-time gig as an independent editing contractor. 

But I never lost my itch to write. That's the main reason I started this blog some eight years ago. If I had to edit other people's copy to pay the bills, at least I could write on my own time and get the thoughts out of my head that just wouldn't go away until I pushed them out through my fingers. 

So this blog has been a catharsis of sorts. But my greatest disappointment has been the consistent lack of an audience. In all these years, I've never been able to build one. Most of my posts get anywhere from two or three to a few dozen views, and I almost never get any comments. 

I suppose that's how it is for most people. DIY musicians who put out albums and cobble together tours around their day jobs know the feeling. So does my wife. She loves writing fiction. But she's only ever sold a handful of her books, and earlier this year she felt like quitting -- especially after what turned out to be a vanity press eagerly took her money and promised her the moon, only to have nothing to show for her investment. 

It's depressing to have a passion for something, only to be left feeling that no one cares about the hard work you put into bringing your creation to life. For me, it's not so much that I need heaps of praise for what I do, nor do I feel the need to have my work validated. But even a small following would be nice. Just having some other folks care enough about what you do to offer their feedback and support would make the effort worthwhile. 

But maybe that's too much to ask. Or maybe my priorities are wrong. Maybe writing should be its own reward, and writing for myself should be enough. 

Writing is good mental exercise. It gives shape to my thoughts, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I've completed what I think is a good article. In that sense, writing will always be worth the effort I put into it. But when much of your writing involves political critiques, as mine often does, I suppose that makes finding an audience even harder -- especially when your views don't fit neatly within any particular political tribe. I've always been an outsider and probably always will be, so I never expected mass appeal to be in the cards for me and my writing aspirations.

Still, I had high hopes for my self-imposed deadline of Oct. 1. That was the date I expected to launch a new presence on a new social-media site. I've been on Facebook for over a decade, and if Facebook's practice of invading your privacy to serve your personal data up to advertisers wasn't disgusting enough, its ever-increasing censorship was simply not something I could tolerate any longer. So when Facebook announced that its terms of service would be changing on Oct. 1, essentially giving itself carte blanche to remove anything from its platform for any reason it wanted, I knew it was time to leave. Facebook has consistently abused its moderation policies to target alternative narratives and political views, and it's just going to get worse under the new TOS -- especially with the U.S. presidential election so near at hand.

So I spent most of September kicking the tires at several social-media platforms, many of them fairly new ones that arose in direct response to Facebook and Google's privacy invasions and political purges. My favorite ended up being Minds, a service I'd already been using. It still has some bugs, and the features for groups and blogs aren't anywhere near what some other platforms are offering. But I love the CEO's commitment to free speech. Like me, he believes that we should be free to say whatever we want so long as it's not illegal, and he argues that silencing the worst elements on social media only makes them fester and radicalize out of sight. Nobody is obligated to listen to a neo-Nazi, for example, but if you let the Klan march through your town and nobody shows up, that perhaps sends a stronger message than banning them from marching in the first place. The latter leads to self-righteous anger and plans for vengeance, while the former lets them vent their ugliness while showing them that no one cares. Bans and other forms of confrontation feed their hate. Letting them shout into empty air effectively emasculates them. 

More importantly, Minds is heading up a program called Change Minds, which aims to de-radicalize those on the fringes. Obviously far more productive than just kicking people off your platform.

So in addition to its dedication to free speech and user privacy, Minds is actively working to make the world a better place. This approach also comes through in the way Minds essentially rewards people for interacting on the platform. You can use cryptocurrency to boost your own content, while you can receive crypto from those who interact with your posts. In theory, this system rewards quality content and therefore good behavior. And in the event that something is banned for crossing a line, a jury system consisting of Minds users can overrule the decision. In short, everyone who uses Minds has a hand in making it a better social-media platform.

But there are two problems. The first is that, as I quickly found out, none of your Facebook friends will follow you to any of these new platforms. The second relates to the first: Without enough users, these start-ups will fold. And who wants to go to the trouble of setting up a new social-media presence if the platform you're on has no guarantee of survival? 

Sure, you might make a few new virtual friends. But one post in particular, from another Minds user, has stuck with me ever since I read it. He made a crucial point about how those of us who think we're making a difference in the world really aren't, as borne out by the lack of change we see in the world away from our keyboards and monitors:

And it forces me to ask the inevitable question: What's the point of any of this? 

Why do I knock myself out making impassioned posts on Facebook and detailed blogs on here if none of it is ever going to make the slightest bit of difference? I mean, sure, the writing process itself is a good outlet for me, but I could just as easily spend the time I take writing these blogs and posts to do something actually constructive. 

And the best answer I can come up with is that it does make a difference for me, and maybe there's the tiniest chance that what I say might prompt someone else to look at a situation from a new point of view. 

But why this compulsion to speak out in the first place? Where does it come from? What drives it? I don't really know. I guess we're all passionate about something. Maybe it's my feeble attempt to try to make the world a slightly better place, or to sound an alarm over giving away away things that we'll never get back, or to hope for a better world for my daughter. 

Or maybe it's my way of exercising some kind of control over a world that's falling apart before our eyes. We have violent reverse-racist neo-Marxists wanting to bring about an anti-Enlightenment revolution that would make Lenin and Mao proud. We're losing our freedom to move about, work, or go to church or school without being fined or arrested, thanks to a massive overreaction to a virus that no one will back down from. In short: Say BLM and put on your mask. 

I don't want my kid to grow up in a world like this. Hell, I don't want to live in a world like this. And so I keep sounding the alarm the only way I know how, like the guy on the street corner holding his "Repent! The End Is Near!" sign while the world goes by, either not noticing or snickering at the paranoid weirdo.

So what to do? Well, I'm not giving Silicon Valley's woke censors any more of my time, and that includes this Google-owned blog. Problem is, it's impossible to know which of the many upstarts are viable, and I'm not all that interested in investing my time in something that's just going to fail. 

I think decentralized social media has a fighting chance, since it's mostly run by volunteers and doesn't depend on the survival of one big company's bank of servers in a single location. Decentralization also solves the problem of relying on corporate advertising that inevitably compromises what can or can't be said on a platform. Moderation is up to the moderators and no one else, and if you find a moderator who values free speech, you're good to go. 

The downside is that you're talking to almost no one. I've tried Diaspora and Friendica, two decentralized Facebook-like services, and they're ghost towns. I've also tried Mastodon, but a 500-character limit per post doesn't do much for someone who prefers to write at length.

Minds is a decent middle ground. It's not really decentralized from the user's perspective, but the company is trying to move more in that direction. However, a post I recently saw there, from someone who must have been a company insider, made me realize that there's a good chance that Minds, even with all its good intentions, will fail. I don't want to call the person out, so I won't share the post here. But the gist of it was that Minds has enough money to keep going for about a year, and then the company will have to go out soliciting funds, which could mean compromising Minds' values and mission statement. 

I'd be happy to contribute in what small way I can to help keep the platform viable, but I get the feeling that I can't do enough. See, this person was promoting Minds' "Pro" feature, which appears to be aiming for content creators to come to Minds by offering them the tools they need to build a professional website. The Pro feature costs $40 a month, and this person said it would take a little over 3,000 Pro accounts for Minds to stay at breakeven. 

Meanwhile, Minds has a "Plus" upgrade feature that costs just $5 a month. I'd happily pay that much if I knew it would help. But if the company is pushing a $40-per-month plan and saying it needs over 3,000 Pro accounts just to break even, then there's nothing my tiny contribution could possibly do to help. And I'm afraid that if Minds needs 3,000 $40-a-month subscriptions to stay afloat, then the future doesn't look very bright -- especially not when content creators can go to a place like WordPress and get a professional website presence for $20 to $30 a month. Why gamble $480 a year on a startup when you can pay less through an established presence?

Of course, this all circles back to why most people won't leave Facebook. Even if the alternatives are better, and most of them are, you just won't convince most people that switching to an unknown quantity is worth the effort. 

I've been fighting this battle for years when it comes to trying to persuade people to vote third party when they claim to hate the Democrats and Republicans so much. Even when they know the two major parties are terrible, they won't switch, usually using the inherently circular argument that third parties have no chance. Of course they don't have a chance if you won't support them.

With that in mind, I should practice what I preach when it comes to third-party politics and give Minds a try. But I just don't have the time to invest in, nor the energy to muster toward, something that has a decent chance of not surviving. So for now, the Eggshells blog is moving to VK, a big centralized service that has no connection whatsoever to Silicon Valley. It's essentially Russia's Facebook. You can set up groups there, and you can compose blog-like articles, either from your personal profile or from within your groups. VK is one of the world's 20 most visited websites, so it's in no danger of vanishing like some of these startups. Most importantly, censorship doesn't appear to be an issue there. You can get shut down for spamming or otherwise abusing the system, but suffice it to say that there are comments and discussions on VK that wouldn't last for 10 seconds on Facebook before getting zapped. As a bonus, English-speakers seem to fly under VK's radar, giving an extra layer of protection.

It'll be interesting to see if I get any more engagement there. I doubt that I will. But the point is to continue to engage in the catharsis of writing, and to hope it all makes some kind of difference in the end. I may never accomplish any more than just shouting into the wind, but at least I'll have done what I can.

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