Diversity on Micro.blog, from a minority viewpoint.

There’s been a bit of hand-wringing in the Micro.blog community about its apparent lack of demographic diversity. This thread (between @brucegodin, @dgold, @adamprocter and a few others) was the latest that got me thinking.

I’m the minority in just about all of the diversity categories the Micro.blog community has defined for itself, except that English is my first language. (There, I’ve outed myself.)

From my point of view, M.B’s diversity challenge comes out of Indieweb’s own priorities and values. Decentralization, independence, tech-centrality, building your own bespoke blog/website with home-grown/open-source tools… to me, these values originate from a particular paradigm and method of engaging with the world. This paradigm is itself shaped by the wider culture. To put it in reductionist and stereotypical terms, the “self-made” webmaster who builds a self-contained website, independent of the centralized aggregate (and by extension, The Man), using home-grown tools, falls very much in line with the values of the American Dream.

M.B can’t be reduced to stereotypes, of course. But there’s also a bar to entry into this social-media network, and it’s a distinctly technophilic, first-world, Western bar. One needs the finances to have your own webhost/domain or pay M.B to host it, the technological know-how of building your own website and establishing social-media capabilities on said website, and most importantly, the desire to have a blog/online presence independent of the centralized aggregate, before you can even begin to join the M.B social-media community.

These are many hurdles. The way I see it, they all come from the Indieweb movement and how that movement was birthed in the first place.

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An example of some hurdles I faced getting into M.B.

Many Indieweb pages have a certain “look” in my eyes: American, technophile, and Apple-centric. M.B’s signup/landing page has “that look”. I remembered thinking, when I first landed on Micro.blog, “Heh, looks like yet another American-Silicon-Valley-Mac-exclusive-technophile enclave.” But after reading about the Indieweb movement and realizing that it encapsulated some of the things I missed from the old Web 1.0, I understood my first impression (like all my first impressions) was prejudiced and reductionist. Being a non-technophile with only basic HTML/CSS skills (enough to know the meaning of what I’m copy-pasting, not enough to interpret the meaning for troubleshooting purposes), M.B currently offered the simplest “in” into microblogging and self-hosting according to Indieweb principles. And I was tired of being spread out over Wordpress.com and Twitter anyway. So I signed up for hosting to try it out.

A hosted M.B may have been my simplest “in” into Indieweb, but I face another hurdle in USD $5 and the monthly currency conversion and fees involved. It is not a big hurdle. I can afford it. But it is still a reality for someone not living in North America, and every month the hurdle reappears and I have to face and jump over it. And not for much longer: I recently got a domain/webhost on a local provider, and a big motivation was to remove this USD $5 hurdle, even if it meant spending a bit more effort to setting up my domain. I understand this cash flow is necessary for this independent M.B community to survive and thrive, which is why I supported it. But I’m willing to bet that this USD $5 is a significant barrier to getting non-technophile, non-North-American voices heard on M.B.

Finally, the Indieweb value of decentralization is, by definition, in tension with “social media”. And people are complicated and have diverse motives and priorities: not everyone who has an Indieweb-type website desires an Indieweb-type social media hub to broadcast their activities. Personally, I’ve always had a disinterested attitude towards social media: it’s the necessary, annoying evil I have to put up with when getting my content out on Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram. So far, I’m only interacting on M.B because of proximity, ie. I have to go through my Timeline to get to the “Add New Post” button. I appreciate what goods M.B has brought and is bringing to me currently, but in the big scheme of life and things, I have other priorities, and between blogging and social media, the latter will be first to jettison. If I follow Indieweb’s in-built inertia of decentralization and move my blog wholly to my domain, M.B runs the risk of losing my voice – a tiny inconsequential one, but still a voice. Well, so be it, then. Independent and decentralized means that a person has the freedom to self-select out of a community.

Just a few examples of structural barriers; I’ve encountered a few more on M.B and getting my head around Indieweb worldview and ideas at large. I don’t think that is necessarily a problem: it’s good to face challenges and figure out how to conquer them, and allow my paradigms be challenged in turn. But while I’m willing to put in effort to overcome them and live with the discomfort of facing them constantly (sometimes repeatedly), someone else may not.

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Is M.B a privileged place? Perhaps. (I abhor how that good word, “privilege”, now carries so much inflammatory, politicized baggage with it.) Rather, I’d say M.B has hurdles that are technical and structural, born out of the wider Indieweb cultural milieu, itself a specific, particular culture. And these hurdles, and that culture, end up sifting the potential entrants to allow a certain, particular demographic through.

I don’t know of any solutions. I’m not sure that removing the hurdles I mentioned above will necessarily be good or right. Maybe they will be! But maybe they won’t. These cultural boundaries are currently, for better or worse, part of (but not necessarily the whole of) what makes M.B the place it currently is. Every culture, in defining the boundaries of who/what it is, will inevitably exclude a subset; “I am X” necessitates such a thing as “not-X”.

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There is another discussion happening on M.B currently: whether or not to show your Followers, and how to implement tags/”tagmojis”. It’s not an accident that those are happening simultaneously with this discussion on diversity, because they’re all about the same thing: M.B is trying to find and define its identity. From identity then comes culture, and from there, the extent of diversity the culture can contain.

The boundaries of every culture are always being contested, from within and from without. To know what boundaries to bend, and which to maintain, involves knowing (or at least, having a vision or ideal of) who we want to be. These are good discussions happening on M.B. We will see what emerges.

velivolans; flying with sails and gale-force wings @vega