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November 2022

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Life Without The Algorithm
There's more to photography than being popular. Being genuine counts for something too. In the new frontier of the Fediverse the focus is on enjoying your craft instead of being crafted by the algorithm.

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I made the move to Mastodon in search of a Twitter alternative, and instead I found an enclave of happy photographers. They’d been there all along, just enjoying a safe space for creativity and kindness. It’s not a case of "waiting for the rest of us to come over and join them", because Mastodon and the greater 'Fediverse' is not about popularity. Which is precisely what makes it so special.

It’s no secret that I don’t like Zucky or Musky. Can’t even bring myself to say their names in full. Social media in general is both marvellous and terrifying. It’s helped enable me to enjoy a creative career path, while simultaneously ensuring the destruction of democracy and indeed the entire planet. Instagram used to be my favourite, when it first began, because it was a pure experience for photographic joy. Those days are a long way back in the rear view mirror. Instagram doesn’t even want photographers on the platform anymore. The Algorithm™ rewards influencers who follow their formula. For now. Social media platforms don't collapse overnight; they erode slowly like a Ship of Theseus morphing into the Wreck of the Hesperus.

Up until a certain billionaire took over at Twitter, that platform was a pretty nice space for photographers. Sharing threads and small curated sets of images was a joy, and some interesting people engaged in the process. For example, a horticulturalist from regional Victoria who posts daily photos from the Botanical Gardens where he works. Photography is great at bringing people closer. Recents changes on The Bird Site have made it impossible for me to participant in good conscience.

Mastodon is a terrible name. It doesn’t roll off the tongue – it’s awkward and cumbersome and most people only have a passing awareness of what it actually means. Same can be said of the platform itself. I jumped onto a particular Mastodon server where a bunch of my Twitter peeps had flocked to. After a few weeks I realised I was in the wrong place, because that instance of Mastodon was moderated by people who didn’t care about moderating posts that steal other people’s photos. That, and a few other unsavoury attitudes cracking through the facade, sent me looking for another home in the Fediverse.

You might think this sounds like a failed gambit. But this highlights the core strength of the Fediverse. Every instance can operate under its own rules, and if you don’t like the rules then go find another instance that suits you better. In my case Photog.Social was precisely aware of the dangers presented by accounts that steal other people's photos in order to harvest followers. On that server I found a lot of "locals" who were enjoying photography for the sake of photography.

Remember the days when we’d go out and walk with a roll of film, focused only on the creative process of committing scenes to celluloid? We didn’t "create content"; we took photos. For most of us the process was heavy on the capturing and light on the sharing. Very little of what we captured ever made it off the contact sheet. We were learning to take better photos, rather than learning to appease the gods of social media.

In the Fediverse I found people who were still shooting film. And people who were sharing their day to day moments. And people who were curating images to share based on what they wanted to share and the stories they wanted to tell. I found people excited to share the beauty they experienced in the mundane and ordinary.

In the absence of an algorithm there is only your own creative compass. Marvellous.

An important foundation of Mastodon is the rejection of “going viral”. People can repost what your share, that’s still a thing, but the idea of watching the “likes” and “reposts” tally is avoided as much as possible. The web interface for example is stripped of these dopamine triggers – you have to dig a little to access that information. The idea is simple enough: instead of feeding your brain with rewards from the audience you are encouraged to simply feed your audience with a more honest version of yourself.

It's the social media equivalent of finding friends who genuinely like you for who you really are. It's the difference between being widely popular on the surface versus having a handful of friends who actually love you as a person. Celebrity versus reality. In my own life I reject almost everything about celebrity culture. Not surprising then, Mastodon is a good fit for my social media life.

One of the traps with social media "approval" is that we get addicted to the reward. We genuinely love it when other people like our stuff. Our brains are wired to take approval as a reward and we shouldn't pretend otherwise. With each successful post that gets a bucket of likes we go in search of the next one that will do even better. Over time it's the audience that shapes our expression, whether we're conscious of it or not. It's an equation built around quantity instead of quality, and it drives your expression towards a consensus and away creativity. This happens at any scale of media, but gets amplified not only by the sheer volume of the internet but the algorithms behind the scenes that are manipulating what an audience can see.

If the algorithm starts prioritising video content over stills, and you're talent is stills, you can expect the engagement from your existing audience to slide. It's not because they no longer like what you do, but because the algorithm isn't even showing your photos to them. And that becomes a problem when you're emotionally invested in social media approval. When the algorithm starts sidelining your talent you might start to feel rejected. And you have zero control over that scenario.

By making Mastodon a chronological feed, without any algorithms to manipulate who sees what, is an enormously democratising foundation. It provides an essential ingredient to prevent manipulation of both the audience and the sharers.

When I started on Facebook my photography “page” had about 800 fans, and close to half of them would see pretty much everything I posted. A few years ago that same page had closer to 8000 fans, and yet I’m lucky if a dozen people even see a post in their feed. The algorithm wants me to pay money to “boost” my posts. After a decade of feeding Facebook with content and cultivating an audience of like minded folks, my reward is the right to pay money for my own readers to see content they asked for.

Over time the algorithms get mean. At the beginning they pick a few "content creators" to go viral or send millions of people to the New York Times to read articles. At first it seems like a huge win. News outlets get a much needed boost to their traffic. A handful of skinny people get famous and start to monetize their online accounts. Users get a steady stream of curated memes to dull their brains for 30 seconds at a time. Nirvana with a touch screen.

Eventually the traffic from Facebook is something influencers and news outlets can no longer live without. "Content Creators" and publications alike become reliant on the traffic, financially or emotionally or both. When the algorithm dials down the amplifier effect the eyeballs are sent elsewhere. In response the news headlines become more and more baited, and the influencer pantomimes becomes more and more degrading. Meanwhile, the audience has to scroll deeper and deeper just to see what their actual friends are doing.

And if you think it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse. The commercial imperative of platform such as Facebook is exactly what undermines its integrity.

Meanwhile over in the Fediverse there’s an attempt to build connections without advertising. It’ll be a difficult space for commercial brands, because most instances don’t want them, and may ban any other instance that does. For small artists it’s an amazing space, because the individuality and genuine talent on offer is something that will be rewarded. Anyone who is good at what they do will get a fair go in the Fediverse – as it currently exists. It’s a good place to be right now. It’s not too big, not too chaotic and hasn’t been totally ruined by ‘viral accounts’. Yet.

I still have to block accounts that only post "content". These are people who manufacture an identity and just post memes or photos they stole from other social media, or other accounts. I also have made a habit of unfollowing those handful of people who incessantly repost trash content from these parasitic accounts. It annoys me that some people are fooled so easily. Decades of conditioning by manipulative platforms and their influencers has eroded any sense of normal for a lot of the online population.

But the Fediverse is ultimately a place where you can set the boundaries without being gamed by an algorithm. So I mute the people who keep resharing the trash, block the people who generate the trash, and relocate to servers that refuse to host the trash. You still need to watch out for humans trying to game you, but for once it’s not the internet itself trying to take me down.

In the absence of the algorithm I am finding new communities to connect with, and new respect for humans. I have met some people who are vulnerable but full of kindness. Some who are talented but full of humility. Many who are totally ordinary except for something I happen to find quite extraordinary. I’m hoping the future of social media is a space where things no longer viral, but instead simply get embraced and appreciated by a small cohort of people who support each other by sharing their work, their ideas and their Patreon link.

Not everyone will take up the offer to join in, but you are all invited.

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