Walking out of the walled garden to see what lies beyond

I spent about a month focusing on my oft-neglected YouTube channel. It's time to walk away.

A while ago, I mentioned on this very not-a-blog that I was spending some time on my YouTube channel. This would seem to run counter to the observations that I made in other arguments both here and on other places where I have write access. I talk so much about how a person on the Internet has the ability to put up a site of anything that they want to, without too many restrictions, if they're just willing to put in the time to learn how to do it. But learning is hard, so the default is to let someone else worry about it and publish things on their platforms where the rules are vague and all your work could disappear the moment it becomes unprofitable.

I told myself that I would put those things that I was making and posting to YouTube on this site once I figured out a cost-effective way to do it1, but it turned out that I was unconsciously doing them in a 'YouTube style', and it didn't make a lot of sense to put them here.

But I kept on with the vlog idea for a few weeks, making a lot of monologues where I avoided staring directly into the camera. And since the turn of a new year is a time for reflection and introspection, I had spent a lot of time thinking about, well, everything2.

And I really got to thinking about sites like YouTube and other platforms, like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Medium and so on and so on. I don't usually like to invoke pop culture references. I find them to be lazy and their meaning will be lost on people who read this in the future and don't have the same cultural background.

Specifically, I thought back to a cartoon I used to watch as a youngster, Kidd Video. Kidd Video was a cartoon starring a band (featuring Brady Bunch heartthrob Robbie Rist) who get sucked through a mirror into a cartoon universe where the Master Blaster (the ruler of this music-themed universe (called the Flipside)) wants to use the band as musical slaves. They would provide all the music, and his band, the Copy Cats, would lip-sync all the songs. They would get all the credit while the real band did all the work (They escape and spend the rest of the series foiling Master Blaster and and his minions. It's an 80's kids' show, it's not Shakespeare).

And that's what I feel like by spending sometimes hours making videos and posting them to someone else's site for no pay, only the promise that if I've been really good then the algorithm might anoint me as worthy of being able to enable monetization on whatever I've added to the platform and they'll generously let me keep a portion of the money they make by showing my content.

This is all assuming that you don't run afoul of any rules that can change at any moment, and if you do, all of the work that you've done for the platform can go away overnight. And if you somehow made content creation on that site your primary source of income? Well, too bad, I guess. You could try to contact someone, but good luck with that. The only contact info I could find for YouTube is a snail-mail addressIA

This gets even worse when I started factoring in that the way sites like YouTube are designed to keep you watching forever. Tailoring what you see to something that you're more likely to watch instead of going away to do something else. Showing you as many ads as they can along the way.

That got me thinking about an episode of the original 3Star Trek: The Cage. In it, the captain is kidnapped and he is imprisoned in an illusory world where he fights valiantly to escape, even though in the illusory world he has everything he could ever want. In the end, the captain's alein captors let him go and says the following:

"We had not believed this possible. The customs and history of your race show a unique hatred of captivity. Even when it's pleasant and benevolent, you prefer death" --Talosian Magistrate, Star Trek - The Cage (~1966)

At the time I watched it (in reruns... I'm not that old!), I thought that it was pretty great. It perfectly captured the human spirit. That humans could not be caged. That they would fight tooth and nail to escape captivity if necessary.

But then sites like YouTube and Facebook and a slew of others came along. They proved not only that the Talosian Magistrate was wrong, but it turns out that if you make the prison appear to be comforatble enough, that humans will willingly imprison themselves and will refuse to leave. You don't even need to lock the door.

YouTube and Facebook particularly prove this. When I'm out in the Real World™ I pay attention to what's on peoples' computers as they use them. I don't read over their shoulders because I don't have to. I can see from their screens the distinctive f or yt sites from pretty far away.

It's disheartening to see. Even people my age who grew up with the Internet the same way I did and have similar backgrounds have bought into these walled-garden sites wholesale. They spend all of their time in the warm embrace of The Algorithm with all their friends, only venturing out once in a while to click on a link that The Group or The Algorithm has deemed worthy of visitation, and then they'll retreat right back into the security blanket of their garden.

I've talked to people about this. I'll make a site that I want to show off to people and they'll visit once and never come back. When pressed, the answer usually is some variation of "I don't really browse the Internet", which was obvious. We don't usually dive deeper into it than that, because there's no point. I don't usually feel like attacking my friends' actions and making them feel bad about what they're doing by discussing Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and everything being walled gardens that track your every movement across the Internet which is bad for privacy and et cetera, and how someone should really make their own site because it's better for everyone and so on and so on. Because for most of the people really deep into those sites' ecosystems, they don't care and I can't make them care. That's something that they have to do for themselves.

All I can do is lead by example. It's up to them if they want to follow along.

So, I decided that I'm going to be stepping out of the walled gardens. I'm going to see what's out there. I'm going to forge my own path. I'll advocate for other people to do the same, too. The Internet is not just Google and Facebook. It's whatever we want it to be. It can be anything we want it to be, we just have to make it.

I should note here that I don't advocate everyone just doing their own thing on their own website and everyone should be an island isolated from everyone else forever. That would be stupid. No, we can still have things like forums and email and irc and BBS's and other places to gather socially and form communities. But having giant adtech engines disguised as megacommunities pretending to be utilities for the public good? Those are the things we need to step away from. And I'm going to be over here doing my part.


  1. bchlog entry for December 11, 2020
  2. It also didn't hurt that I had to work on New Year's Day and spent the entire day alone in my office in case something happened*
    • nothing happened
  3. We've already got one pop culture reference. Might as well shoot the works.

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