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I’m not eating my own dog food


…or if you prefer, eating my own cooking, or scratching my own itch, or drinking my own champagne. Sure. These are all metaphors for the idea that if you build something, it turns out better if you use it yourself, especially if you want it yourself. However, when I think about my projects for bridging social networks, I wonder if I don’t use them myself deeply enough. If I’m not the target audience. Is that a problem?

It’s not entirely true. Strictly speaking, I do use them. After this post gets published, you’ll see a trickle of likes, reposts, and replies from social networks start to show up down in the comments, thanks to Bridgy and Bridgy Fed. The part I worry about isn’t the tools part, it’s the social part. How online social tools should work, how communities should use them, how they affect the ways people interact online. These have all been hot topics for a while now, with social networks pushing “healthy conversations” and Congress haranguing tech execs on Capitol Hill, and even more acutely recently now that Twitter is burning and a new crop of social networks has sprouted.

These questions are complex, deep, and important. Many people have their own slants: big companies on business models, startups on features and news, IndieWeb on owning your data, the fediverse on consent and safety, libertarian techies on anti-censorship, government officials on…whatever helps them get re-elected, I guess.

I don’t know which of these angles is right, but I do know the issues are important. And as someone building social plumbing and tools, I’m keenly aware that my choices directly impact them, if only for my relatively small user base. They’re not easy choices! In Thorsten Ball’s dichotomy, I’m fully type 2: if a technical problem requires human behavior, that makes it more difficult to handle, not less.


The problem is, I don’t have my own angle. I don’t know how tech should handle online social interactions – granted, probably no one does for sure – and I’m not particularly qualified or motivated to tackle it. Part of it is that I don’t really hang out on the internet. I’m somewhat online in a few bits of open source, but only somewhat, and not a ton elsewhere. I don’t post many times a day, I’m not on Twitter or Mastodon for hours at a time, I haven’t made many close friends on the internet. I definitely don’t have deep experience in community organizing or support.

At the same time, I’m not under any illusion that the tools and services I build are neutral. We’ve mostly matured beyond “tech isn’t good or bad, it’s how it’s used,” especially for social tech. Joel Spolksy’s historical view on this is one of my favorites, including his “primary axiom of online communities”:

Small software implementation details result in big differences in the way the community develops, behaves, and feels.

I’ve seen this firsthand with Bridgy. Most users love it, but I do occasionally hear complaints that it creates surprising context collapses when someone’s reply shows up in a different place than they originally posted it. There’s also the broader concern that webmentions support and promote public conversations over private ones, and the ongoing debate over whether they hurt or help your control over your own data. These conversations are many years old, but the recent explosion of alternative social networks and the fediverse has injected new life into them.

Again, these are important questions. We need to figure out how to design healthy online spaces and tools! And I may have a few loose opinions here and there, but in general, I don’t have deeply held ideas or convictions, nor do I have a burning desire to work on the problem. It’s just not me.

I’m grateful to the people and groups who are. And honestly, I’m not too worried. I still believe I can build tools that are net positive even if I’m Not That Online. I don’t feel too much like I’m neglecting some internet civic duty. But every now and then, I wonder if I’m not eating quite enough of my own dog food cooking, or not in quite the right way, or something.

Am I overthinking it? What do you think?


12 thoughts on “I’m not eating my own dog food

  1. Interesting to read Ryan’s thoughts about being Not That Online and whether that affects the incredibly handy tools he makes for others. Maybe I’m overthinking my own dilemmas.

  2. Overthinking? Probably. I feel like you are helping accelerate the inevitable. If you’re creating in an arena you don’t own, you don’t have control. I’d like to believe in a generation or two, everybody owns their own infrastructure.

  3. The existence of the tool is necessary in order to have a grounded conversation about potential issues. Unfortunately it’s not possible to accurately predict future benefits or harms in their entirety.

    Throughout my career, I’ve attempted to “see around corners” and anticipate what outcomes might result from different architectures or designs that we’ve made with protocols or interfaces… and more often than not, I was told to worry about those things when they become an actual problem, and to not “prematurely optimize for problems you don’t have”.

    And so, here we are, with a rather compromised relationship to social media and social platforms. But the reality for you is, even if you did behave like the very online people you mentioned, it’s not clear that you would necessarily have better or more insights. Indeed, you might be more distracted by trendy or hyped issues rather than staying focused on the long-term prospect of uniting the social web.

    Because unless and until we re-unite the social web, how can we reasonably discuss the problems that such a circumstance will bring if none of us have ever experienced it?

    So: you’re not overthinking it, and you shouldn’t allow these thoughts to dissuade you either. As with any inventor or creator, you will bear some responsibility for how your creations are used, but not all responsibility.

  4. Thanks for the encouragement, Chris! And for the help behind the scenes here. Definitely agreed; “don’t predict the future” has been one of the most consistent mantras I’ve told my teams over the years. In general, I think we’re way worse at that than we think. It’s the crucial flaw in eg the Precautionary Principle, along with much of long term project management and planning.

    I’ll keep plugging away!

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