The Alternate Web

I want to bust a real quick one today on my recent experiences of dipping a toe into alternate and smaller-scale web platforms.

Of course, this article itself is hosted on a dominant web platform, WordPress. And I use Facebook daily for mundane purposes, mostly keeping up with people. (Twitter, on the other hand, gets no love from me.) I’m not writing to rag on big platforms, but to acknowledge a cultural moment when a lot of people are contemplating this switch.

I’ve been reading Hacker News (itself a big platform – they’re everywhere!) for a couple of years and quickly grew familiar with “bring back the old web” sentiments there. I would guess programmers, with their love of the esoteric and the stripped-down, have been saying such things forever. The argument, if I may sum it up crudely, is that personal webpages (whether self-hosted or on services like Geocities) and pre-Web-2.0 media like blogs, newsletters and forums, fostered a more diverse, friendly, expressive, open culture online.

Part of that nostalgia is people remembering a period when only nerds were online – no racist uncles or Karens, to reach for current stereotypes. Also, I’ve the impression that a lot of good memories come from participation in subcultures like MP3 blogs or Flash games, that would obviously have drawn together like-minded folks.

Fast forward to 2021, then, and it makes sense that the many current revivals of the old-school web favour nerdiness over mass appeal. I’ll discuss that a bit more below when I get to my actual experiences.

Another driver of interest in alternative platforms is the manifest inadequacies of Facebook, Twitter and so on. Those companies have the impossible task of trying to please everyone. High-profile bans and legal challenges show that the security, conflict-of-interest and privacy problems of ad-driven social media are out in the open these days.

That recently drove a lot of people from WhatsApp onto the competitor app Signal, including myself.

I also started my own personal website, kevinhiggins.dev, to have an online outlet where the form as well as the content are in my control.

Finally, and mostly inspired by one guy I follow called JP LeBreton, a mild-mannered, leftist game dev, I joined Mastodon, the platform I call “Twitter for nerds”.

I feel much freer to post on Mastodon than on FB, because I don’t have, nominally, 1000 people who know who I am and might be following my posts. The lack of an audience (I’ve no followers on it yet and only got a couple of transient likes) is okay by me. Same with Drum Chant, I never focused on driving traffic to here. This gets right to my perhaps idiosyncratic stance on web publishing of any kind: for me, “putting it out there” is more important than getting a reaction.

I know why this is, it’s a quirk in my personality whereby things feel much realer to me if I’ve written them down. (Hence this blog – and privately, I also journal and keep a half-dozen diaries and logs for various activities.)

Hmm. I’d thought this article might be an encouragement to others to try out alternate platforms, yet now I’m persuading myself that they’re for people like me who are mostly into organising an archive of their thoughts over hanging out with others.

That’s not to say I don’t want the hangs. My own motivation to try out these venues of expression was very simple: lockdown is very lonely and I’m hoping to meet new, like-minded people.

And there are some such on Mastodon, for sure. But rather than starting conversations, for now anyway, I’m taking the shy fellow’s tactic of crafting the feed I’d like to follow.

It’s been fun, and I especially like posting abrupt juxtapositions of content, e.g. counterpoint exercises one minute, rap lyrics the next. I feel free to perform a multipotentialite and intense persona there.

When it comes to my site I imposed more structure to present a neater picture for say a prospective employer. (Check out the site icon!) However, I chose a serif font and some moody colours specifically to hint at 90s web mischief. The links section is intended to send readers off into a maze of esoteric personal pages. Mixing business with pleasure.

I’ll wrap up today with a related trend I’ve noticed and then some blue-sky ideas for more alternate platforms I might try.

A lot of the writing that affected me most last year came by email newsletter. When I contacted the author of one of these to say hi, he mentioned in his answer that he’d found the supposedly old-fashioned format unprecedentedly effective.

I list the three newsletters I follow in the links page of my site.

And to finish… two more avenues for expressing myself online that I’ve been considering are Neocities and Project Gemini. The first is a user-friendly webpage-hosting and linking service, explicitly about recreating the old-school web. I think they might even have, whatchamacall those things, link rings? Webrings!

That could be a place to do something pseudonymous and weird. Prose poetry? Moodboards? Naughty fiction? Something warm and indulgent, anyhow.

(I already have one or two pseudonymous outlets, I recommend it. Though I’m ignorant of the whole web culture of “alts” built on the concept!)

Project Gemini is different. It’s a whole new web protocol, a communication format for online interchange like the Hypertext Transfer Protocol that underlies the whole web. So, instead of an address like https://kevinhiggins.dev, you’d have gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/servers/

You need special software to view content using this protocol, and it’s text only. It took me more than an hour to find an app that worked, but when I did, it was weirdly fun to read people’s random posts by such a covert, strange route. I remember one person seemed to write only about guitar tunings they were exploring. That kind of thing.

If I publish in “geminispace”, I’d like to write about spirituality and wisdom literature, to lend my own brand of esotericism to the initiative. (Since the Christmas holidays I’ve been reading Chinese philosophy every day, and I’m also a big fan of the likes of M. Scott Peck… and I read a bit of Western philosophy too, until my brain gets tired.) That won’t be under a pseudonym and I’ll let you know here on Drum Chant if I get round to it!

Oh, last thing, I never said anything about Signal. Well, it’s very much like WhatsApp except I found the setup to be a bit more fiddly and tricky – getting stuck in loops asking for permissions on the phone, not immediately importing contacts. It also uses a spaced-repetition technique to get you to learn off your PIN, which is super-nerdy. (Though probably a good idea, I’m sure.) Nothing too surprising there.

Make Music For Situations

Today’s post reflects my growing interest in popular music since reading this book. It’s also vague and idealistic, you’ve been warned. I mention economic issues but I won’t claim to have solutions.

Traditionally, musicians playing originals would make money selling records and touring. Nowadays, musicians invest in their recordings and marketing hoopla, and earn it back performing. Very many are stretched to their limit – at a conference recently I heard a PR/tour assistance professional in the trad field describe how bands are now obsessing over sleep, diet and careful living in order to keep their bodies in shape to tour constantly. Yet jazz and pop degree courses implicitly push original music, self-promoted and toured, as the default music career.

My issue is that recordings these days go into a black hole called the Facebook feed. To grow an audience, bands have to become content makers, emphasising regularity and predictability. This is not conducive to quality performances, originality, emotion or depth. It is conducive to box-ticking and nice visuals.

(Feel free to contest my narrative in the comments!) For a while, though, I’ve been thinking about a change of perspective that might illuminate ways forward.

I realised that what I love as much as “music itself” is situations where a groove and call-and-response are happening. (This article details that insight.) My change of perspective is to view ourselves as instigators and participants in these situations – even when at a remove, i.e. via recording, or sampling.

What’s interesting about this is it instantly opens up a wide purview of possible situations to target – ones that you wouldn’t think of when in the mode of “how do I promote my latest album?”

Some examples of grooving situations….

What if I wanted my music to be DJed for dancers? I’d have to investigate what nights and people are active right now, and what they’re spinning. Maybe my music would be remixed so I’d have to investigate the people who can do that. It would have to be released on vinyl of course. I could ask my vinyl DJ mates if they ever play Irish tracks in their sets.

What if I wanted people to rap over my music? Well, if it was to be sampled I’d have to think about the production quality, instrumentation and vibe of the tracks producers have already sampled. And perhaps how ephemerality, mistakes and looseness can be defining qualities of a great sample. I’d probably want to get into some of the sounds coming out right now too. If it was live, I’d have to think about working with very repetitive grooves, maybe using cues. And of course I’d need to call up my beatmaker friends and check hip hop nights and collectives to find the talent.

What if I wanted people to perform my songs at their gigs? A whole other set of challenges – catchiness, emotional power, simplicity, technical interest. Maybe I could get someone to write lyrics for me.

What if I wanted my music playing at a sweet house party? Time to explore what (say) stoners like… shivery timbres, echoes, rugged muffled grooves, vibey vocals, maybe. And just as important, to find what Youtube playlists they put on these days.

More random thoughts… what if I wanted to be blasted at loud volumes from cars? What if I wanted to be played at computer gaming sessions? What if I wanted dance teachers/classes to buy my records?

There’s one situation which is definitely grooving but which doesn’t illustrate my point: it’s musicians playing each other hip new music on car journeys or while hanging out. I love those listening sessions but, unlike my other examples, hip jazzy recorded music is the tiny market that many of us have been aiming for all along.

I used the word market there. Is my so-called “realisation” just about appealing to a market, i.e. selling out? Well, all my examples point out something that may be more important than the bare definition of market as “those who’ll buy x”. It’s community, of course. All these cases involve getting to know what’s going on and who’s who in a scene.

A related objection: aren’t these commercialised scenes of little interest to an art musician? Well, for me, deep groove and the identity-melding of call-and-response are as important as high-art ambition. (My heaven is the unification of both… I was listening to this old pop hit yesterday.) Plus, Paul Gilroy suggests that when black music culture spreads along capitalist lines of distribution, it may transcend and transform that very system. For one thing it educates and elevates its listeners to be more than atomised consumers. If I could get paid to do that kind of work, I’d be happy. (If I thought it was done well.)

This perspective isn’t incompatible with being a pure jazzer either. On-the-ball musicians in Dublin already focus on situations and community by playing regular gigs in nice venues targeted at a core of mainstream jazz fans, using Facebook as a tool not as the main goal.

My main point is that we should think of the situations where we want our music to be listened to, and try make them happen in the real world. Rather than merely force our work into the desolation of tech-corp-controlled social media. The disinterest some musicians might feel in, say, studio production or distribution channels could be alleviated by recognising a goal that these activities have in common with “pure playing” – to make people feel good together from the vibe of our music.

What do you think? Is it all pie-in-the-sky? I’ll be writing a follow-up piece real soon to talk about how the jazz jam session, reggae dance hall and hip hop cipher – all classic examples of grooving situations – specifically used competitiveness and common repertoire to nurture communities and develop styles.

See you then!

The Joyless Medium

Today a non-music post following on from some other posts: Beats, Windows 98-Style, Are Videogames The New Jazz, and an upcoming piece about how listeners interact with groove music e.g. at house parties.

Basically, last night in bed I woke up and started imagining how those communal grooving/listening situations might happen online.

Take the typical social media comments section, and substitute the comments with layered music tracks in a loop… so whereas in Soundcloud you can put a text comment on a precise moment of a song e.g. “sick bass drop yo”, what if you could drop in a clap or bell pattern, precisely in time, to someone else’s music… or maybe some VST– or SFXR-type customisable synth sounds.

Nice stuff to fantasise about. There seem to be a couple of projects hinting at this kind of functionality. But definitely nothing taking off.

That made me think about the expressive channels currently available on my main social network, Facebook. That’s when I made the connection to my 90s throwback article which celebrated the techno-creative possibilities we had in the late 90s. I realised that FB intentionally forbids a spectrum of modes of expression and features that were actually taken for granted two decades ago.

This isn’t a technophobic post. I’ve no problem with people spending hours staring at screens. If I’m criticising anything here, it’s greed, and also blind faith in free markets + engineers’ optimisation to make people happier.

Here are some ways you can’t express yourself on FB:

  • pixel art or high-resolution art (because FB resizes and compresses all images)
  • ACII art (because text layout can’t be controlled and you can’t switch to a monospaced font)
  • decorative backgrounds
  • choosing the colour of elements, choosing a colour palette
  • making buttons or a user interface, trompe d’oeil/mimicking visual elements
  • laying out a page (the only option is, like with long posts on Twitter, to make a screenshot and share as a picture, but that loses the text data)
  • sharing sound snippets
  • italics, bold text, underlining

You are even discouraged from making your own smilies because they won’t register with the system that converts them to a little cartoon.

20 years ago, anyone making a personal webpage had all of these features at their fingertips. Forums and other communities allowed some of them too.

How about more mundane capabilities?

  • proper hyperlinks (FB lets you put links but without changing the text, and encourages one link per post by allowing a single preview pane; linking to other posts is limited/bogey in a number of ways… sponsored posts can’t be linked to, preview panes are generated in comments but not in news posts, and linking to an old post of yours presents the content with the text removed)
  • searchable posts (because FB’s model is based on feeding you algorithmically selected new material or else you stalking people’s profiles… so they can’t give you ways to find old posts)
  • choosing what you see, not just blocking vaguely defined content or blocking people
  • tags (unlike the other features I’ve mentioned, this is modern, from 2007)
  • metrics i.e. how many views you get (obviously, FB want you to pay for this information by buying sponsored posts)
  • publically editable posts a la Wiki

Will this change? I doubt it. Facebook have something that makes money for them. Perhaps the mass market (which is obviously what a social media site aims for) will never care enough to want those features. But if they were there, we’d be spending our time in a space that felt a lot less grim and robotic, and maybe, if we could play with and surprise each other, we’d be less grim and robotic.

Rant over. As usual, I’d love to hear your comments!

Let me anticipate a couple of objections. Yes, there are hundreds or thousands of websites where you can express yourself in these ways. But a lot of them work on the same formulaic, business-like assumptions of Facebook – that we are all just trying to promote and brand ourselves. Anyway, I think it’s fair to criticise a site where we spend a lot of time and which makes every effort to keep us there.

Oh and I should say that I recognise how useful many of Facebook’s features are, i.e. events and band pages. (I think that intersection of personal scale with a small organisation or business’ scale is where the site works best.) I just think we’d be better off if we could pay for those features straight out rather than by participating in the rote “interaction” of sharing itemised, cling-wrapped content.