In the days of the dot-com boom, the golden strategy was “IPO.” Get those shares to market and cash in big time, watch the stock shoot like a rocket and get filthy rich. In our current era, the golden strategy is to just hang on as long as possible and keep nursing that venture capital sugar tit, get the valuation through the roof without it ever having to actually be marked to market (this is also known as the Y Combinator strategy, as pioneered and supported by Silly Con Valley welfare queen Paul Graham). But in between, there was a plan where the ultimate goal was just to be acquired by one of the right companies. Sell out to Google, Microsoft, maybe Yahoo, maybe Facebook, maybe even Apple or Amazon.
See a pattern here?
Oddly enough, if your entire industry’s whole goal for six or seven years is to be acquired by one of four or five companies, it stands to reason that eventually those four or five companies will have way too much power and stroke over the rest of the industry. Which is exactly what happened. It went especially sideways when Facebook was allowed to spend $20 billion to acquire the two biggest potential threats to its social media hegemony. Now instead of being alternatives, Instagram and WhatsApp are two more mandibles scraping your personal information into Fuckface Zuckerberg’s hideous maw. And sure, you could pay for infinite storage on the Flickr account you’ve had since 2005 and forgotten about, or get all your friends to move over to Signal, but there’s the problem: it’s not enough to move yourself, everyone has to go. The old days when you could use any email provider, host your website anywhere, use whatever browser you have or whatever mail client you download – those are all gone. Maybe a really serious night of work with IFTTT and RSS will let you interoperate sorta somehow, but don’t count on it.
This is a problem. Not just in the sense that some potentially very unreliable actors have the kind of data we’d go nuts thinking about the government using against us – that ship sailed years ago, as I mentioned in this very space at the time. Gizmodo has done a series about cutting yourself off from the Big Five, and how impossible it is to do it all at once because of the ubiquity of Amazon Web Services. (Aside: Apple seems to be in a different space here, because they want you to spend money on their goods and will throw in services for lagniappe, but they make much of how they aren’t monetizing your info for ads or selling it along. More on them in a sec, but there’s a case to make that Apple is a premium product by which you pay not to be reamed.)
And one of the big reasons we got here is because of phones. Not just because of OS vendors; Google and Apple are the duopoly in your hand that Microsoft and Apple were on your desktop. It’s because at the consumer level, most of what you want these days can be done from the phone. Is done from the phone, for most people. I haven’t had a personally-owned laptop for years now, and this blog and its management are the only personal business I have that really calls for a laptop. Most everything else can and does happen on the phone.
And it shows, especially when you see what a colossal pain in the ass it is to sync and back up with iTunes. Easier to just handle everything through iCloud (or to do all your music through Spotify, data service notwithstanding). Password managers like LastPass or the like are a lot more practical now because you aren’t going to be going to cyber cafes or computer labs to enter passwords you can’t remember – all that happens on your phone. We were in the easyInternet on the Strand every day of my first trip to London in 2005; by 2007 we were looking at an iPhone on whatever WiFi we could find instead. The phone is always with you, and the phone is your portal to the cloud where everything actually lives, and if you crush your phone in the motorized seatback in first class, you can go to the Apple Store after you land and within six hours your new phone will be as your old one was.
But that’s just me and my iPhone. Which has exactly one Google app on it total: Street View, for use with the Cardboard when I want to feel like I’m going down Highway 1 on a foggy day. It has exactly one Amazon app on it: IMDb, which is not logged into. It has exactly one Microsoft app: Translate, which is never opened. And it has one Facebook app: Instagram. Which is a problem. I don’t use WhatsApp anymore. I haven’t used Facebook in years. But Instagram keeps me from cutting the cord completely with that bunch of assholes in Menlo Park, because deep down, that’s where my friends are. I don’t have the FOMO and influencer bullshit issues of Gen-Z and millennials, and I’ve done a pretty good job of just making sure that this is where I post behind a locked account for the people I like. But I don’t trust Facebook at all, and if I had an alternative, it would take me about 30 seconds to delete my Insta and never look back.
But I don’t. Because these things only work when you either have open standards or when you can get everyone to move. I didn’t have a lot of friends using WhatsApp, and they were all willing to run Signal as well, so that was actually doable. But for groups greater than n = 7 or so, that’s an awfully big ask. For Instagram, it might be impossible. It would be different if we all had RSS, or if we all still checked Flickr, or if Insta had somehow managed to turn down a billion dollars. But if buts and ifs were memes and GIFs we’d all be Internet assholes. And that’s why I can’t get rid of Insta anytime soon, any more than I can blow up the one locked Twitter or the unlocked one with a thousand followers. Most people stay on social media for the convenience, but I have to stay because I can’t bear what little connection to other people I can maintain.