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Network externalities

Today as I was being kicked up and down the street by how awful Medium is, I was considering why I have such a hard time recommending my own setup. I love to rag on iMessage and WhatsApp and Gmail and Tutanota and Medium and Facebook and I don’t even know what the kids or their parents use because I’m still on 1970s stuff, but I present little in the way of alternatives.

I like to kid around that my setup (a generated static site on Nginx + IMAP + SMTP + XMPP + ActivityPub + Atom + git + some stuff I’m probably forgetting), since it’s hosted on a VPS, it has all the drawbacks of a cloud service while also being more expensive and I need do all the work and take on all the risks.

That’s been the running joke. But there’s one pretty key drawback it does not have and it’s one that’s a li’l tricky to explain but it might be easy to see if I throw a ton of analogies at it.

That last one is a weird example of 1870s tech but it’s one where economists first started to become aware of how network exernalities are such a huge and embarrassing bug in market capitalism.

Famously, there’s “The Fable of the Keys”, one of the wrong-headedest and embarrassingest papers of all time written by some free-market wishful-thinkers about how “no actually QWERTY is as good as Dvorak, it really is, it’s not a market failure at all, we promise”.

Back before the right had settled on wedge issues (“Vote for the rich and we’ll protect you from those gay Muslim Mexicans”) as the main approach for the rich to get richer and the drillers to keep burning, their focus was on some sort of delusion about how market capitalism is good actually, it’s an effective way to create and distribute wealth, sort of like as if everything was controlled by a really really smart “invisible hand”, and that tax cuts for the riches would be really good for everyone somehow. That approach was called “neoliberalism”.

Of course, these days, as I’m writing this twenty years later in the first days of 2024, looking back at the year where we finally breached +2° warming, and Twitter is a mess and Facebook has moneyballed Trump onto the throne and killed the Rohingya, it’s become starkly clear that we who were kvetching and complaining about the silos and the externalities and how market capitalism kind of were right all along.

It gets harder to deny a memory leak bug once the processes have been running for a while.

No, people aren’t just typing on QWERTY because it’s better, or using the App Store and Google Play because it’s better, or using Windows 95 and Facebook because it’s better. They’re doing it because they want to use what’s compatible with what their friends or coworkers are doing. That has been shown again and again until it’s blatantly obvious.

“Small government” was a transitional step between neoliberalism and the more overt wedge issue fascism of today, since the government is a boiled-down boogeyman that threatens to “regulate” capitalism or introduce free healthcare or whatever, and becomes a good scapegoat for the wedge issue fascists to target. It was a small step from “vote for the rich and we’ll protect you from the government” to the new era where Bush and Trump both have massively expanded government and now they wanna “protect” us from our own bodily autonomy.

“Fiscal responsibility” (or the UK variant, “living austerely within our means”) was a similar boogey shorthand trying to straddle the propaganda clarity of a good wedge issue with the ivory tower egghead appeal of the free market fantasy. Another slogan swept under the shameful rug of history as Bush and Trump racked up massive gov’t debt like a mittens in a gambling manga.

I can’t say my crystal ball was spotless, though, because ancom (like I was back in the day) kind of inadvertently helped that boogeyman narrative. We wanted to smash the state where we should’ve been trying to smash the corporations that the state was protecting. That’s my own li’l basket of regrets, right there.

Without organization people fall prey to the exploiting class and their silos and drill rigs. Ad campaigns and the network externality and other market-garbling bugs are pretty effective at trapping us.

So that’s the one drawback I don’t have here on this site compared to all those cloud “blogging platforms” on the web: I’m somewhat free of the network externality. I can take my stuff and leave.

I set up the VPS in 2009 at a time when I hadn’t had internet at home for a few years. Ironically, I moved a few months later and in the over-a-decade since then, I’ve been able to have a home server (for mpd and files) with an uptime that would’ve been more than enough for the services I’ve been running on the VPS. Add that to the time-machine list, I guess. I just didn’t think I was gonna be able to do that and now it’s fourteen years later and I guess I could’ve. I’ve switched domain registrars a couple of times but I’ve stayed on the VPS all this time and I’m gonna stay on for the foreseeable, but I could’ve been running a home server like many of my friends are. I just didn’t guess that I was gonna be living in an apt that was hooked up to the internet.