A plea to fellow paranormal researchers: break free of walled gardens and build your own digital gardens
Table of Contents
Earlier this year, one of my favorite thinkers, sci-fi author Cory Doctorow coined the term "enshittification."
Enshittification is the process of a platform destroying itself. It often goes like this: the platform initially seems great, so users sign up, then it shafts its users in favor of attracting business users, then it screws businesses over to draw in advertisers, and then the whole thing devolves into an unusable pile of mush.
The term has caught on because it's so perfect for our time. (You can read about it on Doctorow's blog or hear about it on his podcast.)
Many of the largest platforms are currently in particularly mushy stages. (Twitter comes to mind most readily, but it certainly isn't the only one. Pretty much everyone knows that Instagram, Facebook, and Amazon are garbage as well.)
One of many problems with enshittification is that when a social media platform implodes, users lose a lot, from the social connections that they made on the platform to the content that they created. (Ditto with if, say, a platform suddenly decides to ban or delete your account, something that seems to happen to users with alarming frequency.)
If you create your content inside a walled garden, you don't control it. Social media algorithms allow people to potentially get more exposure. But for the most part, you're stuck making content for free for a platform that can just delete it all or block people from seeing it at a whim.
Doctorow compares the success of some lucky folks on social media to the phenomenon of someone walking around a county fair with a giant teddy bear. All of the games in the midway are rigged, so no one's winning the grand prize unless someone lets them. But the thing is, if you let one person get the prize, a big ol' teddy bear, they'll walk around all day with that bear, advertising the games. People will see that and believe that the games are winnable. After all, that person won the teddy bear, so why not me?
The teddy bear, like success on social media, is just part of the trap.
By the time a platform is enshittified, the teddy bears have already been handed out. Any surplus or reward that was gonna be given to users has been sucked away. The platform essentially becomes an attention mine for ad bucks.
The implications of a few giant corporations controlling so much of the content that we create—so much of the fabric of our lives—are chilling.
In a recent issue of the Garbage Day newsletter, Ryan Broderick writes about a deceased friend's tweets, which, according to statements from Twitter about inactive accounts, might soon be deleted. He describes his sadness about potentially losing that last connection to a lost friend.
I’ll be realistic here. I don’t think we should expect every company to keep our content forever, but I also don’t think they should get to unilaterally shrink the internet because they’re tired of being responsible for its upkeep. The internet shouldn’t be a handful of company towns that can pull up their stakes and leave when the data mine is tapped.
Broderick also talks about how someone discovered that Twitter was un-deleting people's deleted posts.
So, within the walled gardens of social media, you have neither a right to be remembered nor a right to be forgotten.
It's hard to say what rights we have at all.[^1] That's unacceptable, even if you're just online to follow friends and family.
But it becomes a whole nother thing when you're on social media sharing your creative and intellectual work.
I'd like to address this post to fellow paranormal researchers, but really I'm talking to everyone who creates content and posts it only to social media.
We've been taught that our work is and should be ephemeral, grist for the content mill that keeps social media worth going back to. Posting to social media has its purpose: communication. However, it's also sucked in content that once would have been archived on personal blogs—much of that content is extremely valuable and deserves to be shared more widely.
But instead it's trapped inside the walled gardens of social media, subject to the whim of big tech companies and potentially hidden from people to free up more space for advertisements on your followers' feeds.
Why more paranormal researchers should tend their own digital gardens
This week, I've been writing about digital gardens, which are of course distinct from the walled gardens of social media (despite the similar terminology).
A digital garden is a low-lift, casual collection of personal notes that are published online. It's a constant work in progress, a place to link your thinking, develop your thoughts, and learn in public.
Yesterday, I wrote about how you can easily set one up for yourself online.
I've enjoyed poking around in existing digital gardens, but many of them focus heavily on tech and personal knowledge management. Those are just two of many subjects that I'm interested in, and I'd be thrilled if more paranormal folks set up digital gardens for their own research.
Right now, I learn about what people are researching primarily through random social media posts.
Which is fine, sort of.
I think I've already established some of the issues with social media. But in addition to those, research posted to social media becomes
- hard to search for and almost impossible to track back down (especially when they live in self-destructing posts like Instagram stories),
- difficult to cite,
- hidden inside walled gardens, which makes it inaccessible to anyone who doesn't use the platforms you do. (I'm talking about corporate social media and setting aside interoperable social media like the fediverse here, to be clear.)
On social media, if someone takes down a post, it's gone.
When I do research for my podcast and blog, I often stumble upon old blog posts that contain links to other, dead blogs. But I can easily plug that dead link into the Wayback Machine and access the page there.
But what do you do if a social media post is taken down? I don't think social media is archived the same way that blog posts are. (Not as far as I could discern.)
On top of that, you can't just search the Wayback Machine using keywords. You need a specific URL to plug in.
In a world with fewer blogs (since they've mostly been replaced by social media), there are fewer places to find outgoing links to interesting content. Which means that there are fewer breadcrumb-like dead links that can lead to amazing archived defunct sites.
So that means that when a social media post goes down, it's probably gone for good. (Unless that person was a public figure and people were screen grabbing everything they posted, something that probably won't be the case for folks doing paranormal research.)
I often see interesting paranormal tidbits on social media while I'm in a half-glazed doomscroll trance. Then can't remember where I saw it, who did which experiment, or the content of exactly what they did.
Or even worse, sometimes I think of something and can't remember if it's one of my own original ideas or something that I saw half paying attention while scrolling on social media. And then searching doesn't surface it, because of the severe limitations when it comes to searching social media.
But you know what is easier to search, and what gets archived? A blog. And if you have a set of bookmarks or an RSS feed, it becomes easier to check the places that you know you read and search them.
I'm now at the point where I find myself taking notes on social media posts so I can (hopefully) properly cite other people's research. Which, again, is fine, but it's not a long-term solution for archiving the brilliant thoughts of other researchers. It's just a way for me to have a skimpy record of the tidbits that interested me.
Paranormal research has value
I would really like to see more people treating their research and experiences with the respect they deserve, archiving them in blogs or even on something lower effort like a digital garden.
I don't fault anyone for keeping their work within the walled gardens of social media.
It's free and easy. We're encouraged to do so.
In fact, we're actively discouraged and punished for sharing external links on platforms like Instagram. So if you set up shop outside of a walled garden, good luck getting people to actually see it.
Social media crushes creativity
I started promoting my blog on Instagram, posting stories that contained links to posts. Based on my back-of-the-envelope math, my Instagram story views went down by 30-70% as a result.
As an experiment, I stopped posting links and promoting my writing, and my story views went back up to more "normal" levels.
Though even on my best days, an extremely small percentage of my 1,200 or so followers even saw my stories and posts.
In fact, that's why I stopped posting Instagram Reels. I know they'd help with growth. But I got too pissed off at being forced to do all this extra work creating content for a platform (for, again, no compensation and no promise that it'd actually net me more followers, or that any new followers would actually see my stuff).
It's frustrating. So many of us are on social media to share the cool stuff we're creating elsewhere. But then platforms disincentivize sharing the actual creative work and only (sometimes) rewards us for creating whatever content fits best into their ever-changing roadmap of which features they're pushing.
Setting up your digital garden, blog, or website
Again, I talked about how I set up my digital garden yesterday. You can set up a website really easily, and for free.
The method I used—Github for hosting, Netlify as a CDN, and a premade Jekyll template—is an easy and free (or very low cost) way to have a place for your notes online. And you really don't need to have any tech savvy to do it.
You could also set up a website on Neocities, a charming callback to Geocities that allows people to create free (or cheap, if you want to bring your own domain name) static sites.
There are other free and cheap options, like using Hugo and Github or setting up a Write Freely instance.
If you write about weird stuff, you can reach out to the lovely people at Liminal Earth, who already operate a Write Freely instance for people who want to blog about weird things.
And I haven't even talked about ways of building website like Wordpress (which I used to use), Ghost (which I currently use), and the many others that exist out there.
All of this to say: there are many, many different ways to create a home for your paranormal research online that isn't hidden within a social media walled garden.
And if blogging is too heavy of a lift, there are more casual options like digital gardening, where you can share less formed, more fluid thoughts.
If you're eager to learn more about building a non-social media home for yourself online and things like POSSE (publish on your own site, syndicate everywhere, which is what I do for this blog), check out IndieWeb for additional ideas and information.
Also, if you do set up your own blog, remember to include an RSS feed link alongside all of your social links, so that way your readers can choose to get all of your posts via their RSS readers, versus whatever the spotty social media algorithms decide to show them.
Since the surge in social media walled gardens' popularity and the demise of Google Reader a decade ago, RSS feeds have become less popular. But they're still an amazing way to follow your favorite creators, and I think they're poised for a comeback.
I want to see your digital garden
Anyway, that's my impassioned plea for fellow paranormal researchers to share and archive their work on platforms that they own and that anyone can access. Though I'm sure this won't be the last time that I grouse about this topic.
If you set up a digital garden because of any of my posts about it, please let me know! I'd love to see other folks' digital gardens. Especially digital gardens created by other paranormal researchers. Ditto if you set up a blog. Send me that RSS feed and I'll add it to my RSS reader!
Read my other blog posts about digital gardens:
- Digital gardens, zettlekasten, and paranormal research
- Tending the garden: digital gardening goals
- How to set up your own digital garden
[^1] I know the GDPR is a thing, but I live in the states, and I hear that the ways in which things have been made GDPR compliant have been . . . a whole non-ideal process that I'm not going to get into here.
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