I woke up at 3am with thoughts about climate change and started composing a blog post in my head. Sometimes at this moment I just fall back to sleep and the post never sees the light of day. But in this moment my mind is awake enough that I reach for my iPad. But instead of opening iA Writer to start a post I’ve realized that this might actually be a case for using Freeform. The ideas I’m having seem to complicated and I want to start with a diagram. I’ve been wanting to try using Freeform a bit more and this is an opportunity to give it a try.

I start blocking out what I’m thinking will be an interesting post about climate pathways. And then I have a side thought: Wouldn’t it be fun to have an excuse to try out a collaborative Freeform document? I work alone and have yet to have a need to do this. And that’s when I start to wonder: Could Freeform serve as a kind of micro social space? Hmmm. Wait, this actually seems very interesting.

So, still in Freeform I move the canvas over and start a new diagram which, actually, quickly turned into a blog post with a couple of side blocks that I’m realizing might likely become blog posts on related thoughts about using Freeform. And now I’m wondering if there’s something going on with my early morning brain or if this is a result of using Freeform. What started as a blog post idea has branched off into 3, possibly 4 different blog posts. And it occurs to me that I don’t want to get lost in the ideas!

Jumping over to a different box and idea (yes, I’m writing this in Freeform and breaking the document up into boxes as I’m not sure where I’m going with it).

Freeform as a Social Space? Is it possible that Freeform could serve as a small, semi-private, collaborative social space for shared interests? Or maybe it’s bigger than just the Freeform app?

This brings up a vague memory of a previous online discussion/meme from several years ago about Apple creating a social media network. As I recall, the idea was that Apple was spending a lot of energy into yearly updates to the Messages app. Was the intent to slowly, quietly grow Messages into a kind of social network? I don’t recall that discussion continuing for long. But something else was happening in parallel.

Apple was adding collaboration to other apps. Early commentary was basically along the lines that this was Apple trying to enter into or, at least, tag-along with what Google was very successfully doing with Google Docs collaboration. It was/is sort of a joke with Apple pundits that Apple wasn’t very good at collaboration. Pages and the other iWork apps had been given collaboration features as had Reminders and Notes. But the question was asked by Pundits: Is anyone actually using the collaboration features?

But Apple has continued to improve these features with the most recent additions being the Freeform app which has had improvements with the latest round of Apple OS updates in 2023. Also entering the ecosystem in 2023 are new PDF specific collaboration features added to Notes with this year’s OS updates.

Might Apple’s iCloud ecosystem serve as a semiprivate social space? Perhaps it already is serving such a purpose?

The current social media landscape

Before I jump in, let me begin with a very brief summary of what the social media landscape is in Fall of 2023.

Timelines: Blogs, Facebook, Twitter/X, Mastodon, Bluesky, Instagram, Threads, Tumblr, TikTok, Flickr, etc. This subset of social media consists of websites that present primarily as a social feed which is linear, organized by time of posts or algorithmically. Many if not most of these options allow for comment threads, likes, boosts, etc. Some are a mix of media, others primarily text or primarily photos. The feeds consists of posts by individuals sharing “stories” of personal life experiences or professional content. Often used by “content creators” that cross post or broadcast their primary content. A blogger or podcaster will broadcast new stories or episodes from their website out to their various social media accounts as a form of marketing.

Podcasts: Driven by RSS, primarily audio, some video. No comments unless provided on the host website. Primary directory is hosted by Apple. Episodes/feeds are often collaborative, hosted by small teams.

YouTube: Primarily video, RSS, allows for subscription to channels, comments on posts. Channels are usually hosted by a single author/creator. Presents as a feed of new content but allows for dipping into old content.

Smaller linear timeline islands are also a part of this landscape. Slack groups, Discord and forums of various kinds allow for semi-private, restricted access spaces for discussion.

This social media landscape or ecosystem is primarily presented as linear timelines or feeds. And is driven by individually produced “content”.

This social media landscape can foster communities, sub-cultures, etc. though such “community” often clusters around popular individual creators surrounded by many commenters. Typically not a place for collaboration or creation. Historically social media are centralized, owned and operated by corporations. ActivityPub, most popularly exemplified by Mastodon, now offers a decentralized option for self-hosted, federated services of various kinds.

A common trait in all of these is linear feed presentation of posts within larger timelines often with comments trailing off as threads from primary posts.

What about a non-linear, non-feed space?

The monolithic, linear timeline with a steady flow of traffic has been the primary embodiment of social media thus far. And much if not most of the internet as we know it has followed this trend. It reminds me of the classic video game Frogger. I enjoyed that game as a kid and yet it made me anxious. Trying to hop across roads congested by constant traffic and across logs moving in opposite directions. We’re in one flow of traffic and then hop to the next to the next and then the next. Is it any wonder that we often use the term “doom” scrolling when we describe social media? Even without the bad news of the day, it’s a constant, never ending flow, a road of never ending traffic.

But what about a non-directional space? Rather than a constant flow of news, might we create slower spaces that feel more like parks or digital maker spaces? You could liken this to the “old” internet of websites but even then many of those websites were feeds. Live Journal and old school blogs were often feeds. Even RSS is just another way to try to keep up with linear news feeds that never end.

What clicked in my brain this morning when I opened up Freeform to organize a blog post is that while we experience life in a sort of day-to-day, linear timeline, it’s also very much a spatial experience. Real life is spatial. The best parts of life are often experienced in cozy rooms or parks. The most anxious parts of life are associated with non-stop traffic down busy roads.

So I asked myself, how might we begin to create digital space that is slower, more collaborative and less focused on constant consumption and production of a steady stream? What would it look like? Is that kind of space possible? Would anyone be interested?

For the moment I’ll continue to focus on this space as it might take place in Apple’s iCloud and associated apps. But I do so knowing that such a space has obvious limitations as it’s belongs to one particular company’s ecosystem. For the moment I’m willing to accept that for the sake of getting somewhere with this idea.

Using Apple’s iCloud-app ecosystem and most notably Freeform, to create ephemeral, spatial spaces for collaboration

So, finally, I’ll circle this back to the idea that began percolating in the early wee hours this morning. I imagine a scene I’ve been in many times: a small, cozy coffee shop where I’m enjoying a comfortable spot on a couch. There are plenty of nearby chairs and tables and as the evening unfolds a slow steady stream of people from the neighborhood outside stream in. Over the next few hours a few acquaintances, friends and familiar faces come in and settle down somewhere. The space is filled with chit-chat. It feels a bit random as casual conversations come and go, clustering and moving as people settle in but notice a familiar faces coming and going.

It’s the sort of space where people share about the things they’ve got going on that day or week. Projects, problems, ideas, creations, collaborations are talked about. How might such a shared space be created on the internet. What would it look like?

As I’m in the Apple ecosystem, of course I’m thinking about how to solve the problem or create the space using apps and a service I already have. With iCloud I’ve got Messages, Notes, Freeform and the iWork apps all of which have group collaboration built in. And perhaps most useful in this context would be Messages and Freeform.

The goal here would not be to organize any particular project but rather as a general space to share. I’m not sure how it would really unfold. I can imagine a sort of folks sort of setting up a section of the canvas/workspace for themselves just as they might sit at a table at a coffee shop. Here I am! This is what I’m working on. Here’s a link. Here’s a picture of my cat that just sat on my keyboard. A spatial status board. Then I could imagine a bit of blending of spaces as people visit one another’s spaces. I see something you’ve shared that I find interesting so I plop down an emoji sticker and a note. If you happen to be there at that moment you might comment back. Or you might pop in later and respond.

At the very least I could see it being an interesting experiment and I’m interested in giving it a go. So if you’re interested get in touch. My plan is to set up a Freeform document and share it with anyone interested. I’ve not come up with any particular ground rules other than perhaps to be kind and respectful. I don’t want to over-complicate it.

So, yeah, interested? Get in touch: dennyhenke@me.com