Why Allow User Theming of Rooms/Channels/Messages?

In a discussion room about the Fediverse, bkil drew my attention to “The age of average” by Alex Murrell, and questions whether like cars, cities and coffee shops, all social media posts should end up looking the same. Why not let the senders and recipients style them?

Should we not expect and enjoy seeing messages or “posts” reflecting the creative expression of the different individuals and groups we interact with — our friends, family, colleagues, employers?

Yes, yes, YES! I've been thinking the same for Matrix, and it applies of course equally to the (ActivityPub) Fediverse too. But it's so “radical” to many people's ears today, accustomed to the strictly limited silo offerings from Big Tech.

I think the way I would explain is with Real World analogies like this: When I hear from my friend D, it's usually a picture-postcard and their writing is scrawly and fills all the space including the margins. When I hear from my friend E, it's usually a tidy note on posh quality off-white paper, with their logo in the corner.

I would LOVE to be able to receive the same richness in indie social protocols, for more than just aesthetic reasons.

I do not want to see this accomplished by the sender posting an image or an HTML rendered page, like today's marketing emails. That is still possible, but it is not the same: it is the sender publishing their chosen look in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. (I notice that many senders nowadays are not sending a plain-text alternative to their rich-formatted emails.)

Rather, I want our messaging tools to be encouraging both the sender and the recipient to configure a rich variety of display formatting. In effect, like artistic use of CSS, never mind what tech spec is used. But not particularly for the message “body” part, where formatting options for the text itself are already supported by many systems: sometimes these are appropriate but I don't always want people to use these kinds of text formatting. I am thinking more of theming a whole thread or room or channel or space, such as a decorative border, or coloured paper and ink. And affecting the surrounding interface, such as the way details of the sender are shown, but without faking the sender's identity. Indeed even affecting the functionality, such as the showing or hiding of response options. For example, one sender might discourage re-posts, or have no interest in being sent a “like”. And ALWAYS the recipient choosing whether to accept or ignore the sender's configuration.

There's more to this than merely social niceness: there's the business case. When I am using Matrix instead of Slack, if all my employer's matrix rooms and all my social chats are mixed up in the same client app, shown with the same theme and in the same list and the same UI buttons in the same places, then my experience has gone beyond the goal of consistency, it's gone to blandness, to absence of distinction. I need the work setting to be visually distinguished from my social setting, not always in every case but if and when and as much as I choose.

In fact I want to be able to put two (or more) app launchers on my smartphone, one that launches my favourite matrix client into my Matrix Space for Work, and another that launches the same client software but pointing into my Matrix Social Space, each running with its respectively configured theme, configurable up to the point where they look like two different apps. I want this to be able to feel like I am using two different systems, but in fact be interoperable so I can change my mind and move some chats/rooms/channels from one to the other or set up a third incarnation whenever I want to.

And there's more power to this than just the individuality of friends and the practical utility of separating work from social. When people are given tools to create and customise and be artistic, they grow in ownership and love of their interactions in their own digital presence. Instead of feeling like they are borrowing the tool, they start to feel like they own their tools, and adapt them and make them part of their creative life. I would aspire to be one of the makers of such tools.

Doesn't that sound like a tasty ingredient for cooking up a Peopleverse on top of the Fediverse?

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