#5: People having fun on the internet

In this issue, I’d like to talk about people having fun on the internet. But to kick things off, I’d like to start with a thought experiement that’s almost the opposite of that: what if I was a politician representing a district in the House of Representatives? What would my voting philosophy be when faced with tough votes?

Scenario 1: 100% yes
Imagine I want to vote yes on something, and 100% of the people in my district want me to vote yes as well. This one is easy. I’ll vote yes.

Scenario 2: 50% yes
What if I want to vote yes, but 50% of the people in my district disagree with me? This one is also easy. I’ll have to explain myself to the 50%, but the two sides cancel each other out. I’ll still vote yes.

Scenario 3: 0% yes
What if I want to vote yes, but 100% of the people in my district disagree? This is where the rubber meets the road. I’m allowed to vote any way I want, but it’s hard to argue I’m representing the people if everyone is against me. Still, this is an easy vote. I’d vote no if 100% wanted me to.

But that never happens. There’s a giant grey area in between 0% and 50%.

The vast middle ground
What percentage of people do I need agreeing with me in order to go with my gut? 49%? 40%? 10%? I don’t have a fixed answer, but it’s fun to think about. It would depend on each topic, of course. But if you had to pick a number, what would it be? How much alignment do you need with the people you’re surrounded by?

Which brings us to online communities and the silos we self-select into.

Social networks are very different from representing people in congress, of course. We don’t need to think much about how we might handle a person disagreeing with us, because increasingly we’re not engaging with them in the first place. When we do see something we disagree with, it’s more often via friend we agree with saying “don’t you agree how much we disagree with this idiot over here?”

Andy Baio did an experiment in 2014 where he analysed a giant internet battle to see who was talking to whom. It turns out the majority of the traffic was aimed inward, to true believers. Not much was actually aimed at the target of their ire.

As many, many people have noted, this is bad for society. Bad for democracy. Bad for our souls. There’s a lot of bad going on. It seems like everyone’s talking about it. But how are we talking about it? With the same broken social networks, with the same echo chamber effect, in the same silos. So this year I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to come up with other approaches. I’ve been doing my best to do some personal silo busting.

It’s one thing to point your finger at a bad thing and yell “bad!” But gosh, if I told you right now to find people having fun on the internet, where would you go? What search terms would you use to find them? What would your process be? This is something I’ve been working at recently and documenting here.

The longer I do it, the more I realise that those links are the future. Not the VC future, not the cover of Fortune magazine future, and nothing that’s going to trend on social media. But I feel like I’m seeing the future the way you might have seen a taste of the future if you saw early hiphop in the 70s in New York City. Unpolished but wonderful in its own small way. Something that could get bigger once people pay more attention to it.

I’ve discovered a few avenues for finding people having fun on the internet. Metafilter, Pinboard, and Github are all interesting places to start. You go there and start poking around and you can find all kinds of interesting things. It feels like walking through the woods looking for mushrooms versus just buying a prewrapped container of mushrooms at the supermarket. Harder, but more nourishing and satisfying.

Metaphorically speaking, I’ve found some amazing fungi out there. I also think I’ve been getting better at exploring. The internet is still a really great place to explore. But you have to get back into Internet Nature instead of spending all your time in Internet Times Square wondering how everything got so loud and dehumanising.

Last year I started interviewing people for their take on information overload. How do they experience it? How do they address it? Read their answers here at Megaphone Cyclone. You might notice, as I did, that a lot of the same themes keep emerging. That gives me hope something better, and more healthy, might be sooner than we think. Maybe we need to build some different structures so we can have some different corners to peer around.

“Social media” isn’t particularly social. Modern day Twitter has lots of uses, but finding a new friend to talk to isn’t one where it excels. Reddit, whose rating system makes it much better at bubbling good content to the top, isn’t much better. You’ll chuckle at something someone wrote on Reddit, but you’re probably not going to write them and try to make a real relationship.

But the rise of Slack, Discord, and private communities has been fun to watch. In these communities, you can find real internet friends because the format encourages it. Rather than being link-focused, or timeline-focused, or a place to look smart for future employers like LinkedIn, chat is closer to how real people talk at the water cooler. Quick, informal, and without a clear beginning or end.

  • Dave: Anyone see this news?
  • Betty: Yeah, a shame.
  • Jim: You think?
  • Betty: Yeah, because x.
  • Dave: Yeah, I agree with Betty.
  • Jim: I’m not sure I agree, what about y?

… and so on. All day.

As a result, conversations are more likely to lead to real connections with people. After the same people show up in the same place, day after day, and discuss their different points of view, friendships are likely to grow. Compare that to the us-vs-them/drive-by nature of Twitter, and it’s clear why these communities are more healthy as a whole.

Buster Benson is writing a book called Why Are We Yelling, and he recently started a little internet community on Discord called Rickshaw. I’ve been spending a lot of time there, and remembering the ways communicating on the internet used to feel. Already several of us have gotten into some friendships that arose from some intense and deep conversation. And I’ve been marvelling at how many of the conversations wouldn’t just be hard on other social media, they’d probably be outright impossible. (Buster records the best things he’s been exposed to each week as a newsletter.)

Rickshaw landed in my life at a really helpful time.

Right in the middle of this throwback community, where I was thinking “see, this is the sort of community I’ve been missing. It’s the thing we’ve all been missing! I should spread the word!” along comes Darius Kazemi, a man whose work I’ve been eagerly following for years. He wrote a great little guide called How To Run a Small Social Network Site for Your Friends. And it’s amazing.

As I said, I don’t think this is the next big thing in commerce. I don’t think people are going to make billions by spinning up little unix servers with 23 people on them. But I do think it’s the near future of finding meaning on the internet.

Speaking of which, Darius — the guy who wrote that awesome website — also performed this talk, one of my favourites of all time. It’s called How I Won the Lottery, and it’s related.

About 5 or 10 years ago, I made an online game called The Long Talk. Here’s how it works: about 100 people get an email from me asking a question. The people who respond get an email the next day. Then we play until no one else is left. It’s pretty fun, but more than that, the relationships we built while playing the game were unique and intense.

Earlier this year, I kicked off round two. And again, like magic, the relationships formed in game were unlike anything else I had experienced before on the internet. The game is hard, in some cases very hard. But that difficulty and camaraderie can lead to something amazing.

I just finished the third round of the game a few days ago. It was my favourite round so far. Don’t tell anyone, but I think I’m going to retire the game now. On one hand, I wish everyone could experience what we all experienced as a group, but on the other hand, some of the best things in the world don’t scale.

About two years ago, Tim Carmody wrote a post on Kottke.org titled What Is Digital Humanism? In short, it’s this idea that we should go find old things, dust them off, and present them to modern-day people for the betterment of society. Maybe that’s not what he meant, but that’s how I took it.

Recently Sam Arbesman was thinking about Tim’s post and decided to launch digitalhumanism.org. Right now it goes into the internet archive and finds a random page from a random old computer magazine and displays it. It’s pretty fun. You might like it.

I spend a lot of time wondering what technology I’d use in my company if I were to start one today. I wouldn’t use Google’s office suite, for starters. I’ve been using Notion for about a year, and I like it. But the bigger story for me is how quickly Figma is being adopted. This is reminding me of when everyone moved from Photoshop to Sketch, but even faster this time. Gosh!

And TikTok is starting to take on a similar challenger sort of role to YouTube, as this article points out. TikTok, Notion, and Figma aren’t going to replace the heavyweights overnight, if ever. But I had a young friend at work that seemed pretty dismissive of the shift. Just like another coworker being dismissive of Sketch, or many years ago when I saw InDesign replace Quark.

Seeing experts be dismissive is sometimes the start of something really interesting. We’ll start with that next time. See you in issue #6!



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