Why is this interesting? - The Dark Forest Edition

On blogging, nostalgia, and the dark forest theory of the internet

Noah here. The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet” by Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler has been making the rounds over the last few weeks. The piece tries to explain what’s going on with the web, drawing an analogy between why we haven’t heard from aliens yet and the diffusion of conversations around the internet. Here’s the gist of the argument:

Is our universe an empty forest or a dark one? If it’s a dark forest, then only Earth is foolish enough to ping the heavens and announce its presence. The rest of the universe already knows the real reason why the forest stays dark. It’s only a matter of time before the Earth learns as well.

This is also what the internet is becoming: a dark forest.

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.

Why is this interesting?

Any of us who have been hanging around the web for some time feel occasional pangs of nostalgia. I’ve had a blog since 2004, in 2006 I co-founded a coffee meetup called likemind with the purpose of taking online relationships offline. It exploded around the world. For many of us that Web 2.0 period marks peak intellectual internet.

With that said, I’m innately skeptical of nostalgia, especially my own. And, to be fair, Strickler shares the concern:

The web 2.0 utopia — where we all lived in rounded filter bubbles of happiness — ended with the 2016 Presidential election when we learned that the tools we thought were only life-giving could be weaponized too. The public and semi-public spaces we created to develop our identities, cultivate communities, and gain knowledge were overtaken by forces using them to gain power of various kinds (market, political, social, and so on).

So what’s actually going on? I’ve got a few thoughts.

Thought #1: We were never the mainstream. The first and simplest argument is that the web many of us experienced (I’m making assumptions about WITI readership) was never the norm. 2005 was the year we passed a billion global users of the web. That number didn’t get to 2 billion until 2011 and then another 6 years to pass 4 billion. While lots of people mark the year 2000 as the major milestone of the internet, there’s a much stronger argument it’s 2008. That year alone marks the introduction of the iPhone and Android, Netflix moving to streaming, Google buying DoubleClick, and Facebook introducing ads. That’s not to say the web we experienced wasn’t real, but it was much more niche than those of us who enjoyed it so much want to admit. Even today, most people likely don’t know what a blog is and the average internet user isn’t on Twitter.

Thought #2: People clicked RSS, but not Twitter. I would assume many of us who are nostalgic for the mid-naughts web were also heavy RSS users. It allowed us to subscribe to updates and, as a web publisher you had confidence your voice wasn’t just going into the abyss. I vividly remember refreshing my aggregator (that’s what we called it) the same way so many of us pull down on Twitter. The problem is RSS never made it close to the mainstream and in 2013 Google shut down Reader, effectively killing the RSS age. At that point many of us had already shifted our attention to Twitter, which despite its current state of despair, seemed like an amazingly exciting platform (and still is for some). The problem is that as it grew everyone stopped clicking the links (check your Tweet analytics if you don’t believe me). All of a sudden those who grew up with blogs and RSS were left searching for new ways to get people to pay attention to anything over 140 (and later 280) characters. If you look at the dark forest platforms Yancey mentions (email newsletters, Whatsapp, Slack, podcasts), what they all have in common is a strong publisher/subscription mechanism. In other words they look a lot like RSS.

Thought #3: We changed. This builds a bit on thought #1. Part of what made the web so appealing for so many of us in the mid-2000s was our own life stage. Many of us were living in cities, in our twenties/thirties, and searching for success. The web was small and safe and just what we were looking for in that moment. As we’ve grown older and some of those early users have found success, the equation has shifted. If you look around at lots of the people who have left the public conversation, the decision makes perfect sense. If you’ve already made it, it’s easy to see how a cost/value analysis would lead to the conclusion that putting ideas out in this climate is not worth the risk. (That certainly seems to be where Marc Andreessen landed.) So you pull back and move your ideas to other, safer, channels. To be honest, I feel this sometimes as someone who runs a company. And, to Strickler’s point, this almost definitely has a whole bunch of unintended consequences.

In the end, what’s going on with the web is likely a combination of all three thoughts and more. What’s happening with real online abuse and death threats to marginalized groups is a major driver of this shift. And while there are obviously huge implications for the future of the internet and, more importantly, society (CJN has a good link below highlighting some of those), there’s also a nostalgic element for many of us early power users. As with all nostalgia, it’s safe to say that a big part of things is less function of how the world has changed and more a function of how we have changed. (NRB)

Comic of the Day:

A handy visual explanation of affect vs effect from Sketchplanations. (NRB)

Quick Links:

  • WITI reader Lilla sent in this recommendation after Friday’s edition: “If y'all aren't listeners of The Daily, they did a somewhat interesting episode this week on the obfuscation of data around climate science and policy changes that are occurring in this administration as a result. My takeaway was a reminder to myself to meet people where they are in terms of needs and priorities. For some people it will be terrorism and geopolitical instability, for others it will be pure GDP impact (a projected 10% hit to total US GDP by the end of the century) but that following the science through to its implications, to your point, is a more compelling narrative for many than ‘save the planet’ is alone. It's an easy background listen if you have 20 min.”

  • I linked to it in the piece above, but because it doesn’t exist on the web anymore I posted my 2004 American Demographics story about RSS. It’s complete with Newsgator and Bloglines mentions. (NRB)

  • The Monday Note is very much worth a read. In this edition, they talk about how WhatsApp is a seemingly perfect vessel for disinformation campaigns: “It mimics a one-to-one conversation, it is encrypted (no one can look into a message) and make sources impossible to track.” So this might be the new, and more nefarious/viral version of the FB “dark posts” in which only the recipient sees the message. (CJN)

  • I’ve never done this before, but I’m re-upping a link from WITI 5/14 that feels like it connects with today’s essay but I couldn’t quite fit in: This email/post from Venkatesh Rao arguing against what he calls Waldenponding (leaving smartphones and social media for a literal or figurative cabin in the woods). It’s an expanded Tweetstorm, but the gist is captured here: “This is the heart of FOBO. Fear of Being Ordinary. Fear of being just another entangled particle in the GSCITC. Fear of your ego dissolving into the collective ego. Fear of having ‘nothing to show’ for playing a part, despite it being sustainable. Waldenponding, I strongly suspect, is driven more by FOBO and ego-attachment than by any real fear of having your mind, productive potential, and rewards destroyed by ‘hacked attention.’” (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)