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A nice pairing

The dark, moody undertones of Chris Hayes' piece on internet fame go nicely with the bright, yet restrained optimism of Stasavage and Schneider's application of early democracies to the internet.

Published onSep 28, 2021
A nice pairing

If you’re one of my low hundreds (humblebrag-much?!) of monthly readers, you know I love a good Internet-as-early-state metaphor. So, I’ve got a nice pairing for you. Here’s Chris Hayes, writing in the New Yorker about the perils of extending fame, of sorts, to everyone via social media:

Never before in history have so many people been under the gaze of so many strangers. Humans evolved in small groups, defined by kinship: those we knew, knew us. And our imaginative capabilities allowed us to know strangers—kings and queens, heroes of legend, gods above—all manner of at least partly mythic personalities to whom we may have felt as intimately close to as kin. For the vast majority of our species’ history, those were the two principal categories of human relations: kin and gods. Those we know who know us, grounded in mutual social interaction, and those we know who don’t know us, grounded in our imaginative powers.

But now consider a third category: people we don’t know and who somehow know us. They pop up in mentions, comments, and replies; on subreddits, message boards, or dating apps. Most times, it doesn’t even seem noteworthy: you look down at your phone and there’s a notification that someone you don’t know has liked a post. You might feel a little squirt of endorphin in the brain, an extremely faint sense of achievement. Yet each instance of it represents something new as a common human experience, for their attention renders us tiny gods. The Era of Mass Fame is upon us.

To be sure, it’s a bit of a simplification of sociology and biology, but it’s a provocative one. How do we escape being constantly visible online, while still reaping the benefits of connection? Political scientist David Stasavage and journalist Nathan Schneider propose a possible solution in Noema by applying the early history of Hayes’ “gods” to the Internet:

The core feature of early democracies was that rulers relied on their people to provide information about production and to aid with governance, whether it be raising revenues or engaging in external defense. They did this in the form of councils and assemblies and by delegating authority. It resembled an online platform where those at the center are always dependent on outside developers for content.

The other core feature of early democracies was the threat of exit: Instead of voting at the ballot box, people could vote with their feet. Here again, we see a parallel in many, though certainly not all, online contexts. It is the threat of moving to another community that keeps would-be dictators benevolent.

The authors are referring here to loose organizations like open source codebases, Facebook groups, and sub-Reddits, where benevolent moderators really do seem to be kept in check by the fear that their communities will turn on them and go elsewhere. There are a few problems with the metaphor, though. The main one, which Stasavage and Schneider readily acknowledge, is that the moderators in this case are just demi-gods. The real pantheon sits well above, at the level of Zuckerberg and Huffman, and at that scale, we the people have no ability to vote with our feet.

Still, there’s a potentially interesting path forward if one dreams of an online ecosystem (and beyond?) that pairs resistance to Hayes’ permafame with the organizational structures of Stasavage and Schneider’s early democracies. What we have now is, I don’t know, something sorta-kinda like a vast feudal system. Most platforms are made up of many estates of varying sizes. These estates are nominally run by self-appointed noblemods who have some control over their communities within the bounds set by what their members will reasonably accept, on one end, and the constraints of both form and function imposed by the central platform’s authority, on the other. Their communities are simultaneously extremely insular, promoting group-think via mob rule in the comments, and highly porous, with effective content spilling over into other groups and centralized feeds.

What we want is more of a patchwork of small, niche-adapted communities. Their constraints are built with and for the communities they serve. They’re run by the people who want the responsibility, kept in check by the ease with which communities can leave and re-aggregate, both on-platform and off. They’re fairly private and self-maintained by nature, but not isolated. They can trade ideas and talk with others, but they aren’t designed to encourage mimetic spillover (or, for that matter, memes at all). They share some central ideas and infrastructures, but not authority, indexing, or aggregation.

To be honest, the anti-patterns Hayes describes are so prevalent that it’s hard to even imagine what this would look like in practice. A sort of form-builder for social media is the thought that most readily comes to mind, where the basic structures are interoperable, but everything from the types and structures of posted content to the interaction modes, distribution mechanisms, and moderation policies can be added, removed, combined, remixed, and adapted.

Anyone know something forming along these lines?

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