The Tchotchke Internet is a social media landscape of digital flair and knick-knacks, a direct evolution of the freemium user experience. It’s the small ways that users can spend money (or make money) to have a better experience on social media. It’s Reddit Gold, Discord Nitro, Twitter Super Follows, celebrity verified checkmarks, premium Zoom calls, NFT galleries, Ethereum domain names in your bio, Fortnite skins, Roblox Robux, personal Minecraft servers, custom Twitch emotes, Linktree URLs, cryptocoin giveaways, Clubhouse invites, and social media partner programs.
People are spending a lot of money to express themselves online and most of what they’re paying for is basically the digital equivalent of an emo kid’s backpack covered in Hot Topic pins, random little digital artifacts that bely some kind of personal identity.
It’s a clever, and I think apt, name for how the internet has shifted recently, and continues a trend we’ve been seeing for a while around virality, monetization, and content creation. We’ve been talking about “influencer culture” for a while, and I think this is a (perhaps inevitable) continuation of that trend. I think that the “digital flair” is definitely an attempt at status signaling, but also an attempt for some to feel like they can still express themselves and be part of the larger dialogue. As the nature of discourse on the internet increasingly feels like broadcasts (one-to-many, and largely in one direction), having little ways to make your mark feel increasingly important.
Over at Lost Garden, Daniel Cook has a fantastic piece looking at how to create “human-scale” online games, and why that’s a better approach to MMOs. This is some really fantastic, well thought out stuff, and not just for games: what they’re really talking about is how to build community.
One way of thinking about the constraints suggested by Dunbar’s Layers is to imagine you have a budget of cognitive resources that can be spent on relationships. The physical limits of your human brain mean that you only have enough mental budget for a total of roughly 150 relationships.
Humans have developed a few tools that have expanded our ability to organize into groups well past our primate cousins—most notably language—but also large-scale systems of government and economics. In the early 2000s, people assumed that new technologies like online social networks could help break past Dunbar’s Number; by offloading the cost of remembering our friendships to a computer, we could live richer, more social lives, with strong relationships to even more people.
We now have copious data that this is not the case. Studies suggest that there’s still a limited budget of cognitive resources at play and even in online platforms we see the exact same distribution of relationships.
If anything, social networks damage our relationships. By making it possible for us to cheaply form superficial relationships (and invest our limited energy in maintaining them), such systems divert cognitive resources from smaller, intimate groups out towards larger, less-intimate groups. The result is that key relationships with best friends and loved ones suffer. And, unfortunately, it is the strength of these high-trust relationships that are most predictive of mental health and overall happiness.
It’s a long read (which you might have guessed by the size of my pull quote), but well worth it.
My last post was discussing the state of social media (and frankly, the internet), and a possible future. I feel like I can say relatively objectively that things are pretty broken as they currently stand, in an actively harming society sort of way. But when you’re entrenched, it can be incredibly difficult to see a way out, even if you know you need to. I wanted to take a minute to talk about some of the hurdles to moving on from this mess. (Fair warning, this is a little long.)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what the internet will look like in the future. Right now, it’s dominated by social media in one form or another, with large, megacorp silos acting as our primary sources of information and discourse. This is a shift from the “DIY” homegrown state of the early internet — while there were absolutely megacorps that cornered entire niches of the internet (think about the likes of AOL, for instance), it didn’t feel like quite as much of a stranglehold. There was lots of room for growth and plucky startups and homegrown projects. A proliferation of open source projects to run your own websites in all sorts of wacky configurations (lots of weird mishmashes of CMSes, blog software, forums, galleries, with some shaky handcrafted glue between them all). Lots of platforms, lots of different standards and protocols popping up all the time, and nothing really talking to each other all that well. Early attempts at cohesion had mixed success (OAuth, yay! RSS, woo! Trackbacks… um).
Given that sort of morass, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a lot of these homegrown solutions gave way to professionally run central services. Tired of fiddling with your tumble log? Go sign up for Tumblr. Microblogging micromanagement got you down? Check out this Twitter thing. Sick of managing 500 logins to different forums? Roll on over to Reddit. Gallery software galling you? Find your way to Flickr! They handle the backend, you provide the content, and your audience grows as their userbase does! Sounds great, right?
How various social internet sites occupy our brains has been a recurring topic on here, and I think he summarizes it all pretty well. These sites are working as intended, but I don’t like that intention, and I don’t like how they work for me, personally.
My own experiences with taking time off have had limited success. I still find myself on Facebook or Tumblr or Instagram (or… or… or…) more than I would like, though I’m interacting with it less and have less expectation of interaction on them (which I think is still a net win, but not as much as I’d like). I’m not sure I’m at the point of going cold-turkey (and what shape that would take — where do I want to spend my time?) like John, but it definitely continues to be on my mind.
There seems to be a trend currently of announcing departures from Twitter. As a sampling (not the only ones, mind you), here are posts from Derek Powazek, Sean Bonner, and Wil Wheaton all announcing that they’re leaving Twitter and why. You’ll see a recurring trend: the indifferent (or even inimical) handling by Twitter of rampant toxicity, harassment, and abuse has effectively killed the community for a large number of people.
I’m hardly surprised by any of this — if anything, I’m surprised it took this long for people to leave. I’ve commented before that Twitter has become largely a rage machine, and I unfortunately don’t see a course-correction this happening any time soon (if it’s even possible). I’m mostly off it myself at this point — I still auto-post links to my blog posts, and respond to DMs and replies, but otherwise spend very little time there. I don’t personally feel a need to fully depart (and if I ever do, I’ll likely just ghost), but I also don’t foresee going back to it, either.
Like a lot of other people, I’ve joined a Mastodon instance, which will likely scratch that occasional Twitter itch for now (feel free to follow me). That said, I don’t really anticipate using it a lot — I’m feeling pretty done with the format, to be perfectly honest. In terms of online discourse, it feels like it fills the same sort of niche small-talk does in real life — sometimes it’ll lead to deeper conversations and connections with others, but mostly it’s just filling time.
Just to get this out of the way: when I say “flops,” I’m not talking about posting a picture that gets no likes or anything like that. I’m talking about a new type of account/method of communication that’s been popping up. The Atlantic has an excellent article talking about this: Teens Are Debating the News on Instagram.
It’s interesting. On one hand, I’m fascinated by just how much each generation strives to find a place of their own, to discuss and grow among their peers. It’s like weeds — life will find a way, and will make use of whatever environment they have available to them. Couldn’t they use forums, or Facebook groups, or blogs, or tumblr, or any of the other tools that have already come up that are arguably better suited for discourse and sharing thoughts? Maybe, maybe not. Many kids have very limited spaces for a sense of autonomy and privacy. Their web browsing is monitored by schools and parents, their phones have parental controls on what can and can’t be installed. So they make do with the tools they have available. There’s a critical mass of their peers on Instagram, and it’s generally accepted by parents and schools to have on your phone. So you use the tools you have. A big part of me says “fuck yeah, good job kiddos.”
But then there’s the other hand. The approach leaves a lot to be desired, and the limitations of the tool they chose to use create some inherent flaws in what’s happening. You are effectively signal boosting hateful things by posting them as flops, and only those who bother to read the comment beneath the image will even know that you are posting it to call out the behavior rather than to endorse it. It requires inside knowledge of what a flop even is in order to understand the context, in a medium that is far more broadly shared (it’s not like the images are segregated, they’re woven right in with the rest of your feed or in discovery). There’s also the factor of the psychological impact of immersing yourself in the negative – it has a toll.
Via Kottke, the Watson group at IBM has created a Personality Insights service analyzing social media (tweets) to determine your personality. This is what it had to say about me:
You are inner-directed and shrewd.
You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. You are adventurous: you are eager to experience new things. And you are solemn: you are generally serious and do not joke much.
Your choices are driven by a desire for discovery.
You are relatively unconcerned with tradition: you care more about making your own path than following what others have done. You don’t find taking pleasure in life to be particularly motivating for you: you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.
You are likely to:
be sensitive to ownership cost when buying automobiles
like historical movies
read non-fiction books
You are unlikely to:
like country music
be influenced by social media during product purchases
be influenced by family when making product purchases
It then goes on to graph out various traits and values, like openness, conscientiousness, introversion/extroversion, curiosity, etc. Nothing too surprising, seems to jive with my own sense of who I am (mostly – I do actually find taking pleasure in life to be pretty motivating, though I suppose I can see why it’d report what it did if that’s being treated as an either-or spectrum). This is both neat, and a little scary, because of the implication as to what an accurate personality read means as far as profiling and privacy are concerned.
Raph Koster has a great writeup of The Trust Spectrum, which is a design framework he worked on in collaboration with Google’s ATAP group and Aaron Cammarata. It examines how we build (and break) trust in games, though you could extend a lot the examinations of trust to community in general (which is sort of the point: the goal was to see how we could better build social connection in games).
It’s a good read, in particular if you’re remotely interested in game design, online communities, and online games. (In a similar vein – and mentioned in Raph’s article – is Dan Cook’s article, Game Design Patterns for Building Friendships, which is also worth the read.)