s4e08: Write the future 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Sunday, and I’ve just gone out for a walk because going for a walk is a thing you’re supposed to do. Unfortunately, thinking that you’re supposed to go for a walk is not a thing you’re supposed to do, so you should just go for a walk, so I did.

And now, because there are ideas in my head that I have to let out through my fingers…

1.0 Write the Future

Epistemic status: I am literally making today’s shit up as I am typing. I am not a professional driver, this is not a closed course, you should not take me seriously or even literally. I am simply thinking aloud.

I want to tell you a story, to get you excited about something and to get you to believe in something big, something new and something important.

(Stories, apparently, are how we get things done as a species. I got hit by a double-whammy of this today, first as a sort of reminder/exhortation from Warren Ellis[0], and then from

Some ground rules before we get started:

1/ Things exist

2/ Humans exist

therefore,

3/ So long as things exist and humans exist, humans will have opinions about things

and so

4/ So long as the internet exists and there is more than one human alive, online communities will exist for any of the things in rule 1

OK. Last night, after a very nice dinner with Derek Powazek and family, Derek and I got to talking about me subtweeting him about the state of the world and religions and affinity/interest groups and news and so on and things like “the Church of Metafilter”.

I was also thinking aloud at Derek about there being two potential routes for the call-to-experiment-in-founding-a-religion at the end of the previous episode. Namely, you could try to layer on the idea of a church-type-meeting-peoples’-needs religion onto an existing online community. This would be the Church of Metafilter option: where there’s an *existing* affinity or interest group or people aligned around something, and then the experiment is: what can we add to this? Reddit, for example, has *a* community aligned around sending pizza to people, another around doing a secret santa, and while the venn diagram is *somewhat* 1:1, not all Reddit or Metafilter users participate in secret santas, videogames-for-kids-at-Christmas drives, random acts of Pizza or so on. Just some of them. These more-involved communities are subcomunities of, well, a bigger thing. But, these things get repeated and people get a biological hit out of doing something nice for other people (which really does seem to imply that there’s something chemically wrong with Paul Ryan) and before you know it, Reddit, of all places, *does* now have an annual tradition of sending toys to kids in hospitals *and* is a cesspit of shitposting purely *because* they value the first amendment (in a weird way) more than they value some of the other things. But, I guess, more on that later.

The second way of doing this experiment would be to form a brand new community *about the new thing* (where the new thing is: what would it look like if we formed a non-local church-meets-user-needs-workers-union-type-organization). In other words, the two approaches are between a) bringing more explicit, well, “meeting community needs” ideology to an existing affinity group (e.g. bringing it to Mumsnet or, um, Goodreads or even Pewdiepie’s channel), and b) the affinity group that attracts the initial seed community being the ideology of “coming together to meet community needs” in the first place.

This led to a bit of a side conversation about how this is all a bit more complicated these days because we have a wonderful marketplace of not having* to go to church, despite there being lots of evidence to the contrary that some of the things that local religion franchisees offer do indeed meet a whole bunch of personal and community needs (see: Bowling Alone and a Whole Bunch Of Other Hand-Wringing Op-Eds). I mean, I don’t *have* to go to church now. I had to before because I guess I needed somewhere to go that would reassure me that this year’s crops wouldn’t be a fuckup and that if they were, maybe I could get food from somewhere, or that I just needed someone to tell me that everything would be OK after I died. But we have ways of doing that now that involve less application of community shame and (allegedly, and this is a big sticking point in the US at the moment) are more efficient and/or result in more coverage.

It is always [citation needed] less work to start a new thing than to fix an existing thing, which lends me to be more interested in “what if we started a new thing” than “what if we tried to retrofit a bunch of stuff on an existing community” of people. But the more I think about it, the more i think that it *does* make more sense to explicitly start a new thing because the examples that I (wanting to reinforce my biases) picked are examples of things that groups of humans tend to do when they get together no matter where they are (Secret Santas, holding pledge drives for members who are down on their luck or in need) or no matter what they care about.

The interesting thing about the religion thing is that, apart from some (somewhat egregious, I have to admit) requirements they don’t really care what you’re into. Actually, scratch that whole previous sentence for obvious reasons and this is where it starts to get a little… interesting.

So, to leave you on tenterhooks I want to take a quick detour and talk about a nice note from a reader in response to the last episode, from which two things caught my attention:

First, they said that they had been a member of an online community since the days of LiveJournal. This is important for later reasons.

Second, they said that local communities can offer support beyond money, and that’s harder to do when you’re not nearby.

I think this *used* to be true. I think this used to be true and is easy for people who grew up in the era of LiveJournal. My reader wrote that because of living in Norway and growing up with a community of LiveJournalers, the only thing their community could really do was move money around. Derek and I talked about this and it was a bit like the Hug Problem: an online community is great until you just want some physical presence.

A counter to this is that it used to be true in the 1990s, but it significantly *less* true now, now that Moore’s law has put a supercomputer in many (but not everyone’s) peoples’ pockets. *If* you live in a relatively populated area, I think it’s way more possible that you can find someone in an online affinity group near to you. So just the fact that more people are online now than before makes the local requirement a bit easier to satisfy (and yes, this really helps you if you’re in a megacity, but you’re kind of SOL for physical if you’re a LGBQT teen in a small village, but… it’s still better than before?)

The second counter to this is where it gets a bit squeamish and we say: well, yes. It was hard to meet local needs in early online community because it was mainly moving money around and that was hard to do back then and it’s certainly easier to do now than it was before. But! The things that money can do (with the caveat that you have some of it, or that your community has access to it) are manifold compared to our 1990s online communities. In the 1990s, it was a crapshoot as to whether I’d be able to find *a* restaurant with a phone number and get it translated and call it up (over prohibitive POTS international calling) to get your favorite meal delivered to you in your city in Norway but *now* I can probably do it via any number of apps or websites that will be a third-party, *or* I can still also just call them up using cheap or free VOIP calling and pay for your meal to be delivered. So, whether we like it or not, the fact that *many things are accomplished by money* and that the world has become more connected and interdependent and globalized, an outcome is that it’s easier than it was in the 90s for someone non-local to help meet a local need.

The end result of this of course is: if you feel bad and I want you to feel better but I can’t be there which of the the following choices are better? (Trick question, this is probably a false choice)

a) me telling you that I want to give you a hug and offering emotional support over video/audio/inside Overwatch
b) me telling you that I want to give you a hug and offering emotional support over video/audio/inside Overwatch *and* sending a local community member to give you a hug
c) me telling you that I want to give you a hug and offering emotional support over video/audio/inside Overwatch *and* sending a zero-hours Taskrabbit-style contractor to meet the physical hug need while I meet the non-physical needs and let’s just pretend that we were able to trick your brain because hey cognitive science

Substitute hugs for: taking you out for a meal, taking you to the doctor, getting you a doctor’s appointment, going out for a movie, renting a movie, playing a board game…

Something to think about, I guess. I mean, it’s not *great*. Is it better than nothing? Is it better than nothing *and* also not great long-term, or not what we’d prefer?

Now let’s come back to the whole thing about starting a new religion…

I guess the thing about religions is that they’re not really very… inclusive? I mean, historically speaking. There’s a good example (some of you may already be a bit nervous about where this is headed) of some non-religion type entities that have been founded with a specific vision about how society might work, or what a good society looks like. Those types of entities, though, tend to be… more on the state end of things. And it doesn’t help (or rather, it does help explain things) that in a conversation I had with someone recently, they reminded me that a thing that people tend to do when they start to distrust or lose faith that their government they do things like set up shadow governments, or shadow services. They take things into their own hands, for things like, well, garbage collection.

Or sometimes other, bigger things.

So, in my head now. Not adding things to an existing online community, but starting a new one, where the community is again around a specific thing. And not, like, a web 1.0 or web 2.0 community where the community coalesces around “questions that you might ask if you assumed a particular science fiction universe was a real one” or “what the best pen is” or “the best way to take care of this particular pen” or “what are the coolest shoes”, but… a community that forms around a certain ideology about, well, what it means to look out for one another and what it means to have collective responsibility.

We talked about how desperately important it is for online communities to have moderators – ministers, kind of? – who *personally* do things and tend to flocks and enforce and explain with kindness community standards and guidelines, and how important it is for such people to be paid. What if the community *accepted* that such people needed to be paid? The only model we’ve really known is ad-supported moderation, because that’s the only model we really know for online community these days. People pay to join Metafilter and it’s more of a pay-wall gate to keep out spammers (bad hombres, I guess?) and even then the opex of a site like Metafilter isn’t through user contribution but through ads. Or it was. But, I guess… people pay for public radio here through pledge drives. And that covers salaries? And they don’t advertise?

It’s sometimes hard to see how things like this would exist. Is it an app? A website? How do you compete against Facebook or… well, wherever it is that communities form these days. To which I counter: Slack affinity groups don’t seem to have a problem. The XOXO community and Slack is another piece of Metadata. Another way of thinking about this is that if (certain kinds of) content marketing people don’t instantly colonize a new piece of social software to talk to each other about how awesome they are at content marketing, then your social software won’t really be successful.

I pretty much flat-out trolled Derek and said that such a community might have, well, a manifesto, that would be made clear to those who wanted to join it. Some ground rules. This is a community not about pens, or not about discussing what the good things on the web are. This is a community that is organized around how we do things together and how we can support each other. Derek remembered that Flickr groups used to have this functionality, like a community-defined click-through that you’d have to accept before you joined a group. It was probably *mostly* used as a description (“You are about to join a community that posts pictures of red pens, click agree to join the community”) but *could* and perhaps was *intended* to be a place where moderators and group owners could post, well, ground rules. Like: “Hey, don’t be a dick,” or “For fuck’s sake, you’re talking to other people and women are people too you misogynistic fuck”.

No, better than a manifesto, I said, pushing a bit further. You’d almost have to make a declaration[2]. Make it really clear what this community is about, what it stands for in terms of interactions with people *irrespective* of what they’re talking about.

Derek’s eyes went a bit wide at that, because he could tell what I was implying and it’s hard to say even the word declaration to an American without them instantly feeling like they need to stand to attention.

So. In reader James Aylett’s interpretation (which is broadly correct), we’re talking about some sort of global community that’s network-based, designed to expressly provide the structure and support for probably non-local, probably-distributed groupings of people who have broad ideological alignment and broad alignment of actions and interests. (I changed the order of some things in there, James)

A community designed to, say, support and let a thousand, million Detroit water projects bloom and then to fix the problem that led to those projects needing to exist in the first place because it believes in compassion and equity, for example. That when we have the means, we have collective responsibility to help each other up.

This has happened before.  Not the non-local bit, though.

Not the bit about how you iterate, adding what the network does best.

Not like others have tried, by adding phrases like peer to peer or distributed ledgers.

Not a civilization of Mind in Cyberspace[3], but a civilization of people, built *with* cyberspace.

No. More like this:

We hold these truths to be self evident…

[0] ‎orbitaloperations.cmail20.com/t/ViewEmail/d/01273DAF21D29CA0/A5969566ED098415C9C291422E3DE149
[1] Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, on how meditation made him a better historian – Vox
[2] Go back and finish the rest before you come to this footnote, it’s better this way, honest [x]
[3] A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace | Electronic Frontier Foundation

[x] Of course, this is a thinly veiled allusion to the Declaration of Independence, which occasional co-conspirator Mr. Borenstein reminded in *this* case is more of a Declaration of *Dependence* (he has graciously allowed me to use this description). To the question as to what is being declared *from*, and the answer being “an increasingly hostile environment toward collective responsibility, civic values and egalitarianism”, Mr. Borenstein pointed out that most cults that move out of society aren’t famous for their positive takes on those attitudes and values. This is the most distressing thing about what is happening at the moment in America, precisely because America’s declaration of independence is one of the best efforts so far at including and striving for those values.

And no, this isn’t a replacement for a state, or a new state, even. At least, I don’t think so. But more like: if you want to show how a new way of doing things is better, or even if you want to show why *a* way of doing things is better, the best way is to go and do it.

More soon, I expect.

Send me angry, outraged notes about how you were totally fine with receiving random thoughts from me before but now I’ve crossed a line. Or just say hi. Or, “oh, that sound interesting. What about this?”

Best,

Dan