Fleeing from the public squares of the internet

June 3, 2019

What happened?

During the F8 event last month Facebook announced that the core of their platform would revolve more around groups and events. Hereby Facebook acknowledges that the era of the newsfeed is over. Moreover, this decision further reinforces the larger trend that users are seeking more small scale, local, private forms of online interaction, away from the many-to-many echo chambers of the internet. Some other examples of this trend is the increasing popularity of chat apps (e.g. Slack, Whatsapp, Wechat), subReddits, newsletters, podcasts and the come-back of single player games.

What does this mean?

In the early 2000s Putnam hypothesized that the internet was in part responsible for the deterioration of social capital, as it increasingly isolated people, cutting them off from contexts that stimulate political discussion. The last few years it turned out that the internet can actually facilitate civic engagement through social media platforms. However, according to the article ‘The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet’, these online platforms have become public battlegrounds, where communication is being weaponized for the purpose of gaining political, commercial and social power. In response, an increasing number of users are leaving the large digital public squares in favor of ‘spaces where depressurized conversation is possible’ by being ‘non-indexed, non-optimized and non-gamified’, thereby offering ‘psychological and reputational cover’.

What's next?

According to the article, the position of groups that already dominate the conversation on mainstream online channels could be further reinforced as the exodus of users into isolated online spaces erodes the opposition. In contrast, these more sheltered environments could help spur more civic engagement, as relations between users are less fleeting and allow for more in-depth communication. Culturally, there is the possibility that we encounter the emergence of more subcultures, as more people will develop ideas and cultural practices in the emerging digital lee.

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