Fundamentally, privacy is about having control over how information flows. It’s about being able to understand the social setting in order to behave appropriately. To do so, people must trust their interpretation of the context, including the people in the room and the architecture that defines the setting. When they feel as though control has been taken away from them or when they lack the control they need to do the right thing, they scream privacy foul.

I had forgotten about this great danah boyd talk from SXSW in 2010. I was discussing the idea of ephimerality and its place in the open, social, indie web this morning at an IndieWeb/Mastdon meetup at XOXO Fest when Kevin Marks brought up danah’s work.

Social networks have broken many technologies that built into our socio-cultural fabric and we have broadly failed to account for this. For example, the four properties danah cites in her dissertation: persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability. None of these properties exist if you meet someone for a conversation at a coffee shop. None of these properties exist if you meet someone at a party. None of these properties exist if you meet someone at a community meeting. Each of those settings is open and public, and yet the interactions that exist there are broady ephimeral. True, each of these interactions may generate more permanent artifacts (a personal journal, a text conversation with a friend, a newspaper article about an event), but no one expects a simple search in 10 years can pull up the exact comment an individual made during these interactions.

The term “publish” is used a lot in web technology because it represents what happens when we share on the web. We publish content. Most of the content published on the web today, however, is not meant to be published. Most people feel like they are just talking. Our collective interpretation of the context of the social web for a long time was wrong. Two trends— opting out all together and increasingly performative use of social media— are both conscious, sensible responses to realizing how the web really operates today.

The early internet was better at community. It was harder to search across any and all communities, which led to poor discoverability. Human moderation breaks down once communities exceed a certain size and pace, leading to burn out and the destruction of vibrant communitiites. And the lack of persistence, which was theoretically possible but practically a crap shoot1, helped to create safety. If you found your pocket of subculture of the internet, you could learn the rules and become a part of comprehensible community. It was discoverable enough to bring people together who felt alone and rarely found common interest in real life, but hidden enough (and boring enough) to feel more like meeting together to talk at the local library or coffee shop. We meet in public, but we operate under shared rules and assumptions as a community. We may have URLs and data on a server, but that data is precious to us and not about a record of our relationships for the universe.

That the web was more inclusive and discoverable than “real life” is the feature we have turned into a bug with powerful search and centralized platforms that create no barrier to community entry.

What I remember from my earliest writing on the internet, whether in chat rooms or on LiveJournal, was how powerful it was to be vulnerable with a community. And while the early days of publishing on the web coincided with the heightened emotions of being a young teenager, I still find it difficult to replicate the vulnerability, safety, and catharsis of the early web. As a closeted introvert, I always found it hard to find supportive community in person, but I used to thrive at finding that online.

I love the world of blogs. I love reading personal writing and opinions. I love choosing whose writing, photos, and videos I get to see. I love having flexibility of how and when I read those things using tools like RSS. I love the idea of having a canonical space in my control tied to my identity for what I do online. But as I pull away from the current social web in favor of these features of the old web, there are so many features I miss. I miss the safety of a conversational, but obscure community. I miss the easy, bidirectional discoverability of people who share my interests. And I miss the incidental discovery of amazing stuf that centralized social media excels at.

The popularity of community Slacks/Discords, the increasing push toward closed Facebook groups, the popularity of Snapchat and Instagram Stories, I think, demonstrates a struggle to find some of these old features of the web. But I fear the incentives are just not aligned right on this issue— big tech does better pushing toward those new features of digital spaces, and it will be complicated, hardwork to build technology platforms that both allow for some of the common features of in-person social interactions and succeed at having mass appeal.

Maybe I’ll just have to learn how to make friends the old fashion way. Does anyone still do that?

  1. How many thriving web communities using early BBS or forum technology lost all their data due to a single hard drive failure? ↩︎