Welcome to Folklore, a community exploring the labyrinth of networked worlds. In this commissioned essay, Rue Yi and Ruby Justice Thelot explore the nature and consequence of our diverging online spaces.
Rue talks into their screen in a room in Toronto. They keep a green hardback journal with them in case any good ideas want to make themselves known in the shape of daydreams. Ruby is a designer, cyberethnographer and artist. He is the founder of 13101401 Inc. and Adjunct Professor of Design and Media Theory at New York University.
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Domains under heaven, after a long period of division, tend to unite; after a long period of union, tend to divide. This has been so since antiquity.
— Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The “Balkanization” of the internet is the process by which, currently, the united kingdom of the internet ruled by mega-tech platforms is figuratively splitting off into smaller digital regions. The age of the mega-platform is coming to an end in favor of less visible and more resilient digital spaces. The internet as we know it is bursting at the seams. This piece explores the process of fragmentation which the web is undergoing and its impact on language and community.
In a sense, this is a return to form: the internet was incubated in 1969, out of the United States Advanced Research Projects Agency, as a fault-tolerant and resilient communication network between the research centers of universities. Two internet Protocol (IP) addresses could share data over a telecommunication circuit, without the need for a third node.
The internet remained largely decentralized until the 1990s. To convene, early digital communities used different types of digital spaces: chats, email lists, multiplayer environments such as Multi-User Dungeons, bulletin board systems (BBS) like WELL, amongst others. These were all separate islands, accessible through their own addresses, unique pages or a terminal program in the case of BBSs. Until the internet as we know it today and the advent of mass page indexes and search engines such as Yahoo and Google, many of these communities remained relatively concealed, mostly growing in popularity through word-of-mouth, email forwards, mentions in blogs and through members at conferences. Most users generally accessed the “online” through commercial services such as CompuServe, Prodigy and AOL. Notably, these private networks provided their users access to news articles, programs, chat rooms, email services and files which were exclusively accessible to the subscribers of these online services. In other words, the private computer networks users accessed differed based on which service providers they paid for, they had their own version of the “online”.
This model was upended by the Internet Service Provider (ISP) model, which is universal today, where we all connect to the same “online”, the same kingdom. The scale of this new online space represented an opportunity for companies to build and provide infrastructure for communities to migrate. Though some MUDs and single-access digital spaces still remain, most new digital communities are built on this open web. Unfortunately, this shared space has been a site fraught with conflict. The last decade saw culture wars rage on social media platforms between politically antipodal factions. Who would have thought putting radical feminists next to edgelord teenage gamers on the same platform was a bad idea?
The tens were marked by a series of cultural rifts engendered by the collisions that occurred in said shared digital spaces. Ruthless battles were fought on keyboards, from GamerGate to Black Lives Matter, the internet became the war-field for the high-stakes socio-cultural issues of our times. We also witnessed the rise of alt-right figures like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson, who harnessed the algorithms to trojan horse their controversial messages to the top of the zeitgeist. Around that time, users retreated into soft-walled digital enclaves called “echo chambers”, as ban-hammers were wielded mercilessly to create more peaceful feeds. The creation of the echo chamber was a semi-conscious process and a product of conflict fatigue: through incremental muting and bans, in conjunction with reinforcement from the algorithms, users slowly built digital spaces where the only content they saw either validated their pre-existing ideologies or energized their acrimony towards the opposing group. In spite of the echo chambers, users with public accounts who posted (“posters”) were still exposed to attacks from dissenting groups. A tweet meant for a niche group through retweets could find its way to a much larger audience with an adverse opinion. The risk for the poster, depending on the controversial nature of the post, ranged from “brigading”, a coordinated large-scale group attack against the poster in the comments, to “doxxing”, the revelation of the poster’s identity and personal information, all the way to “cancelation”, the equivalent of being brought to a digital scaffold for public punishment, usually leading to loss of employment and major reputational hit.
In that sense, the echo chamber was a safe space for the lurker but not the poster. In the current climate, the poster needed a private enclave to share their thoughts, one sheltered from the mob’s gaze and where they are protected from the dangers of publicly posting. Thus, we transitioned from the echo chamber to private groups, whether it be Discord servers, Telegram groups, iMessage group-chats, etc.
Yancey Strickler, thinker and founder of Kickstarter, and Bognia Konior, assistant professor of Interactive Media Arts at NYU Shanghai, recently have adapted the term “Digital Forest” to describe the current situation on the internet. The appellation, from the popular sci-fi series “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin, describes the silence that reigns in the forest at night. Strickler writes, “Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay silent.” He adapts this description of the internet as the “Dark Forest Theory of the Internet” to describe the retreat from feed-bound echo chambers to private chat groups, sheltered away from the brigades, trolls and bots that abound in open digital spaces. These private groups represent a new era of digital communication, predicated on privacy, exclusivity and access, but, more importantly, their insular nature creates a new set of issues.
Within these communities, new languages develop. The groupchat engenders a new coded word only comprehensible to those within it. An exterior image is appropriated, subverted, deep-fried and repurposed. New symbols take on new meanings. Entire semiologies are built and abandoned. But the walls of our digital cities are porous, many participate in multiple communities, and the platforms that act as our town squares become sites of communication and exchanges where these new languages collide with one another. We no longer share a common language.
In the Bible’s book of Genesis, monolingual humans aspired to build a "city and tower with its top in the heavens". God punished humans by creating a multitude of languages to sow chaos: "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there so that they will not understand one another's speech." Today, this parable is known as the Tower of Babel.
Language, as a social instrument, is more than its content. It’s also a signifier defining the speaker. Therefore language, whether expressed as slang, dialects, patois, or accents, is a marker of cultural identity. The language you use signals to other people: am I like you? Do we come from the same place? Do we share perspectives? In which ways can we connect in our shared humanity? Communities develop shorthand ways of referring to big ideas over time — by using this shorthand, an individual can signal to other people that they are part of the in-group. A generation ago, adoption of in-group language required people to be, well, part of the in-group. Physical presence and community involvement on-location where these communities congregated was the prerequisite for engaging in niche language.
Yet, increasingly, our choice methods for communication are largely devoid of in-person context. Our online tools on screens enable completely unprecedented methods for connection. When my mom immigrated to Canada in the early 1990s, she'd go months without speaking to her family because of the prohibitively high cost of long-distance phone calls. Today, online messaging tools make this a complete non-issue. The restrictions placed upon context — distance and cost — have been removed. In the time since, we've removed many more context-based restrictions. Today, any individual or actor has access to platforms which can broadcast their message to millions of people overnight.
This unboundedness offers us incredible freedom to communicate with anybody, but it also represents a fundamental shift in how we communicate, which ultimately determines our reality. TikTok's For You page — perhaps the site of the current cultural zeitgeist — is a curated feed made for specifically you by the algorithm based on what it thinks you will engage with. It’s a great departure from a TV channel, a radio station — the centralized broadcast network of yore. After the Fall of the Facebook Wall, we had the "Feed" which kept a semblance of a shared experience but the For You page is a step removed from the "Feed". It further entrenches the user in an individual algorithmic reality, a reality which is thoroughly divorced from the experience of the Other.
Between the insular private groups, like subreddits, private Discords, and individualized feeds, we no longer have a shared reality, online. We've returned, in a sense, to the age of commercial services, where we connect to our own private internets. When we return to the public squares, it is not uncommon to think: what the hell is anyone saying? Imagine explaining what an "Aesop Soap Guy" or a "Sandy Liang Girlie" are to someone who isn't involved in that discourse. These buzzy terms, of course, will soon shift meanings, grow vague and confusing, then ultimately be discarded as the language trend cycle moves forward. The pace at which we’re creating new words, then recontextualizing their meanings in hyperbolic, meme, and joke formats, is moving faster than ever before, in our age of relentless online discourse.
Babelification is the process by which, after splintering, insular digital groups develop unique languages which makes reintegration in shared digital spaces difficult, if not impossible. When someone believes their insular language in online echo chambers is commonplace reality, clashes ensue when that same individual is placed in a context where other people aren’t privy to their language because they are fundamentally misunderstanding one another. Often, there is little by way of shared values, goals, and culture to glue these communities together. Therefore, the only glue is how tapped in someone is to the discussion. The basis of new algorithmic languages is the discourse, the hot takes, the thinkpieces, and the cancellations. As our screen times rise and online is the way of contacting people, our online language becomes our reality.
Incel communities use the archetype of "Virgin vs. Chad" to invoke the constructed dichotomy of an idea of two types of guys: the Virgin is a pathetic loser unable to attract the attention of women he so desperately wants, whereas Chad is everything the Virgin is not: confident, buff, good-looking, charismatic and the object of attention from women. Do these people actually exist IRL? The Virgin and the Chad are archetypical stock characters in the world of Incels. The Incel Virgin has connotations not associated with the dictionary definition of a virgin. So, when someone online is saying that word, what are they referring to? The answer is based heavily in context- and in-group–specific indicators. When a poster in this community says, "a Chad cut me, a Virgin, off today", they are applying their own framework of the world onto other people who may or may not have anything to do with Incels.
When Charles Darwin studied the finches of the Galápagos islands, he noticed the birds were noticeably different from island to island. Some birds had small beaks, others had stout ones; some had oblong skulls and others had round skulls; they were all adapted to different behaviors. Life on islands evolves separately from the continent. To an outside observer, the animals are unique and crazier (imagine: the flora and fauna of Tasmania, Australia, Madagascar to a European), and this specialized evolution leads to speciation. Could something similar be happening with the way we use language online?
As we are fed more content, we are pushed deeper into algorithmic niches. In return, we are encouraged to engage with more extreme and polarizing identifiers because it is more labelable, more indexable by the machine — the creation of the “Island". On this island, the slang, in-jokes, and archetypes which emerge as a community develops in isolation from the rest of the "Continent" creates language “Speciation”. When the half-life of a meme is now several days — periods of cultural relevancy have radically shortened over time — how many layers of cultural anthropology does it take to understand a single meme?
What happens when two disparate communities clash? What happens when arguments happen online, and people are saying things that the other completely doesn't understand? What happens when the two parties arguing don't even know how deeply they are misunderstanding the words being used? Can we ever rebuild the tower?
Humans are mammalian animals hard-wired to understand the language of Body — touch, expression, subtext, glance and counterglance. Even silent pauses can be pregnant. A gentle brush on the arm means something vastly different than an urgent squeeze. And we don't need any words to know that! Action and reaction can wordlessly steer interactions into uncharted waters. If you start making a funny face at something I’m saying, I might feel the need to change what I’m saying or how I'm saying it. It's the context of conversations which makes for gratifying back-and-forth dialogue.
The opposite of hyperbolic, contextless, online communication in this Mass Age is skin-to-skin touch, that which can transmit intention without even saying a single word — Massage. Perhaps the way through Babelification is to circumvent words altogether.
The famous misprint from Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 book, “The medium is the Massage”, may actually be revelatory. Online linguistic collisions and their downstream cultural effects can be remediated by physical touch.
Not only do we thrive under touch, we physically need it. Cultures where physical affection toward infants was high had low levels of adult aggression, but cultures where affectionate touch was low had high adult aggression. For us, a people experiencing online polarization so deep we're calling this phenomenon a culture war — we need to touch each other more than ever, and we need to let ourselves be touched. The act is radical — we are making ourselves vulnerable to other people. Yet this is where the true strength in humanity comes through: our ability to share with others, and to be generous with each other. We're not faceless anons behind a screen, we're human beings with bodies and the ability to understand them.
Touch brings us closer. Emotions can be communicated wordlessly through hugs, caresses, holding and being held. The language of touch can inspire deep connection between people and express more than words could ever say, would ever need to say — this is the space where eros comes alive, where we desire for others. To be reminded of our want is to be reminded of our bodies and the affection we crave. That is, the affection, desire, and camaraderie which emerges from being in proximity with someone, not the image of desire or the consumption of desire as a product. We are stronger when we are physically together.
Whereas our current interfaces push us towards an atomized and isolated anger, touch is relational, direct and immediate. We are best understood when we are close. New social interfaces should seek to stave off Babelification by building digital pathways to which lead to Massage. Have you ever met someone off a social media platform? Time-to-touch is the new metric we should aim for in an increasingly chaotic online town square: how long does it take for people who meet online to meet face-to-face, and touch each other?
If physical Massage is not feasible for everyone at all times, consider how you can make your interaction with someone through a screen MORE personable. A FaceTime is more personable than a phone call, than a text, than an Instagram DM, than a fire emoji story react. The only way to finally build that tower whose top reaches the heavens is by holding hands.