The Great Fragmentation

Can town squares become food courts?

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If this is the advent of a “movement,” it will, unlike all previous movements, move in many different - even opposing - directions. It’s the Great Fragmentation, a reflection of what’s been happening with television audiences, the music business, and print media for some time. - Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw (2010)

Bourdain (RIP) is writing specifically about the restaurant business, but being Bourdain, his wisdom transcends any specific context. As I sit here, two of the major backbones of Web 2.0 - Reddit and Twitter - are aggressively imploding. A huge amount of attention is about to become untethered. Individually, it means people are going to be looking for new homes. Collectively, we’re losing two of the modern (if flawed) ‘town squares’, as people move off in their different directions.

A tech journalist who knows approximately 68,000 times more about (anything) than I do was genuinely excited about the possibility. He described the existing internet structure as constrained: everything taking place through a few, narrow platforms. The decline of those monoliths makes space for new spaces, new innovation, etc. Fragmentation - the hunt for new directions - is not inherently a bad thing. Those new directions could be (and many probably will be) better.

Friends in the PVE and online harms world are a little more nervous. Twitter and Reddit are, speaking somewhat hyberbolically, known evils. They’re far from perfect, but they do have (or used to have) moderation and reporting processes and codes of conduct. They had, for better or for worse, certain social norms around acceptable behaviour. There was also a safety ecosystem around them: researchers, services, and practitioners that knew how to use those platforms, identify risks, and provide support.

Fragmentation - sudden fragmentation at that - means masses of users travelling to new and unknown directions. Sites that don’t have codes of conduct or escalation processes. Volunteer moderators that are used to communities of dozens, not hundreds. Platforms that don’t have processes for detecting or reporting hate speech or extremism (or piracy, pornography, child abuse, self-harm, bullying, or terrorist content). Micro-communities suddenly dealing with the weight of rapid scaling.

And that, of course, excludes the danger of deliberate bad actors. New, badly-moderated, under-served spaces makes for a universe of opportunity for those that are actively looking to exploit weaknesses. New spaces to share illegal content, trade nasty files, or simply scheme around hateful (or illegal) topics. Extremist groups actively work to lure people, especially young people, from public, moderated spaces into private ones. The Great Fragmentation means that people are wandering into the deep dark woods.

One more perspective. At the SPRITE+ Conference in Belfast, we discussed the novel concept of cyber-refugees. The primary focus of the conversation was on those having to leave physical spaces (e.g. their nation-state) due to persecution that’s caused by or enabled by digital means.

We also strayed into an alternative definition: people that are forced to leave digital spaces. This is very hard to qualify as ‘persecution’. Losing your roommate’s Netflix login or having your mom unplug the Playstation are hardly war crimes. But imagine being, say, an isolated, trans teenager in rural Florida, with a particular sub-reddit being your primary source of community and mental health support.

We also underestimate how much, especially for young people, the online and offline worlds are simply the world. An online community is just as meaningful for basic needs of agency, belonging, and self-worth. Losing your knitting buddies on Twitter, or your romance reading network on Reddit, doesn’t just mean you’re missing out on book recommendations. It means that the intangible place you belong to - complete with friends, status, values - is gone. To complete the circle: that’s a substantial amount of time, energy and attention that is now untethered. What do you do with it? Where do you go?

To really complete the circle, let’s go back to Bourdain. In thinking about the Great Fragmentation, he contemplated two potential outcomes.

The first was ‘people will have to start cooking again’. Interpreted as self-resilience, this is in the broader context, semi-positive. We can’t replace everything that community (even digital community) gives us with individual effort. But we can replace some of it: we could, for example, become better at doing our own research and finding our own news, rather than having it curated for it by increasingly dubious sources. We can develop our own taste in entertainment, in a less algorithmically-controlled way. We can, if we really push the boat out, spend less time passively consuming content and more time creating some. Maybe. But that still doesn’t scratch every itch. As every author struggling alone on their sofa can attest, being left on your own to CREATE does not satisfy all our basic human needs.

The second possible outcome is what Bourdain calls the ‘Asian-style food court/hawker center’, which he describes as:

Scores of inexpensive one-chef/one-specialty businesses (basically, food stalls) clustered around a “court” of shared tables…. Food preparation areas can be enclosed, as they are in Singapore, so food handling and sanitation issues can hardly be an unsolvable impediment…. Artisanship; freshness; incredible, unheard-of variety - and for cheap? All under one roof? This, let us hope, is at least part of our future

Again, let’s stick to this as a metaphor. Bourdain is describing a best-of-both-worlds scenario: individual choice and incredible variety, but built on a platform of ‘shared services’ (in the digital context, let’s assume ‘food handling and sanitation’ is ‘moderation and safety’).

That’s, amusingly, not far from the theoretical Reddit model, although the current site-wide disaster shows what happens if your ‘shared services’ are run on unappreciated volunteer labour that you then throw under the bus. Hard to maintain food hygiene when you’re asking people to wash your dishes for free and then calling them ‘landed gentry’ when you take the sinks away. From the tiny bit I understand about Mastodon, it also sort of takes this approach, but in way like ‘we all use the same trays, but how well the dishes are washed is still left to the individual stall’.

I think my primary challenge with this model is that social media sites are stickier and greedier than food stalls. Food stalls don’t expect you to dine there exclusively, whereas digital sites try to monopolise as much of your attention as possible - down to stalking you across the food court if you dare to leave. I really like the idea of unheard-of variety, but the freedom to choose needs to be continuously available.

Although I’d love the answers to all questions to be found within the works of Anthony Bourdain - I can only stretch the metaphor so far. This situation is, ultimately, a very different context. Metaphor (and Bourdain) helps us wrap our heads around a complex situation, but it is ultimately one without precedent. Our choices - as individual users, as budget controllers, as researchers, as practitioners, as parents, whatever - will, ultimately, come down to us.

Nina Jankowicz on deepfake pornography, and the hellishness of featuring in it. I heard Nina speak recently, and she shared the fact that an astonishing percentage of deepfakes are pornography (96%!). Not all of it is ‘simply’ for profit as well: there’s a substantial amount of deepfaked revenge porn, and it is a distressingly common tactic to deepfake porn to undermine female politicians or other significant figures (see: Nina’s own experience). It is unbelievably grim. Except, sadly, not unbelievable.

My talk in Belfast (see above) touched on the concept of the ‘porn layer’: when an aspect of culture becomes rapidly, mechanically, and systematically exploited. Deepfake technology being immediately used for pornography is a particularly on the nose example. AI being used to write - and read - commoditised novels is another one. Something to be said about memes when their (already insubstantial) cultural value is mined (pun?) for crypto as well. More on that later, after I scan my shoddy notes.

As many of my colleagues know, I’m obsessed with local news. The Public Interest News Foundation has launched an interactive local map so you can find your local news source. It also lets you know if they’re a true independent or part of a conglomerate. (Did you know that London is actually underserved for local news on a per capita basis? Lots of reasons there, but also, boo.) Support your local paper. It is better than a Facebook group, I promise.

We got a blender, which is a very adult purchase. I’ve been experimenting with making BBQ sauces.

US recipe blog: ‘Y’all will need six whiskers of grandpappy’s rum, exactly 167 grains of brown sugar, a flask of vinegar aged in moonlight, and 61 tomatoes that are from the zipcode 60734…’

UK recipe blog: ‘Add one (1) bottle of BBQ sauce.’

A recipe for BBQ sauce that called for… BBQ sauce.

This country is so weird sometimes.

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