The Ideaspace publishes weekly interviews with authors, artists, designers, economists, researchers, political activists, and others working on the frontiers of value and self-interest. This week’s issue is a personal essay. Our interview series will resume next week.
A year into the pandemic, how we relate to the internet is different. Not just how internet companies made themselves the new defaults for basic human interactions (Zoom = talking and/or working, Amazon = shopping, etc.), but also who we are online.
During the first few weeks of lockdown the world came together online, even just to collectively hate self-important celebrity videos. But as the situation and US political climate wore on, and then George Floyd was brutally murdered across newsfeeds, the nature of the conversation changed. As some people struggled with the pandemic and others thrived, many people pulled further back from showing their real thoughts and selves online. Major life events like moving became something you did as quietly as possible. Better not to draw attention or make waves.
While this was happening, the power of social media in our lives got stronger. The daily moods and stories that filled our timelines shaped how we saw the world. To listen to social media you’d think half of Americans were anti-maskers when the real number was less than 10%. Social media is real life, but what it presents as real life is a self-interested vision of the world as shaped by a small number of self-interested actors: people looking to make money, sway public opinion, acquire power, or fake it til they make it. By dominating our attention with their vision of the world through social media, they can pursue all these goals at once.
The open internet began as a proto-Utopia for self-expression where information wanted to and could be free. Parts of the internet are still those things, but they’re becoming intentionally harder and harder to find. The incentives of the web have turned against truth and egalitarianism, leaving hollowed-out public spaces behind them.
The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet
In 2019 I wrote an Ideaspace essay that explored this shift. It was about my struggle to be myself online.
In it, I talked about my retreat away from the open spaces of the web like Facebook and Twitter. Those spaces felt too risky to be my real self. The downsides of saying something wrong or getting unwanted attention no longer felt worth it. I didn’t want the maximum possible audience, I wanted maximum digital comfort.
To create it, I shifted into sharing my real thoughts in safer, private spaces like this one that were more shielded from public view. Safer in the sense of my reputation not being at stake. Safer in the sense that I could explore ideas without worrying about being judged or targeted by others. A lot of people were starting to do this: staying quiet on the open spaces of the web and saving their real thoughts for group chats, podcasts that few people would listen to, and private newsletters where they had some control over who saw them.
The pattern reminded me of the Chinese science fiction series The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, and an idea in it called “the Dark Forest theory” that gives one possible explanation for why humans haven’t yet found alien life. Here’s how I described it two years ago:
When we look out into space, the theory goes, we’re struck by its silence. It seems like we’re the only ones here. After all, if other forms of life existed, wouldn’t they show themselves? Since they haven’t, we assume there’s no one else out there.
Liu invites us to think about this a different way.
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.
Is our universe an empty forest or a dark one? If it’s a dark forest, then only Earth is foolish enough to ping the heavens and announce its presence. The rest of the universe already knows the real reason why the forest stays dark. It’s only a matter of time before the Earth learns as well.
This is also what the internet is becoming: a dark forest.
In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.
This very piece is an example of this. This theory is being shared on a private channel sent to 500 people who I know or who have explicitly chosen to receive it. This is the online environment in which I feel most secure. Where I can be my most “real self.”
The idea struck a chord. Originally sent to 500 people, it became widely shared, reaching hundreds of thousands of readers, many of them coming a year later after the start of the pandemic. As COVID-19 increased our online-ness and the 2020 US political and social climate spiked animosity, more of us sought refuge in Dark Forests. We stayed quiet in the main channels and shared our real thoughts in DMs, Discord chats, phone calls, Clubhouse rooms, and other places more hidden from the danger and noise.
Into the Dark Forest
There’s a drawback to all of this.
In a world where people aren’t themselves online, our Open Forests become clogged with coordinated campaigns, extreme voices, and self-interested shills who are incentivized (via power, influence, money) to dominate these spaces and ultimately the cultural conversation itself.
Though relatively innocuous, the recent case of NFTs is an example. A tiny amount of people buy or sell art and an even smaller subset have bought or sold a non-fungible token, yet the concept has dominated headlines. Why? Because our social media feeds are filled with people talking about them. Why? Because the people talking about them largely have self-interested reasons to do so: they own a lot of crypto or work in a related field and thus benefit. Here’s the New York Times on the buyer of one recent NFT auction:
“Mr. Young says he bought the NFT in part to prove a point. He wanted to use the purchase to signal that cryptocurrency and NFTs in general could be a solution to the problems Ms. Jin outlined in her article. “In college I read Marshall McLuhan and how the medium is the message and thought, ‘What if I communicated via this transaction?’” he said in a recent podcast about the purchase. So he paid up.”
This effort to “communicate” was enough to create a tidal wave of conversation and manufacture a massive news trend. This same process of a limited number of self-interested actors coordinating to overtake our personal and cultural moods can go and has gone in any number of directions. A very prescient 2014 Deadspin piece called “The Future of the Culture Wars Is Here, and it’s Gamergate” saw it coming:
“By most metrics, Gamergate comprises an insignificant fraction of video game fans. On Reddit, for example, the main staging ground for Gamergate has reached 10,000 readers, representing .17 percent of the more than six million readers on the general gaming subreddit… Gamergate is surprisingly well organized, with ‘operations’ staged from a mishmash of Reddit boards, infinite chan threads (having abandoned 4chan), and unofficial-official dedicated sites. ‘Daily boycotters,’ for example, are instructed not just to email targeted companies to express their grievances, but to spam these targets on Sundays and Wednesdays to maximize congestion—shit up the Monday morning rush, and dogpile in the middle of the week, so the mess has to be addressed before the weekend. They're told never to use the actual term ‘Gamergate,’ as that will allow the message to be filtered.”
The difference between these efforts and traditional persuasion-based marketing campaigns is our inability to understand who’s behind them and what’s motivating them. In the case of an ad campaign — even a paid influencer one — we generally know there’s a multinational corporation behind the content we see. But in Gamergate or NFT-style hype cycles, something that’s coordinated and intentional can be made to look organic. Since truth on the internet is collectively defined, the appearance of multiple reinforcing nodes is self-fulfilling. These campaigns depend on obfuscation for success. If the rest of the network could see the coordination, the whole campaign would collapse.
This behavior creates more Dark Forests. The noise sends more people out of the main channels into the refuge of quieter spaces, which increases the power of those antagonistic voices in the Open Forest and thus culture at large all the more. Hostile campaigns against the establishment win by manufacturing the battle and by overwhelming the institutions that would traditionally exist to counter them with clever, hivemind-produced strategies that catch them flat-footed.
This final Dark Forest dynamic is something like what happened in the 1970s when hippies, defeated in the Culture Wars of the ‘60s, retreated to the safety of self-help, communes, and their own Dark Forests to escape. Meanwhile the larger culture moved farther and farther against their professed values and their political influence waned. By putting personal wellbeing over collective wellbeing, you could argue they saved their souls but lost the world.
Is that what’s happening with the internet? Does our personal wellbeing come at the cost of our collective one?
I first used the internet in 1994 when I was a sophomore in high school. In the years following I grew up online. I was a member of multiple message boards for years and still have friendships from them. In my twenties I blogged almost daily. I had no trouble being myself online then.
But in recent years this changed. A lot of it has to do with me. I’m older and have a reputation at stake. My past self was younger and trying to build one. The internet rewards status-seeking behavior. It punishes status-protecting behaviors unless played the “right” ways (e.g. false modesty, usage of internet slang, memes and GIFs, etc.).
After writing the original Dark Forest piece about the problems with abandoning the mainstream, I challenged myself to personally do better. I decided I would try to be more “me” on the internet. Just as it was beneficial to know who I was as a human being in real life, it would be good to know who I was in my online life, too.
I began to consciously share more, tweeting twice a day. And it was... fine. Nothing bad happened, and in fact some good happened. But something else happened, too: the more I invested in sharing, the more my desire for attention grew. Sending a single tweet could result in hours of an attention-ravenous state of checking notifications so often I’d feel disgusted with myself. Even when something good did happen, the end result wasn’t a lasting feeling of positivity, it was merely a momentary respite from that gnawing desire.
Despite my plan to rejoin the fray, after just a few weeks I quit my experiment.
One of the great inventions of the past decade is the word “thirst.” In previous eras of human history and in some parts of the world today, thirst refers to the basic necessity of water. In the very-online world of the 21st century, thirst refers to the new basic necessity of attention. “Thirst” has now entered the common lexicon to describe how people need and seek attention on the internet. (This Chelsea Peretti bit is a great primer.)
Thirst is a perfect word because it allows us to both judge and respect the people who thrive in these spaces, while also having empathy for the treadmill of neediness they’ve trapped themselves on. Thirst reminds us not to hate the player, but to hate the game. Social media success is a blessing and a thirst.
Thirst is a perfect word because it prices in its impermanence. You can’t save attention. You can’t store likes for a rainy day. You can’t bank thirst. Every day more content. Every hour another post. Feed your need for attention. That’s thirst.
Thirst isn’t just for desperate teens and wannabe Instagram models. Billionaires posting topless workout pictures is thirst. CEOs memeing themselves is thirst. Famous celebrities who need the likes are thirst. Status-chasing on your phone while life happens around you is thirst.
But thirst can only last for so long, even for the most successful of us. Last week Chrissy Teigen, a High Queen of Twitter, quit the platform, writing:
“It’s time for me to say goodbye. This no longer serves me as positively as it serves me negatively, and I think that’s the right time to call something... My desire to be liked and fear of pissing people off has made me somebody you didn’t sign up for, and a different human than I started out here as!”
For all the attention being a social media superstar brought her, Teigen decided the personal cost of being “a different human than I started out here as” was too high. She’s yet another departee to the Dark Forest.
Back into the forest
Recently I was explaining to my oldest friend my reluctance to post things online.
“I don’t want to ask for anyone’s attention,” was how I expressed the complicated but clear feeling I had. What I really meant was: I don’t want to want attention. I don’t want thirst.
“No one does,” my friend, also a writer before a business he started took off, said with a laugh. “But what choice do you have? You can’t not ask for attention.”
After a short pause the conversation kept moving because what he said felt true and deeply fatalistic. In a society dominated by scarcity of attention, we have no choice. But in the Dark Forests, was it different?
As I was telling my friend, I’ve become someone who loves to write but hates to publish. The bigger the channel, the less I want to say. This is a new thing for me. I’ve always loved writing, but now publishing feels heavy. Publishing means I’m making myself vulnerable. Publishing means opening myself up to thirst. The competitiveness of the Open Forest flattens every possibility into what can gain status. By entering the arena you play the game.
I’ve found myself seeking minimal viable audiences instead. I created and joined smaller spaces where people could share ideas and collective experiences, and the line between audience, creator, and participant was non-existent. On the other side was a much deeper experience that was only possible because the goal wasn’t attention, it was understanding.
Last year on the Tim Ferris podcast Jerry Seinfeld said he always waited 24 hours after writing something before sharing it with someone else. He trusted his judgement and needed to know for himself what he thought before he heard what someone else did. He’d learned that if he shared an idea too early, whatever reaction he received would affect his own point of view.
The internet is the opposite. We post our thoughts like precious trial balloons, then base our moods on the response (especially if it’s silence). The opinion of the hive molds us. It’s easy to live in everybody else’s thoughts rather than your own.
Et tu, forest?
“What we have in Gamergate is a glimpse of how these skirmishes will unfold in the future—all the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center.” —Deadspin
Earlier this year we saw the next phase of the Dark Forest: coordination. During the Gamestop and r/WallStreetBets drama, a Reddit board was used to coordinate a campaign to manipulate and reshape the stock market. This was just two weeks after the January 6 Capitol Hill riots, which were organized in the Dark Forests of private Facebook groups and encrypted group chats.
Calls to close down these spaces have begun, and a push against Dark Forests will likely grow. Especially since the mainstream attention further darkened them. After r/WallStreetBets became international news, non-members were blocked from reading it. The Capitol Hill riots resulted in the deplatforming of many groups and an entire platform. In cases of Dark Forests being used to coordinate harassment or illegal behavior, they should be shut down. But it’s easy to see how enforcement could go too far, threatening the freedom of assembly that to date has felt implicit on the web.
At their best, each Dark Forest is an experiment in another way of life, and a necessary escape from parts of our lives that limit us. If you live in a small town, if your life is repressive, or you’re just lonely, the Dark Forests of the internet can be safe spaces to discover yourself and meet others like you. Spaces where we have the freedom to be whoever we want to be, where ideas and language can be tried on like clothes, and our actions can search for meaning instead of thirst.
The best Dark Forests do not advertise themselves with Twitter feeds of content hoping to go viral — those communities are looking to grow. A Dark Forest’s first priority is to stay safe by upholding its values and essence through friction-creating membership, or else risk losing its vibe and sway. In exchange, these Dark Forests offer their members the opportunity to be witnessed and understood as each person wants to be seen, with the full freedom that the web uniquely provides.
These tools of coordination and cooperation make today’s Dark Forests far more than digital versions of the 1970s commune. They’re new experiments in decision-making, movement-building, and collective action. The continued evolution and growth of web-based, informal groups will impact not just the lives of their members, but society at large. As we saw with Gamergate, these are spaces where harassment campaigns will be planned and lies will be planted. But these are also spaces where people will cooperate and learn like never before. What the corporation was to the 20th century, the Dark Forest could be to the 21st: the organizational form through which much of culture is influenced, for good and bad.
It used to be that people confessed their deepest thoughts and fears to their diaries, priests, or pillows. Today we confess them to group chats, DMs, and Dark Forests we digitally share. In the safety of darkness our ideas meet, find relief in each other’s existence, and create new ideas and lives of their own. Gifted with tools of cooperation unlike anything humanity has seen before, our confessions meet and transform into the coded language of GIFs and memes to communicate vulnerability and emotion across a dangerous night sky. As long as there are predators, Dark Forests are here to stay.
This post was inspired by two recent conversations at the great philosophical Dark Forests of the Stoa and Rebel Wisdom. Thanks to them for the invitations and for what they create. Thanks to Peter Limberg, Rebecca Fox, Jamie Kim, Rhys Lindmark, and Justin Kazmark for giving feedback on drafts of this essay. My own Dark Forest is called the Bento Society. You can learn more here.
Peace and love my friends,
The Bento Society
The Ideaspace is published by the Bento Society, a community dedicated to exploring the frontiers of value and self-interest.