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 was first 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.”
These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments.
Podcasts are another example. There, meaning isn’t just expressed through language, but also through intonation and interaction. Podcasts are where a bad joke can still be followed by a self-aware and self-deprecating save. It’s a more forgiving space for communication than the internet at large.
Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word “privacy” means in the process).
These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.
The internet of today is a battleground. The idealism of the ’90s web is gone. The web 2.0 utopia — where we all lived in rounded filter bubbles of happiness — ended with the 2016 Presidential election when we learned that the tools we thought were only life-giving could be weaponized too. The public and semi-public spaces we created to develop our identities, cultivate communities, and gain knowledge were overtaken by forces using them to gain power of various kinds (market, political, social, and so on).
This is the atmosphere of the mainstream web today: a relentless competition for power. As this competition has grown in size and ferocity, an increasing number of the population has scurried into their dark forests to avoid the fray.
The web 2.0 era has been replaced by a new “Web²” era. An age where we simultaneously live in many different internets, whose numbers increase hourly. The dark forests are growing.
The dark forests grow because they provide psychological and reputational cover. They allow us to be ourselves because we know who else is there. Compared to the free market communication style of the mass channels — with their high risks, high rewards, and limited moderation — dark forest spaces are more Scandinavian in their values and the social and emotional security they provide. They cap the downsides of looking bad and the upsides of our best jokes by virtue of a contained audience.
This is a trade more and more people are looking to make.
I went dark on the internet a few years ago. I took social apps off my phone, unfollowed everyone, the whole shebang. This was without a doubt a good decision. I’ve been happier and have had better control over my time since. Many others have done this and are doing this. A generation of modern wannabe monks.
But even as my personal wellness grows, I see a risk in this change.
You could argue that these decisions removed me from the arena. I detached from the mainstream of conversation. I stopped watching TV. I stopped looking at Facebook and Twitter. I silenced my voice on the platforms where the conversation was happening because of the strings, risks, and side effects they created in return.
This detachment wasn’t just in politics. It was also true of how I shared my personal life. Milestones for me and my family were left unshared beyond our internet dark forests, even though many more friends and members of our families would’ve been happy to hear about them.
Those of us building dark forests risk underestimating how powerful the mainstream channels will continue to be.
Not sharing was my choice, of course, and I didn’t question it. My alienation from the mainstream was their loss, not mine. But did this choice also deprive me of some greater reward?
Not everyone who joined a bowling league (when people did such things) loved bowling. Many loved being with other people first and bowling came second or not at all. Being together is what mattered. The venue did not.
This is the Bowling Alley Theory of the Internet: that people are online purely to meet each other, and in the long run the venues where we congregate are an unimportant background compared to the interactions themselves. Did we meet on MySpace, Tinder, or LinkedIn? Does it matter?
When I went offline for reasons of personal wellness and productivity, I stopped going to the bowling alleys altogether. But lately, I’ve started to question that decision.
I’m reminded of what happened in the 1970s when the hippies — bruised and bloodied from the culture wars of the ‘60s — retreated into self-help, wellness, and personal development, as Adam Curtis documents in his series The Century of Self. While they turned inward, the winners of the ‘60s culture wars took society’s reins. A focus on personal wellness created an unintended side effect: a retreat from the public arena, and a shift in the distribution of power ever since.
It’s possible, I suppose, that a shift away from the mainstream internet and into the dark forests could permanently limit the mainstream’s influence. It could delegitimize it. In some ways that’s the story of the internet’s effect on broadcast television. But we forget how powerful television still is. And those of us building dark forests risk underestimating how powerful the mainstream channels will continue to be, and how minor our havens are compared to their immensity.
The influence of Facebook, Twitter, and others is enormous and not going away. There’s a reason why Russian military focused on these platforms when they wanted to manipulate public opinion: they have a real impact. The meaning and tone of these platforms changes with who uses them. What kind of bowling alley it is depends on who goes there.
Should a significant percentage of the population abandon these spaces, that will leave nearly as many eyeballs for those who are left to influence, and limit the influence of those who departed on the larger world they still live in.
Two weeks ago I wrote about the dark forest theory of the internet. I used the dark forest theory to explain why we’re afraid to be public online, and what could be lost as a result.
I first connected the dark forest theory with the internet when I had a strange realization earlier this year: that I knew how to be myself in real life, but I didn’t know how to be myself online.
In “real life” I’m a reasonably self-confident, 40-year-old human. If we sat next to each other on a plane we’d have a good-to-memorable conversation.
But on the internet, I feel like a teenager struggling to find their identity. I’m all awkward exclamation points and weird over-explanations. I’m often too self-conscious to be interesting or real.
When I used the internet as an actual adolescent in the 1990s and as a young adult in the 2000s, this wasn’t the case. I blogged every day. Message boards were how I learned to test theories and debate ideas. These communities were small enough that people knew each other but big enough that there was a diversity of opinion and conversation. You could vehemently disagree with someone about politics in one thread while agreeing just as passionately with that same person in a debate about movie sequels in another.
I had no problem being myself online then. But now it feels different.
A lot of this difference is on me. I’m older. I have more at stake. But it’s not just me that changed. The internet did too. The internet went from a venue for low stakes experimentation to the place with some of the highest stakes of all. With the rise of online bullying, shaming, and swatting, the internet became emotionally, reputationally, and physically dangerous. It became the dark forest. Our digital breadcrumbs became evidence that could and would be used against us. To keep safe we exercised our right to stay silent and moved underground.
When it comes to showing our true selves online, many of us are more like black domains than we care to admit.
In The Three Body Problem series, author Liu Cixin presents a solution for the dark forest threat: a “black domain.” This device slows the speed of light to create a cloak of invisibility around a planet or galaxy. A black domain stops everything from getting in or out. It’s security through cosmic self-imprisonment.
Dark forests like email lists and Slack groups are more forgiving than Liu’s black domains. They’re off-grid, but they aren’t that off-grid. Today’s black domain equivalents might be things like putting phones in freezers, Mastodon, and crypto cold storage. Not many of us are that hardcore with our digital habits yet. But when it comes to showing our true selves online, many of us are more like black domains than we care to admit.
When I realized I didn’t know how to be myself online, my first thought was: Who cares? It doesn’t matter. It’s just the internet.
But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that it did matter. There’s tremendous value in coming into yourself as a person. Why wouldn’t that be true online, too? Recognizing that my online self was lacking, I decided to learn how to be myself on the internet.
I started with a simple exercise. For one week, I would tweet twice a day. (Normally I tweet about once a month.) I wouldn’t try to impress or be cool. I would be real and share whatever was actually on my mind.
Once in the morning and once at night, I tweeted. I wrote about child-rearing, grocery shopping, politics, books, and basketball. The results were more trivial than revolutionary, and that was the point. I wasn’t trying to stand out. I was getting practice reps at being me. The regular schedule lowered my anxiety and helped dial in my voice.
The next step in my digital self-acceptance was to try sharing my dark forest self with the larger internet. After sending my last email about the dark forest, I posted it here on Medium, which isn’t something I normally do. I didn’t expect a response, but I was nervous nonetheless. And then, out of nowhere, the piece blew up. In the last two weeks, more than 130,000 people from around the world read it.
The dark forest theory struck a chord. And it’s no wonder: many of us struggle to be ourselves online. We’re wary of showing who we are outside our private channels. But at the same time, we recognize that there are trade-offs to our isolation. Our dark forests can become black domains, with little connection to or influence on the outside world.
The internet went from a venue for low stakes experimentation to the place with some of the highest stakes of all.
What’s the in-between? That’s what my experiments have been trying to find. That process is ongoing, but my more-complicated-in-practice-than-theory answer is to strive to be your true self in every context and vow to be present wherever you are. We can’t lurk in the dark forests and expect anything to change for the better. To improve and positively contribute to the communities and cultures we’re a part of, we have to actively engage. As I wrote last time, what kind of bowling alley it is depends on who goes there.
Sometimes I question the merits of the project. Is this a waste of time? Why not just delete my accounts and stay in my dark forests forever?
It’s tempting, I admit. But whenever I go down that path, I think about Russia’s disinformation campaign that began before the 2016 election, and that continues to this day.
Russia’s GRU directed their agents to pose as Americans using fake social media accounts, and to use those accounts to flood Twitter and Facebook with politically and racially divisive messages. These sleeper accounts didn’t (and don’t) just post propaganda, however. In between their attempts to inflame, they posted about cooking, sports, and other everyday mundanities. They used the trivial to build rapport and trust with their followers, to make the fake accounts seem more real, and to normalize the extreme ideas they were posting.
Here I was retreating from the web because I thought my online presence was unimportant and inconsequential. Meanwhile, a foreign power was using its resources to pretend to be someone like me to try to influence someone like me. What kind of influence does that mean I really have? What kind of influence does that mean each of us has? And who fills that vacuum if we fail to fill it ourselves?
I don’t like the possibilities that come up when I try to answer that question. And so rather than retreat into my black domain, here I am: re-learning how to be myself on the internet instead.