The internet wants to be fragmented

Thursday, January 12th, 2023

“You know,” Noah Smith quipped, “fifteen years ago, the internet was an escape from the real world. Now the real world is an escape from the internet.”

When I first got access to the internet as a kid, the very first thing I did was to find people who liked the same things I liked — science fiction novels and TV shows, Dungeons and Dragons, and so on. In the early days, that was what you did when you got online — you found your people, whether on Usenet or IRC or Web forums or MUSHes and MUDs. Real life was where you had to interact with a bunch of people who rubbed you the wrong way — the coworker who didn’t like your politics, the parents who nagged you to get a real job, the popular kids with their fancy cars. The internet was where you could just go be a dork with other dorks, whether you were an anime fan or a libertarian gun nut or a lonely Christian 40-something or a gay kid who was still in the closet. Community was the escape hatch.

Then in the 2010s, the internet changed. It wasn’t just the smartphone, though that did enable it. What changed is that internet interaction increasingly started to revolve around a small number of extremely centralized social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and later Instagram.

From a business perspective, this centralization was a natural extension of the early internet — people were getting more connected, so just connect them even more.


Putting everyone in the world in touch through a single network is what we did with the phone system, and everyone knows that the value of a network scales as the square of the number of users. So centralizing the whole world’s social interaction on two or three platforms would print loads of money while also making for a happier, more connected world.


It started with the Facebook feed. On the old internet, you could show a different side of yourself in every forum or chat room; but on your Facebook feed, you had to be the same person to everyone you knew. When social unrest broke out in the mid-2010s this got even worse — you had to watch your liberal friends and your conservative friends go at it in the comments of your posts, or theirs. Friendships and even family bonds were destroyed in those comments.


The early 2010s on Twitter were defined by fights over toxicity and harassment versus early-internet ideals of free speech. But after 2016 those fights no longer mattered, because everyone on the platform simply adopted the same patterns of toxicity and harassment that the extremist trolls had pioneered.


Why did this happen to the centralized internet when it hadn’t happened to the decentralized internet of previous decades? In fact, there were always Nazis around, and communists, and all the other toxic trolls and crazies. But they were only ever an annoyance, because if a community didn’t like those people, the moderators would just ban them. Even normal people got banned from forums where their personalities didn’t fit; even I got banned once or twice. It happened. You moved on and you found someone else to talk to.

Community moderation works. This was the overwhelming lesson of the early internet. It works because it mirrors the social interaction of real life, where social groups exclude people who don’t fit in. And it works because it distributes the task of policing the internet to a vast number of volunteers, who provide the free labor of keeping forums fun, because to them maintaining a community is a labor of love. And it works because if you don’t like the forum you’re in — if the mods are being too harsh, or if they’re being too lenient and the community has been taken over by trolls — you just walk away and find another forum. In the words of the great Albert O. Hirschman, you always have the option to use “exit”.


They tinkered at the edges of the platform, but never touched their killer feature, the quote-tweet, which Twitter’s head of product called “the dunk mechanism.” Because dunks were the business model — if you don’t believe me, you can check out the many research papers showing that toxicity and outrage drive Twitter engagement.


Humanity does not want to be a global hive mind. We are not rational Bayesian updaters who will eventually reach agreement; when we receive the same information, it tends to polarize us rather than unite us. Getting screamed at and insulted by people who disagree with you doesn’t take you out of your filter bubble — it makes you retreat back inside your bubble and reject the ideas of whoever is screaming at you. No one ever changed their mind from being dunked on; instead they all just doubled down and dunked harder. The hatred and toxicity of Twitter at times felt like the dying screams of human individuality, being crushed to death by the hive mind’s constant demands for us to agree with more people than we ever evolved to agree with.

I love to quote-tweet approvingly. I suppose that’s one of my eccentricities.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    What happened? Monetization won:

    This isn’t the Internet from 15 years ago, much less the Internet from 25 years ago.

    Web pages aren’t built by Internet people to be viewed by Internet people using devices and software that have been carefully optimized by Internet people. Websites run on prefab templates used as value-extraction tools to harvest either consumer dollars or consumer data which can be turned into dollars. Most web browsing is done on phones.

    Most people are “on the Internet” in some way pretty much every minute of the day, whether they think of it that way or not.
    When the average person says they care about “privacy”, what they really mean is they don’t want their information stolen to make purchases or open lines of credit in their name. They don’t actually mean “I want to keep my life, and communications, and activities private”. So privacy features really are not the motivator tech people believe them to be.

    Most people have been rewired into pure convenience-seeking consumer drones. Whatever browser opens the quickest and easiest, with the least amount of setup and the highest integration into other apps/OSes, and feels the most familiar, that’s the browser they will use. I wager that a significant percentage of, say, iPhone users, wouldn’t even know “Safari” is the name of a web browser. They just know the method to get to a website — go tap on that blue circle compass thing in a specific spot on their home screen. Or people use their phone’s app-switching shortcut to move among apps without launching a fresh browser instance.

    What does Firefox have that would pierce the fog of convenience strongly enough to grab a modern person’s attention and hold it long enough for them to be bothered to take several minutes minutes and half a dozen taps/clicks to install an “alternative browser” and switch their integration to use it instead? I don’t mean Firefox the program with a set of features which can be compared to other programs in a Wikipedia chart. I mean “Firefox” as a integrated way to do things in modern life the way “Google” is.

    Face it, the future belongs to a small handful of monopolists leveraging their products and their partner products. The monetization of the Internet has won. The fringe power-users have lost. Have a nice day.

    To quote a random schmuck from Slashdot.

    I really want my web 1.0 back. And a phone made of bakelite!!!

  2. Jim says:

    Fifteen years ago, men were the only large language models on the Internet.

  3. Jim says:

    This website could plausibly be seen as the Internet’s biggest quote-tweet.

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