Nate's Thoughts

Just...whatever occurs to me.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Bix had wandered across my earlier entry. I keep vaguely meaning to put in permanent links to my Write.as blog, and maybe even my “suitable for employers” public appearance WordPress Blog, but I realized something:

Those are both currently built as “public facing” sites, which isn't what I'm trying for here. Bix talks about “friction” in maintaining communities, and I like the metaphor. It sparked an idea in me that I couldn't quite put into words. Fortunately Edie Brickell popped up thanks to the almighty algorithm™️ and gave me the words I was looking for:

Me, I'm a part of your circle of friends And we, notice you don't come around.

Eureka!

Current online systems are good at showing you when someone does something, posts or tweets or toots or comments or whatever. But the endless scroll hides the absences. Not out of any malice, I suspect, just because it's harder to show people when someone doesn't say something. What would that notification even look like?

Something like this, maybe:

Right around here Nate thought about saying something but deleted it.

But that feels intensely creepy, as it should.

It's not really something I can fault the makers of social media sites for, but it's something that happens naturally in real circles of friends, and we need a way to re-create it in our online spaces.

How?

Ah, you ask a good question, straw man <h2> question. I really don't know. But here's my first thought: We get lost in large social networks. There is always enough going on to fill anyone's wall or stream or whatever you call it. It's so easy to get caught up in the minutae of third-tier friends that you don't notice the absence of a first-rate friend.

So what if we had smaller social networks? The general consensus is that you can have about fifty “actual” friends. Imagine a social network that is that small; small enough that when Alice is quiet for two days Bob notices and reaches out to Alice directly. Write.as almost has this, but as it stands there's no way for me to reach out to another user quietly, unless they've gone out of their way to include direct contact information.

I'm imagining a slightly different type of social space. A network that is intentionally enclosed by default, where comments aren't immediately put out into the public web. Inside jokes could grow up in such an environment, real connections could form as people grow to feel safe with each other.

And terrible stuff could grow up in such environments too, I'm alive to that possibility. But just because an idea can be used for evil doesn't mean it can't be a good idea.

I don't quite know how to form this kind of online community. Forums have had some of this, but up until now the goal has always been to grow, to make bigger and wider nets.

It might be time to reverse that trend.

If you have ideas about this, if you happen to see this, reach out to me. I'm @nate@frogmob.life on Mastodon.

And we need to start teaching it like one. Programming is related to mathematics, sure, but so is everything. Painters either intrinsically or explicitly use color theory, which is mathematics. Sculptors have to know the structural tolerances of their medium, or their sculpture will fall apart. Music just is mathematics, with the emotion added back in.

And programming is similar. We have reached a day and age where you can be an honest to goodness programmer with a limited understanding of quantitative reasoning. I should know; the last sixteen years of my career were spent writing code. You no longer need to know how to bit shift to write a website. Boolean logic is important, but it can be taught linguistically instead of arithmetically. Some people respond better to word-logic than number-logic.

This doesn't mean I think we should get rid of deeply algorithmic computer science; we most certainly shouldn't. People who can think in algorithms are advancing what our machines can do, and are moving the boundaries back on every form of innovation.

One of the points from How to do Nothing that resonated with me was the concept of context. The problem with Twitter isn't just that we're limited to 500 characters; 500 characters is more than ample for a reply to a comment from someone else. When I'm chatting with my friends very few of my messages are more than 500 characters.

The problem is that each little island of words is totally disassociated from the ones around it. Each tweet on Twitter is its own thing, and you have to build up a context in your mind to try to understand the author's point of view, or, more commonly, just become numb to people's comments.

None of what I have said so far came from me, by the way. This is all a summation of what Jenny Odell said in her book. You should go read it.

Here's my part.

Context is something to be built and protected.

We, each of us, are a lens through which a world can be seen. If that lens is fractured, scattered into dozens of tiny pieces, it's not good for a whole lot.

So it is up to each of us to decide what we want to bring into focus in our own lives. What do we want to see? What do we want to show others?