Homogenization of Contexts, or The Right to a Hot Take

A PDF copy of this essay can be found here.

This is something that's a little bit out of the ordinary for my blog - something more philosophical than technical - but it's something that's been weighing on my mind for some time now. I've discussed the ideas I present here with many of my friends, and they understood (though not all necessarily agreed!), so maybe the internet at large would be interested as well. I think that the growing homogenization of the internet at large through sites like Facebook and YouTube, as well as the growing use of SSO (Single Sign-On) solutions to use a single account to login to a variety of smaller sites, has led to a chilling effect on the honesty of internet-based discourse; but more importantly, threatens to prevent our complete selves from being expressed to the world, which could prove extraordinarily harmful in the long run.

To begin with, "our complete selves" could bear some more explanation. I believe that people have multiple faces - or windows - that they switch out as appropriate for different people, gatherings, and so on. I don't think that they are completely separate, but a window onto the same base identity; the union of these windows form "you." I also believe that if there is a portion of the "you" which is not currently expressed through one of the windows, then "you" will make an effort to create a situation where the unexpressed portions can be broadcast. With this idea in mind, a couple other things fall into place.

The matter of confidants makes perfect sense, for instance. Parts of us that we couldn't otherwise express - our fears, insecurities, truly honest thoughts - we make available to a chosen few due to that base need for expression. We also see how trust factors into this; it is not always in our best interest to make others aware of more than one window onto ourselves, yet for certain people - significant others, close friends - we provide them with that privilege. Intimate relationships are then defined as the process of making yourself more of a known quantity to certain others.

The general aversion most of us have to snitching also makes sense when viewed in this light. If we know someone who normally presents themselves as a straight-laced type, but they also have a rebellious punk side that they allow us to see - maybe they smoke or do drugs or something like that - then the hesitance of most of us to alert their employer or some other authority is understandable. Firstly, there's the matter of trust here; we've been entrusted with the knowledge of a separate window, knowledge that our friend believes we will not use to bring them to harm. Secondly, why must the employer know? What they hired was the calm and mild-mannered employee window, not the party animal window.  Are we harming the employer by not alerting them to a separate window that has no bearing on the one they hired? The obvious counter-argument here is that the two windows are connected and our friend's ability as an employee is being harmed. I would counter that by saying that if that were so, the image presented by their employee window would gradually deteriorate to the point that they were fired. Why not let that happen naturally?

Notice how the examples I gave all had the fear of consequences as the root motivation; the threat of the world at large seeing us as more of a known quantity (thus eroding our ability to make intimate relationships) 1, and the fear of backlash from someone expressly interested not in our whole selves but merely one or two windows, prevents us from ever entirely expressing ourselves all at once. It's not necessarily a bad thing that we're unable to do so; in most cases only certain aspects of ourselves are really necessary in a given context - this is why we have the phrase "too much information," after all!

But where does the Internet factor into all this? The Internet is perhaps the best thing that has ever happened for the need for expression, which brings me to the main idea propelling this essay, the homogenization of Internet contexts. It used to be that the web was reasonably decentralized, at least in terms of who (on average) went where. Exposing little slivers of windows of yourself, and properly separating them so as not to unintentionally become more of a known quantity, was relatively simple. Not all discussion was appropriate on all sites - or contexts, as I call them here - but there was still a context in which your discussion was considered appropriate. But this has become less true as time has passed.

Nowadays, Internet traffic and discussion is heavily dominated by a small handful of sites. Proper separation of our own windows has become extremely difficult. Making comments and content under a pseudonym is not enough; for sites like Reddit, Twitter, or YouTube that keep a history of all things published by a specific user, it often takes just one person malicious or bored enough to make our carefully-constructed house of cards come crashing down around our ears, often with serious real-life consequences. The problem is compounded by the growing use of SSO, where our identities across multiple sites are explicitly tied together by using a single username to login to a variety of places; consider all the sites you see today with phrases such as "Log on with Facebook" or "Log in with Google." In effect, the majority of the modern web functions as a single window onto ourselves, acting as a giant soapbox to put our public selves on, with all the risks and potential consequences that entails.

But - perhaps directly due to our base need for expression! - some sites have been made that allow for total anonymity, allowing for each of our individual comments to be its own distinct window if we chose them to be, with the rest of the userbase being none the wiser. Most of these places carry some infamy, like 4chan, due to the layperson perceiving them as the absolute worst of what humanity has to offer in terms of dialogue. I think this is due to a couple reasons; I believe that the average discussion quality of any Internet group becomes markedly worse as the size of that group grows, though that is an argument worth its own blog post 2. For a site like 4chan that roughly 1 in 25 Americans visit on a monthly basis 3, discussion quality can get quite poor, especially when there are intentionally few rules on what can be discussed and how, and people are used to that not being the case. I think heavily compartmentalizing such a large place can mitigate the effect somewhat (Reddit is roughly on the right track but makes some serious missteps 4, 8chan's use of user-created boards is the closet thing out there to what I feel is the right solution), but that's a topic for another time.

Getting a bit back on topic, another byproduct of the homogenization of contexts in the modern web has been the polarization of what is and is not allowable in terms of speech. Everything is either carefully curated to fit a safe, milquetoast public image - as in the case of the Facebook/Google iceberg - or we are flung into the deep end of the pool where we are bombarded with the consequences of a large group of people given the double-edged sword of total anonymity. In an ideal world - similar to how the web used to be - there would be an archipelago of sites one could go to to discuss different matters; in other words, a variety of separate contexts. Note that I've never argued that all speech should be considered acceptable in all contexts, but rather that for a given thought, there should exist a context within which it is acceptable to express it 5. In this light, the existence of sites with total anonymity is more of a necessary evil than anything else, though I believe them to be the best short-term band-aid and am actively attempting to improve that landscape.

But why is this all important? Why should we take such pains to ensure that there is an avenue (with a decently-sized audience) for voicing our every thought and idea? This ties into the alternate title for this essay, the so-called "right to a hot take." 6 I think it's plain to see that the progress of ethics and human decency is built upon the long-suffering shoulders of the iconoclast - that ideas and concepts now considered obvious by the majority of the population were once the sole opinion of a select few radicals. This has always been the case, and it would be silly to think it would not be so in the future; there will probably be many contemporary conventions (some of which I probably hold!) that will be seen as backwards or even morally wrong by those not yet living.

This is why the diversity of contexts on the Internet is so important to me, and why I have endeavored to show that it should be important to you, as well. Never before in the history of the world have we been collectively blessed with a platform that potentially allows us to put forward and voice all kinds of ideas to countless others without directly putting ourselves at risk of discrimination or physical harm. Yet, at the same time, we are currently in grave danger of losing that blessing.

Some would say that some thoughts are "better left unexpressed." In a select few instances, I would be inclined to agree. Emotionally-charged outbursts, like how Alice left you out to dry at work today, are maybe better left on simmer. But core concepts and beliefs that form who we are must have an outlet, and I believe that outlet will eventually be forcibly made if no means of expressing those windows is allowed to exist, and I would prefer that such a reality would never come to pass. I think it's possible to express every part of ourselves in a respectful and safe manner thanks to the Internet, if only we separate the relevant windows well enough.

Finally, I would like to address the fear some have that a means of total self-expression, even if compartmentalized as I've described throughout this essay, could lead humanity down all kinds of dark roads. This idea has a couple problems; firstly, the assumption that humanity at large will throw away a concept if they are threatened into not discussing it in broad daylight has no historical basis. If anything, I believe the opposite is true. Secondly, it falls into the same trap I talked about earlier about believing no further moral progress will be made. We must all not be so prideful as to believe we are perfectly-enlightened bastions of morality; it would certainly be a sin of some sort to silence the voice of one who would have otherwise brought about a moral or ethical revolution 7. Lastly, I think the idea that we can avoid every kind of misstep fails to take into account basic human nature. We trip, stumble, and fall. We proceed down paths and trains of thought we perceive as perfectly logical that are completely nonsensical in hindsight. At times, we even commit atrocities against our fellow human beings, justifying it with some convoluted ideal or another.

Yet, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, we can always count on that one small voice. Who, despite risk to their public image, their social status, and perhaps even their life, dares to speak out: "My friends, this is not right."

I wish to do everything in my power to protect that one small voice.


[1] - The importance of the ability - I would go so far as to call it a right, actually - to withhold information about ourselves from others cannot be overstated. I would argue that it is one of the primary currencies of social capital, and furthermore is a kind of finite resource, as it is not generally possible to easily generate new sensitive information about yourself. This is why trust is such an innately personal, intimate thing - it is the act of providing collective ownership to a highly valuable finite resource - and why it feels so painful to have one's trust be violated.

[2] - I make this claim based largely on anecdotal evidence stemming from observing various Internet communities grow over time, some totally anonymous, some with pseudonyms. I think somehow compartmentalizing or breaking down large communities into lots of little largely-separate ones is the right path forward, but I'm admittedly not sure how to go about this.

[3] - This is the result of some back-of-the-napkin math I did with 4chan's advertising demographics. The info is publicly available if you'd like to do the numbers yourself.

[4] - The concept of upvotes incentivizes people to say what they believe will be the most palatable/agreeable/funny thing in the moment, in order to garner as much attention as possible. Additionally, opinions can be downvoted and consequently hidden from view, and often are if they disagree with the majority opinion, collectively leading to a chilling effect of a kind on expression. Places like 4chan, which lack upvotes but list replies to each individual post, cultivate a culture where people often tend to disagree wherever possible. When is someone most likely to respond to you? When they believe you to be wrong. It's funny to see how the inherent thirst for attention plays out on various sites.

[5] - It is for this reason that I believe web hosting providers have a special responsibility to not limit what is hosted on their platforms inasmuch as the hosted content does not fall afoul of the law. I do not think this responsibility should necessarily be enshrined in law, as I also think it important for businesses to generally serve whoever they wish for whatever reasons. There's plenty of room for discussion on the matter, though - should political affiliations be a protected class, for instance? How would political affiliations or opinions be defined in the eyes of the law? If some sites are removed, is the hosting provider now a curator and responsible for all (potentially illegal!) content and activity that they provide a platform for?

[6] - "Right" is admittedly a fairly strong term here. It could imply that we are owed the ability to speak whatever we want, whenever we want. In the context of this essay, I don't necessarily take that stance, but rather believe that for every potential window - every aspect of ourselves - there should an exist an appropriate platform for voicing that thought, with ideally as few ties to our general public image as possible. This is largely a self-correcting issue, what with things such as decentralized communication protocols and all, but I think this is a matter the Internet at large should take more note of to bring as many people into the fold as possible - not everyone is going to know how to set up something like GNUNet or IPFS. That, and "right to a hot take" just sounds cool.

[7] - I believe that it is because of this that countries with more relaxed laws and cultures surrounding acceptable speech tend to progress faster in the realm of human rights than ones that do not. There can be regressions (e.g, Jim Crow), but that is the nature of human progress and such mistakes correct themselves over time.