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Two years of spending more time in ‘dark forests’

Trees in a forest

Back in 2019, Yancey Strickler wrote:

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.

In doing so, he gave a name to something many of us had been feeling: that the fully-public spaces we previously inhabited in a carefree way are increasingly ideological battlegrounds. In response, we crave “depressurized conversation… possible because of… non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments”.

I’ve spent a lot less time on Twitter in the last couple of years. But it’s changed and I’ve changed, and I find more joy, fulfilment, and recognition elsewhere these days. Slack channels, corners of the Fediverse, and Signal chats have become a lot more important in my life.

As Strickler wrote in a follow-up post, however, we can’t just stay in the forests all of the time. To “expect anything to change for the better”, he says, “we have to actively engage”. For some people, that will look like the digital equivalent of punching nazis. But for others, it will look like building, maintaining, and evangelising spaces which are more conducive to the depressurised conversations we often seek.


In a bid to be ever-more-present for my family and my own mental health, I’ve been experimenting again with Pinafore, an alternative front-end for Mastodon. Devoid of commercial imperatives to ‘hook’ users, this webapp implements easy-to-use toggles based on guidelines from the Center for Humane Technology. (You may remember the latter from the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.) For example, you can turn the interface to greyscale, hide boosts and unread notifications, and make it so you have to press a button to reload the timeline.

Small differences, to be sure. But I’ve noticed that it makes a noticeable difference in lessening the number of times that I may mindlessly pick up my phone to do the dreaded ‘stare and scroll’…


Image based on an original by Kilian Kremer

Skin in the game?

Simple tattoo looking like a hummingbird (or the Twitter logo)

Almost four years ago, I joined the Fediverse through Mastodon. I’d been researching, writing, and speaking on decentralised technologies for social good and had experimented with a whole range of things.

Since then, I’ve switched Mastodon instance a few times and, at the time of writing, you can find me on Fosstodon, a place dedicated to free and open source software. I was so enamoured by the potential of decentralisation that I led the MoodleNet project for a couple of years, taking it from zero to one.


Until earlier this year, I was an active user of Twitter, and had been for 13 years. While I still auto-post my published articles there, I only login a couple of times per month to check everything is working and look at my notifications. People still occasionally tag me in threads.

One thread I saw when logging in this week was about the ‘viability’ of, well, everything except mainstream social networks. Other platforms, according to the people posting in the thread, just don’t have the “traction”.

All I can say to this is that there are those that expect a thing to exist fully-formed before engaging with it, and there are those people who expect to help bring anything they engage with into being.

Either position is fine, but know where you stand. If you’re a builder of new software, networks, or communities, then get on and build. If you’re a user of those software, tools, and communities to further your professional career, then do that. But perhaps don’t wring your hands about ‘viability’ if you haven’t got your skin in the game of building something new.


This post is Day 70 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

The state of professional social networking: a personal history

In September 2003, I was just married and embarking on a postgraduate course to become a History teacher. My online social life up to that point had consisted largely of MSN Messenger, but professional online interaction tended to happen via email or forums.

One particularly useful resource at the time was the Schools History discussion forum. This featured History teachers of all ages and experience and was a treasure trove of interesting information and resources.

Early on in my teaching course, I was a registered member of the forum, but was just a lurker. The information and resources were useful, but I hadn’t even introduced myself. My Gravatar history would suggest that my avatar was Cary Grant.

This changed one day when, after a seminar, the only other person on my course who was a member of the forum asked why I didn’t post anything on there? I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, so I introduced myself soon afterwards and, well, that was that. I was regular poster on the forum from late 2003 for the next seven years or so.

Alongside the forum, I experimented with a Facebook account, courtesy of my academic email address. Ditto with MySpace, which I also didn’t use much. What I did do was blog a lot, as there was emerging what was known as the ‘edublogosphere’. I published every day on teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk as well as maintaining resources for my History students.

What I enjoyed about the edublogosphere was bloggers like me commenting on each others’ posts and discovering new voices. I remember FriendFeed being really handy in that regard. And then, in the midst of the Web 2.0 boom, came Twitter. I joined in the same month my son was born, January 2007.

It’s impossible for me to overstate the importance of Twitter to my career. It accelerated my development as an educator and gave me a network to draw from and rely upon. Part of me skipping middle management and going straight to senior management in schools is directly because of the connections and growth facilitated through my Twitter network.

I ran workshops on Twitter in the schools in which I worked. Most educators didn’t ‘get’ it until around 2010 when the BBC interviewed Stephen Fry, technophile and certified UK national treasure, about Twitter. He waxed lyrical about the platform, and all of a sudden people saw it as something that could connect you to celebrity. That was different. That was exciting.

Over the last decade, Twitter has become an entirely different platform. I’m not particularly interested in criticising it but will note that you get a different ethos and vibe when verified profiles are making official pronouncements using the platform. Even if you don’t particularly want to, you end up spending more time discussing politics and policing other people’s opinions.

As a result of my dissatisfaction with something I previously held so dear, since early 2017 I’ve been exploring decentralised social networks. Since then I’ve been using different instances of Mastodon, but also have accounts on different ‘Fediverse’ platforms as well, such as Pleroma and PixelFed.

In fact, I went reasonably far down the rabbithole, becoming Product Manager for MoodleNet, the world’s first federated social network for educators, and taking it from zero to one. So I’ve spent the last couple of years primarily thinking about issues relating to decentralised social networking.

Reflecting on all of this has made me realise that, for me at least, social networking has been intimately linked with professional networking. Now that it’s difficult to have a professional discussion on Twitter without politics getting in the way, where’s that moving to?

The obvious answer is LinkedIn, I guess, but there’s a definite self-congratulatory tone about updates there. Everyone’s “excited to be part of” something, or “pleased to be able to announce” something else. Look at me, ma! I’m doing business! 🙄

Despite, or perhaps because of, my background in Philosophy, I’m a practical kind of person. While I’m comfortable in the abstract, I want to get down to brass tacks – to what works in practice. So I can bide my time in the early stages of a social networks where people are talking primarily about the network itself, but am itching to get to more practical uses.

That’s coming, for sure. The Fediverse in 2020 is a more mature and nuanced place than it was in 2017, for example. But we’re still waiting for more than geeks and early adopters to get with the program. Then, for few glorious years, we’ll hopefully have a place that flourishes before the inevitable(?) commodification and selling out.


This post is Day 51 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com Posted in 100DaysToOffload

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