February 17, 2017

Lost in Cyberspace

New MeWe Group: Lost in Cyberspace

I have been online for a very long time. Longer than most of the internet's most loyal fans have even been alive. The first cyberspace hangout where I became a regular user was back in USENET days. "rec.arts.prose" back in the old days was a wild, rambunctious place where anyone with a USENET reader could post short stories, novel chapters, article drafts, or any other prose composition and receive a wide array of responses. If they preferred, a person need not post anything at all. They could just as easily spend hours and hours every day responding to the work of others. I learned a lot about writing through participation in rec.arts.prose. I also learned a lot about flame wars, temporary alliances, cyberspace coup d'etat, and waging war using nothing but well-timed sarcasm. It did not take long for me to learn about rec.arts.poems and rec.arts.poetry, two groups with similar names and widely divergent goals. The first was an open newsgroup, just like rec.art.prose. The latter was a closed newsgroup. Closed newsgroups back in the day were carried on USENET news servers just like any other group, but participation was strictly controlled. A person could not post in a closed newsgroup, nor could they reply to posts in a closed newsgroup, until the moderator had added their name to a member's list kept on the main server for the closed group. Anyone could read a closed newsgroup but no one who was not pre-approved by the moderator could participate. Even back in the earliest days of cyberspace there have been people trying to shield themselves behind impenetrable walls. Closed USENET newsgroups were always the home of closed minds. That was another painful lesson learned in those early days.

Then one day I stumbled across an open newsgroup called, "alt.cuddle". Alt.cuddle was an open newsgroup with one very strictly enforced rule: Don't feed the trolls! Any participant could post anything they liked as long as it was not harmful, offensive, or worded as an aggressive attack. Anyone who tried to kindle or feed a flame war quickly found themselves completely ignored. The participants carried on with their own conversations and storytelling as if the troll did not even exist. Alt.cuddle taught me that the "invisible" rule from childhood could become a very real thing in the right circumstances. It was powerfully effective. Belligerent posts very quickly dropped completely off the visible post list simply from being ignored. Bellicose people never stayed for long because absolutely no one in the group paid them any notice. There was never any need to transform alt.cuddle into an actual closed group because the "Don't feed the trolls!" rule functioned with equal effectiveness while allowing anyone who came into the group and enjoyed the repartee to stay and "play in the meadow". The rise of Facebook, however, ended alt.cuddle as surely as if everyone had woken from a dream.

Facebook is an odd place. It combines the best and worst of USENET, supplementing it all with the ability to share photos, videos, news headlines, or random graphics that have become known as "internet memes". The strength of Facebook is the ability to remove from your newsfeed anyone or anything that disturbs you. I assume all of my old alt.cuddle friends are on Facebook somewhere, but I have been completely unable to find them. Facebook uses real names while USENET almost always used pseudonyms. Facebook taught me how powerful a pseudonym can be at preserving anonymity.

Facebook, however, has begun a slow decline. People are fracturing it up into tiny enclaves devoted to the same single mode of thinking, just like in the old closed USENET newsgroups. Trolls thrive on Facebook in unbelievable numbers. Every single day I find myself forced to block or ignore someone, some group, or some company. I like to think of myself as open-minded, but as I get older I have less tolerance for delusional thinking or naive idealism, especially when both come together in a single person or an impassioned social movement. I suppose, if USENET were still active, I'd be a member of a closed newsgroup devoted to firearms or the daily news as seen through a conservative lens. I like to think of myself as "open-minded", but it is clear my mind has been slowly closing down over the past ten years or so. It used to be I honestly believed every idea had merit. Nowadays I find most ideas to be nothing more than a simple, stupid rephrasing of an older idea that has never in all of human history accomplished what it promised.

Now there's a new kid on the block. It's called, "MeWe". Like both USENET and Facebook, the centerpiece is an open newsfeed. This makes it a "social media" site. Anyone who joins can post their thoughts, ideas, an internet meme, a cat video, or whatever, and their post will be carried to the newsfeed of everyone in their contact list. Unlike Facebook, the individual's activity is not added to a giant metadatabase and sold to advertisers. They claim this makes MeWe more secure and more "private" than Facebook, which is laughable, but does make for good advertising copy. One of the most important lessons a person must learn in order to maximize their enjoyment of cyberspace is that nothing here is private. All of it is public information that is readily available to anyone with decent search engine skill. MeWe does not sell their metadata to advertisers, and this is commendable, but this is a long way from being even the simplest form of privacy, let alone anything approaching true privacy. In reality, the only thing this means is that advertisers wishing to take advantage of monitoring the activity of MeWe users will have to set up metadata search parameters and compile their own database from the public posts.

Rule number of one of internet privacy: If you don't want the entire 7 billion people living on planet Earth to know something, then don't post it on the internet and don't put it an email! When you need to keep your conversation private either pick up the telephone and call the person or, better yet, go over to their house and talk to them one-on-one. By assuming that everything you post on the internet or send in an email is public information you can avoid much of the humiliation experienced everyday by celebrities who find their nude photos or most intimate lovemaking videos suddenly available to the entire world. Not all of it, because sometimes someone you trust will put your information online against your wishes, but most of the problems can be avoided simply by not posting it yourself or sending it in an email. Nowadays even text messages between phones can wind up online with the accidental push of a button.

MeWe is still new. I just made a profile there and did a contact search. Their search only uncovered one other person among my friends and family with a MeWe profile. This means one of two things: either their privacy controls are much better than Facebook or no one else has made a MeWe profile yet! Probably the latter. Still, I downloaded the app onto my Japanese smart phone. I'll play around it for a little while and see how it goes. Perhaps it really is, "the next big thing!" Given a little time and more widespread participation, I'll find out firsthand. After all, sooner or later Facebook will go the way of USENET and something will replace it. That something might be MeWe, or it might be an all-new virtual reality cybervillage that no one alive has yet imagined, let alone programmed into existence.