Monday, 15 October 2018

[BEYONDE] Beyond Google Plus, and Fixing the Internet

Thou hast offended the algorithm!
Depart now and never return!

Right, everyone has heard the news: Google is shuttering its failed social network. Told you so? Right in my first post of substance! So which way forward? This is going to be a short post, but it will be more than an announcement.

First things first: G+ is not going away yet. Posting there has been on borrowed time the last few years anyway, and we can still keep doing it for a while. I plan to continue being active there, but I have mostly moved on to, the fittingly oddball social network where the old-school posters seem to be going. So far, it has been a good experience, so hopefully, it will work out – and if it doesn’t, there will be other options. This blog will also be around as long as Google does not decide to can Blogspot (like that would ever happen, right? Right?), and I plan to be updating it as I can. On MeWe, I have created a group for Echoes From Fomalhaut, where I will be posting regular updates. Join me if you would like.

So much for myself. Now for the main thing: what does it all mean for old-school gaming? How can we survive such a doubtless destructive event? I will go against the grain and suggest it is going to be a good thing, with implications beyond our hobby. Here is why.


The users will find a way. It has been my experience that platforms and communities come and go, but you can usually meet the same people over and over again. Old-school gaming is approaching twenty years, and it has spread out from forum threads to dedicated communities to blogs and social networks. There have been many stops and reversals along the way. Communities have split up in bitter feuds, parted on amicable terms, or as it often goes, ceased to have new things to say to each other. New sub-groups have sprung up and created their own niches, fads have come and gone, but the good games have endured. This is because our communities are not governed by a five-year marketing plan, but hobbyist interests: they will live in some form as long as we need them to; and if they won’t anymore, that will be no great loss. And most people will be along. I have seen the same circle of friends crop up again and again, sometimes after taking a few years off and coming back with new ideas (I have done that, too). The change is also not absolute: the other points of light of the old-school wilderness, blogs and forums will stay where they always were, and you can revisit them.

Occasional shake-ups are good reminders, and good for creativity. When old communities fade and new ones emerge, there is always new buzz and enthusiasm, new Terra Incognita to discover. On MeWe, one of the first threads in the OSR community is an obligatory “what’s your favourite old-school system?” thread. Before you scoff, I will say that these topics need to be restated every so often, not only to remind us of our creative origins (a must for any old-schooler), but also to see things in a new light. New combinations and new contexts is where innovation comes from. Like a kaleidoscope, a slightly different arrangement will produce a different image. Someone somewhere will discover the OD&D rulebooks or the Gygaxian DMG again, and have something new and worthwhile to say about them. It has happened every time before, and it shall happen again. With all my interest in weird fantasy, I also like going back to the AD&D standard (the real deal!) in different periods of my life, and seeing where it takes me.


Now for the more contentious part, which has a bit less to do with gaming. It was time for Google Plus to die, because its continued existence was bad for the Internet. The technological firms, which have enjoyed the benefits of immense network externalities, have been gradually taking the Internet in a destructive direction by subverting its core architecture. What does that mean? In the way it came to be, the Old Internet (my term) emerged as a decentralised network of networks. Communication was facilitated among its nodes on a global scale, requiring universal protocols, but it was a landscape of self-organised, self-governing communities. This is bottom-up architecture, based on the principle of subsidiarity. It is a great marketplace of ideas, resting on the simple principle that people have free movement, and no actor is powerful enough to restrict them. You might not like a forum like ENWorld, but you could find your place on Dragonsfoot, one of the zillion ezBoards, not to mention a myriad Geocities pages. This is an Internet in the service of its users, and (through its self-regulating nature) well adapted to different needs and communities.

In contrast, the New Internet of the tech monopolies follows hierarchical, top-down structures. Increasingly, more and more communication (including commercial activity) takes place on a shrinking number of platforms, which accrue immense advantages from their size. They are no longer market actors you can avoid or move away from, since there are increasingly fewer places to go. If you cut your ties with Paypal, you can’t switch to SpendFriend, because the vast majority of your potential customers will not do business with you. Your business will be ruined. The convenience of doing all our shopping on Amazon is a winning formula, but as the number of business rivals is diminished, we lose choices we never knew were important to have. Google Plus was a product that had been great for a niche like gamers – but it is going away because that niche is insufficiently profitable.

A social media expert from before it was cool
(note the hipster glasses)
The tech giants are also decidedly not acting in good faith. Our online life, which has a growing footprint in physical reality, is moulded to fit their needs, and put under intense scrutiny. Facebook, Google and their peers have access to profiling tools which we could not imagine ten or twenty-eight years ago. And neither would Erich Honecker. In the hands of those who are prone to abuses of power (that is, everyone), access to these instruments can do unimaginable harm. The “Don’t be evil” company, which had given you 1 GB of free space back in 2004 (when this seemed unimaginable generosity), is now developing tools of totalitarian thought control for China, and whose new internal “research document” is titled “The Good Censor”. Yes, it is just as bad as it sounds. It is ostensibly in the interests of “marginalised groups” (the new “think of the children!” trick), but it is very much about policing, silencing and punishing people. The right kind of people? The wrong kind of people? You next? Who has the right to decide?

I do not believe other companies are more virtuous. MeWe is probably not any more principled than Google. But its ability to do harm is limited due to its lesser market share and social reach. If, as some predict, its owner will suddenly pull off his wig and face mask to reveal Adolf Hitler or The Russkies, we can shrug and move to another platform. Facebook and Google, though? The costs of escaping their orbit are not yet insurmountable, but they are already steep. Like “losing contact with a lot of friends and family” steep or “he was applying for the job, but we couldn’t check him out so we just kinda dropped him into the reject pile” steep. Like the Ring, it comes with definite benefits, but like the Ring, the power to control a large share of the Internet through market share or government fiat must be destroyed, or at least diluted until a viable alternative emerges. Jaron Lanier has said some sensible things about where to go. Tim Berners-Lee is working on something mysterious to fix the Internet he had helped create.  And deep down, a lot of people are dissatisfied with the way things are going. The forces which had created the New Internet turned users from customers into commodities, and smushed them together to a degree that’s uncomfortable and liable to generate more and more conflict.

Was the Old Internet a place for kooks, oddballs, and fringe people? Yes, and it was much healthier for it. Was there disagreement and hate? Yes, human nature prevailed. And yet, curiously, there was less nastiness around, because not everyone was supposed to coexist in the same place. You could build your own communities and others could build theirs. There was as much distance between you and others as you wanted. It was a place for no-one, and accordingly, everyone. It was certainly great for gamers, a place for our kind. It was like the real “paradox of tolerance”. No, not the one by Karl Popper. That one is utter nonsense, concocted by people who hate freedom. Here is the real deal: it may hurt to allow people you intensely dislike to exist and speak for themselves, but ultimately, that’s the same principle defending you. Or, more succinctly: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” (If you imagined this quote with the image of a great white eagle flying before your mind’s eye, you are on the right track.)

Google and Facebook want to put everyone into the same little box, and if you don’t fit… well, bad news for you. If you are overcrowded in there, bad news for you. If they take a dislike to you in a place they can control, bad news for you. How come they are more important?

By a stroke of luck, we are no longer in the box. Good for us. It is not always going to be easy, but it is going to be glorious.