Broadly-speaking, I strive to encourage critical thinking and more inclusive conversations about these issues. And by "inclusive" in this context, I mostly mean bringing humans to the table who aren't 'tech people', yet who also inhabit this web city of ours and have valuable experiences & perspectives to share. In order to nurture online vibrancy, I believe it's crucial to be having both offline and online dialogues about these topics with as wide a variety of people as possible. I sense that this is a major impediment to the various movements which are attempting to 'redecentralize' or re-imagine the web right now.
In offline contexts, this means regularly drawing attention to how powerful and consequential the web is, and how empowering it is to learn how to navigate, connect, and build through it. This may seem extremely simple and obvious to a lot of people, but I think is deceptively so.
Being online has become widely framed as a passive activity -- like turning on a TV -- rather than an incredible opportunity to explore, learn, connect, and express ourselves in unprecedented ways. In my view, sustained passivity about the nature of the web environment itself and our behavior within it has led to a dearth of literacy and agency (people become 'users'), and a loss of literacy and agency has left people vulnerable to being manipulated and exploited ('users' become 'consumers'). As such, in the currently dominant frameworks of 'engagement' on the web, personal information and social activity have been metricized and commodified for the benefit of 'Big Progress'.
But to a lot of people who have been successfully marketed web passivity, being so blunt about critical perspectives will likely come across as more-or-less conspiratorial, and potentially also threatening to their self-conception (e.g. 'who are you without Social Media?'). So, I usually start by asking people very simple questions about their online experiences and deepen the conversation bit by bit from there.
So that's the first layer for me: broadening critical dialogues about this 'web city' of ours in general.
The second layer is sharing the specifics of what I've learned, showcasing tools & spaces I've found useful, and pointing people toward more skilled tinkerers & communicators than myself. This sometimes happens in the form of curation, such as what I'm doing here on Are.na by making some of my research public in collections like digital.life or as I have in the past through channels such as my old SpaceCollective blog -- and furthermore, inviting people to join me in exploring these topics. Or it can be through using lesser-known online tools to create things like a collaborative community events calendar or a pandemic resources portal - or, on a more personal level, a collaborative blog with my partner. I should also add that the focus for me is usually not so much encouraging people to learn to build online completely 'from scratch' as a means of reclaiming agency (unless they show a strong interest in doing so), but rather nudging the boundaries of their awareness of alternative platforms which can enable them to gradually wean off of passive dependency and toward greater web literacy.
Finally, there are so many fantastic writers, coders, artists, etc. who have created incredible testaments to and critical articulations of the complex beauty and horror of this 'city'. So I point people to the work of inspiring people like Zach Mandeville, Robin Sloan, Lauren McCarthy, and Ben Grosser, who do such a beautiful job articulating their perspectives and posing questions about these topics. For people who are either new to the city or have forgotten how to navigate without the benevolent guidance of 'Big Progress', these people, works, and spaces can easily remain hidden from view. So I try to be a good guide, introducing them to some spots in the city where they too can mingle with other explorers & outsiders, find ways to reclaim some of their agency, and help build a more diverse, human-friendly online environment.
I would say that I consider myself to be something along the lines of a 'roaming tinkerer' when it comes to building in this web 'city'. By that, I mean that while I do have some straightforward knowledge about web development, I'm mostly just figuring things out in my own crude, experimental way as I go.
I roam around searching for spaces and tools which might support my ability to create and explore autonomously, and to connect with other community members from time to time.
My entry point for this way of being online was really just the general excitement which I originally felt about the web as a realm of discovery, creativity, and connection. I remember how magical web spaces felt during my earliest days online, and how empowering it was to learn that anyone could create or enter digital spaces freely as a means of exploring their identity and expressing their interests beyond the norms & limitations of offline society - and on top of that, connecting with other strange humans around the world who they would never otherwise never meet. For someone who has always been a social outsider, this felt especially revolutionary.
At first though, I was only an explorer - getting a feel for this new city and the rich patchwork of buildings, tools, & communities which gave it form. But gradually, I became 'street smart' enough to become a builder, of sorts, as well. Truthfully, the greatest challenge for me has always been the fact that I have more of an 'artist's mentality' than an engineer's, and as a consequence have a hard time working with the technical language and structure of digitality.
That being said, I used whatever tools I could get my hands on (mostly free trials of software such as Macromedia Dreamweaver & Flash) to begin experimenting with creating spaces for myself, and inspected other structures which caught my eye to learn to piece together my earliest creations. And once I began tinkering and learning, my mind opened to more and more applications for this new ability: personal spaces led to activist campaigns, fandom shrines, and more. As a teenager, I built many sites in this fashion and was able to share them through platforms such as FreeWebs. (I'm now remembering that a fan site that I created in my late teens had a forum, and two of the users who met there eventually ended up getting married! An early memory of the power of web-building sinking in...)
Returning now to the web as a city in transition, I'm still tinkering, learning, and exploring, but as the landscape has become dominated by 'Big Progress' (i.e. Social Media), I have become increasingly cantankerous. This is primarily because, in my eyes, the colorful diversity and participatory vibrancy of the 'old city' has been largely displaced by dull homogeny and apathetic passivity. Whereas before there was a vast patchwork of structures reflecting the richness of the people who built & inhabited the city, now almost every building looks the same, and people express their humanity by putting posters on their walls and yelling out of the windows of their otherwise-identical units. The once-open streets are littered with ads, heavily-surveilled, and lined with tabloid stands.
Again, this is how the dominant webscape feels to me right now.
In order to sustain this new environment, 'Big Progress' has sold countless people the idea that this state of affairs is not only 'normal' but desirable. Even further than that, they have managed to convince many people that beyond their walls and sanctions lies the risk of social annihilation. Your very livelihood and significance as a human being depends upon committing yourself to their properties and terms in perpetuity. In this paradigm, 'Big Progress' is not only a part of the city - it is the city. Everything else becomes peripherally anomalous.
As a roaming tinkerer, I have felt increasingly restricted by and concerned about these entities which impose a rigid, manipulative framework upon my ability to explore and make connections. So instead of remaining trapped in their enclosures, I've found myself drawn outward towards areas of the city where 'romantics', 'futurists', and 'romantic-futurists' (such as myself) can live more autonomously--spaces such as Are.na, Write.as, Scuttlebutt, and Neocities which empower me to continue to experiment, build, and learn on my own terms.
To expand a bit on these platforms: Are.na has become a research space for me, and feels like going to a library where I can either keep to myself in a study room or link up with other researchers in collaborative zones. Write.as feels like a peaceful journaling space where I can express myself freely & creatively, and share my output privately with loved ones or in a friendly writing circle. Scuttlebutt is a welcoming neighbourhood by the water where I go to escape the city noise, reflect & write, meet new people & socialize, and learn about new tools & spaces I might explore. And Neocities is the district where I currently reside, and which feels like a remnant of the colorful city that I first roamed & became inspired by when I arrived here.
Having established a presence within these communities, I now find myself positioned in a space between the people who seek to navigate away from their dependency upon 'Big Progress' yet lack the 'street smarts' to do so, and the architects, engineers, & punks who are cultivating these new spaces of digital empowerment, autonomy, & diversity. As I've continued to weave my way between these groups, it has become increasingly clear to me that we greatly lack maps, guides, and accessible pathways which would help nurture vibrancy & inclusivity in these areas.
This is where I focus most of my attention as a digital citizen - in advocating for and trying to develop greater engagement and collaboration between people of a wide variety of backgrounds and skill sets who share a common desire of breaking away from the current hegemony--drawing upon the past and navigating the present while working towards a healthier future.
These are complex acts we’ve now become unconsciously and unreasonably good at. Beneath the overt rituals, there is a genuinely deep process of real identity construction that we get through in hours to days with barely a thought. We may present with cartoon profile images, but we are no longer cartoons online. We take our fully expressible selves there.
The richer the medium, the more completely human it allows your constructed personae to be. And the more it allows you to be completely human, the more there is something it is like to be at home in that particular medium.
As a result, the YouTube audience is largely a digitally homeless one. Lonely, disconnected, and vulnerable to being drawn into ridiculously psychotic bunny trails that can swallow susceptible psyches whole, and spit them out utterly distorted at the other end. Serious creators on YouTube do not grow their communities there. Instead, they develop communities elsewhere, relying on YouTube primarily for a narrow set of functions relating to video hosting and distribution. Google seems uniquely bad at dealing with digital homelessness, just as America seems uniquely bad at dealing with the meatspace version.
“Each time we say “IRL,” “face-to-face,” or “in person” to mean connection without screens, we frame what is “real” or who is a person in terms of their geographic proximity rather than other aspects of closeness — variables like attention, empathy, affect, erotics, all of which can be experienced at a distance. We should not conceptually preclude or discount all the ways intimacy, passion, love, joy, pleasure, closeness, pain, suffering, evil and all the visceral actualities of existence pass through the screen. “Face to face” should mean more than breathing the same air”