This is a two-part post. Click here for part one.
Prequel to the Dark Forest
Two weeks ago I wrote about the dark forest theory of the internet. I used the dark forest theory to explain why we’re afraid to be public online, and what could be lost as a result.
I first connected the dark forest theory with the internet when I had a strange realization earlier this year: that I knew how to be myself in real life, but I didn’t know how to be myself online.
In “real life” I’m a reasonably self-confident, 40-year-old human. If we sat next to each other on a plane we’d have a good-to-memorable conversation.
But on the internet, I feel like a teenager struggling to find their identity. I’m all awkward exclamation points and weird over-explanations. I’m often too self-conscious to be interesting or real.
When I used the internet as an actual adolescent in the 1990s and as a young adult in the 2000s, this wasn’t the case. I blogged every day. Message boards were how I learned to test theories and debate ideas. These communities were small enough that people knew each other but big enough that there was a diversity of opinion and conversation. You could vehemently disagree with someone about politics in one thread while agreeing just as passionately with that same person in a debate about movie sequels in another.
I had no problem being myself online then. But now it feels different.
A lot of this difference is on me. I’m older. I have more at stake. But it’s not just me that changed. The internet did too. The internet went from a venue for low stakes experimentation to the place with some of the highest stakes of all. With the rise of online bullying, shaming, and swatting, the internet became emotionally, reputationally, and physically dangerous. It became the dark forest. Our digital breadcrumbs became evidence that could and would be used against us. To keep safe we exercised our right to stay silent and moved underground.
When it comes to showing our true selves online, many of us are more like black…