This morning I read a piece in The Economist that decried, for what seems like the 400th time, "the end of the social network". And despite the titled hyperbole, it had some good points and brought to mind a lot of things that I've been musing about lately. One of the missing pieces in the article is Discord, which has replaced a lot of forums and Reddit communities with an unindexed mess of synchronous threads and discussions. I personally don't like Discord because it feels like the transition from email to Slack that we underwent in our work lives when the chat app was first released, except in this case, Discord does it for all online aspects of our personal life. Everything is real-time and there’s little opportunity for reflection and deeper discussions that we had with web forums. I began my digital social life on forums and made most of my friends there in late high school, so I’m sad that they mostly went away.
The replacement for thoughtful discussions on the internet has been broadly consolidated into Reddit. While forums could be anonymous, they were hosted in different places and managed by the owner, as well as any moderators they allowed to have access. But Reddit is centralized and much more profit-driven, despite having moderators for each subreddit. It's become a social network, albeit one that has a much different structure and audience from that of Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. I use Reddit a lot, but don't often participate in discussions. Instead, I use it to look up perfectly normal things like "what are the side effects of Claritin according to the populous?" And finding the answers is often pretty easy with Google, but not with Reddit's own search.
This is all possible because public subreddits are indexed. Discord servers and the channels within, on the other hand, are not. And when you are a member, search within them is far from great. Again, you’re basically searching Slack, and when you want to find something, you're looking through near-real-time conversations. There are theoretical ways around this – the server admins could instate rules that convince people to get into the habit of only having asynchronous conversations where they draft, ponder, and rewrite their thoughts before posting them. But that’d only be on that server, because Discord isn’t built that way. Nothing about its design normalizes drafting and pondering and rewriting, let alone "posting" your thoughts. What you do in Discord is send messages. So, consistent with that goal, the box you type in is a chat box. Although for some reason the send button looks like one in an email app, which is confusing to say the least. You can write a paragraph the length of this one, but it's certainly not encouraged by any of the available input mechanisms.
Threading the needles
Back to Reddit. It would seem to be a more ideal version of a discussion board – centralizing things means you can standardize the design and make it more user-friendly. For me, though, it's far from that. It does something differently than forums before it, something antithetical to creating a discussion worth reading or participating in. Reddit has nested threads, which create opportunities for tangents. Sure, sounds nice. But then you quickly realize that this feature allows you to dive into an infinite rabbit hole that, as you read, greatly distracts from the actual discussion or learning aspect of the topic you clicked on. It feels nice to learn fun facts or jokes along the way, perhaps, but is it really that useful? A thread about the side effects of Claritin quickly derails from a reply that goes into someone's personal theories of antihistamines at large, and then you’re curious, so you click on that to continue reading. No wonder it’s such a popular platform among folks proclaiming they have ADHD.
At this point, I sound like I’m making the classic conservative argument of returning things to the way they used to be. "Why can't it just be like it was in my glory days??" To me, it seems that the jittery nature of the human brain, with or without its caffeine and supplemental stimulants, melds poorly with the structure of modern discussion platforms. And I'd venture to say all modern discussion platforms. Twitter, for example. As a "micro" blogging service, it takes out so much of the nuanced context that someone can put into writing out their full train of thoughts on something, as I’m doing here. Some tweets are great, and the best ones manage to communicate multiple levels of information with the aptitude of a critically-acclaimed punchy standup comedy bit. But many are inflammatory not only to the reader, but to their brain. I remain wholly unconvinced that we need so many small hits of dopamine or whatever chemical it gives us throughout the day.
So then, perhaps the issue is the public social networks we've created. What about making them smaller, making the groups more moderated? Would that prevent the chaos? Enter Discord. Except, maybe don't.
Because it’s a chat platform, I find it very strange that Discord has become the replacement for many different types of platforms, such as subreddits that move to a Discord server, or a local meetup group that does the same. They're only leaving one centralized platform for another. The vast majority of the "discussions", if they can even be called that, are fleeting. For the local meetup group use case, at least it fits the purpose a bit better, since you're coordinating in-person events rather than hosting discussions. But there's always crosstalk and banter. Discord servers are not replacements for a true forum, which in this instance I mean an in-person organized discussion among a group of people. Online forums were a more direct replacement for this, and we somehow grew tired of putting in the effort and energy and thus attention needed to create and maintain them.
Killing the index
The explosion of "AI" tools like ChatGPT may actually be to blame for the privatization of communities. Personal privacy on the internet has become more and more of a concern for people, a reason Reddit gained popularity — it’s mostly anonymous, with some outliers putting private information on their profiles, typically for promotional purposes. ChatGPT and its equivalents rely on public information to learn. But understandably, some people, especially the chronically-online, don't want their words or ideas to be included in the results of a GPT query — indeed, many shouldn’t be, for the sake of accuracy, factual filtering, and overall usefulness. This, as well as Reddit's 2023 API changes and related events, led to public communities going private, or switching to Discord or Telegram or Signal. Goodbye, indexing!
When these communities go private, they're safe, in some ways, from the domain of GPT. But is that ideal? There’s a double-edged sword with knowledge and communicating it: It is power, and a tide which can cause all ships to rise. This topic can get so into philosophical and moral arguments that it goes beyond my depth to write about, at least right now. I’ll just leave the question here.
I really miss forums. I’ve become more active lately on some Discourse-based communities for podcasts I like, and it’s been nice. Longform posts are welcome and you can’t nest threads — you just post a topic, people reply, and they can reply to each other, but the structure prevents infinite tangents of the ADHD brain. Thank god.