🦊🧙♂️ // subversive [something]
Exploring the emerging frontiers of decentralised social media.
I thought it might be novel to manifest in video format. Ergo, here is an attempt at a warm welcome note to you from your foxwizard. (Btw, this whole museletter may look nicer in your browser).
Since moving my website and writing to foxwizard.com I have noticed the potential for loneliness in the independent web. It’s not that I am lonely—a wizard needs their solitude, and I am very glad to have my tower nestled within my very own pocket of the noösphere (rather than perched in the rented land of a social media corporation). Yet still, at the same time, I know that:
“No one can play a game alone. One cannot be human by oneself. There is no selfhood where there is no community. We do not relate to others as the persons we are; we are who we are in relating to others.”
– James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
Of course, I still have my ongoing work with questing enterprises, and I have long enjoyed the company of mutuals within the cozyweb (private discord servers and signal groups). I have friends irl, too, would you believe. But it is important to maintain some time in environments in which you can engage in civic discourse with folks from outside your immediate locus. A place in which we might challenge, humble, inspire and enrich our own perspicacity and wit.
I have thus been searching for a viable town square that is neither an ideological echo-chamber nor an intellectual cul-de-sac. In days past we might have gathered at a café or speakeasy. Now, thanks to the many protocols that work together to enable the internet,* we can have equivalent meetings of minds—regardless of where our corporal forms may be.
* TCP/IP, UDP, HTTP, DNS, FTP, SMTP and IMAP, to name a few. There is no antimimetics protocol, though.
I allude, of course, to the metaverse—something that existed long before Mark renamed Facebook to Meta and took interest in the notion.* Of course, Facebook is just one example of a town square. Twitter and LinkedIn have served this function, too. The thing these three platforms have in common is that they are all Silicon Valley-based corporations whose business models rely upon advertising revenue. As publicly listed companies oriented towards maximising shareholder value, they need users to create and contribute content in order to attract ‘attention’. The attention generated by content creators can then be monetised for profit.
* The metaverse existed even before web2. Neal Stephenson, the chap who first coined the term ‘metaverse’ in his 1992 novel Snow Crash° is currently working on ‘the fabric of the open metaverse’; a layer-one blockchain called LAMINA1.
° Btw, I highly recommend we all maintain a healthy diet of science-fiction. A lot of the questions and implications we face amidst the rise of AI today are themes that many authors have explored.
I think we are all well aware of the inherent flaws of the default social media enterprise model by now. The topic is old and we remain mostly addicted. But—as a side note—I must say: LinkedIn has shown some incredible Lindy. Perhaps this is the Microsoft influence? Or perhaps it is because user incentives are more tightly coupled, in that the majority of folks use the platform in order to further their careers? Careers within enterprises that also show remarkable resilience in the face of change. I don’t know.*
* Substack are also having a play at the social media space, since Elon is seemingly messing up what was already a very littered town square. I appreciate that Substack’s incentive structure is aligned to writer’s success (currently, they only make revenue via paid newsletter subscriptions), but as mentioned previously: I worry that this will become too perverse.
Whenever I venture onto LinkedIn I am greeted with a mix of compliance-virtue signalling (understandable; employees want to signal that they are amicable and ‘hardworking’; hence the relentless perpetuation of grind culture) and the vapid recycling of leadership aphorisms. I see it amongst my colleagues, too: they’re also revelling in the safe and stagnant.
The authors of Snow Leopard have observed that—
“...since this game is largely about external signals of credibility, it makes sense why so many smart, well-intentioned, successful people decide to optimize for the path of least resistance. Out of nowhere, they start posting BGOs (Blinding Glimpses of the Obvious) because this sort of non-threatening content is the easiest way to get Likes and climb the perceived ladder of success without ruffling any feathers. We call this content-free content.”
I struggle with non-threatening content-free content, and since briefly revisiting LinkedIn I have found myself aghast at the number of folks claiming to be leadership consultants. Whilst I personally love what the word ‘leadership’ represents as a contextual concept—particularly when it pertains to the asymptotic quest of relevance-realisation—I do wonder if the word has all but lost its meaning in our current milieu.
For leadership is a subversive act. To lead is to inevitably venture beyond the known and default.
It is thus no surprise that school principals—who are so close to the development of children and the teens who are coming-of-age in a rapidly changing world—must cultivate subversive leadership and power tactics. The wondrous paper ‘Leadership as a subversive activity’ discusses:
“subversion in an intellectual, moral and political sense, as a sacred mission to confront the ‘noble lies’ of politicians, the superficiality of the designer culture and the line of least resistance opted for by overworked and demoralised teachers”.
Accordingly, subversive leadership is “grounded in knowledge and wisdom which allows leaders to recognise changing circumstances, make sound judgement, and act expediently” (source). It is fair to say: subversive leadership and quest leadership share an overlap of sensibilities.
But that is a tale for another time!*
* I had to stop myself from turning this point into its own full essay.
In this musing, what I really want to share with you is what I have found in my quest for a viable town square.
Remember how I reflected on “the many protocols that work together to enable the internet”? These were largely the result of early web1 innovations.
Core principles of web1 (the static, ‘read-only’ web) included:
- Openness: web1 aimed to provide an open platform where anyone with access to the internet could create, share, and access information without restrictions. This openness laid the foundation for the rapid growth and adoption of the internet.
- Decentralisation: Early web technologies were built on decentralised protocols, with no single authority controlling the network. This enabled a diverse ecosystem of websites and services to emerge.
- Free access to information: web1 focused on providing free access to a vast array of information, enabling users to learn, explore, and share knowledge without barriers.
- Collaboration and community: Early internet users often formed communities around shared interests, fostering collaboration and social interaction in online forums, newsgroups, and mailing lists.
But somewhere along the way, our earnest naïveté was taken advantage of. There were opportunities to exploit, and because capitalism gotta capitalise, exploited they were.
Thus we saw the emergence of web2 (the read-write ‘social’ web), which brought about several changes. Namely: a shift towards centralisation and concentration of power and influence into just a few platforms, monetisation via user-generated data and content, and a distinct erosion of privacy and trust.
Now, we see the emergence of web3—a movement that shares the spirit of web1 with the wisdom of lessons learned from the mistakes of web2. Rather than trusting in web2 companies to not be evil, the open-source nature of web3 protocols are designed so that they can’t be evil.
But—just like how Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp shapes public opinion here in Australia* (our version of Logan Roy from Succession)—the established web2 social media platforms shape the opinion of web3. It’s very difficult to find folks to engage in good faith, intelligent conversations with about the experimentations and discoveries of web3. So many will instead bleat cartoonishly reductive misrepresentations that either fixate on ridiculous outliers, obvious scams or challenges that are actively being worked upon. We have a new frontier of punditry,° where the strongest opinions seem to come from folks who have never interacted with a smart contract, nor participated in any decentralised governance.
* Australia’s media market is the most concentrated out of every democracy in the world. If we were to set aside democratic governments, only Egypt and China have a greater media market concentration. Of all countries in the world. If this concerns you, visit Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission.
° Punditry is a safe content-free-content strategy, wherein one can offer opinion and critique without contributing anything constructive.
It frustrates me because those of us in web3 relish in constructive discontent. We welcome counter-theses, particularly in the spirit of dialogue—the openness of web3 means that we all benefit from constructive input.
This relates to my search for a viable town square.
But before I continue, I just want you to know: I sense-checked myself with my favourite bias-affirming artificial intelligence. Here’s what it conjured for me as I write to you from my bunker.
web3 is not perfect! Far from it. Very far. And decentralisation is a messy spectrum. And yet still; in terms of betterment, web3 offers very real glimmers of hope. Also: the independent, interoperable, public, shared, open-source, transparent and decentralised protocols of web3 are one of the biggest threats to the established web2 media moguls.*
* It is also one of their biggest opportunities for enduring relevance. Particularly as artificial intelligence will lead us to question authenticity and provenance.
Because—just like email—social media ought to run on sufficiently decentralised protocols. If we are to collectively coordinate amidst higher orders of complexity (at scale), we cannot rely upon social media being subject to centralised points of failure. Or ego.
“A social network achieves sufficient decentralization if two users can find each other and communicate, even if the rest of the network wants to prevent it. This implies that users can always reach their audience, which can only be true if developers can build many clients on the network. If only one client existed, it could stop users from communicating. Achieving this only requires three decentralized features: the ability to claim a unique username, post messages under that name, and read messages from any valid name.” – Varun Srinivasan
How good are protocols! (Not sure? Have a read of The Unreasonable Sufficiency of Protocols by Venkatesh Rao, Tim Beiko, Danny Ryan, Josh Stark, Trent Van Epps, and Bastian Aue)
At the moment there are a few decentralised social protocols (deso) of note: BlueSky, Lens Protocol and Farcaster.
- BlueSky, an initiative from ex Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. BlueSky works by each user having their own domain name as their username. At this stage it feels like a barebones Twitter application. A lot of the big influencers have moved there, but the joviality of the platform feels a little forced. But this will change, over time. What’s particularly interesting about BlueSky is their stance that algorithms are not the issue—it’s the opacity and control of these algorithms that causes problems. They intend to offer bespoke ‘algorithmic choice’.
- Lens Protocol, an initiative from the team that brought us Aave. This protocol is a composable and decentralised social graph that runs on the polygon blockchain. I really, really like the vaguely Finnish ethos and vibe that guides Aave and a lot of what we see being developed with the Lens Protocol. I also appreciate the genuine, bold and transparent sustainability strides that the polygon blockchain is demonstrating. My challenge currently is: my lens profile is tied to my hardware wallet, which adds friction to signing in. And currently, the various applications seem to have a lot of ‘airdrop farmers’ generating superfluous activity in the hope of a future reward. I want this protocol to flourish, but it’s a tad too clunky for my liking at the moment. (The irony is: those who actually participate early and contribute to the development so that it isn’t clunky are the ones who may be rewarded—which is fair enough!)
- Farcaster, a protocol for building sufficiently decentralised social networks. Oddly, while this is currently the most ‘stripped back’ of the three, it is the one I have found myself gravitating to most. It may well become the viable town square I have been looking for. The applications being built are fast and crisp—but most importantly, the seed community seems mostly very warm and smart people with a good sense of humour and an inclination to build. There’s something inherently ‘constructive’ about the conversations that seem to emerge in the town square(s) enabled by the Farcaster protocol.*
* Side note: here’s a fascinating tidbit that emerged yesterday (well after I had drafted this museletter). Also, if you’re interested, you can (after skipping past the ads) watch this insightful interview with the founder.
Other than decentralised social media, I am also finding myself warming to Medium once more. I suspect that, with sagacious folk like Buster Benson helping out, Medium is on what may be a sustainable and very wholesome redemption arc. In a world in which we will no doubt see the rise of autonomous fleets of compelling AI content creators optimised from data-harvesting... I sense that Medium are positioning themselves well as a wholesome alternative. Their guideline for quality standards is well considered, and I can see Medium being a space in which I share my more timeless essays.
If we consider that the AI will inevitably ‘win’ at any game that can be optimised—then the question is: what are the infinite games we would prefer to play? We cannot optimise for the infinite game—but we can find the joy in it, and continue the play.
This is particularly compelling given that we are in the recent wake of Earth Day—an event that nowadays “seems tokenistic, patronising, and pathetically minimal given the scale of the challenges we face”, Tim Smedley writes. It’s “the perfect day for greenwashing”. I hope to be able to further the cause for meaningful progress (as distinct from the delusion of progress). This calls for subversive leadership. Becoming climate positive (not just carbon neutral) is a key domain all questing organisations ought be considering if they are to stay relevant and competitive into the future.
I may have some time for coffee on the Friday morning—Aucklanders, reply to this email and I’ll keep you posted.
- AI: The Coming Thresholds and The Path We Must Take // Professor John Vervaeke’s recent video essay offers important framing for how we can relate and participate with the exponential rise of Artificial Intelligence. Let’s not leave it to the military and the pornographers.
- This is very cypherpunk: Major Photography Prize Winner Reveals Image Is AI-Generated, Rejects Award
- I mean, AI is so good right now. You can hardly tell this pizza commercial was generated by AI.
- Also, is Succession the best ever show? I think it might be.
- What is Generative Art? This wonderful primer by Amy Goodchild provides an apt overview. I have fallen deeply in love with generative art over the past few years, and I will be sharing more with you here. “Generative art isn’t a new genre, but it is booming at the moment, and in some ways we’re still in the early stages of what’s possible.”
Here’s an incredibly moving piece from Rich Poole and Rick Crane (click the link or the image below to see it in motion).
I don’t know about you, but I find insight into an artist’s process to be utterly fascinating. This advanced article offers a glimpse into what went into this longform generative art piece. (You can view the full collection here). Remember: the outcomes of generative art are emergent based upon the properties, conditions and constraints of the code. In this way, the artist works with code to ‘conjure’ works that could otherwise not be reliably predicted.
Another artist I—and many others—admire is the French formal oil-painter turned generative artist Michaël Zancan. In many ways he is a ‘gardening with code’. Here’s a piece I’ve collected and love—Skyscraper.
There is also a generative art collection called ‘A Bugged Forest’—a long-form version of an algorithm that produced ‘The Bugged Tree’ (below).
The Bugged Tree’s code was “salvaged and stored and served as the core motivation and engine for an entire forest. Its concept is about releasing the control.” Here’s one of the outputs from A Bugged Forest.
I love it. The confluence of buggy code and emergence is compelling—particulalry when considered as part of the wider collection.
As I was completing this museletter, the dangerlam was listening to an episode from Poetry Unbound (hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama; one of the warmest friend-voices one could ever hope for). The particular episode I overheard offered David Wagoner’s poem “Lost”—which feels particularly apt for us here.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
From Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems. Copyright 1999 by David Wagoner. Shared without permission. 🙏
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to reply or leave a comment; it is always lovely to hear from you. If a friend forwarded this to you, you can join the many thousands who subscribe to The Museletter. Much warmth—fw.
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