Rewild Your Attention
September 15, 2021 3:05 PM   Subscribe

"If you want to have wilder, curiouser thoughts, you have to avoid the industrial monocropping of big-tech feeds. You want an intellectual forest, overgrown with mushrooms and towering weeds and a massive dead log where a family of raccoons has taken up residence." Clive Thompson's "Rewilding Your Attention" (Medium) is a brief reflection on the value of seeking out idiosyncratic content. Time to go for a random walk in the woods.
posted by MonkeyToes (20 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
This is precisely why I come back to MetaFilter a few times a week.
posted by thorny at 3:15 PM on September 15, 2021 [26 favorites]

This resonates heavily with me, in both a personal and MetaFilter-centric way. This idea of intentionally chasing down the offbeat and interesting and less-mainstream stuff has been a constant pull in my internet life, and it feels challenging at times because the pressure of the algorithmic feeds of centralized megacorporate social media is almost fundamentally at odds with it, for reasons the post lays out pretty well.

I sometimes find myself cycling through the small number of sites that I daily, reflexively, manually visit and feel like my internet has shrunk to a small window; but the places I visit are the places that regularly deliver me joy and idiosyncrasy enough to not wear me out. I don't visit Facebook, but I do load mltshp a few times a day, not because it has volume but because it has a few hundred people all sharing their own preferred weird shit. And I read the XOXO slack, a thing I both wish could be public and am glad is not. And between those two things half my front page posts to MetaFilter are seeded, because there are people with niche interests there sharing stuff that wouldn't 999 times out of 1000 bubble up any of the even tertiary major feeds. I follow odd mathematicians and artists on twitter that don't end up promoting their soundcloud often. I read newsletters that didn't get $200K/yr advances.

And the article gets at a core point: it's work. There's a little bit of effort involved, and that's not nothing! But it's also, fuck, what I have always liked about the internet. A little bit of effort goes a long, long fucking way when the dull smoothness of automation is the alternative. Shouting HEY THIS IS COOL takes five minutes sometimes, but that's enough for a bunch of other people to see the cool thing and a couple of those people to fall in love with it. And so it propagates. That's the whole ballgame, that's how it works.

The Old Internet was smaller and more work and weirder and great in a lot of ways. Contemporary internet tools could make that good stuff more accessible and more scalable, but it's not gonna happen on the back of folks chasing billions by automating away all the human weirdness involved, and taking some time to go down the road less traveled is about as much as most of us can do to, to utterly transfuckinate a couple poetic metaphors, rage rage against the dying of the weird.
posted by cortex at 3:35 PM on September 15, 2021 [19 favorites]

I think it's really important to resist the push towards sameness but I also worry, bc (as the big tech folks put it) what the algorhythms do is tilt the floor. For a couple people with the time, inclination and attention spans, they can resist the tilted floor and remain upright. But most of the people and 100% of the babies who are borrowing their parents ipads and clicking on shiny things are just going to roll right down that tilted floor. And at the bottom of the floor are a few big rabbit holes that have been algorhythmicly identified, and the tech companies will do their best to sort you into one of those so your tastes will become more predictable.

The only way to really stay weird is to spend less time online in general. But it's just going to get harder, in general, to do that. I hope more people try to swim against the tide tho.
posted by subdee at 3:44 PM on September 15, 2021 [7 favorites]

And I don't know that randomly picking a different topic each day to read forums posts on is the solution either. I mean, maybe for that guy but isn't it better in general to *be* one of those weird forum dwellers? Seems miserable to me to split your attention in so many different directions.
posted by subdee at 3:51 PM on September 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

The Old Internet was smaller and more work and weirder and great in a lot of ways.

Ayup. I miss Angelfire and webrings. Loosely-linked content that took me to so many strange and beautiful places.

The only way to really stay weird is to spend less time online in general. But it's just going to get harder, in general, to do that.

It is absolutely much, much harder to that even now. I used to easily fit in a Sunday "tech sabbaticla" every week and still manage to do everything I wanted to do, because my community was still populated with the local alt weekly and services that could happen without having to use the internet in any way. Honestly, I hate where we are now. Convenience has become necessity and we have lost massive amounts of community and community-interaction in the process.
posted by Silvery Fish at 3:59 PM on September 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

The irony of posting this as a medium article tickles my funny bone even if I do agree with the author. I still think one of the worst things to happen to the Internet was the dumping RSS/Atom in favour of syndicating via automated twitter/facebook crossposting. It has been painful to see more and more websites and platforms drop feed support out of the box. It has been kind of interesting seeing the move to newsletters in order to monetize (and get around algorithmic sorting, de-platforming, etc) the kind of content that used to just go to a blog or personal site. In a lot of ways it feels like we are moving backwards in time, but now that mailing list has a middleman (substack, medium, etc) sitting between the writer and audience like some kind of mutant rentier. We have seen the same thing happen with enthusiast forums. They have mostly moved to Facebook Groups, Subreddits, and Discord channels.

The internet has grown so insular. In my mind the problem isn't even necessarily these services and their algorithmic bubbles, it is that these organizations are doing everything they can to keep you inside their walled gardens. They redirect links, display content inside their own frameworks, rehost videos and images, warn people that they are leaving the service (i.e. scare you off leaving), and in some cases don't even allow a link to be posted (instagram). The dream of the internet was always the interlinking. You used to be able to get lost in a maze of links in the same way you can get lost on wikipedia, except it was much weirder because you were going through people's personal websites. Nowadays, even if you escape a walled garden, you'll frequently end up linked right back into it because that is where people host their content.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 4:16 PM on September 15, 2021 [22 favorites]

My internet basically consists of:

Tumblr: True chronological feed means that unless I use search/tags (which I rarely ever do) there's no algorithm determining which posts I see. I only follow 4-5 weird people who I mostly haven't talked to in years and who grew into people with very different interests from me, meaning I get a regular dose of posts about tarot, mushroom foraging, 3D rigging, and 14th century swords.

Discord: The only two servers I check are a personal server for a few friends, and a huge book club server which gives me totally random exposure to all sorts of books and has successfully peer pressed me into reading books I never would have given a chance. It turns out I like horror novels? Who knew. It also harnesses FOMO in the best way--if a couple of people are interested in reading a book, they'll organize a "buddy read" scheduled for a certain range of dates. I am reading lots more and much more widely (wildly?) because I want to be part of the active conversations that are happening.

Metafilter: Metafilter.

It could definitely be wilder, but I would call this a minimum-effort success. Mostly I just try to spend more time reading books (which the Discord book club server helps with), though.
posted by brook horse at 4:54 PM on September 15, 2021 [6 favorites]

The internet has grown so insular.

Is that it? I recall, rather pre-internet, a (more degreed that I'll ever be, and a world traveler to boot, not an idjit) the response when I mentioned a random fact about architecture, "how do you even know that"

People have been siloed in their heads/lives/worlds like forever always. It's just the way some folks exist. Few here I suspect can visceral grasp that seemingly prefered way of existing, but it works for many.

I suspect most mifians have a daily struggle to limit charging down every fascinating info rathole, just from learned pragmatism, too many hours browsing randomly in the library and one does not get paid and the rent comes due, but always almost every minute, temptation, random link on wikipedia.
posted by sammyo at 5:07 PM on September 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

And I don't know that randomly picking a different topic each day to read forums posts on is the solution either. I mean, maybe for that guy but isn't it better in general to *be* one of those weird forum dwellers? Seems miserable to me to split your attention in so many different directions.

This was something I learned in a neuro-centric undergrad cognitive science class 23 years ago, so take it with a massive grain of "probably upended by later research" salt: the only reliable path to adult neurogenesis is to dive into new subjects that partially overlap ones you already know, every 4-6 weeks, and then spend a week refreshing on whatever you hit six months ago. Rinse, repeat. This forces you to habitually take existing mental models and repurpose them slightly, creating more generalized structures that are open to reuse by many different disciplines, enabling you to see common principles reflected across many, many domains.

As an added benefit it seemed likely (at the time I was learning all this) to help mitigate senility down the road as it continually pushes your neurotopology into configurations that readily accept the addition of major new branches as a matter of course, rather than getting locked into a single loop of neural activity almost like ...wagon trail ruts. If synaptic activity is subject to a certain degree of natural selection - reinforced when activated, slowly decoupling in the background electrochemical noise of your brain when not - then not forcing yourself to branch out on a regular basis amounts to leaving much of what you've accumulated in this life to rot, and makes doing practical work with the remainder nearly impossible.

So: keep learning new topics, new systems. Mastery is not required, just sufficient understanding to recognize the deep conceptual structures underpinning the field. You'll make mistakes in recognizing them on your first crack at a new subject, but correctly identifying that is also a skill you can develop with practice.

I profoundly wish all of this did not simultaneously require and perpetuate privilege when conducted within the context of capitalism, but it almost certainly does both of those things.
posted by Ryvar at 5:23 PM on September 15, 2021 [14 favorites]

Is that it?
Absolutely it has. The people, as you point out, might not have, but the actual framework has been systematically stripped away and monetized by the facebooks, instagrams, twitters, pinterests, and reddits of the world. RSS is on life support, instagram won't even let you post a link, facebook deprecated embeds across multiple services, many of these services require a login to even view more than a single page of content, etc etc. Despite huge pushes towards open federated services (diaspora, mastadon, etc) they are still way off from being easily accessible for most.

I realize this reads like the ranting of a grumpy old nerd that wants to keep doing things the old way, but walled gardens are bad. They trap people inside their networks, algorithm bubbles, and addictive loops all so that they can extract value out of you in the form of engagement and profiling. The truly sad thing is all of those services (and many more I didn't list) aren't bad in of themselves. They are good products that have empowered countless people by giving them a voice or audience, connecting them to others, and by generally making the internet more accessible. The problem is that they don't want the internet to be open and accessible outside of their control because they don't make money if you leave. Each little change that they make to raise their walls higher and puts more friction between any steps to exit (or enter without joining) the environment. Unless something changes all of these services are incentivized to slowly isolate their users and keep away outsiders that don't want to give them their data or attention. They always start as open, fantastic, and empowering products and then they slowly trend towards toxicity.
posted by forbiddencabinet at 5:37 PM on September 15, 2021 [6 favorites]

Honestly I see a difference in Metafilter as well, in this regard. I’m not complaining, because I rarely post myself (I recognize that it is work to find “wilder” things on the web, and I’m not doing that work), and also because I enjoy this community’s take on world events and even mainstream articles - but I have noticed the difference. (Thank you, all posters!)
posted by anshuman at 6:08 PM on September 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

The problem is that they don't want the internet to be open and accessible outside of their control because they don't make money if you leave.

It really comes down to advertising, doesn't it? The real problem is that all the money comes from ads, which incentivizes endless tracking, algorithm-gaming, and walled gardening. Leaving a site wouldn't be seen as a problem if the business model was different (ie Wikipedia) or if you were paying for the service (ie, I dunno, Netflix?). The internet really doesn't have to be this way, and was never supposed to be this way, but for some reason everyone seems to think it's the only way it can possibly work now.
posted by oulipian at 6:16 PM on September 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

My internet basically consists of:

I'm mildly amused to realize how similar our internets are: Tumblr, which for me is a way to keep up with old friends with an eclectic range of interests these days; Discord, where I have one server of old friends, one that is a way to keep in touch with my old local ace community, and one that is a safer place to chew over some of the same ideas that appear more publicly on Tumblr with several mutuals; and of course Mefi.

And a few other things: a few subreddits for fountain pens and service dogs, a Twitter stream that is largely a source of professional connections in nature but is also frequently a source of the kind of links I squirrel away, intending to post them here or elsewhere at some future point. A Dreamwidth feed of old fandom die-hards. I read a forum about backyard chicken breeding, because it's interesting and I'm fascinated by some of the crossbreeding projects I see. Chickens breed so quickly, and then you can eat your mistakes! and it's fascinating seeing the different things people prioritize in their little flocks as they trade information, and sometimes birds, back and forth. Occasionally I check up on a cattle dog herding group on Facebook, which is just about the only thing I use my account for these days. A quiet Slack for disabled academics. Little corners of people having conversations slowly, for the most part.

I will say it's hard working out what to bring here these days. It's not only a dearth of links but a dearth of energy: I think we are, collectively, exhausted and hair triggery and have our focus shot all to hell right now. That's fine, but it does make trying to structure a room for a conversation tricky: it's not so rewarding to bring in something, drop it, and get minimal reactions, many of which will be immediately furious and critical. So I'm not putting a ton of energy into openly looking right now. I'm too fragile to deal with that kind of thing, too tired. And not all of that is something that can actually be solved within the community of Metafilter itself: some of it is a consequence of the global situations we're living through today.

It's not just web 2.0 that has tilted our worlds off kilter. It's the world as a whole. And of course the internet and the outer worlds influence one another and change each other; it's hard to disentangle one from the other, and even harder to know what to do about it without enough unified power to force structural changes.
posted by sciatrix at 6:58 PM on September 15, 2021 [10 favorites]

Not to harsh anyone's mellow, but McAfee's SiteAdvisor rating system says is Very Risky and is a phishing site. No one's reporting any problems, so take McAfee's advice for what you think it's worth.
posted by bryon at 12:43 AM on September 16, 2021

I've done this so many times over, I don't think I could recap it, particularly on Twitter. I'm following specialists in odd fields, ex-pats in off-the-beaten-track places, street level activists for micro-level causes, people who post self-compiled baseball stats and research, passionate hobbyists, etc. It's great and I recommend it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:23 AM on September 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

8 years ago I discovered a wonderful weird site that used to be a hotspot of internet activity... back in 2000.

It's still running, it's still active and by god it's one of the best things in my internet right now. It's also ugly, lacks *tons* of modern-internet features, it's underdocumented and probably will never get to fix some of its bugs.

Through this site, I found out that one of the better ways to find out the weird, niche content is to create it oneself, and that puts off a lot of people. For some reason, some people see no problem with tweeting all day, but cast off writing all of those thoughts into a blog because that's "not for them" or "it's only for creative/smart people".

What I'm saying is, please consider coming back and writing on everything2
posted by andycyca at 10:08 AM on September 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

Interesting. I've found following threads of people in languages I don't speak on twitter has been really delightful. Half the time they're arguing about specific recording studio equipment or championing really boring cartoon porn. But, the other half of the time I learn really cool things about pencil manufacturing or seal skinning that I'd never come across otherwise. Twitter's hands are covered in blood. . . but, it has truly made my world larger in a way I cannot help but celebrate.

The hard part is curation, 'cause at least 95% of everything is garbage. Metafilter is great at that. Finding a few fantastic niche people on twitter is pretty good. Random websites? I'm not sure.
posted by eotvos at 12:00 PM on September 16, 2021

If you want rewild, one way is to go to the library and wander down a random aisle, pick out some random books.
posted by storybored at 1:41 PM on September 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

I was thinking more about the communities than about the individual when I made my comment... maybe for an individual person (and tbf, this is the focus of the article) dipping into all these different communities is a good way to strengthen their neurons and keep their thinking sharp and interesting.

But it seems to me that if everyone does this, it weakens the communities producing the weird content in the first place, and eventually there won't be any weird forums to dip into. Communities are made by people who are putting in their time, effort and attention in one or a few places without diluting it in a million different directions.

Not to take away from what Ryvar was saying, but just to expand on what I was thinking when I made my comment. The article and Ryvar's comment apply to individuals but I think the internet making so many people the same (and boring, quotidian) is a collective problem.
posted by subdee at 8:00 AM on September 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

hopeful beast: I’m about 70% certain this came from lecture notes during a 201-level cog sci course in RPI’s Minds and Machines program (Neuroscience 201, maybe?), probably Fall ‘99, give or take a semester. I remember the proposed neurotopological basis for the idea very clearly (I always remember that part of everything from back then because I was so determined to understand how consciousness worked), but I don’t recall a paper being mentioned let alone a citation.

I can do some digging during the week because I’m curious myself, but to be fully honest the only advantage I’ll have over anyone else is a reasonable command of the cog sci patois from that era, which actual present-day real neuroscientists have gently informed me has not aged well (although in theory that makes the search easier). I’ll post here if I find anything - I’ve been following that practice for over twenty years now! - but to be fully honest I wouldn’t hold my breath.
posted by Ryvar at 11:22 PM on September 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

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