The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet →August 9, 2019 • #
I ran across this piece about a month ago, but avoided it after sensing spoilers for the book I was in the middle of at the time.
Is our universe an empty forest or a dark one? If it’s a dark forest, then only Earth is foolish enough to ping the heavens and announce its presence. The rest of the universe already knows the real reason why the forest stays dark. It’s only a matter of time before the Earth learns as well.
This is also what the internet is becoming: a dark forest.
In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.
It’s a thought-provoking article that probably resonates with many internet citizens these days. Since certain former central venues of internet participation (message boards, social media, Reddit, comment threads, chatrooms) have become hives of polarization, negativity, and hypersensitivity, many of us just don’t participate like we used to. I myself still tweet occasionally, but nothing like the more unfiltered content I and many others would’ve posted in the early days of the service. I more and more favor writing long-form to a more patient audience here (if one even exists), and otherwise most interaction happens in person or with closely-knit networks.
The dark forests grow because they provide psychological and reputational cover. They allow us to be ourselves because we know who else is there. Compared to the free market communication style of the mass channels — with their high risks, high rewards, and limited moderation — dark forest spaces are more Scandinavian in their values and the social and emotional security they provide. They cap the downsides of looking bad and the upsides of our best jokes by virtue of a contained audience.
Like the author of the piece says, it’s like the universe in Liu’s Remembrance trilogy: announcing your presence can only cause bad things to happen, so retreat to the private, protected spaces. It’ll be interesting to see how these conversation venues evolve over time at this “dark forest” retreat continues.