We are messy complex beings; we should have messy, complex digital lives, too

One of the assumptions that Facebook is built on — that we have single, definable identities — is palpably false. Is this the chink in the digital behemoth armour?

The most wonderful thing about the internet is that it connected the whole world.

The most terrible thing about the internet is that it connected the entire world.

It is an incredible boon to be able to communicate and befriend like-minded folk worldwide. But it also enables harassment with little consequence from half the planet away.

The more we globalise our presence, the more vulnerable we become. There are elements of myself I want out there globally (otherwise, why would I be writing for the blog of a German conference from the South Coast of the UK?), but there are also elements of my life I want to keep resolutely local.

I am one person, but I contain multitudes. I have all the messy webs of relationships, passions and interests that the rest of humanity has  — and I resent the fact that a group of rich people in California want to simplify all that away, and reduce me to a set of data points.

And maybe we can loosen their grip on our lives. Last week I talked about the tension between the Network Effect and Dunbar’s number, but one of the interesting things about the digital landscape in the late 2010s as opposed to the mid-2000s is that pretty much everybody is online. Why does that matter? It’s so much easier to achieve critical mass for a service – especially one that works at a more human, Dunbar-ish scale.

And there’s a good, German example of that right now.

The problem with escaping Facebook

I tried to step away from Facebook at the beginning of the year, just as Martin is doing right now. I found myself back on there sooner than I would have liked.

It was an interesting break. But the problem – the thing that brought me back more quickly than I intended – was that my local community has gathered around Facebook.

My beloved local coffee shop was shut by a fire in a neighbouring shop, and the only regular, reliable source of information about what was going on was Facebook. There’s an active Facebook group for the town where I live, and losing that would be challenging. Without it, I wouldn’t have known for days what had a happened or when the coffee shop was likely to reopen.

I’d have had to be back online by the time school started after the Christmas break, because there’s a Facebook group for the parents of the children in the same school class as my eldest daughter, and I can’t afford to abandon that, especially as my wife is a Facebook refusenik.

However, neither of these really need Facebook – or Facebook’s scale to operate. There are alternatives already — Nextdoor is a local site, that carries some of the same information – but not enough. And, again, it’s trying to be a global solution to a local problem.

Is there are role for solving these problems locally?

Building the new out of the old

In many ways, the local Facebook group is filling the role the local newspaper used to – but in a more personal, peer-to-peer way. But it lacks the curation, editing and, well, facts that journalism brings to the equation. And it’s all locked into the platoon where I interact with people who have no interest in the town where I live – and in which I have very limited trust.

Could I have all this again, without Facebook?

Well, maybe. And that’s why this is so interesting:

“We’re trying to build a hybrid between a local newspaper and a local social network,” Penthin said. “We learned hyperlocal life is more than just the exchange; it’s ‘I want to know what’s going on and perhaps I can participate in it’…We said we need a partner, we need journalists, a hyperlocal newsroom which is the driver of the community.”

This is from an interview with the founder of Lokalportal, a German effort to combine the best of social networking and local newspapers into one online resource. The service has pilots running in Paderborn and Bünde, and aims to allow community to develop around stories of intensely local relevance, which nobody outside the town might care about.

Loving local worlds

Lokalportal will never, most likely, achieve anything near the scale of Facebook. But you know what? That’s OK. Many of Facebook’s own problems arise simply from its scale. Networks operating at this level have a greater ability to police themselves – and the networks already require a degree of local verification before you can actively participate.

We all have these separate facets of ourselves. We have a local identity, and a work identity, and a friendship identity and hobby identity. Facebook has long tried to crunch those identities down to a single representation of ourselves – all the better to advertise to us – but the more flattened our identity become, the less they represent the real us.

Most of us value the ability to be a different version of ourselves in these different worlds. And if you want to create social spaces for people in the shadow of Facebook – that’s where you should begin.

The younger generations have known this for a while. Historically Tumblr has been a space where teens – today’s 20-somethings – could experiment with identity, constructing it through reporting content, and changing account names or accounts as fluidly and easily as they wanted. They were liberated from the constraints of their physical locality by the digital platform.

Facebook has done the reverse, by trying to pin down and calcify our identities. Perhaps this is why Facebook is struggling to attract them, and why even on platforms like Instagram they have public identities and Finstas – more “real” accounts for their friends only.

We’re reaching the limits of technology forcing us to flatten ourselves – can it start enabling us again? Is there an opportunity – maybe even many parallel opportunities, in enabling us to become our diverse selves online again?

Photo by Alice Achterhof on Unsplash