The continuing rise of virtual private neighbourhoods

21.01, Thursday 7 Jan 2021

People are increasingly hanging out in small, private communities. Global timelines and newsfeeds won’t come back.

The shift looks something like this:

As covered by this excellent edition of Garbage Day, Twitter shows all the characteristics of a rotting online community. How to recognise a rotting community, quoting the full list:

Power users aggressively dominate discussion on the site.

Public harassment and inter-community elitism has created a culture of indirect communication, where users no longer directly say what they’re actually trying to say.

There is no longer any internal cultural memory.

Users have become so obsessed with the minutiae of the community that the site now functions as a meta discussion of itself instead of whatever its intended purpose was.

Poor or lax moderation has created a sense that nothing on the site is genuine - fake users, fake trending topics, fake threads, fake engagement.

Users, reacting to the inauthentic behavior, public harassment, and elitism that occurs due to bad moderation, create their own self-policed communities within the larger community, which typically only exacerbates these problems and creates warring factions within the site.

Meanwhile, only the olds use Facebook (including me), but everyone younger has mostly vanished, being increasingly uncomfortable with

  • ad microtargeting and its rapacious data appetite
  • living your online life in the open with the perpetual risk of context collapse and your whole identity blowing up from one misguided status update that another group takes offence to.

So this is the end of the era of global timelines. Who would take on the responsibility of content moderation to build another one.

Where is everybody going instead?

Well there are the peer-to-peer and small group spaces of texting and WhatsApp.

But the problem of peer-to-peer is that you don’t get those joyous, serendipitous moments of running into like-minded friends-of-friends.


There are private Discords, private Slack channels, and a flurry of spatial interfaces in development. They’re immune to data harvesting, invisible from search engines, and there’s no context collapse – good fences make good neighbours.

As the global timelines get abandoned, this is where people are homesteading.

And doing all the usual things of chatting, sharing links, giving support, falling out, making jokes, and all the rest.

…Or so I’m told.

I’m no zillennial hanging out in a handful of private Discords. Instead I have a blog, which is like being a big noise in ham radio, or an unironic aficionado of VHS.

My own, limited experience of this, from back in 2015:

If the global timeline feels like a city, a private Slack group feels like a neighbourhood.

I do not include in this “virtual neighbourhood” space media like newsletters and podcasts, both growing fast rn.

Perhaps what we’re seeing is the disentangling of social media back into social and media: newsletters and podcasts are best understood as being part of the media spectrum, even if many of them are smaller and have community spaces attached. And Discord space, Slack spaces, etc, these virtual neighbourhoods are pure social.

I’d love to understand these virtual neighbourhoods better.

My hunch is their optimum size will hover around the Dunbar number of ~150, fewer if you’re just looking at active members (you need a mix of active and less active in any community).

But has anyone published any research on this?

What is the distribution of populations of private Discord groups and other similar spaces? How many groups do people belong to? How does this time take away from other activities? Is there a typology of groups and how they start? How well do people know each other? Is there a typical lifecycle? Are there temporary groups and persistent groups? Is there a difference in the culture created vs the global timelines? Etc.

And let’s assume that this grows into the dominant mode of socialising online in the 2020s:

  • What does this mean for the nature of celebrity?
  • What about the businesses that rely on data capture, and in particular what about advertising?
  • Will these make echo chambers problems worse or better?
  • What are the new product opportunities?
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