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I’ve recently written a bit about how the web revival scene (used as an umbrella term for the indie web, the small web, the retro web and so on) can be used as a refuge by some who have harmful and dehumanizing views.
In it, I argued that
I think the web revival has been a very creative and kind space full of people that might not be as visible and loud elsewhere – many of which are minorities and other oppressed groups. A lot of webrings are based on these facets of life and identities, and in my view, it is important to protect what this space has given people. It is therefore important to make sure that the scene is not welcoming people who are posing an active threat to the many people already engaging openly, honestly and in a vulnerable way on here to create something great. Our spaces have a responsibility to watch out for being overrun by people with views that cannot be tolerated anymore, because they are intolerant of us. And it is important that you vet the sites you engage with, and the sites you link to and whose webrings you join, closely.
I’ve recently come across such a personal website, and they have been very prominent in the spaces within the web revival and small web community recently. I was approached by them about joining their webring and I chose not to for a variety of reasons, and I thought that was that. However, there is an interesting blog post now that I want to dissect that serves as a possible example for some of my points, and I also feel like countering some of the claims.
The website it is from features subpages dedicated to specific right-wing politicians, some theories about vaccines and Covid as well as whether climate change is real or not. The associated profile on Mastodon features a variety of these topics as well as Bill Gates putting chemicals in food, Pizzagate, gendercritical content and worries about children being brainwashed into sexual things by rainbow colored cereal. Just a small, neutral selection, to give you an idea. You can maybe see why personal freedom online, reclamation of the web, conservative older values and criticisms of big powerful players are what makes the web revival scene so interesting to the poster.
Original post is here.
“I have taken great care to divide my site so that the more sensitive topics are not out in the open, because I want to be able to meet and interact with people of all walks of life. […]
I have noticed during my short time here on the indie web, that many people will not even so much as associate with me if they come to find I have a different social or political belief than them. I could be having a great conversation with someone one minute, and then the next minute, I’m blocked because they stumbled across my Rabbit Hole page.“
This is one of those cases when the views that could be a deciding factor in whether you feel safe and okay with this person or not are hidden away in a specific section, and locked behind a warning. Personally, I find this not helpful: People deserve to know what they are getting into, and if this is an important part of someone’s identity and feelings, they should be comfortable with being upfront about it. Hiding it away, to me, is suggesting that the original poster might deep down already know that there is something not okay with what is hidden away. Why else would someone feel like they need to hide it away for strangers to like them? I can honestly say that I have had no one ever block me for my views in a conversation, and I have received multiple very kind e-mails about my smol.pub and website. I don’t feel like I have to hide anything away – it is definitely possible.
I also find the warning impractical; it means if I choose to look at it and decide we do not vibe and disengage, I can be blamed for looking – as if it could have been all fine and dandy if I just had not looked. But who wants friends that have a part of them that you cannot look at, online or offline? I want to know you wholly, and I want to accept you for who you are. I am sure other people feel similarly. The warning seems like it can be treated as a get-out-of-jail-free card, putting the onus on the viewer and not the person who is offering the content. But it doesn’t free you from any responsibility, feedback or consequences from what is behind it.
“It has been interesting to see in these spaces that cultivate individuality and self expression, and so-called “freedom” from big tech, that these spaces are not truly free, as many individuals have adopted and promote authoritarian practices when it comes to people they will promote in their webrings or even so much as associate with solely based on social/political differences.”
I think this is a great part to illustrate my points about the expectation certain people have about what the values and interests in the web revival scene (or “indie web”) is about. I’ve seen a lot of people talk about the freedom they have in this space being about
As you can see, the promise of personal freedom in the web revival community can also attract people who are very into freedom of speech, which has the potential to include hate speech, propaganda, conspiracy theories, misinformation and others. They expect the freedom to extend to this and if it does not, that our promises of freedom are not true and our idea of freedom is flawed.
My personal experience is that many people who make free speech a core part of their online identity seem to also expect it to mean freedom from social repercussions for what you say. They not only want the stuff to remain up, but they also don’t want people to criticize it, or to withdraw based on what is said. No one should be allowed to think badly about them for it.
It's hardly possible to fulfill that – you can never control what others think of you. We all must live with the perceptions others have of us, and as you have the right to say what you want to say, people have the right to make their decisions based on that.
People making the personal decision to disengage and enact their boundaries has nothing to do with authoritarianism. They are not forcing anyone to do anything. This is somewhat of a guilt tripping tactic - big tech is seen critically in this space, and authoritarianism is something people usually don’t like and is oppressive. It is manipulative to insinuate that people not hanging out with someone are aligning themselves morally with systems, structures and companies that act in highly unethical ways. If there are a lot of people disengaging with someone over their views, it should tell them something. And if they feel forced to change based on the social feedback, that is not the effect of authoritarianism, but a sign of the person seeking validation from others for their views and being sad that they don’t get it.
“When it comes to sensitive topics of racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, etc., the removal of any opposing or meaningful conversation of these topics are automatically defined as “hate”. In reality, this is the removal of anyone who just doesn’t agree with you, because disagreeing in any form is just automatically deemed as being “hateful”, whether that’s actually the intention behind it or not. Having a different perspective on these sensitive topics is not inherently hateful. You can not preach tolerance by also being completely intolerant of anyone who you don’t agree with. That’s not tolerance at all, that’s complete intolerance. Being critical of certain ideologies is not inherently hateful, it can be extremely constructive, and it is extremely dangerous and authoritarian to completely block out anyone who has opinions on things that may challenge our own.“
I think this part is fitting to showcase my point about the safety of some of the minorities and other vulnerable groups who have found a place in the web revival sites. Attracting people who think critical views about people of color, gay and trans people as well as women should have a place here can, in practice, mean that those groups are driven out because they don’t have the energy, time or headspace for these discussions. This is also known as the Tolerance Paradox – inviting the intolerant because of tolerance can create an intolerant environment.
What people similar to the original poster might overlook is that for many people, they are already confronted with the opposing and critical view their entire offline life – harassed on the street, ignorant comments by peers, kicked out of church, and your dad saying you’re not his child anymore. They have to argue about their validity and right to exist on a regular basis. Personally, it just took me walking my dog for a man to hit on me and then tell me I will die for being gay.
Playing the devils advocate online and expecting them to owe you that online too is a lot, and I understand if they don’t want to. Many of these people are already depressed or suicidal because of what they experience offline or in other online spaces, so it can be important to create a space where they don’t have to be dealing with that all the time.
I think a big issue for people who may not be the target of the criticism and phobia they post online is that it is so abstract to them – talking about racism, or LGBT is a pastime they can choose to opt in to. It is similar to discussing what ice cream flavor is better, because they have no stakes in the discussion whether gay people deserve to live their lives or not. Regardless of what is happening or true, they can continue to live their white, or cisgender, or straight lives. Meanwhile, the people affected by the discourse, the people that are often talked about like a theoretical problem who cannot read the hateful stuff said about them, just cannot opt out of that – they cannot stop being black, or being trans, or being gay, or being a woman. It’s not a thought experiment for them, but it informs their actual rights and safety while living their life. It can be scary seeing something particularly awful online and wondering – is this what people I see in the train or in the supermarket might think of me, too? What will the next election bring?
And the thing is – what disagreement about these sensitive topics is not hateful at the core, realistically speaking? At best, the arguments are started with an exclamation of good intentions (“I have nothing against xyz people, but...”) and then continues with unsubstantiated claims, outdated and disproven science, wrong statistics, outright lies, or the call to limit or take away those groups’ rights or ban them and the mention of them from the public.
They should not be in teaching positions. This should not be taught in school. They should not be able to have children. They should not be in my locker room. They should not be able to be in the public bathroom. They should not be able to marry. They should not be in sports. They should not be able to get medical treatment. They should not be able to change their name. They should not be able to vote. They commit all the crimes, and all the domestic violence, and all the rape, and all the burglaries (exaggerated for comedic effect).
Since simply withdrawing from contact, blocking, or a request to be removed from their webring is causing a lot of grief on the original poster’s side, I can only imagine what would happen if the above things were hurled at them; not be over changeable views, but something innate you cannot change.
Simply put, arguing over someone’s rights when one person is directly affected while the other is not an equal and fair discussion since the personal stakes are entirely different. Expecting people to stick around for that is unrealistic.
“If you’re one of the few who would actually like to see world peace and collective healing achieved one day, I’d like to offer a challenge. Something I’d really like to challenge people with, is to step outside of the echo chamber. Yes, it will be uncomfortable sometimes, but discomfort is often required if we want to make change of any kind, because that is where real growth is achieved; outside of our comfort zone. I think people will be surprised to see there actually are quite a few rational people who are not controlled by a hive mind.“
Now in this part and some I have not directly quotes, they utilize unifying language about “bridging gaps”, “stepping out of echo chambers” and utopian imagery like “world peace” and “collective healing” to seem inviting and open to everyone. An issue I take with that is that it is introducing the expectation of “I accept you and everyone else, so you need to accept me unconditionally too”. I’ve seen this before, and in my personal experience, discovering that they do not actually accept everyone, or maybe not even you, doesn’t seem to hinder this expectation at all. You’re seemingly expected to uphold respect for someone who doesn’t have respect for you. If you criticize their views or choose to drop or block them, you are not upholding “your end of the deal” in their eyes. It is a deal you neither agreed to nor are obliged to uphold. Be on the lookout for this tactic.
Another issue: The usage of “hive mind”. It was used twice in the blog post, and both times it implied that people who have certain views, or disagree with the original poster, are not doing so out of their free will – they have been brainwashed, controlled, or just doing what others do. We associate it with weak minded individuals who are too stupid to form their own opinion. This view doesn’t foster respectful discussion with growth and acceptance. It enables the people who use it to immediately disqualify opposing view points as just “of the hive mind” and not worth engaging with. It devalues the opposing person immediately. “Their viewpoint wasn’t worth considering, they were just saying the stuff of the hive mind. Them turning away from me and wanting to have nothing to do with me is not bad – they were just controlled by the hive mind and had nothing worthwhile to offer anyway.” It is just used to make oneself feel better about things, and telling oneself that you are a part of the very small group of people who are really, really smart and just get it. This behavior has nothing to do with “actual communication, being a willing participant in listening” or “hearing the other person”.
You will also be the only person in this exchange stepping out of the supposed echo chamber – the original poster is spending the most time being active on a Mastodon instance completely aligned with their views, ironically even posting about retreating from other places such as Twitter/X for content reasons. The other spaces are just used to drive traffic to the website and webring, not to engage with people - more about that now.
“So I’ll take this opportunity to promote my webring here. The webring I host is welcome to people of all paths, social and political views.”
After discussing the website and Mastodon content as well as this blog post, this is now the final bit I want to caution about. The original poster has been promoting that webring pretty strongly, and making an account on a forum solely to post that promotion and be gone again. No introduction post, no other engagement with threads; just enough in the profile to lead back to their content and the webring.
Be careful when people arrive out of nowhere with a curated and semi-professional representation already online, become extremely active and visible in a short amount of time with accounts everywhere, and are very vocal about advertising something like a webring, or in other cases maybe an instance, a Discord server and similar spaces. These can be recruitment grounds. Hiding content away behind a warning gives plausible deniability to that, which is an issue, because they clearly want you to find that and it will come up in personal conversation. People can lure you in with being nice and then slowly drop the act around you, slowly upping what kind of content they share with you. At best, you are now in a webring you may not have joined if you had known, but at worst, it is the beginning of a radicalization pipeline that starts with the slow normalization of dehumanizing and offensive views based on a warped perception of centrism, fairness, or healing humanity. People can appeal to your desire to be fair and give chances, and abuse that.
The people I talked about are already here. It is now on us to decide what we individually, or as hosters of spaces within the web revival or "indie web", are doing about it.
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