The internet is Tokyo

A split newsletter with New_ Public

Today, I’ve got a pretty special Garbage Day for you. It’s a split with Josh Kramer, the writer behind New_ Public’s great newsletter. (Sorry if you read both of us and this has appeared in your inbox twice lol.) If you aren’t familiar with New_ Public, you absolutely should be. They’re a non-profit that’s super focused on building better public spaces online and I really like what they’ve been doing.

Josh and I decided the theme for our split today would loosely be “maps”. Mine is about digital wanderlust and the things in life that the internet can’t truly replace and Josh wrote about how Facebook Groups may have absorbed all of rural America. Hope you enjoy!

The Metaverse Is Just A Window Into What You Miss Most About The World

In the before times, I traveled a lot. I grew up with two flight attendants for parents, which means I can still fly standby — a system where if there are open seats, I can fill one for basically free. It means sometimes I fly first class and other times I spend a night sleeping on the floor of an airport. My personal record for days stuck in an airport is about 50 hours in Dulles. I spent my 20s living in London, working as a foreign correspondent of sorts and traveled an absurd amount. I still have an app on my phone that my mom and I use to track the countries we've been to. It's called Visited. It's clunky, but it does the trick. According to Visited, I've been to "13% of the world," which I think is a wild oversimplification, but it sounds cool!

When the pandemic started, my previous life in airports came crashing down and it has yet to really come back. My girlfriend lives in São Paulo, so as soon as it was safe to do so, I started splitting my time between Brazil and the US. But even moving between the two countries is logistically challenging and means we’re always trying to stay up-to-date with each country's constantly changing COVID test windows and their terribly laid out online health forms. At one point, I almost missed a flight because Brazil's health ministry was being targeted by a cyber attack, crashing their health portal. Also, if I test positive, no matter how mild it is, I'm grounded wherever I am.

Like most people, I've spent the last three years trying to replace what I miss about the old world with virtual replacements. First, I was part of the "Zillow surfing" boom. My personal favorite destinations for it are McMansion Hell and my buddy Samir's Celebrity Home Shopping Instagram video series, which I think is deranged and genius. There's already been a lot written about why Zillow surfing became such a thing in 2020. In fact, an under-the-radar blogger named Taylor Lorenz wrote at the time, "Millions of people have spent far more time at home than they expected to this year. It’s made many of them daydream about what it might be like to live somewhere else, often while scrolling through listings on Zillow."

And that aspirational homeowner aspect is probably why it didn't really stick for me. I simply do not have any big fantasies about finding a new place to be stuck at. In 2021, though, I came across a Twitch stream where Drew Fairweather, or as he's more commonly known, drewtoothpaste, was playing a hypnotic game I had never seen before called GeoGuessr (he's insanely good at it). If this never came across your personal corner of the internet last year, the game drops you into a random part of the world on Google Street View and you have to guess where you are. I spent hours watching people on Twitch digitally wander around random stretches of road in places like Denmark, Dubai, The Philippines, and the American Midwest. But I've found that the longer I've tried to satiate my travel needs with digital replacements, the weaker the hold they have on my attention span is. And the more bizarre and niche they become. 

My current obsession is a Twitter bot called @_restaurant_bot. Two times an hour, it just tweets four photos from a random restaurant on Google Maps. Though, this week it tweeted pictures from a Hong Kong neighborhood I sort of recognized and I was hit with a very specific kind of melancholic internet-induced nostalgia. It's the sinking stone in your gut you get looking at your oldest photo albums on your Facebook. "There I am," your brain screams, “standing in a Long Island basement with more hair and a thinner face, chugging a Colt 45 in my thrift store blazer.” A place and time, frozen, staring back at you. A portal almost close enough to jump back into, but not quite. It makes me wonder if that feeling will be the defining metaversal experience. 

Silicon Valley leaders like Mark Zuckerberg are still clamoring for a way to put us into their immersive digital worlds (that they can surveill, of course), but I have to imagine that any metaverse we inhabit will have this same problem. The internet can now offer us more versions than ever of what we used to exclusively do outside. Concerts, parties, (orgies), and, in my case, traveling. Except, not really. I click around on GeoGuessr or scroll through random Google Maps listings — and you better believe I do. My girlfriend and I spent like four hours one night last year clicking around the Google Street View of a bunch of Brazilian beach towns we were planning on going to, but after the second hour, it was clear we were not just "researching hotels" anymore. We were digitally wandering. But even with VR goggles, it would still feel just out of reach. It would still feel like it's missing the last few pieces of sensory information needed to make it satisfying. 

I have to believe that a metaverse platform's waiting room, no matter how fun and exciting, will never be able to transmit the emotional data needed to simulate how I used to feel in my 20s, once again with a thinner face and more hair, standing in the international departures terminal, looking up at the big board of flights, wondering where I might go next. 

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Internet, I love you but you’re bringing me down

Remember the Facebook Files/Papers? Besides the big takeaways and the dramatic corporate rebranding, I’m kind of obsessed with one of the miscellaneous files tracked by Gizmodo. In one of the documents provided by Frances Haugen, Facebook researchers found a correlation between Facebook Groups use and rural areas in the United States. “The big population groups are less engaged with groups than the peripheries,” wrote the researcher. 

First, take this finding with a metaverse-sized grain of salt: like the rest of the Files, these are leaked photos of a monitor and we don’t have a good sense of how complete or internally trusted this report is. Facebook, like all social platforms, is not (yet) compelled by law to share data with researchers, so there’s no way to independently verify this. And of course, even if there is a connection between Facebook users in small towns and increased activity on Facebook Groups, it’s hard to know what the cause is.

We can only speculate, but why might rural folks use Facebook Groups more? If they’re like my wife’s Boomer aunt, they just want a place to talk about their interests (in her case, two elderly pugs named Thelma and Louise). Perhaps, because rural America is more conservative, this finding actually means that conservative users are more active in Groups. Or, maybe users in cities just have more options, and are using apps like Nextdoor instead.

But here’s my favorite theory, as expressed by a Facebook staffer with their name blacked out: “My hypothesis is that people in cities have compelling offline alternatives to whatever value FB Groups provide. But that seems a bit simplistic.” Actually, anonymous staffer, it suggests something really complicated — that population density is a factor affecting behavior on social platforms. This is fascinating to think about, and central to our mission at New_ Public.

Offline, density can manifest in rich, varied experiences that make cities worth living in. Our Co-director, Eli Pariser, previously of MoveOn and Upworthy, explained in WIRED why he loves living in crazy dense New York City, near Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn:

The park serves as an early-morning romper room, midday meeting point, festival ground, and farm stand. There are house-music dance parties, soccer games during which you can hear cursing in at least five languages, and, of course, the world-famous Great Pupkin Halloween Dog Costume Contest. In short, the park allows very different people to gather, see each other, and coexist in the same space. When it’s all working, Fort Greene Park can feel like an ode to pluralistic democracy itself.

But density doesn’t just qualitatively feel interesting and exciting, it actually enables hyper-efficient economies of scale. More populous cities require less infrastructure per capita. Density can also spur productivity. “Cities create what economists call agglomeration economies,” says Harvard professor and cities expert Edward Glaeser, “which is just saying that we become more productive when we’re cast into a maelstrom of economic activity.”

But how does density work online? At its best, the internet is Tokyo, a megacity that allows for niche ideas and products to flourish. But on many social platforms, there’s no infrastructure to support the density and it’s a hot mess (as thoroughly chronicled on Garbage Day). As Eli put it in a TED Talk: “Facebook right now, feels like 1970s New York. The public spaces are decaying, there’s trash in the streets, people are mentally and emotionally warming themselves over burning garbage.”

At New_ Public, we want platforms where density feels more like Fort Greene Park, and less like burning garbage. We’re excited by what the digital public spaces of the future might have to offer. Here in our newsletter, we’re investigating platform design features like circuit breakers, looking at innovative homegrown networks like Buy Nothing Groups, tracing historical analogs like Carnegie funding libraries, and spotlighting people trying something new, like ditching the social feed. Whether you’re feeling lonely in the country or shivering alone in your downtown apartment (or God forbid, the suburbs), you’re welcome at our place.

***There are no on purpose typos today***

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