Many internets

I’ve been thinking recently about how we often think we’re having the same experiences – online, in research, in other ways we learn.

There are many internets out there. We may be using the same tools, but we can use them in such phenomenally different ways.

A few examples:

Apple uses her account as a public or semi-public place to share things she cares about (or finds useful or beautiful or intriguing). She has a wideranging list of people who can see and comment on her posts, but she knows many of them casually (through friends of friends, former places she’s worked, etc.), and many of them don’t know (at least without checking her info) what she does for a living or even where she lives.

Borage uses theirs only to keep in touch with a couple of trusted friends. They might use privacy tools so only those people can see their content. Or they may just use a tool that’s only by invitation. (Such as a Slack or Discord channel that’s set up that way.)

Carrot may have an account he uses to access specific groups (like for a class or community online) or manage invitations, but he never posts anything to his personal feed at all.

Dandelion wants a really social experience – tagging friends to let them know there’s a post that will interest them, or share photos. It’s really important for them to stay connected to people from all the different parts of their life, where they grew up, their school, their past jobs. Sure, some of those people have very different opinions sometimes, but that’s good for learning, right?

Elder‘s known Dandelion since high school, more than a decade now, and she loves seeing what Dandelion is up to (the stories and photos are great). But she’s had problems with a stalker, and worries about them finding her through other people’s posts. She definitely doesn’t want to be tagged.

Fern struggles with being online a lot. He knows that he’ll get lost in a maze of links, and not get much done on the projects he cares about. He worries about missing out, and when he checks in on the site (and his friends) he’s convinced he’s not seeing everything his friends do, that they’re commenting on. Some of that doesn’t matter, but what about the important parts?

Gardenia only accesses the site from her mobile device. Most of it works fine, but she finds it hard to navigate older conversations, or pick up in the middle of something that’s been going on for a while. (She misses the days of email lists, when you knew where you left off.)

Heath knows Dandelion from their first job together. Dandelion’s posts are fine, but the comments are a different story – there can be aggressive, bigotted, dismissive comments that are about things Heath cares about a lot. Some of them are about groups Heath is a part of (and that Elder knows about). Others are about things Heath hasn’t shared with Elder.

Heath worries about pulling back from Dandelion will mean losing contact with other people they know through the same places as Dandelion. But every time Heath opens their feed in that platform, they never know what might hit them in the face.

And all of these people might actually be using the same platform or tool – just in very different ways.

What does this mean?

Well, it means that the tools and features that work for one person may not matter to someone else. Sometimes it’s just that a feature doesn’t do much for someone’s use – some people don’t post a lot of photos, but the fact others can post them isn’t a big bother. Some features are more complicated, though.

If you can tag people in a photo, what happens if a person doesn’t want to be tagged? Sometimes that’s not just because of a stalking situation. It can be because they have a public-facing job (more than one public school teacher has been fired from a job for a photo at a party where there is entirely legal adult drinking.)

There may be issues with privacy. People with chronic health issues may not want their employers (current or potential future ones) to find that information online. People who are part of non-visible minority communities (like religion or interests) may not want to make some things available where others who know them from other parts of their life (again, work…) can find it. Even just connecting to people they know through those interests and communities can make the interest a lot more obvious. (This is called social mapping.)

And sometimes it’s just exhausting. A diverse reading community is great in some ways, but without methods (both technical and social) for dealing with unacceptable posts, some people are going to end up feeling whacked on the head by awful things on a regular basis.


A lot of how we use a particular tool is influenced by the design. Some social media spaces are designed to favour lots of short quick comments, but are very hard to navigate to find longer thoughtful commentary. (And often, you have to know it’s there before you have a chance of finding it.)

Facebook, for example, is notorious for favouring posts with a lot of interaction (which means longer posts that fewer people respond to drop out of sight faster), and even for posts with a lot of interaction, their algorithms decide what you get shown.

Compare that with a site like Dreamwidth (or using an RSS reader) where you get all the posts you have said you want to read that you have permission to read, in reverse chronological order unless someone has made deliberate decisions otherwise.


Then there’s the other thing, which is cultural. People on the internet develop habits and senses of etiquette that often derive from the previous tools they’ve been using, mixed with the spaces they’re in, and what makes sense for those spaces. People or communities with a different background may find a lot of approaches baffling for other communities.

Let’s start with an easy one. Once up on a time, most email clients were designed so that you would quote the message you’d gotten, and then reply to each section you had a comment about (it might be a line, it might be a paragraph, occasionally more.) Then Microsoft Outlook and a few other software tools changed to place the cursor at the top of the reply (before any of the quoted text) and it trained multiple generations of people new to email that you replied by putting the new stuff at the top of the message.

(This produces very long chains of emails, where the old version just included the stuff that was directly relevant, so it was also a response to increasing bandwidth and download speeds. Text is very small, comparatively, but really long email chains took a long time back in the dawn of dialup.)

Different groups using the same social media tools develop their own customs. In some places, tagging is absolute – on Tumblr it might be a way to express your own commentary on the post without cluttering up the post. On Facebook it might be a way to include people in the conversation who are relevant.

But people from other Internet spaces (whose main use has been in other spaces on the same platform) might feel that adding long strings of tags is baffling and confusing, or that tagging people is inviting them to join the conversation, and maybe they want to talk about a situation without necessarily engaging directly with that person.

(There are obviously complexities to talking about people where they aren’t aware of it, but that’s an etiquette and communication issue as well as an internet culture one. And there are plenty of legitimate situations where one might want to talk about an issue to sort out pieces of it. though ideally not in public!)

Different social communities also have different approaches to things like anon memes, snarky commentary, newbies to the community space, and how to communicate about people who have been difficult (or abusive) members of the community in the past.

None of these are simple to sort out – and often, the different uses can be rather opaque to people not in those particular communities or familiar with at least some of the history. That doesn’t mean those experiences aren’t real. It does mean that if you’re entering a different topic space, or community, you probably want to take some time to figure out how to work.

Back in the days when forums and email lists abounded, I used to recommend reading for two weeks (or reading back over two weeks of posts) before posting much. It wouldn’t avoid every problem, but two weeks is often enough to get a sense of active participants, the topics that come up all the time, and usually how the community deals with an annoying or challenging conversation or two.

On modern social media, that can be a lot harder to do (see also sites and platforms that make it hard to even figure out what the last two weeks of posts were or what’s new.)

Whatever method you choose, simply remembering that there are many internets, and they overlap and interconnect in complex ways will stand you in excellent stead. If something seems a bit weird, take a step back, and ask if there might be a reason you’re not aware of. (And then ask yourself what you want to do with that.)

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