The Proliferation of Dark Forest communities

The Internet’s dark forests, sometimes referred to as the cozy web, are the parts of the Internet that are outside of the mainstream social media websites. At least, out of the public view of people who frequent these websites. A common factor of the dark forests that are increasingly being inhabited are that are curated, gated communities. Instead of maximizing for reach, these communities are instead focusing on bringing likeminded people together in more intellectually and emotionally tolerant communities than are otherwise found on places like Facebook or Twitter. Examples of the dark forests of the Internet include newsletters, private Discord servers, group chats, message boards and more. Within these communities, communication becomes less high-stake than on public channels. There’s room for people to make mistakes, have misunderstandings and have a shared context, as happens with interactions in real life.

This idea is nothing new. A distrust of the more public aspects of the Internet has been present among some people since its advent. In Japan, for instance, a lingering distrust of the Internet has been everpresent since it became adopted en masse. Long before the days of Telegram and Substack, a culture of anonymity on the Internet has been present. This has taken many different forms, from users not posting real names or photos of themselves, to the predominance of anonymous sites such as 2channel, the predecessor to 4chan.

What is relatively new, however, is the adjacent concept of lunarpunk. Lunarpunk came about as a response to solarpunk, an ethos that, at its best, emphasizes hope, positivity and public engagement with pressing issues. Recently, however, this idea has met criticism as being naïve, utopian and out of step with the realities of an increasingly hostile global economic, geopolitical and regulatory environment. Lunarpunks, by contrast, emphasize building in private, and generally hold a more skeptical view of things.

This idea is particularly prevalent in the context of web3 and in the Ethereum community, where there are ongoing debates about how to build crypto infrastructure. As lunar_mining argues in the article “Lunarpunk and the Dark Side of the Cycle”,

Solarpunk is crypto’s conscious mind. It is bright, self-confident, and future-oriented. Yet the counterpart to solarpunk faith is lunarpunk skepticism. Lunarpunks are the solar shadow-self. They are the unconscious of this cycle. While “solarpunks join DAOs” (Dylan-Ennis), lunarpunks are preparing for war, and building privacy-enhanced tooling to protect their communities.

The distinction between solarpunks and lunarpunks is reminiscent of the distinction between the dark forest and cozy web metaphors. Communities in the cozy web, while seeking likeminded communities, are generally not primarily focused with issues of censorship, government reproach or economic sanctions. For lunarpunks and dark forest communities, however, these issues are front of mind. Solarpunks seek to maximise transparency, whilst lunarpunks seek to maximise unknowability and anonymity. Movements such as lunarpunk and the web3 movement more generally may accelerate this trend of retreating toward the dark forests of the internet, as cryptography advances and decentralized, secure technologies scale and become more commonplace.

As the mainstream internet becomes increasingly saturated with noise, propaganda, censorship and hostility, it is likely the retreat to cozy web and dark forest online niches and communities will continue apace. Speaking from personal experience, since seeking out smaller, more intentional online spaces and forgoing the noise of mainstream online spaces, my experiences online have improved considerably. The range of issues I can discuss has expanded, not just because of the peace of mind of being in a more ‘private’ channel, but even being in a place where niche interests can be explored in the first place.

However, as many upsides as there are to moving more toward the dark forests of the internet, it can come at a cost as well. It is possible that eschewing the mainstream internet entirely can lead to being stuck in increasingly isolated echo chambers, without awareness of what is happening in the world around. By opting out entirely, this also means ceding the mainstream internet and subsequent culture entirely to bad-faith actors, exacerbating the issues already at hand.

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