If context is king; could version control counter context collapse?
I stumbled across some of my old writing still online on Netribution from over two decades years ago that was so bad I wanted to cancel myself before anyone else had a chance to. I was scrolling down my old year 2000 design for old raw HTML Netribution pages untouched in 20 years, and still looking much like it did then (other than screens are much bigger so there's a lot of left/right padding). I noticed the list of feature interviews were all with men. It stood out how many of the director interviews were with men - so I clicked on one that wasn't - Oscar winner Marleen Gorris and found I'd written something that a drunk or stoned 90s-soaked teenager would have penned, about feminism, dungarees and Valerie Solanas. Gorris was incredibly graceful in the circumstances. So this right here is sitting waiting to be taken out of context by some future mob in the event I'm daft enough to make myself interesting to a sufficiently large crowd.
It made me think of Charlie Warzel's recent quote: "The internet is flat. Three-dimensional human beings can’t thrive in a one-dimensional space".
We know the three-steps by now:
- web 1: content is king
- web 2: conversation is king
- web 3: context is king
Warzel gets it spot on:
"social platforms collapse time and space and context into one big pancake of conflict. I wrote a bit about this phenomenon in my inaugural post for this newsletter. It’s called context collapse, which is when a piece of information intended for one audience finds its way to another — usually an uncharitable one — which then reads said information in the worst possible faith."
And there's currently just two defences against it:
- when the mob comes for you, double down and pantomime villain it up with an attack on the 'woke'. It may be that Fox and Hopkins and Shaprio are simply angry, mean, unapologetic people; but it's also the only space that's been left for them on social media.
- flatten your personality to nothing. Remove the jaggedy edges that jab at people. Become the beige brand. And as I wondered what it must be like to be growing up in this space when you're trying to find your creative voice, I thought of how the exciting thing about the digital garden space I've started to experiment with, is that it's growing and a little be untidy.
And I wonder if part of that is because there's public version control – the source content of many digital gardens sit on a public repository on Gitlab or Github so changes to them can be seen and tracked if needs be.
Because when I look back at the thing I wrote in 2000 as an intro to Marlene Gorris I don't feel like editing it – where would I stop if policed the writings of an earlier more naïve, less aware self? It would be quicker to just delete everything (which crossed my mind too). And worse, there's something slippery about web words that change without letting the reader know. We want the freedom to say 'I no longer think like that' – we need it! – but the act of trying to hide that step in our development is in itself feels deceptive. Shift happens, that's the thing. And the flattened, decontextualised web – without its history – kills that.
But maybe version control and public revision histories bring it back. The reader doesn't see the change, but it's there, publicly, in a history. For instance, my page about Static Site Generators in my recently seeded digital garden is also on Gitlab here, where you can view the history of that page. You could even suggest a correction or improvement, or fork it.
If that was normalised, then it no longer becomes about 'did you once say something careless or shitty' – and more 'when you later realised how careless or hurtful you were, did you double down or wise up?'. I'd hate to be a kid today. I once got accused of being an ableist on Twitter by someone with a PhD who'd decided that me writing that Trump winning the election in 2016 would be 'crazy like the rest of the year'. Me, a guy with my own history of mental health struggles and recovery was 'ableist' for using 'crazy' perjoratively. I had to either accept that her definitation of language was correct, and mea culpa, or become the villain who didn't care about mental health. In that binary world, playing the villain was tempting.
But how are you supposed to find your voice in that space? Beige brand-friendliness, or 'anti-woke brashness'?
Or just recognise you're going to be burning stupid thoughts into hard drives and browser caches for the rest of your life, and change will happen. Again and again and again. Know when to move on, when to apologise and when to hold firm.
I may read this in a decade or a year and hate it. Maybe I'll rewrite it, maybe I'll delete it, maybe nothing changes. But if it's under version control, then what change is public. The bugs that exist in my writing - at best typos and clumsy sentences; at worst a reflection of my white male cis able anglo poverty-free privilage and inevitble, perhaps unavoidable, bias - can get fixed as bugs. And the public fixing of the bug is maybe more useful and humane than the shaming for making it in the first place. At least that's the world I want to live in online; be human, and edit.
And of course people can take me out of context and make me look like a shit or a schmuck – but that's on them, not me.
"Baba doesn't make mistakes, baba only makes lessons" a wise man once told me.