I first got online in 1998, at the age of 10, and have not logged off since. I am part of the second generation of Chinese netizens, coming of age as personal computers and the Internet entered households in China. The first thing I ever searched online was the name of a Japanese boy-band. The first website I encountered was a personal webpage by two fans who only updated it once every two weeks. Because “we have to take care of our everyday life”, they wrote. It was not until I was introduced to chat-rooms and online forums that my fan-girl appetite was finally satisfied. I no longer needed to wait for slow monologic updates from people who were “distracted” by their daily errands; I immersed myself in the world that I co-created with my fellow net-friends. We exchanged hearsay and fantasies, shared fan-fictions and rare copies among ourselves. Since then, the spacetime around me has bent around my desk and my computer, linking myself to the world where I finally felt connected. It was the main theme of my youth, when the Internet was something different: a heterotopic space where I could engage with the world without predefined conditions, and yet deeply concerning who I was and who I wanted to be.
1. User Profile Design as a Community Practice
I still remember the name of my first Internet community’s administrator. Her name was “tomo”, a Japanese word meaning “dear friend”, and she was the owner of the personal website where us fans hung out. The way she named herself was not random: “tomo” was a word frequently used by the band, and her use of it helped set the tone of the community, establishing it as a closely-knitted circle.
It always fascinates me how usernames were designed before the platformisation of the Internet. It was a much longer negotiation between people (who were not yet seen “users”) and the community, where unorganised relationships could organically stem from. Many of us may still have fond memories about the journey of searching for the right communities and finally becoming part of them. The process usually went like this: you moved from merely wondering about something to searching it up and finding a community devoted to it, reading everything that was ever created by the community’s members, paying attention to notable community members. Then the moment came where, instead of just observing, you decided to surface and get to engage in a discussion.
For engagement, sometimes people made up a careless name just for a speedy conversation, sometimes people would carefully design their profile to fit the community dynamics. Perhaps because the intended community was always in mind when we created our online identities, the digital personas back then were often community-exclusive. In other words, each persona only existed for its initial context, instead of circulating across contexts and platforms. This exclusivity of course had a lot to do with security concerns, but what’s less discussed about this community exclusivity in early Internet identity practice is its relationality. It’s something that has been greatly missing in the time of the social network platform.
Before the mid-2000s, the Internet was a place that accommodated messy, unproductive “soul searching” engagements that were outside of everyday life. It was a classic heterotopia. If our real-life identities and relationships are largely bound by the geographic state and biological kinships, online identities used to be an escape from that. The open-ended self-identification process in the days of the early Internet invited a practice of relational identity, from which people gained perspective about themselves through their engagement with a community. Identities stemmed from a rhizome of chosen relationships that were driven by shared interests and ideas, and those chosen relationships were built from constant exchanges and presence in the community. As such, the relationship network where the identity resided was more important than the mere appearance of the username, as it was an outcome of long-term relational communication. The relationships between community members were so nuanced that members could recognise each other even if they appeared with secondary or burner accounts, merely from a user’s style of writing, their disposition towards topics, or even their vibe.
I no longer needed to wait for slow monologic updates from people who were “distracted” by their daily errands
This kind of identity practice is contrary to how our personas exist on social platforms today. The way we manage our social network accounts nowadays is entrepreneurial: our personal accounts are where we carefully design and maintain our personas for efficiently accumulating the social capital within them. This generation of identity practices doesn’t pursue community exclusivitities because they would erect a higher barrier for attracting followers.
I argue this change of identity practice goes hand in hand with the change of logic in the architecture of a social media platform. Take platforms like Medium, for example. Even before knowing what kind of communities we might run into, we are asked to create profiles that will appear identical to all the communities on a platform. Then we will be asked about the topics we are interested in, and a selection of popular accounts by the platform will be displayed on our homepage. Our “interests” are thus subject to a tightly-curated algorithm.
For the platforms themselves, this UX (user experience) logic makes perfect sense to help users to find their preferred consumable contents instantly, so that they don’t have to risk losing potential users who might get bored in the process of finding the right communities. This trade-off is beneficial to less patient or less skilful users too, because they can skip the soul-searching phase and be directly connected online. The cost of this approach, though, is the serendipitous space where we can understand ourselves through the on-going negotiations within a community, and the authentic sense of belonging that follows.
Counterintuitively however, putting the persona in the spotlight did not give more agency for people to craft their identities. Rather, in order to deal with a potentially infinite audience with nebulous faces in an endless timeline, platforms had individuals design their personas in the safest, most “neutral” way. Once a long and nuanced process — exploring overlooked desires, locating subject matters, observing and staying within a community — the crafting of an online persona has now been reduced to a zero-sum game between staying in or deleting an account from a platform. The sense of community has also become scattered and ephemeral as this uniform way of organising our online lives became ubiquitous.
This essay series will look into how these fundamental changes came about, and the socio-economic implications of these evolutions. Reflecting on the role of design in this rapid yet subtle transitions is essential to critically improving Internet development.
2. Blogging: The Prequel of the Persona-Driven Internet
By the mid-2000s, only a few years after I first stepped foot on the Internet, almost everyone I knew online had opened their personal blogs to a more public audience. More and more people were leaving their personal blog addresses in their profile signature in their communities, hoping to divert readership to their blogs. While early bloggers were still operating within the logic of a subject-centred community, viewership attention was gradually leaning towards the blogger as an individual, instead of them being part of a community. The concept of blogging moved from being community-focused to becoming a form of persona production. Consequently, the community-based identity practice extended to a less context-specific environment, where the relationships amongst bloggers, and the relationships between bloggers and their readers became open-ended. People would run into a blog and have conversations with the blogger, without going through community barriers in an online forum.
The gaining popularity of blogs pointed to the gradual transition of communicative production online, where the “persona” took over subjects as the main prosuming unit. We can see how the user persona began to carry more weight just by looking at the changes of the interface: while online forums established visual hierarchies between the original post and comments, blogging software tended to give major screen space to the blogger’s content, leaving only a secondary space for commentators. This change in visual hierarchy exposed a nuanced shift in viewers’ expectations: if people were interested in the experience of co-creations in a community, then in a blog, they now expected the blogger’s standpoints and opinions. Such expectations allowed, or encouraged, the bloggers to be more vocal about their differences, as a more distinctive image in the community attracted more viewership, accumulating social capital. At this stage, it became only a matter of time before a more universal platform that foregrounded individual voices over community dynamics arrived.
After all, getting one-dimensional rewards from small activities is much more cost-effective than getting into lengthy discussions with bad-faith strangers.
It’s important to note that the ways people explored themselves online within these two modes of organisations were already different. People who jumped around different communities may have had multiple identities at hand, with the identities they used to engage in a community dependent on the specificities of the community itself. Because such a setup allowed people to be explorative and experimental with their alternate identities without being too precious about them, they had full control of their alternate selves and kept close to their own psyche. On the other hand, as bloggers relied on a static vehicle to communicate with their readers and accumulate readership, they needed to design and maintain personas that were aligned with the content they produced. In other words, bloggers had a much narrower space to experiment with their identities, or explore their relationships with themselves, as well as with the people they engaged with.
These subtle differences already made the blogging sphere a less heterotopic space for identity practice. Such changes went hand in hand with the structural changes of how online communities were organised. A subject-driven community, which is often organised by an online forum software, has the sense of a fortress with its on-going, intensive dynamics between the community and its members, as well as its relatively less open and transparent architecture. This architecture comprises a static web address, an independent, centralised database, and a sense of niche exclusivity. The blogging sphere, however, uses a platform approach, which works like an open-ended rhizome of individualised spaces that may expand infinitely via loosely-connected shared interests, allowing the blog to garner readership from completely different realms.
Above all, if we look at the development of communicative capitalism in the digital sphere by the primary type of medium, we can consider a time when mediums like personal websites, online chat-rooms and forums took a prominent organisational role in the era of subject-centred communities with a commons-oriented communicative economy. The rise of relatively easy-to-use blogging services, such as Blogspot, WordPress, LiveJournal and MySpace, led to a transitional time in which the subject and the persona became a hybrid. This blogging period of the Internet was an important transitional moment, when online communicative production gradually moved from subject-centred and community-owned to a new era of privatised, persona-driven platforms, landmarked by the advent of Facebook in the mid-2000s. Accordingly, the organisational forms fundamentally changed how individual identity is now practiced, how communication is produced, and how our social relationships are structured towards a productive framework under communicative capitalism.
3. The Disappearance of Community Vibe
When community was the primary communicative production unit in the early days of the Internet, the outcomes were often informal, yet relational content, such as never-ending discussions in forums, or co-creations that didn’t even have a designated outcome or purpose. We can consider such outcomes as the materialisation of a community “vibe” as they were often produced in a live moment in the community, i.e. when a group of people who resided in the community came together for a topic, and produced instant and intimate exchanges.
Community “vibes” were essential to the outcome of a community-based communicative production: they set the tone of the content while the lack of productive guidelines allowed spaces for serendipity. The vibes were either set by a community administrator through a code of conduct and other indirect ways, or set by dominant clusters of community members. People who experienced these communities may have heard of complaints like “the community no longer feels the same” or “it’s not the community I loved anymore”, when new clusters of members became dominant voices. In other words, liveness was critical to the existence of an online community, to the extent that the community might be considered “dead” if it lacked active exchanges. The momentary culture formed by a particular group of people in a particular stage of life defines such liveness, directly impacting the communal production of the community and by the community.
Content production and consumption thus relied on the existence of the community, the presence of each member, the context they shared, and the moment of exchanges; in other words, the vibe of the community. As content was inseparable from the liveliness and momentary culture of the community, communicative production was in fact co-created and co-owned, and not transferable to other communities. Such an organisation of communicative production would imply a commons-oriented ownership model, if there was anything to own at all in early cyberspace.
We then can see an ethical system formed around the productive model. For example, a user’s reputation was built upon their contributions to the community through the creation of content, administration in the community, or consistent trivial exchanges that maintained the liveness of the community. Lurkers, in this context, were notorious as they only consumed but did not contribute. Because such passive consumption discouraged other active contributors, it greatly compromised the liveness of the community.
In the age of persona-driven platforms, “lurker” is no longer a judgmental term, because passive consumptions contribute to surplus values in the communicative economy. In the meantime, for keeping the market active, social network platforms turn trivial activities of their users into circulating goods with trivial rewards that are made of other trivial activities, such as likes, favourites, the notion of following or followers, interest in events, and so on. Such communicative production is also low risk, both for the platforms and for the users. After all, getting one-dimensional rewards from small activities is much more cost-effective than getting into lengthy discussions with bad-faith strangers.
The Internet has changed from a heterotopic space for the alternate self and alternate social lives, to an everyday production factory where all our thoughts and relationships are captured, defined and merchandised
Today, persona-driven platforms want simple and universal metrics to encourage every user to become a personal brand and to compete with each other. A community badge is not handy for the platform to manage their users’ behaviours, because it leaves too many spaces for users to interpret the incentives. They hardly care about the process and quality of the communication, but rather the result of the exchanges. This is particularly obvious in the design of hashtags. Platforms love hashtags because it allows them to gauge the productivity of discrete topics, while they hardly care whether the individuals within a hashtag are actually communicating with each other. For a platform, it’s important to close all the gaps in the process of translating human behaviours into profits, and to make sure all behavioural data is meaningful for the platform’s economic circuits. This purpose also leads platforms to suppress a community vibe, not only because it opens up too many gaps in the productive process, but because it also cannot offer a consistent quantity or quality of outcomes. A vibe is a community product, which stems from relationships and works for relationships, and the best outcomes for a relationship do not necessarily equate to the best outcome for productive, economical goals.
Online collaborative softwares like Google Docs also do not invigorate a live environment, even if they are the kinds of platform that could obviously benefit from it. That is because the predominant goal of these softwares is to make sure that the cost of communicative production is as low as possible. In a society where everyone’s time is fragmented and everyone is always exhausted, gathering for an intense, live exchange is too costly as it depends on organisational labour: requiring community presence, moderation support, and concurrent energy. For the sake of expanding the user pool and fields of application, all these softwares must repress liveness in their design, so that people can disassemble their communication to suit this sense of fragmentation.
In this scenario, our communication becomes part of an alienating process, and the means of communicative production is no longer at the hands of a community. The Internet has changed from a heterotopic space for the alternate self and alternate social lives, to an everyday production factory where all our thoughts and relationships are captured, defined and merchandised. The disappearance of a community vibe means that not only have people lost their support network for their alternate selves, but that we have lost the ability to be meaningful participants in our social relationships. Our online life is no longer about finding alternate connections with others — it is about competition, about work, about being productive for communicative capitalism to reach its fullest potentials and maximised outcomes.
It is important to note that online forums do still exist in the current stage of digital development, while blogging has been largely absorbed by persona-driven platforms. Places like reddit and 4chan still exist as heterotopic spaces where community vibes are still vibrating, but in a time when every aspect of life is captured and directed towards a profitable outcome, such heterotopic spaces are also containers for toxic selves. Community vibes then become accelerators for these repressed, ugly feelings… in the next chapter, we will expand on this further.
Editor’s note on the artworks by Sun Xiao-Xing:
In 2020, stirred by the parallels between her work in design and Sun Xiao-Xing’s practice in cyber-theatre, the author sought out the playwright for a conversation on the predetermined behaviours and hidden barriers to access in the online space. The notion of “vibe” in the “liveness” of shared space that transpired from their discussion provided some crucial clues to her research on changes in online communities. The images accompanying this essay are stills and photographs from Sun’s play “ Speed Show: Internet Drift Cafe “, which follows a group of youths who perform over the duration of one night at an Internet cafe where the onscreen activities are recorded and replayed at dawn.
In this text, “persona” refers to a character who may comprise a set of characteristics and settings which are either natural to their creator or artificially created for certain purposes. A persona can be addressed as an “online identity” that consists of a set of digital objects, such as a username, a user profile, the history of the user’s posts, and so on. In some occasions, “persona”, “identity” and “user profile” are used interchangeably as they appear in the same format.
“Heterotopia” is a term coined by philosopher Michel Foucault, which describes “other” spaces where the normative order is suspended, and the alternate persona and relationships arise.
Medium is an example of social journalism, an online publishing platform first launched in 2012.
User experience design refers to the general experience of a user interacting with a product or service. In the field of digital software, user experience design often includes Experience Strategy (ExS), Interaction Design (IxD), User Research (UR) and Information Architecture (IA), in order to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with a system and the interests of the company.
In the next chapter, we will further expand on how this design for efficient access to information has led to the platformisation of the Internet.
Blogspot (now Blogger), WordPress and LiveJournal are all blogging platforms, popular especially in the 2000s to the early 2010s. MySpace is a social networking service, which had its heyday from 2005 to 2008, when it was the world’s largest social networking site.
“Liveness” is a concept from Theatre, which refers to the experience of hearing, watching, experiencing a performance as it occurs, as distinguished from one recorded on film, tape, etc. In this text, “liveness” in an Internet community refers to the experience of watching, experiencing and being part of the communicative exchanges as it happens.
Google Docs is part of a free suite of services offered by Google, initially released in 2006.
Reddit and 4chan, both set up in the 2000s, are platforms that also function as discussion boards. These boards, or “subreddits”, range across a variety of topics. Both platforms are characterised by the degree of anonymity they afford the user.