Identity-Centric Heuristics for Traversing The Internet

Growing up on The Internet, most of my online expeditions were subject-centric: I would seek out particular forums that I found relevant - an EverQuest forum, a message board dedicated to the odd anime that I’d just watched - and explore the communities therein.  It was a relatively quiet era in cyberspace; just by virtue of being online and interested enough to seek out a niche group, you had a decent likelihood of finding both meaningful content and interaction within those narrow venues.

Today, there’s an effectively inexhaustible amount of narrow venues, instantly available through any screen.  There are subreddits, discord channels, and countless other places for discussing any topic, at any granularity, that you can imagine.  If you apply a bit of filtering, you can still find interesting content and uncover pleasant communities; in my experience, these alcoves are great for skimming content and passing time.  But they also tend to be noisy, and curation is tuned to the lowest common denominator - resulting in a lot of superficial or redundant information.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent less and less time in subject-centric spaces.  Sure, they’re still useful for passing time, and keeping a pulse on what’s topping the relevancy charts at any given moment.  But I now spend the majority of my online time on content from a handful creators that I discovered through YouTube, SoundCloud, or podcasts.  And rather than burrowing within specific sites or channels, I’ve chosen to invest time in individual personalities that span multiple sites, topics, and even mediums.  It’s increasingly irrelevant “where” a particular conversation or piece of content is located.

I think the shift has been subtle, but profound: the democratization of content creation is allowing people to forge online identities that aren’t bound to any single platform or subject.  A personality can emerge on YouTube through a few interesting videos, and then extend into the realm of podcasting, establish a Twitter presence, and be in effectively constant engagement with interested viewers.  The mainstream media depicts identity-centric content as vapid, fleeting entertainment; Instagram models, slapstick YouTubers, and other self-infatuated expression.  But the well runs much deeper, if you know where to look. 

Nowadays, my consumption patterns resemble something Pareto-esque.  I.e., at any given time, >80% of the content I’m consuming is coming from a handful of creators. While this shift wasn’t initially deliberate, I’ve found two heuristics that have worked reasonably well for navigating the identity-centric web.

The first heuristic is analysis-first: what media, or subject matter, has hijacked your mind recently?  Find a compelling video (or article) that examines it critically.  I think about SuperBunnyHop’s analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2, which methodically deconstructed the infamously enigmatic game.  I found the video to be equal parts captivating and irritating; the precision and depth of insight left me wondering how I’d failed to synthesize a fraction of what was presented.  Shortly thereafter, I delved into the rest of SuperBunnyHop’s analysis videos, followed him on Twitter, and gradually became aware of the wider network of personalities that he collaborates with.

In a very different sphere of media, Charlamagne Tha God struck me as an unafraid, incisive voice in a sea of pundits producing softball interviews and superficial analysis of pop culture.  Whenever someone like Kanye West made the headlines, Charlamagne was seemingly the only person willing to say the same things on social media that he did to the person he would interview.  Unsurprisingly, his popularity has expanded far beyond New York radio; I regularly listen to his podcast with Andrew Schulz, and generally tune into the conversations he has with other media figures and celebrities that intersect “mainstream” culture.


The second navigation heuristic is synthesis-first: who’s creating new things that deeply resonate with you?  Akira The Don’s music has been the soundtrack for large amounts of my past year; he’s combining catchy, upbeat production with messages from noteworthy thinkers that I was already interested in learning more about - like Alan Watts, Terrance McKenna, and Jordan Peterson.  Meaningwave is a genre he’s pioneered, but the constituent elements - poignant dialogue, upbeat electronic music - were things I’d been interested in beforehand.  Through Akira’s work, I subsequently discovered a trove of interesting books, lectures, and other artists.

Other synthesis-first examples include Mitch Murder, the Synthwave artist that plunged me into the depths of the myriad subgenres of retro music and visual design; Toby Fox, who shared a remarkably charming, poignant story through his game Undertale; and the indie Mac software studio Panic, which is enmeshed in a network of other creative personalities.  In each case, a single product or piece of art grabbed my attention, and compelled me to explore the adjacent conceptual and social spaces.

These two heuristics are by no means exhaustive; they’re just cursory attempts to articulate how my media habits have been shifting over the past few years.  I’m spending less time in narrow venues that are subject-centric, and more time following individuals whose presence spans many platforms.  Traversing through networks of creators has been an enjoyable way to learn new things, and it’s a constant reminder that there is interesting material lurking in unexpected places.  As the pace of content production continues to accelerate, I’m curious to see how my day-to-day habits will continue to change.

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