A house of infinite rooms: on maintaining focus and specificity on the Internet.

Extended thought prompted by my previous blog post, and this post by Cheri Baker (@cheri on M.B) on reclaiming the mind and self from the tyranny of social media.

A little personal history.

It began in one specific forum thread in the NaNoWriMo forums. A bunch of us writers were posting in a character-chats forum thread, and we started getting to know each other’s characters and stories. Someone started a casual chat group on a different provider, then when that provider stopped serving our needs, opened a Discord server.

So my life on the Discord chat app began in a writing group.

As I continued to write for NaNoWriMo, I discovered other Discord servers also dedicated to writing. I joined a few more, but then shrunk them down to two groups — the character-chat group I began in where I and my stories/characters are quite well known, and one other from NaNo. Two writing communities was plenty to manage. I didn’t have the mental capacity or energy to spread myself beyond that.

Then I started playing Anthem, a multiplayer game, and began to look for other people to play regularly with. I also wound up in two servers: a small coalition started by a gamer who gathered all the people he liked into the same place, and a larger alliance with a bigger population. Again, two was enough: one intimate group who knew me relatively well, and a larger group to interact with more casually.

These Discord servers are my social media scene. I chat on those servers practically every day. Conversely, I still have accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Micro.blog, but I seldom look at them anymore and certainly don’t post on them except passively.

I’ve been thinking of the difference between Discord and the other social-media spaces, and it boils down to focus and specificity.

Some assumptions I make about human nature:

  1. Humans are particular by nature. I am incapable of dealing with generalities. My mind isn’t big enough to comprehend them, and my heart isn’t wide enough to care about them.
  2. I am self-absorbed and only focus on things that interest me. Both people and objects are valuable to me, and worth engaging with, insofar as they can contribute to whatever I’m focusing on right now. Beyond that, I don’t care about them.
  3. The only time I care about people, and objects, is when they stop being general and start being particular. This is only possible when these things have sojourned with me through my own time-space continuum, and start acquiring both definition (space) and history (time) as a result. This helps enhance focus.

Perhaps the most important point:

4. Generalities are, by definition, diluting factors. They dilute meaning and attention. If I try to care about things or people in general, I’m effectively not caring about anything or anyone. Likewise, if I allow generalities to direct my attention, my thoughts and outcomes will become shallow and inconsequential. Therefore, I must be invested into particulars. This thought. This person. This project and/or task. This community.

Discord is a particular, specific space. Micro.blog is a general space. These structural difference go a long way in shaping the way a person thinks.

These days, I come online to pursue very particular objectives. I try to stay conscious of my focus, and, when going down rabbit trails, to purposefully tell myself that I’m switching foci. Some objectives I had from the last 2 weeks:

  • I am playing Anthem.
  • I am playing The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
  • I am making a game video to show this particular neat trick.
  • I am chatting with my writing groups on Discord.
  • I am chatting with Anthem groups on Discord.
  • I am reading Alan Jacobs‘ (@ayjay) newsletter and its associated links.
  • I am catching up with news from the Christian blogosphere.
  • I am checking NaNoWriMo writing forums.
  • I am writing my fantasy novel.
  • I am researching for my fantasy novel — about coinage, or revolvers, or spherical harmonics, or limestone sinkholes.
  • I am learning how to build a website with Hugo.
  • I want to buy a new SSD.

I don’t come online to find friends or relationships. I come online looking for things or to feed ideas. But in the course of engaging with the thing or the idea, I meet people, and inevitably, relationships grow.

As for the goal of looking for a community of like-minded people to share an interest with (Anthem/writing)? I went on Discord to find them. In the midst of pursuing that goal (sharing an interest with others), I started “doing life” with these usernames. Details of the wider life seeped into the conversations, and now these are no longer usernames, but people with definition and history. They’ve become particular.

Of course these same things can happen in a general space like Twitter and Micro.blog. However, I’ve said elsewhere that the structure and function of a tool unconsciously shapes the way we use it to engage with the world. I find that Discord has more in common with web forums, because both are generally focused on topics of interest (the hub), with users arrayed around it through discussion and engagement (the spokes). Whereas it’s the opposite on Twitter and Micro.blog: the hub is the user, and the topics of discussion broadcast out like spokes to touch other hubs of individual personality.

These are fundamental structural differences. As a tool, Discord meets my personal needs, whereas Twitter and Micro.blog do not and cannot.

In writing about the above ideas, I’ve realized they’ve become a subconscious guiding force in the way I organize both online and offline life. The Internet is becoming more pervasive and invasive, and modern Western life becoming more demanding. As someone who has many projects going at once, and is by nature easily distracted, it’s become increasingly important for me to develop cognitive methods to hone my attention to a fine focus, and then, keep it there.

Topical forums and Discord servers help me achieve this in several important ways: (a) constrain my focus to the topic at hand, (b) limit scope of input entering my brainspace, (c) forms a particular space with hard boundaries that can be opened and closed at will.

I’m in the writing group, talking about writing. Yes, we also discuss a whole lot of other things, but this remains a writing group. Both my input and output are largely constrained to that topic, and all the group members implicitly understood that too. If I want to change topics, I will have to actively close one door and open another: move to a different Discord server, or leave Discord and go to another program like the browser. There is no room for multi-tasking.

Organizing my online life into foci also naturally imposes boundaries on the scope of thinking. I can open the door and enter this headspace of thought, and then leave and close the door behind me. Again, Discord and web forums help me with this. Eg. I don’t visit those Anthem servers unless I want to chat about Anthem or am looking for gamers to play with. Until that happens, the door is shut and I’m thinking about other things, and there is no way (unless I fire up the Discord app) that that space can passively seep into my consciousness. There will come a day when I stop playing Anthem for good, and it will be relatively easy to leave those communities. Relatively, because I’m sure it’ll be hard in practice because those people have become particular to me. But easy, because the door is under my conscious control, I’ve had practice opening and shutting it at will, and because that online space (and my brainspace) has been dedicated only to Anthem and nothing else.

Now I can see how this principle has subconsciously guided my online life for quite a few years. It was guiding me when I stopped relying on RSS readers to keep me informed, and started directly visiting blogs and news sites (and yes, reading newspapers) instead. When I gravitated to topical forums and Discord servers for my social interaction, instead of general all-purpose spaces like Twitter and Tumblr. When I was stopped using Twitter’s infinite scrolling feed, and started visiting Twitter accounts manually. When I discovered I wasn’t able to blog anymore. (More on that later, maybe.)

I was subconsciously rejecting modes of organizing the Internet around “personality” modes of engagement (be it a RSS reader or Twitter or an app). I was embracing “topical” modes of engagement like visiting websites, forums, and topical chat servers, while simultaneously centring myself as the agent of my thoughts and goals. Instead of relying on an external centralizing force to organize the Internet for me, I organized my own internal, mental life into foci, and then looked for the online tools and spaces that could engage these foci without compromising my centralized integrity. And I had to continually practise opening and closing the doors to these spaces.

Cheri Baker’s post talked about developing a walled garden of the mind.

I think of the Internet as a house of infinite rooms. Once, those rooms consisted of websites, which were easy to manage. Now, social media has opened up a new infinity of rooms (a la Hilbert’s Hotel): not only are the hubs of Twitter, Micro.blog et al, large rooms in their right, but every single account on these social-media spaces is a room of its own.

Cultivating the walled garden between one’s ears is vitally important, but so is learning how to move through the infinite rooms of the Internet. On my part, instead of opening all the doors to those rooms and giving them the agency to pour their ideas into my garden, I try to become the agent who moves the walled garden of my mind into one room only before opening the door.

I’ve tried to do that by imposing absolute structural constraints on myself. If I want news, I visit websites directly (no RSS), and if I’m really a fan, sign up for email newsletters. If I want to engage with others on a topic, I visit a topical forum (no Reddit). If I want to chat about my hobbies, I go to my Discord servers (no Twitter). I must be the agent and the sole director directing my thoughts. I am constantly moving between rooms, opening and shutting the door behind me all the time. And when I’m in a room, I’m fully there, engaged with those people. Over time, some of those people have even become particular.

Learning how to close the doors has been the most important thing to me. It’s impossible to sit in one room and engage with one conversation (idea, website, chat) here, while trying to listen to the conversation in the adjacent room, let alone the last five rooms I visited. That way lies the multitude of voices all talking all at once, a dilution of focus and attention and purpose, and the submerging of my psyche into white noise. If I want to maintain focus and be “present” and “mindful”, I have to remain in this single room, and I have to purposefully, ruthlessly close all other doors. This is true both in Real Life and in the online life.

This has so far been a peaceful way to navigate and exist within the Internet today. This practice suits my cognitive structures, and increases my productivity and sense of satisfaction. It’s not perfect and I can be even more focused and productive with my online life, and life in general. Yet it surprises me to say that I am genuinely pleased and satisfied with how things are going now.

There are surely other ways out there, but this is my path.

6 thoughts on “A house of infinite rooms: on maintaining focus and specificity on the Internet.”

  1. @vega Really great post, and well-argued; thanks for writing it and sharing here. Your dichotomy between the general and particular with regards to social media vs topic-focused fora is akin to some of the arguments I have been (poorly and incompletely) making about how social media is “flattening” us as people, forcing us to be all aspects of ourselves to all people at all times, which is unnatural and not good, at all 😉 I’m glad to see that someone else is thinking in the same general direction and I’m not entirely off in the weeds somewhere.

    I personally think there is still some value to be had from visting a more general community—especially a “smaller” and well-managed one—for discovery of both people with similar interests not already in smaller communities (or smaller communities one is not aware of) and people and ideas one might not be aware of—there are a number of people I have found here on Micro.blog, yourself included, who have shared perspectives that have allowed me to see the world in different ways, which I have found invaluable—but as you ended your post, “There are surely other ways out there, but this is my path.” 🙂

  2. @smokey Thanks for the reply.

    Personally, I’ve always kept Real Life and my online presence as very separate entities, so I find social media’s centralizing effects, and the trend towards blending RL and online life together, extremely marginalizing and uncomfortable. My way of reconciling myself to the pervasive online life is to develop my own sorting system of determining which activity goes into the RL column, which goes into the Online Life column, and ensuring that the two never bleed into each other. Some people can tolerate more bleed-through, but I can’t.

    It’s taken me as long as I’ve been a member of M.B to figure out where M.B fits into my internal sorting system. I’ve finally made peace with the fact that M.B is just going to be a room I will visit now and again, but not reside in, like I do in Discord. To this day I’m still not sure where my own blog falls!

  3. @smokey I completely agree with your post. Boundaries are important! The physical RL world has some in-built, innate boundaries already that help us identify what to include/exclude. But the interconnectedness of the Internet (a structural feature) already predisposes one towards centralization and flattening out. I think we’re all realizing that we do need structural and personal boundaries on the Internet as well. Figuring that out for yourself (and for systems design for apps and platforms) is now the next step.

  4. This is an excellent post! I appreciate the mental framework of small Internet rooms, rooms with doors you firmly close when you’re elsewhere.

    May I add a webmention on my post that leads to this one? I think others will enjoy reading this. 🙂

  5. @vega Thanks for your replies, too. The desire (and some cases need) for individuals or groups to maintain a bifurcation between one’s Real life and online life is one of those things that most of the people making the decisions about the systems designs and structures have the privilige of not worrying, or even thinking, about, so I try to remember that, and always appreciate reminders/reinforcement.

    I also appreciate your point about the very nature/structure of the Internet predisposing us towards flattening; I had not thought about that (in part, I think, because I grew up with an Internet that was young, quirky, sparsley populated, and not yet exhibiting the symptoms, rather than the networks within networks entangled with other networks we have today…).

    I think we’re all realizing that we do need structural and personal boundaries on the Internet as well. Figuring that out for yourself (and for systems design for apps and platforms) is now the next step.


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