The rise of the internet led to a collapse of social variety:
- A huge variety of settings (for, e.g., dating, shopping, socializing, working) were replaced with a few apps. Most rituals and social practices in these areas were lost in the jump.
- An almost limitless variety of social relations (mentor, godparent, person-you've-made-knowing-eye-contact-with-a-few-times, etc) got replaced by a handful of app-enabled social relations (audience, creator, seller, friend, match).
- Complex systems of incentives have been replaced, as industries (news, retail, finance) went online. Replaced by the influencer dynamics of the attention economy.
That'd be enough. But I haven't even gotten to what I consider the most important collapse: the collapse of legitimation processes.
"What is a legitimation process?" you ask.
In any social system, some moves are legitimate; others are deemed illegitimate. The polite thing to do with illegitimate moves is to ignore them. Someone who keeps making illegitimate moves is ejected from the system.
The legitimation process is the backstory of each legitimate move:
Once you learn to see it, legitimation is everywhere. Every social process is, on some level, a legitimation processes.
The rise of the internet replaced complex legitimation processes with simple ones—often just upvotes or share counts. The results aren't surprising: spam now circulates freely which wouldn't get through earlier legitimation filters. Even world leaders now discuss what's going viral, rather than what's made it through levels of pre-approval which, in earlier times, would have helped them stick to a plot.
Don't get me wrong—the other decimations I mentioned earlier (settings, social relations, and incentive structures) are huge problems. But the clear-cutting of legitimation processes caused our current situation in politics, media, fake news, data, etc—which many blockchain utopians hope to address.
Legitimation and Web 2.0 and Web3
Now, I'm not a conservative. I think reinventing legitimation processes is cool! Certainly, the old ones had problems. But re-inventors better know what they're replacing.
And... they don't.
Some have simplistic, ideological approaches: "give everyone a voice", "make the world more open and connected", etc—these are not practical approaches to legitimation.
But even non-ideological 'internet reinventors' usually start with the wrong frame. The incentives one I’ll get to, but first I want you knock down four lesser foes:
- Permissions and "permissionlessness". Nerds often focus on physical access, or the related concepts of read and write permissions. But someone can have physical access to a space (such as a homeless man who walks into the governor's office), or permissions to make edits to a document, while the rules of the social structure (such as WP:NPOV) don't give those edits legitimacy, or don't give that person a role within that space. For instance, a random newbie on Wikipedia can make edits to most pages, but those edits are illegitimate, and will be rolled back, unless they conform to written norms like the Neutral Point of View. In this case—and most others—access isn't what matters.
- "Reach" "amplification", and free speech. The legitimation problems of the internet are not due to widespread circulation of information—if they were, then tabloids would have been just as big a problem. Far more important than whether someone can be heard, is whether their words can pass through a legitimation process, becoming the basis for actions. Information that's divorced from legitimation is just "content". We're drowning in it.
- Reputation, power, ownership, and status. Those atop a hierarchy—a President, owner, or CEO—may have elaborate legitimation processes around them, which highly constrain their allowable actions. In general, those who have the easiest time legitimizing their acts are not those with the highest status or numeric reputations scores. On a network like Substack or TikTok it's easy to accumulate followers, readers, and reputation scores, but this doesn't tie "creators" and "influencers" into situations where they can act decisively. To empower people, we need legitimation systems that reach them, not reputation scores or ownership.
- Social graphs. Say I run an exclusive club. You need to be vouched by three existing members to join. This forms a graph, but it's not a social graph—it's a legitimation graph. What do I mean? There's likely criteria attached to a vouch, perhaps a pledge I sign on behalf of my friend, and a consequence for people who vouch indiscriminately. So, I may have friends I wouldn't vouch for. What's important in this graph is who's been legitimated for which roles, by what process, not the simple graph of social connections.
For these reasons, focusing on these things won't fix the legitimation problems we face today. Instead, we need to invent new, thoughtful systems of legitimation that support our values.