Radical Transparency

Curious decision by a small Czech forum, and what it means for polarization and understanding.

Radical “Transparency” in Social Networks

NYX 🌐, a Czech-language underground internet forum dating all the way back from 2001, has made a very interesting choice:

All your subscribed threads, as well as what thread you’re reading at the moment, and who you’re friends with, is public by default.

It’s kind of an analogue of Working with the Garage Door up 🌐 principle - except that the “work” here is discussion or socialization.

One can (and most do) also organize threads into folders/categories, and these categories are just as public. For one, this means that the “official”, hierarchical categories the threads belong to (e.g. “Software>Programming” or “Travel>Vehicles”) aren’t really as important as the clusters that you either create yourself, or that on a large scale emerge “on their own”.

(In comparison: Twitter, for example, also allows anyone to see anyone’s followers, but lacks any organization features, which limits its usefulness quite a lot. “Lists” have been introduced fairly recently, but since they’re tacked on and have to be created explicitly, they don’t really work in the same way.)

See the network through someone else’s eyes

The really interesting thing is that this almost feels like logging into the user’s account, and being able to browse the social network in the same way they do.

Discovery and curation

Unsurprisingly, that’s a great (and somewhat unique) way to discover new things on the site. There’s something about manual curation that algorithmic recommendations can’t match, because they have no taste.

In the absence of all-seeing mechanisms that supply You with content you’re probabilistically going to engage with and/or enjoy, what’s left is the human analogue - the visible, concrete decisions each user had to make themselves, when organizing their little corner of the network.

It’s the difference between browsing a record store or even someone’s personal library, or turning on Spotify’s Daily Mix 1 through 9. The latter may be more palatable on average, but optimizing solely for “not great, not terrible” doesn’t lead to too many interesting places.

Obviously, conscious curation is not impossible, but it’s not really incentivized either. Transparency (by default) makes the friction disappear completely.

Polarization and mutual understanding

There’s been experiments 🌐 that try to replicate what the person with the “opposite political view” sees in their algorithmic feed, and while that surely is worthwhile, it literally only offers two options. Pick a side 🌐, are you Pro-Skub or Anti-Skub 🌐?

“Polarization” is a very a tired term, but what I mean by it is being so out of touch with the “other camp” that their position is effectively incomprehensible. It may be a naive hope, and I certainly don’t mean to imply all opinions are of equal value, but I believe that more often than not, understanding is possible.

The idea is exceedingly simple - if you could choose to switch your algorithmic feed to instead show the content that any given person on the site sees on their feed (minus private groups, messages, etc.), it might just be enough to bridge the gap.

And even if not “complete understanding” (whatever that may be), being completely blind to what the other person really sees surely doesn’t help. Also, it does not really solve the tyranny of the opaqueness of the algorithms, but it sure goes a long way in escaping one’s filter bubbles, echo chambers and other such niceties.

NYX itself

Of course, there’s a few specifics of NYX that make this less surprising in context.

NYX is somewhat private.

Albeit in a very weak manner. It’s not as secretive as, for instance, private torrent trackers. It used to be strictly invitation-only a long time ago (and invitations still are the most common way one finds their way to the forum), but now you can just as well apply for an account purely on your own, provided that you can provide “several sentences that make some sort of sense and not immediately offer penis enlargement pills or viagra”1.

It is the default.

You can hide all of this info with various degrees of granularity, and there’s different privacy settings available, including those that hide your nickname to unauthenticated users, or choosing to hide your posts from searches - so it’s not like this is a necessary prerequisite for participating in the site at all, or even one of its defining characteristics. In my experience though, only very few users actually do so.

NYX is kind of its own thing.

NYX itself is very much a remnant of the old-school pre-hegemonic wild-west internet, and due to its small scale, long history and relatively high barrier to entry, it has the kind of atmosphere that doesn’t make users self-censor too much due to say, threat of doxxing.

  1. Loose translation mine.