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How to Escape the Public Internet

You’re familiar with the urge, I’m sure. Maybe you’re alone, or maybe with friends, or in a group of strangers—it doesn’t really matter where you are. Sometimes, you just have to share something online.  

For years, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have been the most obvious places to do this, in no small part because that’s where everyone is now. Perversely, though, the popularity of mainstream social media and the scale it has brought has diminished its utility.

Where once you would broadcast idle thoughts to a healthy mix of friends, family, and (very few) strangers, you now expose yourself to potentially very public ridicule with every post. The internet hate mob can quickly turn against you—can elicit not just debate, but anger and harassment. It’s draining. What’s a poster to do?

Enter Slack. Ostensibly a powerful work chat app where teams can communicate with each other in channels of various topics (in the manner of its public predecessor IRC), Slack has also developed both a rabid userbase and a culture of its own as people turn its groups into communities. Its users aren’t just corporate teams, either. They’re freelancers, groups of friends, and even gaming clans. Though they use it differently, all have turned to the app for the same reason: to take their conversations from public to private.

We are slowly becoming accustomed to this new version of public identity, a self that can be replicated with all of its flaws instantly and globally—and it is exhausting. To  maintain a personal brand on public and semi-public networks is always risky. For one, there are the drags of constant disagreement, drive-by “well actuallys,” and continual misunderstandings. Worse, as we’ve seen with Gamergate and other hate movements, public networks can also help enable vicious harassment and abuse on a large scale. As  our networks grow, the possibility of things going sour grows with them, and public posts are often now as much a gamble as they are an act of self-expression.

For this and other reasons, I find myself spending more and more time using Slack, in a a group I’m in for writers and academics. There, users—half of whom have never met—share tips, offer advice, and provide emotional support. To me, the most stark effect of having a private network, however, is how much less appealing the public ones now seem. With each urge to post, it’s a choice: “Do I want to risk the ire of internet strangers?" or "Do I want to talk to cool, smart people I know?"

It’s true that, for as long as we’ve had the web, we’ve balanced the public and private in that way. There are certain photos one posts to Instagram, and others best sent in a text; certain sentiments okay to post on Twitter, and those better suited to a direct message.

Yet the scale and popularity of our public networks may be changing the balance of what we choose to put where and how often. The ubiquity of those public platforms has, after all, enforced a set of norms and behaviours: a wariness of disagreement and harassment, the constant urge to shill one’s personal brand—not to mention a lingering fear that, at any point, a single post might get whipped up into the day’s viral storm and be scattered across the web.

Slack—and other private modes of communication—offers a space hidden from the public internet. What it thus represents is a retreat into the private—or rather, a return to it.Years ago, when fewer people were online, Twitter, Metafilter, and BBS boards were places where  people with similar interests would gather to talk. Now that a majority of people in many countries are on the web, however, the false sense of privacy that came from the insulation of simple numbers and demographic similarity no longer holds.

Closing communities off from public view also cuts down on the need to constantly perform, and that changes the  tenor of a place: you can be genuinely vulnerable without fear of exposure. When we are all asked to have a public self, we must also tend to it as a visible representation of who we are, each utterance becoming absorbed into an archive that may, down the road, be turned against us. It requires constant vigilance.

Slack itself, however, is not a panacea for the downsides of the public internet. As a business tool, it represents another, further intrusion of the workday into our lives, and a Slack group’s smallness and privacy are not themselves cures for digital antagonism. That said: Slack and services like it seem to be the next evolution of the social web, where our carefully curated public personas protect our more vulnerable and sincere selves.

As the web has become so public, so enormous, so overwhelming, it has become necessary to pull back and seek fundamental connection in the quiet of the private. It’s better to speak to friends than to yell into the void.