Mass Movements & Affinity Groups

“You don’t have to have a deep and intimate knowledge of the left or any of its manifestations to be part of its future. If you disagree with my values, if you think the left should change from what it has been, the path is simple: do the work. Convince people. Convince me. Organize. Get off of social media and into real-world spaces, otherwise known as your actual community. Do the shitty grunt work that real activism entails, the boring, dispiriting, exhausting trudge to slowly winning over one convert at a time. Lose and actually experience losing, by which I mean experience the pain and humiliation without dulling it with the numbing poison of irony. Organize with people who are not like you, people who you have fundamental disagreements with, passionate disagreements with, but who you recognize as sharing a significant degree of self-interest with you. Articulate your values and why they’re superior. But don’t show up online, sneering at everyone else as a way to hide your lack of confidence, and snidely make assertions about a history you know nothing about. And stop fucking asking “what happened to you?” like you know or care how people used to be. That’s just bullshit internet social control and I have no patience for it.

I love newcomers to socialism and organizing. I always have. But I also know my history, and ours, and will not let myself or my movement be defined by anyone else. Sorry. Not here, not about this. I am a leftist, a socialist, a Marxist, and will remain so. I was born here, and I’ll die here.”

-Freddie deBoer, “I’m Still Here.” freddiedeboer.substack.com. November 1, 2021.

I enjoy Freddie deBoer’s writing, and I’ve been thinking about this piece for a bit since I read it. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s not my job to convince you. I’m not interested in a mass movement, where we all collectively convince each other on some course of action and take it. Ultimately, I think that’s what’s wrong with leftist politics.

If you want to change the world, you start on the ground you are on and find fellow travelers. You find people that, in the main, agree with your political point of view. In anarchist circles, these are called affinity groups:

“An affinity group is a small group of 5 to 20 people who work together autonomously on direct actions or other projects. You can form an affinity group with your friends, people from your community, workplace, or organization.

Affinity groups challenge top-down decision-making and organizing, and empower those involved to take creative direct action. Affinity groups allow people to “be” the action they want to see by giving complete freedom and decision-making power to the affinity group. Affinity groups by nature are decentralized and non-hierarchical, two important principles of anarchist organizing and action. The affinity group model was first used by anarchists in Spain in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was re-introduced to radical direct action by anti-nuclear activists during the 1970s, who used decentralized non-violent direct action to blockade roads, occupy spaces and disrupt “business as usual” for the nuclear and war makers of the US. Affinity groups have a long and interesting past, owing much to the anarchists and workers of Spain and the anarchists and radicals today who use affinity groups, non-hierarchical structures, and consensus decision making in direct action and organizing.”

-Shawn Ewald, “Affinity Groups.” The Anarchist Library. 2008.

Affinity Groups are a completely different model from major party, first past the post politics of liberal “democracies” that impose various forms of tyranny of the majority on the world they inhabit or the communism with its vanguards, opening the path for the hoi polloi.

I don’t have any illusions that there is anyone on this planet that is going to agree with my politics. But, there are enough people that might get close, who believe in decentralized organization, home rule, direct action and who have views that large governments, on balance and looked at over the course of their entire histories, are probably more a force for harm than for help for the vast majority of people. Say this to any person that identifies as Democrat / Liberal / Labour or what have you, and you’ll immediately get labeled as some variety of conservative. Maybe, but not the kind you are thinking of.

If you are busy, like Freddie, trying to convince Trump supporters and people like me to join your political cause, whether that cause is socialism, party politics, abortion or your political action of choice, then it’s unlikely you’ll spend a lot of time developing an affinity group because you are looking to be part of something larger.

This is why affinity groups aren’t more common. The politics of the day are designed to suck out the energy that would go into creating small groups and forming the bonds where the politics we wish to see in the world manifest and can be used to create real change for the people in those affinity groups. It’s not dependent on the will of Congress or your local politician, who are beholden to moneyed interests that fund their campaigns and get them elected.

When’s the last time you’ve seen a political argument that you should focus on the 5 to 20 people nearest and dearest to you and try to remake the world in some small way with them? We don’t because our lives have been atomized to the point that most of us probably don’t have five people in our lives we would want to form an affinity group with. That’s not an accident.

The Small Internet

“The Small Internet, as I’ve seen people call it, is built on alternative protocols. Previously that meant a protocol called Gopher, which was popular in the 90s but ultimately lost the battle to HTTP. It has, however, maintained a small user-base of hackers and hobbyists who enjoy the technical simplicity and text-oriented nature of Gopher. Recently a new protocol called Gemini was collaboratively designed as a kind of middle ground between the simple Gopher and the more complex HTTP. It aims to better serve certain use-cases that Gopher cannot quite fulfill while still keeping things simple compared to the WWW. For example, Gemini mandates the use of TLS to encrypt traffic between a Gemini server and a client and supports MIME-types, so servers can better instruct clients to deal with different types of files. Generally speaking Gemini and Gopher seem to be co-existing peacefully and many Gopher clients have added support for Gemini as well. It’s also not unusual to link to Gopher content from Gemini sites.

The Small Internet is in some ways similar to the Big Internet we know. It consists of servers, from which people serve documents and files. People host their own journals on it (called “phlogs” on Gopher or “gemlogs/flight journals” on Gemini) similar to how people host blogs on the regular web. There are search engines and content aggregators. Some people even mirror web content on the Small Internet, you can for example read Reddit on an unofficial Gopher mirror.

Where the Small Internet differs is in presentation. Pages are mostly plain-text, you cannot serve scripts to your users and you cannot embed images into pages directly. This means that Small Internet pages tend to be relatively snappy and simple compared to their WWW counterparts. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are ugly, however. ASCII art is frequently used to spice up pages in lieu of style sheets and banner images.”

-samsai, “Introduction to Gemini and the Small Internet.” samsai.eu. May 17, 2020.

Mimesis, Unconscious Imitation

“What happened that night is something I now recognize as disruptive empathy. The cycle of conflict that stems from unchecked mimesis (unconscious imitation)—like that of a debt collector and a debtor, each responding mimetically to the aggression of the other—was derailed. There was an unexpected breaking in of empathy, something that transcended the moment. 

Fear, anxiety, and anger are easily amplified by mimesis. A colleague sends me an email that seems curt or disrespectful, I respond in kind; and passive aggression spreads like wildfire, beyond two people and through an entire organizational culture. 

René Girard uses the example of a handshake gone wrong to illustrate how deep-rooted mimesis is—and how it explains things we usually ascribe to simply being “reactionary.” There’s nothing trivial about a handshake. Say that you extend your hand to me, and I leave you hanging. I don’t imitate your ritual gesture. What happens? You become inhibited and withdraw—probably equally as much, and probably more, than you sensed I did to you. “We suppose that there is nothing more normal, more natural than this reaction, and yet a moment’s reflection will reveal its paradoxical character,” writes Girard. “If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead. Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs. Here we see how rigorously, how implacably mutual imitation structures even the simplest human relations.” 

This is how negative mimetic cycles start. We are not condemned to them, though. 

When we make the effort of getting to know people at their core, we reduce the possibility of cheap mimetic interactions. Knowing someone at their core requires sharing and listening to a particular kind of experience: stories of deeply fulfilling action. Knowing and relating to these stories produces empathy and a greater understanding of human behavior. 

A negative mimetic cycle is disrupted when two people, through empathy, stop seeing each other as rivals.”

-Luke Burgis, “Empathy Lessons … from a Hitman.” Arc Digital. June 15, 2021

Sifting the Internet for Gold

“…which of my beliefs remain unchanged? What assumptions will remain in place? What trends will be accelerated, which delayed, and which stopped entirely? What do I care about that has become newly relevant, and what no longer matters?

-Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Edouard Urcades, “Premonition.” subpixel.space. March 25, 2021.

Something about the phrase “lifestyle performance and participation” bugs me, but I agree with the thrust of the commentary, i.e.:

  • More culture is shifting online
  • It will continue moving away from giant aggregators like Facebook
  • Much of it will not be generally accessible, moving away from clear net to more private modes
  • Smaller communities, by definition, introduce more variance in behavior, that is, they are weirder
  • The death of retail will open up spaces for small culture and these small communities formed online will reconstitute themselves in meatspace, making meatspace downstream of online life
  • There will be a general flight from most cities as work-from-home becomes a legitimate option. This will give birth to a new suburban culture

However, there are obvious places where they are wrong too. For example, retail is going to be devastated, but it isn’t because of a recession, it will be because they have been made redundant by online stores and to your door delivery that is already impacting general retail, pharmacy, restaurants and practically every other area of retail you can think of.

“More self-organizing friend groups and professional networks are using video calls and enterprise chat as a way to socialize. As a result, many individuals will suddenly begin to experience their interactions as content that can be public and monetized, and will feel more pressure to externalize their communications for an audience.”

Specialist physicians, for example, can create “journal clubs” and presentations for little cost for Continuing Medical Education credit, which will probably will help in the cross-pollination of practices and lead to better health care.

“We are still exiting an era of defunct political parties that are failing and fragmenting, and making our way into an era of discovery and realignment.”

Possible, but I think the existing political parties in the United States are a Coke/Pepsi duopoly that serves elite interests. It’s possible these new movements will be captured, but if it goes off in a truly new direction, you can be sure that the old guard will protect their lunch.

“The culture war between the East Coast and West Coast, which has been going on for some time, is now all but over. It has self-evidently been lost by the East Coast.”

About as right as saying the United States is declining and China is replacing it, which is to say there’s a surface truth here that falls apart if you think about it for five minutes.

Some of the ideas here are truly horrible. A digital graveyard? Want to imagine what your digital grave is going to look in a century in a culture like the U.S. that doesn’t believe in filial piety or worshiping ancestors? One is the loneliest number, indeed. There is something deeply sad about wanting desperately to be remembered and the reality that very few of us will be. Personally, I think it is better to think about this moment, this life as “tears in the rain”, lost forever once it is over. The transience of it, of the moment, is what is valuable about it. We are thinking about this issue all wrong.

“Breathe. Read the air. We are all going online in a new way, and we will never entirely leave again. In this new era, cultural literacy is a baseline requirement for making technology, for making policy, for living and for dying. Squad up. The real knowledge work begins now.

Let me say, with all sincerity, “Fuck that.” I’m going to stick in my own little weird subculture of one, and while I take an interest in the broader culture, since it is fascinating, let’s also understand Sturgeon’s Law applies, i.e., 90% of it is crap. The real knowledge work isn’t cultural literacy, it is taste making. In the deluge of terrible that comprises much of the Internet, who can distill all of that dross and find the nuggets, the pearls? No one can find them all, obviously, but there’s gold in them there hills! Well, reader, it’s probably as good of a description of what I’m up to with the site as any.

New sites I learned about from the article:

  • Figma helps teams create, test, and ship better designs from start to finish.
  • Notion: One tool for your whole team. Write, plan, and get organized. So, maybe a Slack/Roam?

What Networks Whisper

“In the words of Paul Graham, “every city whispers something.” So when you choose to live in a city, you’re also choosing what kind of whispers you want to hear. Even if they’re subliminal, the whispers of cities are so influential that innovation has historically been clustered in small pockets. The cities we inhabit strongly influence our odds of success. As Paul Graham wrote: “How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot… Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.”

Now, the same thing is happening on social networks: each one whispers something. Twitter tells you to be witty, Reddit tells you to be clever, Facebook tells you to share your everyday life, Instagram tells you to be glamorous, and TikTok tells you to be entertaining. 

Social networks are cities for the digital world.”

-David Perell, “What Networks Whisper.davidperell.com. February 2021

Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life

7. Establish as many regular routines as possible.
In order to position yourself well to cope with constant change, you should establish as many predictable structures and routines as possible. The point is to reduce the number of decisions you have to make about trivial matters. Save your energy for major questions that arise in our technological society. Regularize the trivial to cope with the significant…

Nystrom’s Nugget #1
Reserve the word ‘friend’ for someone who knew you when you still wore braces on your teeth, who has on at least one occasion spent the night with you in a hospital emergency room or police station, and who will without hesitation commit perjury for you in a court of law. Other people may rightly be called ‘acquaintances.’

13. Read’s Law: Do not trust any group larger than a squad, that is, about
a dozen.

All bureaucracies are alike, their principal characteristic being their wish to satisfy the rules of the system. Bureaucracies are by nature hostile to individual differences. Although we pretend institutions care, institutions do not have loyalty, compassion, or feelings, which are human traits…

16. Weingartner’s Law: 95% of everything is nonsense.
Do not allow yourself to become grim about anything. Above all, do not become an ist: a socialist, a feminist, a capitalist, etc. This will help you avoid hardenings of the categories and help you keep your sense of humor…

19. Divest yourself of your belief in the magical powers of numbers.
Quantification has a very limited effectiveness. Any attempt to apply quantification to human affairs represents pure superstition of a medieval kind. Nevertheless, modern America is based on counting. We try to redefine non-quantifiable concepts into objective quantities: for example, take the numerical scores given for intelligence tests or for contestants in beauty pageants. This passion for numbers and quantification must be discarded…

Nystrom’s Nugget #5
Do not place too high a value on honesty and plain speaking. You are not wise enough to know what is the truth, and what seems plain to you may only bring pain to others.

Postman’s Addendum to Nugget #5: Of all the virtues, the most overrated is honesty. Honesty is the first refuge of the scoundrel. According to Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith, the main use of language is to conceal your thoughts, not to reveal them. In some sense, by suggesting that speaking your mind can be upsetting, Nugget #5 offers an anti-ventilation theory.

-Janet Sternberg, “Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life.” Academia.edu. December 8, 2005

h/t Austin Kleon.

The Asshole Filter

“If you find yourself wondering, or just feeling, “Why is everyone I wind up dealing with an asshole?” you might want to consider the possibility that you have set up an asshole filter. Asshole filters are an extremely common phenomenon, and an extremely common problem…

…An asshole filter is a situation one creates that causes non-assholes to reduce contact with you at a disproportionate rate (like at all) than assholes.

The simplest way to do this is to ask politely.

An asshole filter happens when you publicly promulgate a straitened contact boundary and then don’t enforce it; or worse, reward the people who transgress it.”

-siderea, “The Asshole Filter.” siderea.dreamwidth.org. September 15, 2015.

Run Your Own Social Network

“I suppose I’ll repeat what I said multiple times in this document, which is that running a small social network site for your friends is hard work, but it’s worth it. It is first and foremost the work of community building, and only secondarily is it a technical endeavor. And it’s completely possible to do, today, though depending on who you are and what your resources are it’s going to be difficult in different ways.”

-Darius Kazemi, “Run Your Own Social Network.” runyourown.social. July 8, 2019

The net: Get five friends together. Open a lightweight account at a hosting provider like Masto.host for $100/year and see how it develops.

It is possible to meet the needs of a 5 person group in something like group chat in Signal or another messaging application. However, it is difficult to grow these groups without compromising the dynamic.

The advantage of hosting it on a Mastodon server is that is provides a scalable platform to grow up to 50 users. If you have a hosting provider, it cuts down on the technical skill necessary to run the server, but you will have to give up the ability to customize the software to your community’s needs. For most circumstances, this is a reasonable trade off.

Of course, you can roll your own on a virtual server or an old PC you have laying around. However, old PCs fail, as do old PC administrators. Do yourself a favor and outsource the work for $100.

Keep Striking the Flint of Love

“Escape is the purest form of resistance.”

Joseph Kelly, “The Masterless People: Pirates, Maroons, and the Struggle to Live Free.” Longreads.com. October 30, 2018.

God. The United States Government. Money. You, yourself. They are all ghosts, and it is your head that is haunted.

There’s all kinds of ghosts in our lives. People fading in and out. Ideas and memes that are minds suddenly latch on to or let go of.

It’s interesting that it took a juxtaposition of telecommunications, computer hardware, and software to turn the noun, “ghost” into a verb. It wasn’t a term you heard before the mobile phone.

Yet, ghosting has clearly been a fact of life in human relationships since it has been possible to move between large communities and not have your reputation follow you. From the proverbial man who goes out for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back to the prejudice against nomadic groups like the gypsies, there is always been worry about people that can enter a community or a relationship with an individual and then leave it with little consequence. It undermines the social fabric. It creates distrust and fear, particularly in places where distrust and fear are already prevalent.

Certainly, this was why divorce had such a high stigma for so long. It was thought to undermine families and communities.

But, it is the modern variety of transient relationships, with the ability of apps to create new connections that transverse diverse social networks, that has made the behavior so pervasive that it has become necessary to give it a name. It seems everyone is out buying cigarettes, getting away from someone.

Of course, we can mitigate the damage it can do to us personally by adopting new mental models, such as the theory of visitors. If you view everyone in your life as a visitor, one that can leave it any moment, then you only focus on your experience in the moment. We take people, moment-by-moment, rather than trying to forge lasting bonds.

But, this is a difficult view to adopt because most of us want lasting connections with other people, where we can love them and be loved in return. We don’t only live in this moment, but our mind is haunting both the future and the past.

We also want to be part of a community. We want to be accepted and have lasting connections to others. But, it is probably worth considering the basis for those relationships.

I was recently watching the Kung Fu television series from the 1970s. There is this touching dialogue between Caine and Master Po that gets at this point.

The Scene: Caine is about to present Master Po flowers but stops when Master Po rejects the flowers of another student. Seeing this, Caine is scared he too will be rejected, so he comes up short and stands off in the distance. Master Po, seeing what has happened, starts an exchange about love that this leads to this bit of dialogue:

Master Po: Do you seek love or barter?

Caine: If I love others and they do not love me, I will feel great pain.

Master Po: That is what you risk, Grasshopper. Great pain or great joy.

Kung Fu (television series)

It makes me think that ghosting is an idea based on this transactional model. With cell phones, our culture has evolved where there is a sense of always on, instant accessibility to the people in our lives. I send one message, they should send me one back. The more quickly, the more important I am to you.

There are also call logs. So, you can see the history. Who tends to contact who? At what time? Am I investing more of myself than they are? The accounting is built in because that kind of accounting is what computers are good at doing. But, it isn’t good for developing our love for one another.

And, this transactional view is particularly acute when we are first meeting someone. When we don’t have a lot of interaction, then each data point, each interaction bears a lot of weight.

You go to a first date. It seems to have gone so well. You spent hours together talking over dinner. You wandered through a local neighborhood for a few hours, talking. Perhaps you even slept together. Not hearing from the other person over the next week makes you question your whole experience. Did it happen? Did the other person feel the same as I did? If you are insecure, you might also wonder if there was something you said or did that caused them to ghost.

Even if it is true, maybe you spent a little more time talking about your infatuation with a co-worker than you should have with a possible new romantic interest, it’s not personal. It’s just how things happen sometimes. It’s largely random chance.

Sometimes, the timing is not right. Sometimes, the chemistry isn’t there or perhaps, something is going on in your life that makes you less attractive in that moment. Maybe you reminded them of a previous relationship that turned out poorly. Sometimes relationships just end, or more frequently, they never get started in the first place.

Love is like fire. You can start a flame. But, you cannot control how it burns. In a hard world, where fire fizzles out 999 times out of a 1000, it can be hard to keep motivated to keep striking the flint of love. But, counting strikes is easier on our psyche than counting fizzles or flames.

Related: Closeness lines.

Why People Ghost — and How to Get Over It

“If a friendship feels like too much work, maybe it is. The good ones shouldn’t feel like a chore on your to-do list, or that one side is doing all the communicating). Sometimes the best course is to let someone go, even if you were once close. Growing apart can be a friendship’s natural evolution; ditto for lovers, an even touchier discourse. But it’s the way you let go that matters…

…’Being vulnerable is the number one thing that creates intimacy between people and if you worry about being hurt all the time, you’re not able to be vulnerable and it affects the quality of connection.'”

—Adam Popescu, “Why People Ghost — and How to Get Over It.” The New York Times. January 22, 2018.