A SPECTRE is haunting Neocities—the spectre of Yesterweb.
it’s difficult to spend any time on neoshitties without coming upon the traces of “the yesterweb”, formerly the most popular clique on the site. several of the top sites were affiliated with it and at one point the “yesterweb webring” widget thingy was about as ubiquitous as <!DOCTYPE html>. i suppose i can see the appeal because nostalgia always sells, but it wasn’t really for me so i just watched from afar and checked in out of curiosity every so often.
then, while i wasn’t paying much attention the past couple months, the whole thing seems to have slowly spun out and imploded. online communities collapse all the time so that part alone wasn’t enough to catch my interest, but then the other day i discovered this enormous... document the staff published as a kind of post-mortem. suddenly i was very interested because of how bizarre it was, and showed that clearly this wasn’t your average online community collapse. from the outside i always thought the yesterweb was just a rapidly-growing coterie of nostalgia-drunk indie web devs having some fun building sites, but based on the 13,000 word “summary” the staff put out, it wasn't that at all?
the most unusual thing (besides the outrageous length) about The Document is the way it's written: the whole piece is couched in this dense and extremely tedious academic style like it's a dissertation or something. clearly whoever wrote it was Educated and believed this was Very Serious Business and also had a lot of Time. the rough sketch of the perpetrator that formed in my head while reading was an underemployed theorycel grad student who was trying to Do A Praxis and trigger some sort of revolution (as always) by starting a niche internet community because how else do you end up writing something like that.
reading between the lines, i started developing a theory that explained the downfall of the yesterweb. i can't really be sure because i wasn't there, but based on The Document it really seems like it collapsed under the weight of its lofty ideology amid rapidly-rising user counts. the complex community-building and moderation processes the staff developed and described in The Document were too time-consuming to perform at scale and they couldn’t find enough True Believers to pass off some of the workload onto. keep in mind that they were doing all of this For Free as well.
however, the even more fundamental issue may have been that the staff seemed rather willfully out of touch with the community despite their constant instance that they were always listening to the community and trying to improve things for them through “democratic processes”. for the staff, as they say in The Document, the purpose of the community “...transformed from hobbyist endeavors, to internet activism, to social activism, to finally countercultural advocacy.” but i have a feeling that this evolution in thinking occurred only within the top staff and left behind the majority of the community, who just wanted a place to hang out and experiment with making their own retro web stuff under a vaguely-rebellious “fuck the modern corpo web!” pretense.
i have to wonder how this disconnect between the staff and the community occurred because The Document pays a lot of lip service to “democracy”, to the extent that i started getting suspicious and went back to read some of parts a little closer. example:
"Organizers are then selected from the moderation team who are consistently present and participate in organizational matters, when they have proven their democratic disposition, and when they have demonstrated a commitment to advancing the mission of the organization."
translation: “the members of our hand-picked ruling elite must prove their dedication to democratic principles.” huh???
as i read on, i got the impression that beneath all the repetitions of the word “democracy”, the governance model described within was for the most part very top-down (as they tend to be in online communities), up to and including the decision to Shut It All Down. the way they describe how this model developed is quite interesting. things seem to have been very loose at the start (as they always are), but the section entitled “the need for organization” lays out their justifications for making things more formal:
“We have come across many people in this space who express an opposition to structure or hierarchy in general. Any group of people that comes together for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some way. Therefore, a lack of structure becomes a way of hiding or masking undemocratic power dynamics.
There will always exist a threat of being out-organized by regressive forces. A textbook example of this is the purchase of Twitter by the richest man on earth. If the market potential ever appears, capital can always flow into the peripheral web and transform it into part of the core web.”
so basically, “some form of organization/hierarchy is inevitable, let’s make sure the good guys (us) get in charge first to protect the community from diabolical forces like ‘regressives’ and commercialization”. i assume by "regressives" they mean right-wingers/conservatives. the same section also includes this somewhat-ominous sentence: “As organizations increase in strength, unorganized individuals will eventually be so powerless as to simply accept the transformations that are happening due to the will of the organization.”
but it seems at first they really did try to Do A Democracy, with disappointing results (emphasis mine):
“In its loosely organized phase, attempts were made to draw the whole community into organizing efforts. Results were poor because of low participation, and because the participants were mostly composed of the newest members who had the least knowledge about the community. We could not ensure an accurate representation from this setup, so we moved the decision-making as a responsibility for staff members. This would not work out either as moderators had varying levels of commitment and we could not reasonably expect them to take a greater responsibility.
We had eventually run into a serious problem with one moderator in particular that had several anti-democratic tendencies. It presented a real risk of going against our goals that had been derived from our social investigations within the community and replacing them with a personal vision of how the community should be managed. It was this situation that prompted the creation of a more rigorous organizational structure: requiring extensive study and training on the scientific method, the democratic method, and relevant skills for solving community problems described below.”
reading on, they describe the processes they used to manage the community, which they called "the local scientific method" and "the mass-democratic method", which i'm not going to excerpt in full because the descriptions have a lot of bs fluff attached and some really perplexing parts that seem to lean on complicated (but uncited) post-marxist theory or something. the gist i got is that the governance model the staff settled on was deciding what the community "needed" using nebulous methods of "social investigation" that seem to mostly consist of reading the vibes and talking with their friends in the community (which they wordily described as "those that we have gotten to know and have achieved the highest degree of social connection with"). also there was an amusing mention of using "external study materials if needed". then they would implement changes they decided on within the staff team and see how things went. apparently this is somehow "democratic" and distinct from the staff having a "personal vision of how the community should be managed", although to me it seems "democratic" more in the "Democratic People's Republic of North Korea" sense (in name only). the insistent usage of the term "needs" instead of, say "wants" is also rather revealing, the classic "the people know not what they need, but we do so we'll use our power to implement it for their own good, and then try to convince them we did the right thing etc. etc." situation. straight from The Document:
“It is through repeating this practice that we discover the real needs of our community. We try our best not only to meet those needs but to explain why they exist and to teach people the necessary knowledge to address those needs themselves. Once they have grasped that knowledge, they can share it with others, eventually extending and advancing the organization.”
i'm starting to get kinda sick of reading The Document, so let's see if there's anywhere to get some more perspectives from. luckily, at the bottom of the page, there's a link to the "Yesterweb Forum Shutting Down" forum thread. it's a pretty significant thread because it seems that the forum is the last thing they shut down, so its closure more or less marked the end of the yesterweb. most of the forum thread appears to predate the publication of The Document, so keep that in mind.
the reasoning for the shutdown the staff give at the start of the thread seems to be something along the lines of "the community is too big for us to moderate and nobody we trust has stepped up, so we're going to shut the whole thing down to prevent anyone from exploiting what we've built". staff member auzziejay explains early on in the thread:
There are too many opportunists, too many people that used the YW for financial or even just social gain. We thought maybe the issue was the discord server-it wasn't. It was a systemic issue.
In a group of 2.5k folks in the Discord we rarely had people ask to moderate or lead, we usually only had people ask for more of our already limited moderators and leadership.”
fair enough, many communities have collapsed because staff teams feel burned out from moderating, and most community members are sad to see the community go but are very understanding of the stress it was apparently causing the staff team. however, some also seem vaguely aware that there was something more going on, an underlying ideological goal that the staff didn't really communicate to the community. for example, community member ray writes:
“I feel like you have some very ambitious, activist project that I didn't really fully grasp, and that absolutely doesn't come across from what I've read on your website.”
rubber cat writes:
“That said, I don't think I ever quite got was yesterweb was "supposed" to be so maybe it's for the best”
"It's been a bit vague, and i always had this nagging sense that i'm not exactly doing what's expected of me, like i never grasped the actual intent of the place.”
then, in response to some of these questions that were raised, one of the top staff members "madness" makes an entrance to the thread, and that's when things REALLY get started. from their writing style and prolix posts, among other clues, i'm almost positive that madness was the author of the vast majority of The Document. madness makes a lot of vague posts waffling on in a similar vein to The Document, talking about wanting to create a counterculture and stuff. in reponse to madness' posts, ray returns with the following:
“You say you wanted for this to be a counter-culture rather than a hobby: but how? I had no clue this was an intent until staff's disgruntled posts in the forum here. From the Manifesto on the site, none of this is made clear. In fact, in the "about" section, the first "Objective/Mission" you list still is To advocate for a no (or low) cost self-expressive and creative hobby (building websites). I understand that stance has been revised, but - shouldn't a movement that aims to be a counter-culture have some sort of more clearly defined scope, then? In a "here's who we are, this is what we want, this is how we go about it and what we do" way.
I thought I understood that the decision to close down the Discord was that it was unmoderable, and ended up contradicting the core commitments of what a meaningful community should be like. I thought when you mentioned about not wanting to become just a hub for Old Web enthusiasts, that you didn't want nostalgics lying around reminiscing but, rather, people full of energy to actually build what they wanted to see: websites, art, groups of friends, alternative social hubs. But later realized that maybe, you would have liked for the community to do something altogether different. What, then?
so it seems new members would be attracted to the community with yesterweb’s “about” page pitch that represented them as a nice little community of hobbyist web devs rebelling against the big social media sites, and then when they actually joined, they would find that the staff’s goals have secretly long since moved beyond that into counterculture revolution or something. naturally the name “yesterweb” i’m sure was a big part of people’s misunderstanding as well, giving off retro web revival vibes whereas as they admit in The Document, “The ‘Yesterweb’ is now an outdated and misleading term - we have grown to be far more ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ than we are ‘yesterday’”. one wonders why they never changed the name - simple inertia or something more sinister? madness claims that the mismatch was due to simple negligence:
“The About section on the website is completely outdated. We didn't know this until you pointed it out. You investigated us and found an inconsistency, and now we are conscious of it and must fix it.”
madness then continues in a massive post later on:
"I think there is a misunderstanding being made by a lot of people about our intentions, and it might come from a pre-conceived notion of what an organization is supposed to look like. It is being assumed that we are the stereotypical "activists" and it is because nobody has bothered to ask these targeted questions, until you did (we will get more into this later).
Thus, through social investigation we discover the real needs of our community and we try our best not only to meet those needs but to explain why they exist and to teach people the necessary knowledge to address those needs themselves. Once they have grasped that knowledge, they can share it with others, thus eventually extending and advancing the organization.
so, they never told anyone about their new mission because no one ever asked? much of this huge post later ended up almost word-for-word in the Document, the second paragraph above almost word-for-word one i excerpted earlier. evidently madness is starting to lay down the foundations of The Document in the forum thread. in response to madness' increasingly esoteric explanations trying to explain the staff team's agenda, community member sinclair-speccy responds with the following:
“It's amusing how YW made something wonderful and then decided to ruin it. I wish the leaders of Yesterweb had informed us what they wanted instead of lashing out at us for failing to reach a standard they never told us about. It appears like a new person has arrived just to demolish everything.
It's the Yesterweb. Not the Vladimir Lenin Web-Union Pioneer Organization, for crying out loud. Checking on the status of the Yesterweb now feels a little like casually saying, "yeah, still burning." I had some trust in this place as an alternative to where I was before, as well as in it as a community and a movement, and it all went to shit because the administration refused to get off their butts and address the issues they saw.”
as the questions keep piling up and madness keeps revealing bizarre ideological hidden depths to the staff team's plan for the yesterweb, eventually madness has what i can only describe as a "mask off moment":
“Don't be sorry. The hatred of me is well-deserved, not for the reasons believed, but for reasons that I will now reveal publicly.
I am what is known in Latin America as a digital guerrilla. I show up in promising social spaces and attempt to perform a social transformation. Once I have done all I can, I move on and do it again, sometimes online, sometimes offline. I have been popping in and out of existence like this for six (6) years. I do this alone, but I am also not the only one doing this - I learned it partly by studying the methods of others.
This is the first time where it grew into an organizational effort. The Yesterweb was created by Sadness as an aimless hobby server and I joined because I wanted to see if I could help Sadness stop being sad. Sadness did in fact stop being sad. This inspired her to strive for a higher purpose with the Yesterweb, though she had zero experience with ever doing anything like that.
It was only *after* the Yesterweb was created that we discovered (as in consciously recognized) the social movement which was the precondition for its existence. So in my defense I did not have a premeditated intention of transforming the movement, I just found myself within it because I was also building a personal website at the time.
So we set out with the near-impossible task of trying to transform the pre-existing Web Revival movement into something like a Social Revival. Trying to building new things within old things even if the old weighed heavily on us like a nightmare. Given the unique characteristics of this particular movement - with its romanticization of a better past and technology from an era that was previously only available to the wealthiest 5% of humanity, and its hatred of contemporary "social" media - it should be reasonable to expect that it would be extremely difficult to convince most of the necessity of creating something new, progressive, and social.
If you can imagine this web revival movement on the large-scale, out of every 1001 people interested, 1 will recognize the need for a profound social transformation and act towards it, 100 will be sympathetic and support it at least in thought, and the 900 of the rest will not care (or worse). This is not what is normally expected - in an average social movement, those who are sympathetic are usually in the majority, but this ones' particular hang-up on nostalgia and period-revival shifts the majority of the movement into being unable to see or want anything genuinely progressive. (This is an over-simplification, to keep this post short and readable.)
We were always overwhelmed by the uncaring majority, but we stayed optimistic because of the 10% who did care, so we pushed on anyway. I was teaching Sadness how to organize while we were building the community. This education takes several months or even years for a single individual and requires a lot of study + practice (keep this in mind with our discord server growing by 3 or 4 people daily). Eventually Auzzie joined and was our rare 1 in 1000 who was absolutely committed to our mission, but he also needed to be trained and educated. The server and forum are already practically over and we still have a lot left to study.
well, this single post where madness "comes clean" pretty much explains everything, if you take it at face value. in the early days of yesterweb, a theorycel larper on a quixotic quest ("digital guerilla") stumbled upon it, and as it grew saw an opportunity to direct it towards the service of her grand ideological goals. she seems to have mainly pulled this off by befriending and then persuading the founder sadness, which seems to have been possible due to sadness' inexperience and social anxiety/passivity, who describes her situation in a later forum post like so:
I know that I have been quiet. I've actually been pretty quiet ever since the YW server was about 6 months old. I have never done well in crowded social places, not even online. I tend to withdraw into myself, and be more comfortable watching from the sidelines. That wasn't very leaderly of me. I'm sorry.
This was my first experience ever running a community, or being a leader of any sort. In fact, running a whole entire community was never my intention. To be completely honest, I never would have chosen to be either of those things. I just don't think those roles vibe with my overall demeanor. I tend to be quiet in social situations and have a pretty bad habit of being too nice and getting myself into trouble. Yet I found myself in this position anyway.
If you're wondering why I would even make the YW if I'm opposed to running a community, that's because it started out as more of a group chat. I never expected more than a handful of people to join, but then they did, and I didn't want to destroy something that meant a lot to others out of my own cowardice.
as madness described, from there madness and sadness retained ideological control over the staff team by elevating only the "...rare 1 in 1000 who was absolutely committed to [their] mission" to the top "organizer" position, which appears to have only been auzziejay. after madness' revelations, staff member auzziejay returns to the forum thread and talks about how the staff's thinking developed from their perspective:
"I then started talking to Madness and Sadness- daily. We three had realized that there was a root cause to what ails the modern web- and it was Capitalism- it was the commercial nature of it all. As Marxists we tried to find ways to help the community realize that as well. It wasn't that we wanted to hide that fact- we often didn't, but we didn't want to just drop thick Marxist theory in everybody's lap- because that does nobody any good. We wanted people to go through the following process:
1. Find the Yesterweb via discontent with the current state of the Web 2. Learn WHY the web is the way it is now (by using the nostalgic lens to see the historical alternative) 3. Collectivize with all of us in raising our consciousness of the oppressive nature of the current Web (capitalist exploitation via data harvesting, commercialism, etc) 4. Develop real solutions to further raise consciousness of people outside of the Yesterweb”
meanwhile, new members thought they were still joining the original "aimless hobby server", because the about page/manifesto on the website remained the same throughout. so of course 90% of them "did not care" or recognize the "need for profound social transformation", which is perhaps why they had so much difficulty finding more staff members. this also seems to be more-or-less an admission that they did not care about what the majority of the community was there for, despite all the insistence on being "democratic". one has to wonder why they didn't do any sort of gatekeeping to keep the community to just "the 10% who did care", perhaps by having an accurate statement of their intentions on their website or an updated manifesto, and then having potential recruits take an exam on it before joining. i suppose, though, if you're into "organizing mass movements", it's important to actually have a "mass" to organize, even if they don't really want to be organized?
after getting some more perspectives from browsing the forum, it seems that what happened to yesterweb is exactly the failure state i saw reading between the lines of The Document. the staff’s view of the yesterweb and the community’s view of the yesterweb diverged in an increasingly-dramatic manner, pulling it in two directions: by the staff towards the revolutionary social goals they developed within themselves as the community expanded, and by the community towards its original purpose as a gathering place for hobbyist web devs. in the end, the community won out thanks to its rapid growth, far outpacing the ability of the staff to convert new members to their cause. the staff, however, still had one trump card left: they used their executive power to shut the whole thing down, out of fear that nefarious “regressive” forces might lay claim and use the power of the community they built.
this means that in a way, the yesterweb was also a victim of its own popularity, like so many others. perhaps had its growth been gentler, the staff would have been able to convert new members to their cause more effectively and retain ideological control over the space. obviously, this probably would have been possible had they not continued to misrepresent themselves as a community for nostalgic hobbyist web devs, evidently a very attractive pitch from how quickly the community grew.
but why did they continue to misrepresent themselves that way? madness claims that they failed to update the yesterweb’s about page out of negligence, but i also can’t help but feel that to some extent, it must have been done on purpose as well. the “confession” posts from the staff in the forum thread prove that they were deliberately concealing their new goals for the yesterweb from the community, and that probably includes not posting about them on their website as well. the early posts from community members talking about how they felt like there had been some hidden, unspoken purpose underlying the whole thing shows that they were actively pursuing said goals in secret as well.
the parsimonious explanation is that they avoided putting up an honest update to their about page/goals/manifesto because they knew going full-on post-marxist critical theory right away would give people the ick. i don’t think the masses are really clamoring to join revolutionary online spaces, which is why operatives like madness feel the need to infiltrate communities and subvert them over to their cause using sneaky “guerilla” tactics. it’s a classic recipe for radicalization: first, you lure in people with a simple, popular, and relatable pitch “hey, do you think the internet is going to shit because of the big companies? come join us and make your own website!”, then you slowly induct them by teaching them the secrets of why this is (“it’s like capitalism and stuff dude”), and then finally, when they’re ripe and ready, you present the solution: “join us and let’s do a revolution!”. only a small percentage will make it to the last stage (the “10% who care” or perhaps the “1 in a 1000”, in the words of madness), so it’s all a numbers game of getting a lot of people into your pipeline. additionally, more people means more power.
it's important to remember, however, that the staff had no malicious intent in doing this. they genuinely believed they were doing right by the community or perhaps even society, and thought that the “social transformation” they attempted to perform was the answer to the woes that brought people to the yesterweb in the first place. but if you find yourself engaging in active subterfuge and other cloak and dagger stuff when it comes to managing your community, then it might be time to reevaluate whether or not you’re really sticking to “democratic principles”. perhaps the community would have actually been receptive to their revolutionary goals had they come out with them transparently, who knows? however, even for those who agree with the revolutionary goals, an extended campaign of concealment and covert manipulation is going to leave a sour taste in the mouth that may turn them against it.
this whole episode also brings to mind something somewhat similar i read about recently. there was this facebook group “backyard chickens” dedicated to the increasingly-popular hobby of keeping chickens in your backyard. over the course of several years it grew to a membership of nearly a hundred thousand people, posting memes and advice about raising chickens in backyards. then one day, members logged in to a message from the long-inactive original founder:
Good afternoon. We know all good things must come to an end. Sadly, this group is no longer for chickens. Don't worry, tons of backyard chicken groups have been made. Did not want to leave y’all hanging, so please join those. However, if you're interested in crypto and maybe want to learn, you're free to stay.
the group had been renamed to “crypto with connor” and sure enough, the very next day connor started posting articles to the group about crypto. obviously the members of the group were FURIOUS but there was nothing they could except send connor abusive messages and when that didn’t go anywhere, eventually abandon the group.
there are some clear parallels to the yesterweb situation here: in both cases, the founders/staff of an online community wanted to take it in a different direction from its original purpose, and said move was rejected by the community at large. this raises an interesting question: should founders/leaders of online communities have the right to do this? you could argue that in a sense, the communities “belong” to them, especially if they spent a lot of time growing and nurturing them, so they can do whatever they want with them. but once a community gets large enough, it almost always “outgrows” its original founders and staff team and becomes its own thing (an egregore, you could say), in which case i do not think sudden pivots without community consent should be acceptable outside of extreme extenuating circumstances. the only exception i can think of is “cult of personality”-type communities in which the leader of the community is the main “topic” or “purpose” the community is organized around, and so any whimsical maneuvers they may perform are necessarily going to be “on topic” and what people are there to follow.
the fundamental issue really seems to be that a lot of online platforms implement very unsophisticated, barebones power structures and expect each community to build out more complex, informal (as in: not strictly enforced by computer code) systems of management on top of them. but no matter what systems are built on top, the base is essentially a feudal system wherein the individual at the top (often the founder) has absolute power, with all power in the community flowing down from them. this is the paradigm in place on reddit, facebook, and discord for example (discord even designates the owner of a server with a little crown symbol). so even if a community has agreed to adopt and follow procedures like having senior staff vote on issues, at any point the owner/founder/king can just say “nah” and do whatever they want, even fire all the staff, and there’s largely nothing anyone in the community can do about it. what’s even more egregious is that in many cases this same underlying absolute power structure is in place from the tiniest 10-person community to those boasting hundreds of thousands of members, where just one person can change everything on a whim, if they want. the potential for abuse is vast.
if that person happens to be the wrong person for that position, perhaps because they have no other qualifications besides being the first person who staked a claim on that piece of now-valuable digital real estate, then there’s little that can be done. a coup is only possible if you manage to hack their account somehow, and divine intervention from platforms owners is rare unless it also represents a threat to their bottom line or PR somehow, which only happens with the biggest and most influential communities. so many times, the only solution is to move to or create a new community. fortunately it’s a lot easier than moving to or creating a new country, which is probably why so many online continue to tolerate this status quo with regards to governance.
it is interesting that almost nobody seems to be talking about having online community platforms implement new governance structures enforced by code, especially with how often communities collapse or fracture due to the fragility of having one person at the top invested with absolute power. imagine, for example, a process integrated into the platform by which community members could participate in a binding vote to oust the owner of a discord server or the most senior mod of a subreddit. until then, the one person at the top with absolute power will always represent a weak link for the stability of an online community. unfortunately, currently it seems that the only ones interested in these sorts of governance questions are crypto goons, whose new governance systems always end up being undermined by being pay to win since they’re largely inspired by corporate shareholder votes (weighted by financial stake) rather than elections for public office. ah well, i guess the internet is still young and it took several millennia in real life for government to evolve from absolute monarchy to democracy anyways.