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  • Writer's pictureBrian Gómez

Breaking Our Mirrors and Building Good Media ( Part 2)

Updated: 5 days ago

I come back to you in St. Thomas as I’m winding down on a weekend with friends after a six-day SXSW marathon. After all the questions I had in Part 1 of this article, I was excited to learn about how people are using technology to envision new realities and the work it might take to get there.

I went to South by Southwest with these ideas in mind. I was hoping to find organizations and individuals working to break the bind social media has us in and bring people together to see each other’s humanity. I’m still thinking about my favorite side event about a new film, Doppelgängers. Astutely named, the new film is a journey about a space researcher going into deep caves in Spain where astronauts are trained. I went to a panel with the director and protagonist as well as the voice behind the soundtrack, Pussy Riot. The panel focused on the fact that the objective of the experiment was not met. The director hoped that once she was in the cave, her doppelgängers, two similarly looking women representing parts of her, would lead to a breakthrough where she could envision what an eco-feminist future in space might look like.

Once the doppelgängers left the caves, she instead had a breakdown. I wonder if this is why isolation can be challenging: When we have others around us, we can project versions of ourselves onto them, especially faults but also yearnings, hopes, and joys. When our mirrors leave, we have to confront the self before we reach the alternate reality we seek to build. Our ability to comfortably point fingers across the aisle becomes a challenging self-inspection, possibly ending in panic.

As Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot spoke, I began to think not just about the persecution she faced by the Russian state but also the increasing support for Russia in the right wing at home. I was shocked to learn a former colleague of mine, an anti-nuclear environmental activist from Orange County, California, had made the jump into the right-wing mirror. His channel had grown into the millions, and he had become an open supporter and enthusiast of the Russian state, making regular trips to Moscow that I curiously watched on his Instagram, his face looking cold and red underneath a dark fur hat. His politics are not those of the establishment right but of the new right. One that acknowledges the mirror of America as the enemy. His three million supporters understand this. They understand America has abandoned people like them, and that to be pro-Russia, like Trump, is to be pro-American, even as it is anti-America. That is, the America that we left off in the last essay: one composed of globalization, capitalism, and imperialism.

The America that invades nations, then spends its national budget taking lives away, while doing the same at home, albeit spending no money in the process. From healthcare to inflation, America is largely abandoning its citizens and choosing instead to support the citizens of nations that align with its current political, economic, imperial, and militaristic interests. Instead of looking at itself, America has been pointing fingers. A desire to confront democracy abroad and increase prosperity has led itself to a weakening democracy and prosperity at home.

At SXSW, I was curious to see if anyone had ideas on how to confront the reality of the situation. If any social media company was dreaming of a world where we, as members of America, could confront ourselves and not one another. Because while it is easy to put all our fears, anxieties, and anger at those around us, it is harder to move through those emotions in order to see reality as it is. But through is the only way forward.

I started off the official festival by going to a session by Patreon. While it was promising, it exists mainly as a paid funnel for people to grow their existing fanbases or, in this case, go deeper into their silos. The panelists were harmless comedians and professionals, but some of the top creators are alt-right content creators like the Russian propagandist in question. That’s the challenge with social media and web2 broadly. Its algorithms and models seem to be trapped in a model of concentration, extremism, and growth. And when groups like Facebook or X censor or ban content like this, users often move to right-wing social media apps where their rhetoric becomes increasingly extreme. Additionally, the censorship always reinforces the narrative that extremity is truth. And so the answer is not to build even more disparate realities through social media platforms but to really hold current social media companies accountable and create new ones where we can come together.

I veered into the last panel of one of the first days after frustratingly watching an AI system track ping-pong balls, hoping to find some hope before the evening hullabaloo. I found it in a panel of a growing group of Gen-Z organizations working on curbing social media use, AI, and big tech. Design it For Us is a new and growing coalition of organizations holding big tech accountable. It focuses on shifting the business model that feeds off engagement, and it also talks about algorithmic accountability: This is the belief that the real-world actions that happen, like suicides, violence, and other acts, should be attributed to the algorithms that led the user to take the action in the first place. Members of Design it For Us have testified to Congress and looked Mark Zuckerberg in the face when data was released that showed platforms knew their algorithms were causing real-world harm. In some ways, I knew the tactics and methods for youth activism, but I was excited at the bipartisan gains they were able to make in politics amidst the factioning. So that’s the work being done for web2, but could we build something else on web3?

The book Our Biggest Fight also premiered at SXSW. This book is partially sponsored by Project Liberty, a nonprofit aimed at building an open internet. It has its own Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP) and aims to increase the financial benefits of the internet to the user, be transparent about its practices, and give users ownership and agency over their data. MeWe is the first social network to run on the protocol. It is part of a growing group of organizations talking about a “Digital Social Identity” or online “Proof of Personhood (PoP).” It's a broad attempt at replicating the self online and allowing identity to be verifiable online everywhere. You might remember I was already “verified” with Worldcoin last summer. Recently they partnered with FWB, the web3 social club, to create an exhibit called the Paradox of Personhood at Mexico City Art Week. I think the paradox for me is about the way the self has been leveraged for destruction on web2 and a fear that a full onboarding of the self into web3 would carry the same challenges. However, it's also about defining who we are and what exactly makes us human. Are we our souls, our egos, our shadows, or all of the above?

I think if we own our data and how it's used, that's a start. It can give us control of exactly “who we are.” Then it's about being able to build relationships across differences through technology. The only way to break our mirrors or shadow selves is through each other. By building relationships with those who have faced what we have and those who haven't, we will begin to slowly undo the binds of political extremism. This is a move away from the concentration of the self that current algorithms provide and is instead an undoing of the self. The more we lean into the fears, trauma, and anxieties contained within us, the more we begin to unwind them and begin to hold each other.

Another session at SXSW gave me a good model. A woman shared a painful experience she’d been through and the loneliness it brought. After finding out how common it was, she built one of the top mental health apps, STIGMA. The project collected painful experiences from strangers and used recorded audio to connect them. In this way, technology was able to use data to bind people not from identity but from experience, and because it was highly emotional, it allowed trust to be built between strangers, making them feel less alone in the process.

I wonder what this could look like on an algorithm. As we hold algorithms accountable on web2, like humans, I hope to see some growth on web3. What if we could use emotion to build connection: using both experiences we’ve had and haven’t, like the way I’ve explored films as a vehicle to drive empathy to those unlike us—could we build unity that way?

Experience-based social media architecture could be a 1:1 model where we are given stories or narratives that match ours and then ones that don’t. I think by doing this, we move past the divisiveness of identity politics while bringing us together. When it concerns proof of personhood, I believe we are not our socially-created identities. While it must be said that race, gender, class, and sexuality, among others, have very real effects in this current iteration of humanity, we don’t need to carry them into the next. I’m always surprised at the way we take these identities as fixed when both in the past and across oceans, they are not. For me, Proof of Personhood is about that emotional depth we carry. The way we have all experienced joy, pain, anger, grief, loss, and change. While often these experiences connect to and happen because of our social identities and realities, this is exactly why they can't be based on them. Because when we use that as a basis, we also allow the divisions to decide who is deserving of humanity and who isn’t. This is the way I think we can bring each other first back to ourselves and then back to each other.

Radha Agarwal, the founder of the popular dance movement Daybreaker, gave an inspiring speech one morning. She didn’t dismiss the ways aspects of her social identity left her feeling disconnected as a child, but she spoke about her search for belonging. After doing research across the world and across cultures from cities to remote villages in Africa and South America, she found four elements or directions that are crucial to belonging: connection to the ground/earth, connection to a higher power, connection to our ancestors, and connection to purpose. As we build a new social media that allows our whole selves to be reflected online, including our blind spots, projections, and experiences of all kinds, I hope this can give us purpose. The act of service being that we get to share parts of ourselves with others across the world, helping them feel less alone in the process. There are other festivals like Burning Man, Summit Series, and Form that are able to build these elements of connections, albeit temporarily. While they are often inaccessible, I am looking towards them to figure out how we can take features of experience design and social architecture into web3.

So that’s where I’m at: We need to hold web2 accountable and join the movement of young people driving it, and be users, builders, dreamers, and architects of a new internet that allows for connection, not in the temporal social realities of the present, but through the baseline connection that all humans have. It’s about temporarily dissolving these created identities through technology, allowing us to feel less alone, more connected to those we can’t see ourselves in, and to feel we are building something greater than ourselves and driving humanity forward. It’s a tall order, but reimagining futures always is, and it's the only one I feel good about.



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