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Amish and Anarcho-utopians online and offline

June 4, 2023

I was perusing and pondering the small web when I noticed something peculiar: most of the leading practitioners and groups fall into one of two categories.

On the one hand you have individuals such as myself (and the Heaven Tree webring that I'm a part of) who take a reactionary tack; we tend to see the modern web as having become thoroughly debased. Whereas the web of the 90's and early 00's was an easily usable and salubrious experience, it has deteriorated into an utter mess that is actively hostile to its users. The exact causes for the decline may not be readily apparent, but I think the general consensus includes factors such as the popularization of the web (opening it up to use by all manner of miscreants) and a derationalization as it's become more and more complex. Our general solution seems to be to simply rebuild our community as we wish for it to be and simply disregard and leave to rot the nuweb. As a group, we tend to be religious, male-dominated, and frankly rather right-wing.

On the other hand, you have a distinctly left-wing community on the small web, for example, those affiliated with The Yesterweb (who, for reference, have a "manifesto", and a "zine" which in its latest issue published an article titled "The (Anti-capitalist) Crypto-Anarchist’s Guide to Alternate Safety on the Internet"). Like Heaven Tree et al, they do not like what the modern web has become, but take a subtly different stance towards its deterioration and approaches to reconstruction. The most oft-cited cause for the web's decline is, as one might imagine, the invasive commercialization of capitalism. While ecommerce obviously existed even before the web, one can't deny that the monetization of the web in recent years has become a frenzy, with some websites obscuring ~90% of the viewport with ads (assuming that the actual content you're trying to view isn't an ad itself!). Another common complaint is how hostile other users on the web are these days. I'm personally less sympathetic to this view, but suffice to say that the common line is much the same as that as historical grievances against the patriarchy, the bourgeoisie, etc. Other common buzzwords include "democracy", "equity", etc. In stark contrast to the previous group, these people are largely atheistic, gynocentric, and unabashedly leftist.

And yet, we find ourselves in the same boat of the small web. I'd be hesitant to call us an odd couple, as we don't seem to cross over into each others' spaces too often, but it's quite undeniable if one to methodically classify the internet, our differences would be considered subcategories at most. We both tend to use hand-crafted websites, we both riff off late 90's design principles, eschew most recent "innovations", and, as the name implies, have a general disdain for the "big web" like Google Alphabet and Facebook Meta.

It was as I was thinking about this that I also found myself listening to the most recent episode of the T.REX Talk podcast, which discusses communities and community cooperation. One of the focal points of the episode is that of the Amish community (and Mennonites et al) and how, despite their relative reclusiveness, have managed to form some of the strongest and most cohesive communities on the planet, not merely in spite of their rejection of modern tech, but perhaps because of their rejection. It hit upon me rather quickly the similarities that our communities share: a distaste for newer technologies and the societies surrounding them, a strong sense of both self-dependence but also of common values, and of course an extremely socially conservative political bent.

It was not long after that I realized that there is also an offline equivalent to the other segment of the small web: anarcho-utopians; that is to say, hippies! The connections should be fairly obvious, so I won't beleaguer the point, but suffice to say that, unlike champagne socialists who often treat Marx (or perhaps Bakunin is more their cup of mezcal) as a fascinating dinner topic, one has to give these anarchists the credit of actually going out and at least attempting to implement their vision of an socialist utopia. Of course, it should be noted that, unlike the Amish, these utopians do not have a total aversion to modern technology, and so often have offline-online linkages, like Riseup. One can also observe another common thread between the IRL and e-communes being their general transience and general instability, with many (most?) organized groups not lasting more than a few years.

I'm still not entirely sure what to make of this observation, but ever since noticing it I can't help but mull over the fact that this phenomenon of what should be two diametrically-opposed social groups recreating rather similar anti-modernist communities is clearly no coincidence. If any sociologists are reading, I think this topic is ripe for a dissertation or two!