The Alternate Web

I want to bust a real quick one today on my recent experiences of dipping a toe into alternate and smaller-scale web platforms.

Of course, this article itself is hosted on a dominant web platform, WordPress. And I use Facebook daily for mundane purposes, mostly keeping up with people. (Twitter, on the other hand, gets no love from me.) I’m not writing to rag on big platforms, but to acknowledge a cultural moment when a lot of people are contemplating this switch.

I’ve been reading Hacker News (itself a big platform – they’re everywhere!) for a couple of years and quickly grew familiar with “bring back the old web” sentiments there. I would guess programmers, with their love of the esoteric and the stripped-down, have been saying such things forever. The argument, if I may sum it up crudely, is that personal webpages (whether self-hosted or on services like Geocities) and pre-Web-2.0 media like blogs, newsletters and forums, fostered a more diverse, friendly, expressive, open culture online.

Part of that nostalgia is people remembering a period when only nerds were online – no racist uncles or Karens, to reach for current stereotypes. Also, I’ve the impression that a lot of good memories come from participation in subcultures like MP3 blogs or Flash games, that would obviously have drawn together like-minded folks.

Fast forward to 2021, then, and it makes sense that the many current revivals of the old-school web favour nerdiness over mass appeal. I’ll discuss that a bit more below when I get to my actual experiences.

Another driver of interest in alternative platforms is the manifest inadequacies of Facebook, Twitter and so on. Those companies have the impossible task of trying to please everyone. High-profile bans and legal challenges show that the security, conflict-of-interest and privacy problems of ad-driven social media are out in the open these days.

That recently drove a lot of people from WhatsApp onto the competitor app Signal, including myself.

I also started my own personal website, kevinhiggins.dev, to have an online outlet where the form as well as the content are in my control.

Finally, and mostly inspired by one guy I follow called JP LeBreton, a mild-mannered, leftist game dev, I joined Mastodon, the platform I call “Twitter for nerds”.

I feel much freer to post on Mastodon than on FB, because I don’t have, nominally, 1000 people who know who I am and might be following my posts. The lack of an audience (I’ve no followers on it yet and only got a couple of transient likes) is okay by me. Same with Drum Chant, I never focused on driving traffic to here. This gets right to my perhaps idiosyncratic stance on web publishing of any kind: for me, “putting it out there” is more important than getting a reaction.

I know why this is, it’s a quirk in my personality whereby things feel much realer to me if I’ve written them down. (Hence this blog – and privately, I also journal and keep a half-dozen diaries and logs for various activities.)

Hmm. I’d thought this article might be an encouragement to others to try out alternate platforms, yet now I’m persuading myself that they’re for people like me who are mostly into organising an archive of their thoughts over hanging out with others.

That’s not to say I don’t want the hangs. My own motivation to try out these venues of expression was very simple: lockdown is very lonely and I’m hoping to meet new, like-minded people.

And there are some such on Mastodon, for sure. But rather than starting conversations, for now anyway, I’m taking the shy fellow’s tactic of crafting the feed I’d like to follow.

It’s been fun, and I especially like posting abrupt juxtapositions of content, e.g. counterpoint exercises one minute, rap lyrics the next. I feel free to perform a multipotentialite and intense persona there.

When it comes to my site I imposed more structure to present a neater picture for say a prospective employer. (Check out the site icon!) However, I chose a serif font and some moody colours specifically to hint at 90s web mischief. The links section is intended to send readers off into a maze of esoteric personal pages. Mixing business with pleasure.

I’ll wrap up today with a related trend I’ve noticed and then some blue-sky ideas for more alternate platforms I might try.

A lot of the writing that affected me most last year came by email newsletter. When I contacted the author of one of these to say hi, he mentioned in his answer that he’d found the supposedly old-fashioned format unprecedentedly effective.

I list the three newsletters I follow in the links page of my site.

And to finish… two more avenues for expressing myself online that I’ve been considering are Neocities and Project Gemini. The first is a user-friendly webpage-hosting and linking service, explicitly about recreating the old-school web. I think they might even have, whatchamacall those things, link rings? Webrings!

That could be a place to do something pseudonymous and weird. Prose poetry? Moodboards? Naughty fiction? Something warm and indulgent, anyhow.

(I already have one or two pseudonymous outlets, I recommend it. Though I’m ignorant of the whole web culture of “alts” built on the concept!)

Project Gemini is different. It’s a whole new web protocol, a communication format for online interchange like the Hypertext Transfer Protocol that underlies the whole web. So, instead of an address like https://kevinhiggins.dev, you’d have gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/servers/

You need special software to view content using this protocol, and it’s text only. It took me more than an hour to find an app that worked, but when I did, it was weirdly fun to read people’s random posts by such a covert, strange route. I remember one person seemed to write only about guitar tunings they were exploring. That kind of thing.

If I publish in “geminispace”, I’d like to write about spirituality and wisdom literature, to lend my own brand of esotericism to the initiative. (Since the Christmas holidays I’ve been reading Chinese philosophy every day, and I’m also a big fan of the likes of M. Scott Peck… and I read a bit of Western philosophy too, until my brain gets tired.) That won’t be under a pseudonym and I’ll let you know here on Drum Chant if I get round to it!

Oh, last thing, I never said anything about Signal. Well, it’s very much like WhatsApp except I found the setup to be a bit more fiddly and tricky – getting stuck in loops asking for permissions on the phone, not immediately importing contacts. It also uses a spaced-repetition technique to get you to learn off your PIN, which is super-nerdy. (Though probably a good idea, I’m sure.) Nothing too surprising there.

Magic and Desire

A good friend sent me some clips of The Carbonaro Effect recently. It’s a hidden camera magic show with 5-minute segments, perfect for YouTube, of unsuspecting people in public places momentarily believing the seeming impossibilities manifested by creator Michael Carbonaro’s sleight-of-hand abilities (plus a lot of set and prop design).

Without intruding on anyone’s right to watch mindless entertainment as sheer relaxation, I want to explore what makes these little clips so compelling. Come and enjoy some magic with me!

In this trick, Carbonaro buys a Singapore Sling at a cocktail bar, and starts pulling out some of the tacky ornaments that normally go in such drinks, commenting on them and getting the attention of a young woman alone in the next chair up. Without in any one moment getting too utterly implausible, he removes a ludicrous quantity of objects, while keeping the girl at the edge of engagement and disbelief with his smooth, slightly dopey patter. She’s already murmuring “that is so cool” by the time he takes out an egg with a tribal mask pattern printed on it – just about plausible, for a second anyway, in a place called the “Tiki Bar”.

Getting the timing seemingly just right, he cracks the egg and a live green budgie flashes out, flaps around and settles on the rim of the glass (more of a vase, textured and opaque). The girl freaks out, and Carbonaro, still in his guileless persona, slips away to “wash [his] hands”.

In another trick worked in a cosmetics shop on a more sceptical woman who recoils at least twice but is drawn in by Carbonaro’s patter and intimate vocal tone, he apparently transmutes a chicken wing, buffalo sauce and blue cheese sauce into a lovely-smelling soap for men. Again, the timing and pacing are great, with a sealed plastic tub instead of an egg being opened for the climax.

They’re great little stunts. What makes them entertaining isn’t so much the trick, though, as the reaction of the mark, how it’s attained, and the highly emotive nonverbal story it tells. Carbonaro enlists a massive cultural context in bedazzling these women.

He initially comes on like a man who probably wants something from them, a phone number or a sale, in a mainstream, commercial setting. He then focuses on objects that women might associate with a respite from the predations of men or commerce, that might be oases safe from the sleaze, belittlement and bleakness of club culture and consumerism. Cocktails and handmade cosmetics appeal to the young child in us who loves potions, secret ingredients and sensual pleasure.

Appealing to the young child in us…

Carbonaro slips inside these feminine-coded zones of release, innocence and magic, using their childlike appeal to bypass emotional defenses and scepticism… and then sinks home a dose of joy and wonder: what if the little bit of magic allowed by mainstream culture, the small luxury you turn to when life is tough, really was magic; and the silver-tongued charmer really only intended you to bring you innocent delight?

Seeing someone filled with childish joy is great TV, all the more so if she’s a good-looking woman like many of Carbonaro’s targets are, and even more so if she starts off plainly presented or emotionally guarded so that we get some ugly-duckling thrills. But what grabbed me emotionally and had me pondering these clips is something deeper. Archetypally, these two tricks tell a story of female magic transfiguring the male!

In the cocktail trick, a bar-propping potential sleazebag (Carbonaro himself, in character) is transformed into a beautiful exotic pet to be adored. In the cosmetics one, the grossness and rankness of men, as we can presume the woman has encountered it – their barbecues, TV watching, beer guzzling, etc. (which are of course the masculine culturally sanctioned zones of release and indulgence) – are transformed into purity and heavenly scent.

At the deepest level, these tricks appeal to a female and perhaps feminist desire: that men would wash their hands of sin. The image of Carbonaro washing his hands caps both the tricks.

Washing his hands of sin…

(This appropriates the century and a half of investment in images of washing as a moral, prestigious act – a domestic magic, in fact – that is detergent/soap advertising. Something that since Victorian times has intertwined race, gender roles and colonialism with our domestic lives).

It’s female power that accomplishes the miraculous transformations, symbolised by the yonic closed tub (which is heated – think of the phrase “bun in the oven” to make the link between furnaces and wombs) and the opaque cocktail glass, as well as the strictly feminine coding of cocktails, handmade cosmetics, ingredients and fancy things.

Female power redeems the male. Hard to think of a more loaded narrative than that!

Okay, so I’ve riffed pretty hard off these two little videos. To restate what I think is happening:

Carbonaro gets deep inside our mainstream capitalist/retail/advertising culture which is hard on women but which a) gives them small zones of respite and pleasure and b) holds out the hope that, as desirable females, they might persuade their menfolk to be morally purer; Carbonaro then delivers an ephemeral, impossibly perfect realisation of these painfully felt desires for sanctuary and redemption, which more typically just sell e.g. washing powder.

Carbonaro’s skill is in how intimately he inserts himself into submerged, but emotionally charged parts of our culture. Different aspects of his persona subtly undercut each other: openly gay in real life, he can take on a stereotypical gay engagement with rituals of femininity or a stereotypical gay cosmopolitanism; as a prim white guy he can deliver science-y patter his trick needs – while remaining unthreateningly kind-of-dumb throughout.

Other desires he taps into are motherly fecundity (with an impossibly effective juicer); and cosmopolitan glamour (with an art supplies shop becoming a portal to Paris at night).

(And then, to be sure, a lot of the time there isn’t any subtext for me to chin-strokingly analyse; most of his clips are just I-can’t-believe-he-fell-for-it gags or gross-out.)

It’s very smart; but I’m not claiming this is woke entertainment. Carbonaro appropriates and manipulates tropes and interactions from advertising and retail, but he’s 100% participating in capitalist distribution systems himself – these clips are ads for his TV show on TruTV, owned by WarnerMedia. They are formatted for the exploitative and opaque adtech ecosystem of YouTube.

More fundamentally, the fantasy Carbonaro sells us in these clips, of redeeming the everyday, is predicated on that everyday being the bleak, inequitable cultural mainstream of Western capitalism and authority systems.

The setup of the series does nothing to challenge that mainstream. It grants no agency to the participants, even though their reactions form so much of the entertainment value (and are invariably used for the video thumbnails). They’re not credited – I don’t know if they’re even well paid – and by the nature of the show they don’t consent beforehand. In our contemporary #content-driven culture, privacy, renumeration and control of one’s depiction are lost values.

At times, the racist and sexist society which forms the background for magical tranformation, reappears in the painfully deferential way some participants address the white Carbonaro: “You think I’m crazy, don’t you”, or “I don’t mean nothing by it”. Even with careful editing and selection of takes, the fantasy of upending privilege and inequality is fragile.

Maybe also the very idea of a magician is retrograde and creepy. The personality type that wins acceptance by painstakingly practised, seemingly effortless performance, and maintains a cloak of mystery around its methods, is perhaps the most defensive and emotionally unavailable there is. I should know, I’m a jazz musician.

So overall, I agree with the judgement of my friend who sent me these videos in the first place – they are indeed a trashy, addictive dopamine rush. But it seems to me it takes a lot of heart to make something so emotionally resonant. The videos certainly grabbed me enough that I had to sit down and pen this. Carbonaro made me ponder how I might make art or music that respects the heat of moral desire in people, the fervent secret wish for the world to be redeemed in a moment’s magic.