The Fleeting Utopia: Navigating The Euphoria Of New Digital Communities

The Fleeting Utopia: Navigating The Euphoria Of New Digital Communities

from the social-media-utopias-are-fleeting dept

Joining a new digital community can be an exhilarating and empowering experience. This has been observed on numerous occasions when people join new platforms such as Nostr, BlueSky, Farcaster,, Tribel, and many others, as well as older social media platforms such as blogs, Usenet, LiveJournal, Xanga, AOL, Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Initially, these spaces create an idealistic environment where individuals are eager to connect, share, and participate in a virtual gathering that resembles a festival. However, it is worth examining what it is about these new social spaces that generates such a euphoric atmosphere, and whether it is feasible to sustain this utopian sentiment as communities expand and develop.

The Magic of Connection:

Joining a new digital community can be a transformative experience. In her book “Paradise Built in Hell,” Rebecca Solnit argues that when people are taken out of their familiar routines and confronted with real human needs, the best aspects of human nature come to the forefront. This disproves the negative assumption that humans are inherently selfish and demonstrates our natural ability to empathize and connect with one another. The sense of community and collaboration that we feel in emerging social spaces, participatory festivals such as ‘Burning Man’, are a great example of this phenomenon.

Utopias Form Where They Shouldn’t Exist:

The concept of “Paradise Built in Hell” becomes evident during natural and economic disasters. I personally witnessed this idea during Argentina’s economic crisis in the early 2000s. Despite the difficulties, people came together and collaborated in new ways to support each other, as the collapsing economy demanded it. This same phenomenon is observed following earthquakes and other natural disasters, where people often speak of those days with a magical, almost reverential tone.

Rebecca Solnit argues that “Disaster is when the shackles of conventional belief and role fall away and the possibilities open up; people rise to the occasion or sink to the level of their fears and prejudices.” In these challenging moments, we see the true nature of humanity: our ability to show compassion, resilience, and unity in the face of adversity.

Social Media and All Digital Spaces Have Physical Analogues:

The similarities between digital and physical communities are rooted in the fact that each has its own distinct set of unspoken rules and social norms. Just as we know to be quiet in a library, loud at a concert, social at a cocktail party, and anti-social on the subway, we also understand the unique dynamics of different digital platforms. Twitter resembles a bustling dive bar, Instagram an art gallery, TikTok an amusement park hall of mirrors, and Facebook a community hall rented for a retirement party. Every new digital space has its analogues in the physical world because human interaction remains consistent, even if the medium differs. As we navigate the ever-changing landscape of digital communities, we are reminded of our innate ability to adapt, connect, and thrive in the face of adversity. This adaptability empowers us to form new connections and rediscover the power of community, whether in the digital or physical realm.

The Small Community Paradox:

To maintain the utopian atmosphere of new digital communities, one effective approach is to keep them small or create numerous smaller sub-communities. In these sub-communities, people can engage in the social labor of connection and conflict resolution.

It is important to note, however, that this approach may conflict with the network effect principle. This principle states that each new member joining the community increases its overall value for all participants. As communities grow and the network effect takes hold, the utopian feeling may often fade, giving way to sub-tribes and conflict.

Nevertheless, with a confident approach, the community can adapt and navigate these challenges to foster a positive environment for all members.

The Fleeting Nature of Utopia:

The fleeting utopian sensation experienced within new digital communities is inevitable. Although it is not the design or coding of platforms such as BlueSky, Nostr, Mastodon, or Scuttlebutt that generates this feeling of euphoria, it is instead the human dynamics of joining something novel and building a community that cultivates this enchanting ambiance. Hakim Bey’s concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs) endorses this notion, demonstrating how short-lived spaces of freedom and interaction can emerge within established social structures. As communities expand and progress, the real challenge lies in sustaining the initial energy and sense of connection that made them so desirable in the first place.

Parallel to Protests and Uprisings:

This utopian sentiment is not limited to digital communities; it is also present during times of revolution, protests, and uprisings. There is a profoundly human element to the sense of love, connection, solidarity, and community that arises during these moments.

The most impactful moments of my life have been when I participated in protests that were met with repression. These protests ranged from tree-sits to protect old-growth redwoods in the forests where I grew up, to large convergences of the anti-globalization and anti-war movements, to Occupy’s reclamation of public spaces, and to recent Black Lives Matter protests. All of these protests were scenes of anguish, repression, and, in some cases, violence, especially from the police. However, they were also places where I experienced the most love, connection, humanity, and common purpose. We were all individuals, together, living and breathing solidarity.

Cultivating and Sustaining Utopian Energy:

To preserve the utopian essence of new digital communities as they grow, one approach is to foster a culture of empathy, connection, and inclusiveness from the very beginning. Prioritizing these values and actively engaging in conflict resolution can help communities maintain that special feeling.

Another way to preserve the utopian essence of digital communities is to focus on building tools for the construction and maintenance of these digital public spaces. Unlike corporate social media platforms that only provide an illusion of public space while actually being privately owned, like a shopping mall, we need to create spaces that are community-controlled and collectively owned as a commons with confidence.

Understanding the Commons:

The concept of the commons offers a compelling alternative to traditional models of state or private ownership. Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, conducted extensive research on this topic, and her findings are truly remarkable. Through her work, she proved that commons can be effectively managed and maintained, debunking the misguided belief that these resources are doomed to fail and end in tragedy.

Designing for Digital Commons:

To design digital commons, we must prioritize transparency, decentralization, and participatory governance. By empowering users to make decisions about the direction and rules of their digital communities, we ensure that the spaces remain truly public and that the needs and desires of the community are at the forefront.

Open-source technology and decentralized protocols can play a vital role in the development of these digital commons. By allowing users to maintain control over their data and ensuring that no single entity has a monopoly over the platform, we create an environment that fosters collaboration, creativity, and innovation.

The Characteristics of a Well-Functioning Digital Commons:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries: Members and their rights are easily identifiable, and access to the shared digital resources is well-regulated.
  2. Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs: Users contribute to the commons according to their capabilities, and benefits are distributed fairly among members.
  3. Collective decision-making: Users have a say in shaping the rules and policies that govern their digital communities, promoting a sense of ownership and accountability.
  4. Monitoring: Transparent systems are in place to track the usage and management of shared resources, ensuring that members adhere to established rules.
  5. Graduated sanctions: Penalties for rule violations are proportional and escalate based on the severity and frequency of the transgressions.
  6. Conflict resolution mechanisms: Efficient and fair processes are in place to address disputes among members, promoting harmony and trust within the community.
  7. Minimal recognition of rights to organize: Users have the autonomy to self-organize and make decisions about their digital commons without excessive interference from external authorities.
  8. Nested enterprises: Digital commons are organized into multiple, interconnected layers of governance, with smaller communities operating within the context of larger ones, fostering collaboration and coordination.

By incorporating these principles into the design of digital commons, we can create spaces that are robust, sustainable, and equitable. This, in turn, fosters innovation, collaboration, and genuine community engagement.

Developing Community-Driven Tools:

To create and maintain digital public spaces, we need tools that empower communities to effectively manage their digital commons. These tools should facilitate communication, conflict resolution, and decision-making while promoting inclusiveness, empathy, and shared values. By empowering communities to shape their digital spaces and collaboratively resolve issues, we can help preserve the utopian essence that initially attracted people to these platforms.

Adapting to Growth and Change:

As digital communities continue to grow, it’s crucial to acknowledge that their needs and challenges will inevitably change over time. To maintain a utopian atmosphere, we must be willing to adapt and consistently improve the tools and processes that sustain these digital public spaces. By promoting continuous feedback and collaboration among community members, we can ensure that the platform remains responsive to the needs of its users, fostering an environment of connection and belonging with conviction.


Joining a new digital community can be a thrilling experience, but maintaining that sense of euphoria as the community grows can be difficult. To achieve this, we must design and construct digital commons that prioritize community control, collective ownership, and participatory governance. With the appropriate tools and a dedication to adapting to the evolving needs of the community, we can create spaces that continue to foster the magic of connection even as they transform. In doing so, we can nurture and sustain the utopian energy that makes these digital spaces so unique.

Post Script:

Since the completion of this essay, Bluesky has evolved from its initial utopian stage to a phase grappling with context, norms, and scalability. With an increasing user base, the once agreed-upon behavioral norms began to crumble. The initial playfulness, while staying within the community’s value constraints, took a disturbing turn when individuals started posting racist and homophobic content. The situation deteriorated rapidly, escalating to the point of issuing death threats. Inspired by the “Nazi bar” parable, the community demanded urgent action to outline acceptable behavior and remove those who couldn’t comply.

Bluesky, currently hosted on a single server, possesses the capability to enforce a unified set of community guidelines and terms of service. The creators of Bluesky, much like any other social media platform’s developers, aimed for a laissez-faire approach. However, they eventually had to revise the terms of service and ban the trolls. This action was chaotic and resulted in significant loss of trust and goodwill.

Additionally, this did not aid the community in establishing governance for the burgeoning social media commons. Protocols such as Bluesky, Nostr, DSNP, Scuttlebutt, Farcaster, and Lens are not designed to operate in isolation. Among these, only ActivityPub and Mastodon have successfully implemented a model to manage abuse and community moderation at scale. Nonetheless, potential solutions are under development. I’ve personally contributed to proposals for specifications, codes, and norms on Nostr and know that Bluesky’s team is making similar strides.

It is essential that the user community actively participate in this process. The Design Justice movement provides a valuable blueprint and strategies for achieving this. By applying principles of co-design and design justice, we can collaboratively build solutions. The stakes are too high to leave this endeavor to a small group of technologists alone.

Rabble is currently building, and previously built This was originally published to nostr and Habla (built on nostr). It is republished here with permission.

Filed Under: communities, nostr, social media, utopia

Companies: bluesky