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The Virtual Refugee: Digg, Reddit, and Dispossession

December 5, 2010

I come from there and remember,
I was born like everyone is born, I have a mother
and a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends and a prison.
I have a wave that sea-gulls snatched away.
I have a view of my own and an extra blade of grass.
I have a moon past the peak of words.
I have the godsent food of birds and an olive tree beyond the kent of time.
I have traversed the land before swords turned bodies into banquets.
I come from there, I return the sky to its mother when for its mother the sky cries, and I weep for a returning cloud to know me.
I have learned the words of blood-stained courts in order to break the rules.
I have learned and dismantled all the words to construct a single one:

Mahmoud Darwish

Within the mighty wilderness of the Internet, there are a number of social network/news sites that web-surfers use. Sites like RedditDigg, and 4chan, where people come together and post information (from links to pics, songs to videos, or share their own mundane views) and people proceed to comment – whether anonymously or not – and vote on the value of the content (both comments and posts) presented with no tangible punishment or prize.

But unlike say, Facebook, each of these sites can be conceived as “virtual nations” with their own culture, reflected by their respective unique customs, symbols, styles, and rules. For example, Reddit has its “reddiquette”: rules and norms that loosely hold and govern the nation together.

Within these virtual nations pitched battles occur, in the form of mockery and insults in most cases, to the extremes of hacking and bullying in rarer moments, as well as between these proud cyber-nations or against those beyond their borders. (There are cases of positive actions too, lest we forget and draw their wrath.)

In the everlasting chronicles of these groups, there is one question that recently reared its head:

What happens when a virtual nation collapses?

In August/September 2010, Digg, the poster child of Web 2.0, attempted to transform its infrastructure into the newer, brighter Digg 4.0. People didn’t like it and vocalized their dissent, Digg management responded by censoring such attitudes. The result: a fantastical implosion and the “Digg 4.0 refugees” emerged.  Many users, loathing the new look of the site and many hating what had become of their nation, sought refugee elsewhere.

As a grovelling and valiant member of the Reddit Nation (a ‘redditor’), I watched during this fascinating time the trials and tribulations of the Digg refugee, and was struck by the parallels of the “real” experiences of non-virtual refugess, as they struggled to deal with dispossession and adapting to a new “home”.

The patterns were the same: I saw conflicts and repression as some among the “hivemind” were less than welcoming to any whiff of the refugee’s “otherness” (i.e. their former Digg-identity), though the majority, like in reality, are usually welcoming and helpful. And despite these bouts of cyber-racism, I witnessed numerous statements of loyalty and appreciation to their new home. Even stranger still, some have even created their own memorial of pride and remembrance of their former home (the sub-reddit: Digg) within the strong, stable, and large nation of Reddit. As time has passed and things settle down back home, some have returned to the new Digg 4.1, while others remain and assimilated completely to their new home.

This moment of Internet history is, frankly, hilarious. Naturally, in this case, the attachment to a website is nothing in comparison to that of a real material home. Yet, at the fuzzy edges, there exists a stark reminder and feel of reality, with all its troubling weight. It might be a stretch to expect the average cyber-refugee to stop and think about what can be learned by feeling some limited sense of dispossession, and the weird and imperfect connection to how a refugee would feel and experience. The identities we craft and the communities we join within the Internet are alluring and powerful; it is humbling to be reminded of that at times and notice how its reflects the life beyond the computer screen.

The real refugee stumbles and struggles between and into the cracks of the world, vulnerable as the laws and mechanisms of “the international” demands statehood for literal existence and identity.

But perhaps it is not to early to call for a new UN entity for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Forum Users (UNIFORUM), a grassroots Freedom of Movement campaign, an intervention from Brangelina, or a ‘day of activism’ on Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness for the plight of those who now, and in the future, may face displacement from the place they call their online home.

God bless them all.

UPDATE: There is a comic depicting the turbulent affair, it’s perfect.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 19, 2010 3:56 pm

    How are you, I was just wandering around online and I stumbled to your site from google. I read a couple of your articles and think they were nicely written. Thank you, I will try to visit your website again soon.


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