Taken from the title of Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin’s 2008 book, “the dark forest” region of the web is becoming increasingly important as a space of online communication for users of all ages and political persuasions. In part, this is because it is less sociologically stressful than the clearnet zone, where one is subject to peer, employer, and state exposure. It also now includes Discord servers, paid newsletters (e.g., Substack), encrypted group messaging (via Telegram, etc.), gaming communities, podcasts, and other off-clearnet message board forums and social media. One forages for content or shares in what others in the community have retrieved rather than accepting whatever the platform algorithms happen to match to your data profile.
Additionally, dark forest spaces are both minimally and straightforwardly commercial. There is typically a small charge for entry, but once you are in, you are free to act and speak without the platform nudging your behavior or extracting further value. It is also interesting to keep in mind that the dark forest shares the same cables and satellite arrays as clearnet channels, is accessed via the same devices, and essentially all of its denizens continue to simultaneously participate in clearnet spaces (as contemporary professional protocol demands). It is therefore not analogous to legacy countercultural notions of going off-grid or “dropping out.”