We’re a Niche, We Just Didn’t Know
Why you probably belong to an inter-intellect and why this matters
By Anna Gát
Everybody thinks their life is weird. Most of us are right. My own brand of weird was taking more and more personal risks as my life evolved into full-blown adulting. As everyone else seemed to be doing exactly the opposite, this carried with it its own brand of loneliness. Or so I thought.
I started out as a writer and social entrepreneur when I was 17. I have worked as a journalist, a lecturer, and become a startup founder. I have lived in three countries and worked in seven. As part of a transitory, contemplative generation, I remember both handbag-sized mobile phones and dial-up internet, but I also remember the quiet of libraries. I lived through my birth country’s joining the EU to then collapse into authoritarianism persecuting the press and academics. I have spent my entire adult life in post-2008 recession, found shelter in online communities, and watched from there as the status quo of global powers shifted. Like many people from where I’m from I chose to emigrate, quite late; studying and working in a changing England. I was here during Brexit — as an Eastern European, it was partly about me.
While I knew that my experiences, at least structurally, must be very common, the only way in which my peers and I seemed “united” was that we all had to face our challenges alone. Online — yeah, sure — but alone.
Wondering what group I could with some effort belong to, I remembered that since I was a kid I had always thought of myself as an intellectual: I was bookish, spent overlong years at university, wrote and published stuff, held jobs advertised as “knowledge work” — so that seemed apt. But terms like the “intelligentsia” were of no appeal to me. That just used to mean “the educated people”, which said next to nothing about how intellectual activity happens today: online, globally, with your audience and followers as your real credentials. Especially because, historically, “intelligentsia” was a political identity imposed on people — liked or disliked — from the outside. No, thanks. So by the time I turned 30, my self-image was approaching that of the waiter in Casablanca. I was an immigrant-with-books, a second language speaker, literate but definitely not part of any privileged class: I was doing odd jobs like customer service, catering and flyering. When I finally entered technology (hoping, correctly, that in that sector you can be anyone as long as you can think for yourself), my self-grouping became so complicated that my therapist said she enjoyed working with me “as a challenge”.
And so there I was, like so many others, peerlessly consuming vast amounts of excellence by individuals on the internet. Facebook, which used the be the substitute/painkiller for people like me, was mostly ruined by the 2016 elections’ bots and uncles, and while Twitter was a workable replacement in some ways, forming communities on it seemed like a moonshot. Nowhere in sight was any apolitical, group-level attempt at a self-definition, coming from the inside, to describe how people like me think, work and how we (want to) live. To find out what makes us so similar — and familiar…
Then something happened.
I’m still not sure if it’s because political outrage had lost its novelty effect, or because we got the 280 characters and threads, or because of Medium, or because we had quite simply grown up — around one and a half years ago, at first faintly, I started noticing a new tune under the buzz.
There appeared a positive, encouraging theme that since then has kept growing and mutating, and bringing a lot of us together in conversation — unlikely companions, from all over the world and layers of society.
Curiously, it appeared mid- and off-platform. In emails and messages. In mentions on podcasts. On stages and on Acknowledgements pages. In books mailed across oceans… I was cautious not to see patterns where there’s none, but — secretly — I was thrilled! So I started asking questions, reading and listening to other people like me. To you. On the internet, at work, at Meetups — during classes and at the pub. Wondering what was going on…
Observing spontaneous self-organization — without any central leadership — is always a humbling experience, as it seems to be not only natural, but of nature. It just doesn’t happen in the intersubjective-verbal, human-signalling space; no one can “convince” you to do it — we join voices into melodies when there’s an actual need to address, and we need each other to explore and address it with. This stuff is real.
All of a sudden it looked like our weird, super-productive lives do intersect! But where exactly? In an era said to be distrustful, anti-globalist and polarized, how come geographical, disciplinary, socioeconomic, generational, etc., distances can’t deter us from open exchange — daily — iterating from and building on each other’s thoughts, plans and worries? And doing all that without financial incentive, non-anonymously, even seeking costly IRL encounters. How come we keep hearing exclamations normally reserved for romantic relationships like “Where have you been all my life?” and “I feel like I’ve known you forever!” among new friends or collaborators?
I have been watching a new, loose-knit and diverse community come into existence — one that aspires to be selflessly hyper-connected and striving to be fully inclusive and output-oriented.
I did know from history-of-science books that personal quests can yield universal solutions, but to actually be in the middle of such a process was blowing my mind. As usual, I started wondering how I could help better.
The goal of this piece if to summarize and open up to discussion 18 months of observations: the architectures that have been appearing under our conversations, the structures that we have all somehow been building. To understand if this is indeed an emerging philosophy that doesn’t yet have a platform or presence in public discourse.
I believe we are an inter-intellect. Let’s call it “the I.I.”. For its — how fitting! — translational symmetry.
The I.I. is “new” only in the sense that we as particular individuals haven’t formed a community before this one. And it’s “new” in the sense that every generation has to reinvent what community means to them.
The I.I. is people coming together online and thinking about more organized forms of exchange, collaboration, and a new type of IRL. It’s a matter of identity to some of us. Encounters have changed lives and careers…
Although I feel strongly motivated to try and write down what I think we’re “about” — based on countless discussions with you in the past 18 months and my general experiences online — I am just one tiny voice here. So, while I will outline my intuitions about the values I’ve noticed to bring us together, you will also see that each section below ends in a poll, where you can express your views and how important a certain issue is to you. Please vote according to your own private feelings and not how you think others feel — this is all about you now.
The Old Boundaries Don’t Work and We Know It
Let’s imagine the I.I. as a loose-knit on/offline niche of people with similar mental energy: we seem to have roughly the same companion + kindness + information needs, activity levels and communication preferences.
What seems to unite the many strands of discourse here is a strong, proactive feeling that the 20th century boundaries that used to qualitatively separate categories of behavior, politics, language, morality, class, etc., simply no longer work. They’re so outdated that we all kind of live our lives completely ignoring them.
But ignoring does not equal redefining! And without a redefinition it’s difficult to update categories so that they could actually become useful. Without useful categories that we can actively agree on, any cooperation or sense of unity is problematic. Luckily, we seem to have been working on this update for a while now — we just didn’t know.
Trying to define soft and flexible notions that bring individuals together in mind and emotion can be tricky, especially in such a diverse community. But figuring out what it is that is already bringing us together, so visibly and so close in friendship, will likely help us create momentum, and decide if there are other things we want to do besides talking and meeting.
Do we want to write things together? Support each other with info, resources, connections? Do we want to create IRL platforms — if so, what, where? … Or are we just happy with and grateful for how things are now?
The polls below ensure this is a collaborative process. I will follow up with a post about the trends that have emerged from your responses. Thank you for taking part in this adventure!
The New Boundless: What Actually Works
- An incomplete list of principles around which I.I. members seem to congregate.
- Please, give these questions a think and answer the super-brief polls at the end of each section to your best knowledge.
(1) FUNDAMENTALS: knowledge, bodies, ethics, politics
Let’s start with the “What did you study in college?” vs “The millions of things you’re actually interested in” problem, which I noticed was a common driving force behind our first tentative steps in seeking each another’s company.
Those around the I.I. show an active interest in transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries — science, design, philosophy, government, etc. — to create new combinations that are more useful for how we actually live, work and think today.
We seem to prioritize open discussion and collaboration across differences, and establishing projects that can address real-world questions better.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree that having multidisciplinary ambitions is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
People around the I.I. prioritize written and spoken content as the best means for challenging one another in mutually positive ways, and for establishing collaboration.
We feel responsible for sharing our thoughts with the world in a distinguished form, and are continuously learning how to do this better well beyond the 280 characters.
Reading and writing have been resurrected for our generation despite earlier gloomy prognoses, and we deeply value both each other’s works and discussions of interesting texts by others.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree that a preference for writing is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
People participating in I.I. discussions show a deep interest in political thought and empowering the individual. However, we seem to be impatient with old-fashioned party boundaries and find it hard to identify with them.
As a result, much of our political thinking happens outside the old categories. Since political decision-making still happens within the old categories, this means that at the moment even the greatest minds in the I.I. have little impact on governance.
The I.I. seems to be mindful of history, but looking to focus on urgent issues of present and future.
Understanding that our niche has reached the limits of how much everyone can just represent themselves, there is a growing feeling of responsibility to explore new participatory platforms where political sense-making can occur in a useful way.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree thinking outside party-lines is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
United nations of doers
While the I.I. seems to be distancing itself from the brochure-depth global-friendship ideals of the 90’s, we seem to exist in an actual, practical and bottom-up version of internationalism that focuses on what people make (and why) and what they think (and how). Not who they are or where they come from.
I don’t know if it’s because we feel we lack some toolkit to deal with the subgroup-level ruptures that are so present in mainstream and social media narratives, or because we have in fact realized these categories are not fitting for people like us who somehow collectively identify as outsiders . But I have watched so many unmoderated, open, attentive, shared-humanity focused conversations within the I.I. that I tend to believe it’s the latter.
- People in our niche talk very proactively about their cultural differentiators — different strata, genders, religions, ethnicities, nationalities and generations share their personal and collective experiences cautiously, but honestly, and listen to each other. Without announced plans, marching bands or poster-smiles the I.I. seems to have quietly developed a truly respectful communication of inclusion.
- People around the I.I. seem to be conducting — or wanting to conduct — most of their intellectual activity disregarding these subgroup differences, and instead look at motivation and output. As a priority, participants are supportive and experimental when it comes to each other’s work.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree transcending 20th century group divisions is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
The I.I. is active at self-curating editorial content, by us and for us, based on values of free and participatory critical thinking. Our online activity is partly about combining content from a variety of different outlets, with ourselves being our own quality assurance.
It isn’t surprising if we find both large parts of the established media and the angry noise that often characterizes social media commentary to be of little use for accessing good news pieces or analysis. The I.I. is in a way more old-fashioned than the current media chaos. We are inquisitive people who trust inquisitive people, even in situations when this is impractical.
What we want is for the stakeholders in our discussions to be able to focus on what really matters to them personally and intellectually without losing out on impact. Consider the much-discussed renewed importance of long-form blogs and self-published e-books, or the growing podcast and newsletter spaces.
We suspect the current established/social media binary is useless for how we want to use the news-space (trust, analysis, discussion), and that the next years will bring new types of sources and platforms for us to experiment with.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree that self-curation and media-source independence are our community values? Is this issue important to you?
The I.I. is publicly inquisitive about societal changes, and promotes open discussion about what values people really consider fundamental today.
We believe individuals are capable of acting virtuously without external intervention and judging the consequences of their own actions, and that open discussion of our life plans, decisions or progress can inspire others.
“Example over slogans” is the tldr.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree individual morality is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
Feeling well re: feeling well
The I.I. niche seems to take their self-education as well as physical/emotional well-being equally seriously. How Ancient Greek, isn’t it? All of us are continuously experimenting with better ways to improve ourselves in every regard, including work, family and intimacy. We seem enthusiastic (and sometimes self-derisive) about sharing our learning and progress with each other, and enjoy mutual discussions about ideas of self-improvement.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree the mind/body balance one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
While people in the I.I. niche may be located anywhere, we’re all interested in the global hubs of our times, where progress, invention and discussion happen in a concentrated, accelerated way.
We encourage and help each other to travel and form IRL connections as a way to augment and expand our online networks.
Some of us even work on projects re-imagining and building cities, and transforming them into more welcoming and equal places.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree that keeping global hubs in focus is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
“The internet is not enough”
Much of the I.I. came of age on social media and spent the post-2008 recession years partly confined to living vicariously on the internet. But our games, Netflix and chat apps are unsatisfactory.
We remain grateful and active participants in building wondrous global networks without physical presence around the world. Yet we are also increasingly aware that the internet is not enough. It is a means and not an end.
As adults we are looking for new ways to connect face-to-face, and to help one another in this new project of building offline bonds.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree creating a “New IRL” is one our community values? Is this issue important to you?
As members of the I.I. we reject any form of violence including openly hostile behavior online.
We believe it is through not engaging in certain behaviors that we can both credibly call for being treated with respect, and establish communities of language where, as a norm, such behaviors don’t occur.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree neverviolence is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
Those around the I.I. seem to be always on the lookout for new ideas and like-minded people (as Visa would say, for people who “get it”). I have noticed how vigorously people around me read and discuss. They seek and share free resources. They talk about personal challenges and successes openly, and listen to each other without judgement.
Everyday one spots new members joining: first they find the niche, then they believe it is possible, then they start participating. With every new person our collective knowledge grows.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree actively growing our collective knowledge is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
(2) INNOVATIONS: money, education, competition, equality
The “New IRL”
The I.I. represents a new trend in our online existence: we have surpassed a “critical mass” of like-minded companions. This makes the internet not enough.
We are suddenly facing geographical boundaries in our quest to connect with each other face-to-face, and a lack of platform to find like-minded peers locally and organize events of connection.
The I.I. seems mindful of this new urgent need, and we are discussing crowdfunding and other solutions to empower IRL gatherings. One of our first tasks is to find sustainable ways — both financially and ecologically — which enable crossing unhelpful physical boundaries, as this will benefit our collective intelligence more than anything we could do purely online.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree finding sustainable new ways to do IRL is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
Those around the I.I. come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and they seem to make a widely diverse amount of money. We believe in discussions and collaboration that transcend these financial differences, and we focus on intellectual forms of capital.
That said, we do make efforts to help each other reach our goals and self-actualize, whether that is through direct support, in-kind help like offering accommodation so another member can travel, or connecting people for jobs and collaboration.
There is a growing recognition of how powerful “unwritten rules” still are, and how they can impede talented outsiders who could otherwise enter the field, and a need to create greater transparency.
Many of us work for projects or businesses that level the playing field in some way. We seem to agree legacy class systems don’t reflect most people’s real abilities, and we feel responsible for lowering entry barriers for each other so we can thrive as a community.
There is an observable effort to start discussions about changing norms, hierarchies and roles within society. We seem to agree that social equality cannot be achieved unless we find a widely accepted way to talk about it.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree financial inclusion is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
The I.I. exists in a world where many traditional gatekeepers and related entry barriers have become legacy. How individuals gain status — and what real status is — seems to be undergoing renegotiation.
As a result we consider ourselves a non-hierarchical niche, where each of us brings to the table our knowledge and values, so that together we can augment our collective knowledge as opposed to winning some zero-sum game at each other’s expense. Most members of the niche show both a multidisciplinary approach and a distinct specialized expertise at something, which makes collaborations smoother while keeping the quality of discussions high.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree rethinking status is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
Having come of age on Wikipedia, Quora, etc., the I.I. seems passionately autodidactic, and while some of us have participated in traditional education, we’re supportive of reinventing education systems to create much wider access to knowledge.
We seek out and share resources for both guided and self-education, and amplify these with IRL whenever possible. Mentors and self-organized learning or support groups are held in high esteem, as we all seem to feel a personal responsibility for our own self-education, as well as that of others who want to expand their knowledge.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree self-education is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
‘Competition & Sharing — A Love Story’ ❤
Many people in the I.I. will agree that competition is great news for the economy: within certain limits you can expect prices to fall and quality to rise when businesses are fighting for your attention, just like saturated markets make HBO series more engaging, and academics more concise on YouTube.
That said, at the level where most I.I. members operate — where we think, work, love, design, write or do research — node level competition can be straight-up counterproductive. The only thing our mini-labs, mini-startups, mini-funds and sealed-off mini-blogs can achieve, in or out of their IP panic, is to cut each other off from platforms of shared knowledge that could enrich the entire community.
Figuring out how to climb out of these tiny intellectual silos seems to be important for many people in the I.I., and it remains a problem to be solved. We consider things like strengthening communal incentives among people working on similar problems but not directly competing for each other’s markets — via, e.g., owning low-% equity in each other — so that overall everybody can benefit more and specialize to parts of the problem, while sharing experts, etc. Some of us will promote quadratic voting, open source everything they build, or start a cooperative.
The I.I. seems to agree that just because at certain times in history the “competition-monopoly-collective” triad described people’s economic behavior well, doesn’t mean these distinctions will necessarily work in the future, and we should not stop looking for better ways to grow minds and businesses.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree rethinking competition is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
The traditional career arc that used to prescribe “at what age should an individual do what” no longer means much: teenagers start profitable companies while older practitioners change sectors and enter new territories at various life stages. Being conscious of this, the I.I. is age-agnostic and instead problem/progress focused.
Another interesting age-related phenomenon that I’ve observed having my many conversations within our community online is that while Millennials and the GenZ have a reputation of remaining financially dependent on their parents forever, in fact this is rarely the case among us.
Stories of immigration, living away from family, wanting but not finding older role models keep coming up — as well as a desire to create the peaceful and open classrooms, workplaces, families, or communities of friends, that we would have liked to have seen as kids or young people.
If I am overgeneralizing, forgive me — this has simply been an angle that surprised me because it seems so much more widely shared than I expected. And because I keep wondering if such personal experiences in fact strengthen the I.I.’s age-agnosticism, which would in any case be a logical reaction to how life arcs are changing in the 21st century.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree age-agnosticism is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
The I.I. consists of both self-starters and self-restarters. Some of us are at the beginning of our work in society and business, while others are restarting and living our second (or third, fourth…) lives.
For augmenting our collective knowledge we must both be maximally supportive of young people to self-actualize, and helping and encouraging those who chose or had to leave earlier fields or careers and are now mid-reconfiguration.
Transcending the traditional boundaries between these two groups is crucial if we want more equal, useful, participatory discussions, and new collaborations.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree bringing together self-starters and self-restarters is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
(3) CONTRADICTIONS: community, optimism, mentors, hard work
“A community of individualists”
Judging solely from tweets or blogposts, the I.I. will come across as an individualistic niche. In public exchanges there is a healthy amount of competition of who-has-read-what and repartee.
But if you ask us we’ll say we’re mindful of the values of our strange, hoped-for, invisible community. We do have to be mindful: considering our values our values is currently the only tangible thing that brings and keeps us together.
I think we know that each of us plays an important role in sustaining the I.I. ideals: rethinking traditional boundaries, creating greater access, promoting better language and curation for discussions, and augmenting our collective knowledge in a virtuous way.
We all have been doing this individually for a long time — now weaving our work together will amplify the presence of our values in the wider dialogue.
We know that we aren’t subjects to or victims of some narrative — we know that stories are told, heard and perpetuated by people just like us, and that together we can change the conversation to one that encourages the optimism that really moves things forward.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree individualism-meets-community is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
Whatever traditional field someone in the I.I. comes from, they seem to be thinking across right-brain/left-brain boundaries.
Specialization remains the key to many types of success. And yet, everyday, we see engineers expertly tweeting about symphonies, artists exploring technologies that expand their creativity, doctors blogging about policy, economists looking for charitable pursuits, or MBAs publicly learning to code.
We know that real breakthroughs come from original combinations, unexpected patterns and transplantable knowledge. We think multidisciplinary lives should be celebrated!
We believe the Venn diagrams of art and science — or engineering and the humanities — remain tragically unexplored. Casual, flexible discussions are a good place to start.
We think that even if traditional education fails to create multidisciplinary learning environments, our conversations can help strengthen and even normalize these.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree that actively promoting Liberal Arts/STEM crossovers is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
Teaching the teacher
Mentorship is a recurring topic of conversation around the I.I.: there is motivation to both find mentors and become mentors ourselves. Guided learning is known to be effective, and so one-on-one advice and progress-tracking are of high importance.
Being an age-agnostic niche, specialized knowledge is a greater differentiator for us than the number of years of experience.
Because we are open communicators, people around the I.I. who have such specializations are easier to find and reach out to. In this structure, mentors do not act as gatekeepers but are in a way applicants themselves, looking for those interested in learning from them. (Twitter and blogs seem to be good places for both looking for mentors and offering support.)
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree mutual mentoring is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
As anyone will soon notice, many people around the I.I. are unabashed progress and technology optimists. Nevertheless, we seem to reject blind trust that things will resolve themselves without our hard work.
We think that progress happens when people work on it, and fairness happens, well, when people work on it.
- We’re more active and motivated than daydreaming. Many of us seem hyperactive and hyper-productive, in fact!
- We fear hubris, and feel responsible for keeping a high bar for each other when working on positive causes.
- We believe constructive discussions and sharing stories of personal progress are a great way to avoid negativist attitudes taking hold.
In sum, we seem to reject fatalistic acceptance of phenomena that can be changed for the better if we put in the work and combine our skills tirelessly.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree a realistic optimism is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
Working hard at “gentle”
Most of the I.I. have expressed a desire to see a world where discussion is more nuanced and gentle — inclusive, uncensored and civil. (We do not see these qualities as complementary.)
I think it’s safe to say we never consider this work “done” — and don’t hesitate to hold each other accountable for too-easy solutions whether it’s about taking free expression for granted or about shying away from more difficult discussions that would be necessary.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree working on making conversations more civil is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
Increments of curious
Among the I.I. a signature boundless curiosity can be observed — but also a reluctance to fall for cheap fads. (“Playful but careful” would be a good way to put it.)
We seem determined to build our careers, relationships and selves step-by-step, iterating as we proceed, and looking to be proven wrong when needed.
We are seeking mental models that allow for gradual change built on strong value foundations, and interpersonal bonds that offer space for personal progress.
I suspect this tentative and accumulative rhythm is in large part due to how public our journeys are — if you share your progress from an early stage, most of your stops along the way will include discussion. Maybe we should call it the “hypertext method” for life planning!
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree incremental progress is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
It’s complicated (thank God!)
Lastly, we need to talk about the I.I.’s ambitions to dissolve some of the silos that separate us from each other based on personal styles or choices of living.
There are no extroverts and introverts separated by hard lines. No purebred “ENFPs” or “Geminis”. Just like there’s no old-timey Left and Right anymore to compete for some fixed-slice pie. No one is rich or poor for good. No one is only “STEM” or “creative”. We are people: complex and capable of unexpected greatness.
The I.I. believes people are many-layered and full of promise — creatures who strive to do good, to be useful and to help their fellow humans.
That even the smartest or most hardworking among us like to slack around in their pajamas. That the gentlest souls get angry at silly things. That sad days aren’t necessarily depression. That being in transitory phases professionally or romantically is a completely normal part of being human. That togetherness is fun, but that introspection is also needed…
I have noticed how this non-judgement toward moods, life phases and lifestyles is a quintessential part of our worldview, and we seem to want to live in a way that encourages such acceptance, being the walking proofs, the examples, that it works.
ANSWER THE POLL: Do you agree acceptance of complex personalities is one of our community values? Is this issue important to you?
This piece a conversation starter — there may be many other issues that are important to our community that I have missed. It would be wonderful to read your comments and have you as an active participant in our discussions.