When last did you feel completely safe, calm and relaxed? Chances are it was when you were totally unobserved – under the covers watching Love Is Blind, floating in a warm bath like a capybara, swimming in a secret rock pool, or quietly tending your plant babies. Sometimes humans just need to be alone, without pressure to perform. It’s how we feel free.

So it makes sense that in recent times of uncertainty (mild understatement), more and more of us are retreating to what has been dubbed the ‘cosy web’. These are the private, gatekept spaces of the internet, the messaging apps and themed servers and invite-only groups. This part of the internet is, according to Venkatesh Rao, a writer and consultant who coined the term, “The informal, untracked, messily human space that the bots and algorithms haven’t infiltrated yet.”

Similarly, in his dark forest theory of the internet, Yancey Strickler, author, entrepreneur and founder of Kickstarter, speaks of spaces “where depressurised conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments.” In his dark forest, the predators are tracking bots, clickbait creators, attention-hungry influencers and trolls. It’s unsafe to reveal yourself to them in any authentic way. All the living creatures (that’s us) are hiding and staying silent in order to survive.

These two ideas are beautifully combined in this illustrated post by designer Maggie Appleton. She describes lovingly our “tiny underground burrows of Slack channels, WhatsApp groups, Discord chats, and Telegram streams that offer shelter and respite from the aggressively public nature of Facebook, Twitter, and every recruiter looking to connect on LinkedIn.” Sounds pretty cosy, doesn’t it?

Private > public

In their Business Insider piece, Social Media is Dead, Amanda Perelli and Sydney Bradley claim, “As more people have been confronted with the consequences of constant sharing, social media has become less social and more media – a constellation of entertainment platforms where users consume content but rarely, if ever, create their own.”

They point out that most people wouldn’t let a stranger on the street casually scroll through their photo gallery, so why should we do this online? “[We want our] achievements, failures, and little life moments to be kept sacred. So after a decade of airing our most intimate moments in public, the pendulum is shifting back. People are more selective with their communities and are reverting back to an old-school way of interacting.”

2Stories social media manager Razaan Kamish agrees that she’s changed the way she views, and uses, social media. “I’ve gone from posting across all major platforms about every event or achievement and wanting to go places because it’ll make for good content (cringe!), to posting only every few months when I feel like it. I think it’s largely due to the fact that I don’t care about how I’m perceived online anymore and just wanted to be a lot more private about my personal life.”

“I use social media now mostly to stay up to date with news, pop culture and for my food page. I’m just sharing bits of my life with the people who would actually care IRL.”

“A lot more now than before I feel like throwing my phone in the sea and being done with all things online, but then I scroll through TikTok for a laugh and I’m reminded why I love (this side of) the internet.”

Business Insider notes that even the head honcho of Instagram acknowledged the trend of ordinary users shifting to direct messages, closed communities and group chats, with the platform’s regular content largely produced by content creators and influencers.

This resonates with what Kate Lindsay, co-author of the Embedded Substack, explains in her recent newsletter, entitled We’re All Lurkers Now:

“Social media’s almost five billion users are not turning to talk to each other but each turning outward, shouting their skincare routines or restaurant recommendations or opinions into a void. As a result, our outward-facing posts are getting less engagement, and we’re less inclined to share them. We’re growing silent, lurking, sitting in these digital rooms out of habit, and not because we really want to be there. No one really posts anymore, no one’s having fun.”

Not only are places like Threads and Twitter (holding thumbs the “X” rebrand will suffer the same fate as e-tolls – if we just pretend it doesn’t exist, it’ll go away) no longer fun, but they’re scary too. Yes, we’re afraid of the predators, but we’re also afraid of each other – and ourselves. Social media is not the space for complexity and nuance, and cancel culture has robbed us of the opportunity for reasonable, mature debate. To hear someone’s opinion, disagree with them, but continue to engage on a human level. Or, most importantly, have the chance to discover that you’re actually wrong, change your mind, learn and do better next time. Now everything we say online can be tracked, traced, searched, screenshotted and stored for all time. So we rather say nothing.

“I’m not even a person”

One of 2023’s more delightful corners of the internet was an evolution of cottagecore and an antidote to hustle culture: quaint illustrations of woodland animals sipping tea fireside in armchairs or snoozing on patchwork picnic blankets with the caption, “Stop glamorising the grind and glamorise whatever this is”. Meet critterposting! ⁠

As the Vox piece on the phenomenon puts it: “Rather than trying to compete for likes and attention by posting a hot photo of oneself, critterposting is a way of saying, ‘Not only am I not hot, but I’m not anything. I’m not even a person.’” The piece also notes how these posts signify a rejection of, and retreat from, toxic patriarchy and its obsession with appearances, especially of women and gender nonconforming people.

It’s the digital version of coming home and peeling off your pants. Making a girl dinner, getting cosy on your couch and letting your (totally normal, btw) belly relax, quietly discarding impossible standards of beauty, homekeeping, parenting, professionalism, partnering and everything else.

Home, sweet home

Ashleigh Engel, audience engagement editor at 2Stories, reveals how she found her own digital haven during the craziness of lockdown: “I found a pocket on the internet that I’d consider my ‘cosy web’ – a Discord server! Via TikTok, I came across the channel dedicated to a popular celebrity (I will not be naming names to uphold my integrity and will not be taking any judgement, either) and two years later I consider the folks I’ve made connections with there to be my lifelong besties, so much so that they’ve integrated with my IRL besties.”

“I was so excited to find a dedicated space to fan-girl to my heart’s content, but it became so much more. The community (actually, friendship) we formed has been such a great support system, and there’s so much love shared. It went from strangers on a Discord server to besties in a WhatsApp group, video calling and chatting away at crazy hours of the day, as the group is split worldwide.”

“Some social channels can feel as if you’re posting into the void, and even though you may use some to keep up with friends and family, news and current trends or just to passively scroll, finding a pocket that brings you peace and enjoyment, whatever that may look like, can be so special.”

The cosy web is not only how we gather around ourselves a supportive community of like-minded people – like we used to do IRL before we disappeared into our devices – but it’s also our escape from the need to perform, be perfect, be anything other than our real, messy, unfiltered selves. Hope to bump into you there sometime.