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On Immoderate Speech

May 1, 2016 6 comments

In my last post, I mentioned GamerGate, and tried to say some balanced things. A few people complained that I needed more evidence for one of my statements (and they’re right—I need to do more research), but most people were incredibly polite in their responses. I really appreciate that.

In the blog comments, a friend from grad school decided I had lost my mind, and let me know. That’s OK—we’ve been friends for over 25 years, and he’s a good guy to argue with over interesting things. I politely told him that I disagree, and that I have data to prove it. He is sticking to his view. I’m fine with that—we’ll agree to disagree.

After that, some folks who care about GamerGate attacked my friend in the blog comments. My friend was immoderate in his tone. Some of the replies were polite requests for facts. Others were insults with less substance behind them, and the intensity of the comments escalated. It was, uh, interesting to watch….

One of the fundamental disagreements on the Internet today is about the role of immoderate speech. Is it OK to call someone a rude name or use obscene language? Are the rules different if the person is a public figure?

There’s actually, believe it or not, a correct answer to this question: It depends on where you are on the internet. The internet is not one place. Social norms are local. What it’s OK to say on 4chan or 8chan is not OK to say on your work mailing list or on comments on a mainstream news site.

Social norms differ even on different parts of the same site. One team of students in my Design of Online Communities class this term studied Shirley Curry’s YouTube Channel. Shirley is a 79-year-old grandmother who plays Skyrim, and posts her unedited gaming streams. My students found that everyone is extremely polite on Shirley’s channel. The social norms are different on her channel than on the channels of anyone else streaming the same game.

None of this is new. I wrote about how social norms differ by site in the 1990s. But one new challenge for social norms of online interaction is Twitter. What neighborhood is Twitter in? It’s in all of them and none of them. What social norms apply? No one knows. And sometimes people who think they are interacting in a Shirley-like world end up in a conversation with people who think they are on 4chan. Oh dear. Neither side leaves that encounter happy. And that’s why a lot of online conflict starts on Twitter, and on other sites that don’t have clear social norms.

Regarding what sort of neighborhood this blog represents: I’ll post (almost) any comment, but I’d appreciate it if folks would keep things more Shirley-like. I don’t mind a bit of immoderate speech now and then. But the problem is that when you crank up the intensity, a significant group of people stop listening. Calm, polite discourse might actually influence people—we all might learn something.

A victory for free speech: you can insult your boss online!

February 8, 2011 1 comment

Can you be fired for insulting your boss on Facebook? That’s what happened to an employee of a Connecticut ambulance company in 2009.  Yesterday the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled that the firing was illegal. Labor laws let you discuss working conditions and salaries with others. Venting about the boss is covered. You still can be fired for releasing company secrets, but calling your boss a psychiatric case doesn’t count!  (The employee referred to her boss using the company’s code for a psychiatric patient.)

The most interesting part of Monday’s ruling is that the ambulance company agreed to revise their company policy that prohibited employees talking about the company online. It’s still not smart to go online venting about your employer. But you can imagine a future world where social media policies are used as excuses to get rid of people for minor offenses. Want to fire him and not pay severance? Check his Facebook page and see what cause you can come up with. This would have a serious chilling effect. The NLRB ruling is a big victory for free speech.

iPhone Application Censorship

April 15, 2010 7 comments

Call me a romantic, but I believe in the value of hearing many voices. And I believe in the power of the Internet to help those voices be heard. Which is why censorship of iPhone applications by Apple is such a disappointment.  Laura McGann writes that SFGate cartoonist Mark Fiore can win a Pulitzer Prize, but he can’t get his cartooning application approved for the iPhone.  Fiore’s work is political satire–and making fun of public figures is, according to Apple, potentially defamatory, and therefore against the iPhone Terms of Service (TOS).

It’s nothing new for corporations to control what we can and can’t see. Since the invention of the printing press, that’s been the way things work. Someone owns the press. The press exists in some political jurisdiction. And both the owner of the press and the government can dictate what ideas you can and can’t disseminate. But online, there was at least a glimmer of hope that, in some jurisdictions, that might change. But not evidently if you get your information on your iPhone.

The irony here is that you can still get Fiore’s cartoons on a general-purpose website. You just won’t have a nice interface to access them. Apple’s brand stands for usability, but they’re enforcing bad usability for accessing content that won’t get past the iPhone TOS.

Also banned from the iPhone this week is the Scratch player. According to developer Andrés Monroy-Hernandez, the stated reason is that it is an interpreter. Scratch is a programming language for kids developed by Mitchel Resnick and colleagues at the MIT Media Lab.  Kids can use it to make their own animations and games. Kids making cool media–what could be more in the spirit of Apple Computer, right?  Evidently not. Mark Guzdial writes, “Discussion on the Scratch forums suggests that it’s because Apple wants to focus on consuming media using these devices, not producing media.  Want to be truly computing literate, where you write as well as read?  There’s no app for that.”

Apple wants to control the iPhone experience–make sure it’s always squeaky clean and perfect. But people aren’t stupid–they know if an app crashes your phone, it’s the app’s fault, not the phone’s. They can leap to brilliant conclusions like, “hey, I think I won’t use that app again.” If there’s something offensive, they can make better choices about what to install next time. The content of a web page viewed on your iPhone doesn’t reflect on the Apple brand–why should the content of an application be any different?

This may seem like small potatoes–a few political cartoons here, a media player there. No big deal, right? I think it’s a huge deal. Because ultimately it’s about who we are as a culture, and who gets to make value decisions that shape that culture.

Categories: censorship
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