Some time in the 1990s, I had terrible algae in my fish tank. I posted a question about it on USENET on the group alt.aquaria, and got a helpful answer from a guy I’ll call Oscar. Oscar really knows his fish, and spent a tremendous amount of time answering people’s questions on the group.
Later that day, I wandered into a crazy USENET flame war. Someone had created a group called alt.good-news. The group’s description said it was a place to share happy news—kind of like Upworthy in the days before the web. However, the phrase “the good news” has significant meaning to some Christians—it’s the good news that Christ is here to save us. Within hours, alt.good-news ironically deteriorated into a nasty flame fest with people arguing about whether it was a Christian group. I saw Oscar posting on the group, and sent him a private email: “Isn’t this flame war crazy? This group was supposed to be happy!” And he mailed me back:
“Don’t assume people always behave the way they behave when they talk about fish.”
It took only a moment’s exploration for me to learn that Oscar was actually a legendary USENET troll. Who just happened to also be an expert fish keeper who took pride in politely helping others with fish questions.
I think about Oscar a lot when I contemplate the mess that is Twitter. Social norms tend to be local, but on Twitter there is no local. People with radically different ideas of appropriate behavior run directly into one another. Or as one wise Redditor commented, “Twitter is like everyone shitposting on the same subreddit with no moderation.” Unfortunately, the blocking mechanisms we have at our disposal are crude. There’s no easy way to say, “I want to read what Oscar has to say about fish, but only about fish.” You either block Oscar or you don’t. And if you do decide to block him, there’s no easy way to say, “And please block him on the three other sites that we both use.” Our existing blocking mechanisms are too coarse grained and too weak.
The design of blocking mechanisms is in its infancy. Even farther behind is the design of understanding mechanisms. What if we could somehow scaffold people coming to a more nuanced understanding of the other person’s point of view, instead of just dismissing them entirely?
Got an idea for how to support more nuanced blocking or understanding? Leave me a comment!
Mocking someone’s appearance on social media is admitting rhetorical defeat. In a non-fashion context. If we’re at a fashion show in Milan, that’s another story. But if we’re talking about any other topic, I propose that if someone says you look like a donkey, then you should reply: “I win!” Because you have. Because making such an irrelevant remark means, “I have hostile feelings towards you, but I don’t have any substantive arguments.”
I was thinking about this last week when an acquaintance posted on Facebook a picture of Hilary Clinton next to one of Captain Kangaroo (in a similar outfit), with the caption “Who wore it better?” This from a democrat. One of the most accomplished and experienced women in the world is a candidate for president, and this is what you post?
Which brings me to Donald Trump’s hair. Dear fellow democrats: Please stop mocking Donald Trump’s hair. It’s not funny, and it’s not enlightening. And every time you do it, you are screaming to the world: “I give up. I have nothing of substance to say. But hey, here’s a hair insult.”
Someone did indeed call me a donkey on Twitter last week. I am honored—I actually earned being trolled! Actually, my great uncle wrote Francis the Talking Mule, so I think the troll is confused—I have more mule in my background than donkey.
I have been researching GamerGate lately, and finding that both sides have valid points to make. And both sides have a mix of nice, principled people and angry people who are spewing bitter nonsense in public. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in the future. But for now, my advice for both sides is to calm TF down, and keep your sense of humor. And remember that if someone throws an irrelevant insult at you (like your outfit looks like Captain Kangaroo), then just laugh and say, “I win!”
Everyone is a little bit racist, a little bit sexist. Mahzarin Benaji can prove it. When she asks people, “Do these two words go together?”, most people will click “yes” slightly quicker if shown “man” and “scientist” than “woman” and “scientist.” Even women scientists. You can do the same experiment for racism. It’s not that a few evil people are sexist or racist—we all are, to some degree.
Despite my awareness that everyone is a little bit racist, I am still astonished by the regular demonstration of that racism on the website Nextdoor.com. Nextdoor is a discussion site for people in a local neighborhood. Members share recommendations for plumbers, discuss traffic problems, and offer items for sale. It’s a nice site. A key topic of discussion is always about security. There have been a series of burglaries in my neighborhood recently, so residents are on the alert for “suspicious” people. And evidently any African American in our neighborhood may possibly be “suspicious,” according to my neighbors. Here’s yesterday’s example:
This morning was dog was ill. so I took her outside around 5:15 AM. I saw a car driving slowly … and stopping. The car stopped twice, a tall African American man wearing a dark sweatshirt dark pants and got out, kept his head lights on and walked up towards a house with his cell phone out. Then, walked back down to his car, got in, and continued driving slowly down the street. He kept his headlights on the entire time, even when the car was parked in the street. The car looked to be a beige/gold Mitsubishi. I was half asleep when I saw all of this and realized later I should have called 9-1-1. Just wanted folks to be aware.
Does that sound suspicious to you? Fortunately, another Nextdoor member pointed out:
Pretty sure he delivers the paper- i see him out several times a week- better safe than sorry though
I would laugh if I didn’t feel like crying. Because this happens all the time. Would people have worried that a man delivering papers was suspicious if he were white? I can’t prove that race was a factor here. But most of these incidents are about people of color. And it keeps happening.
In an incident last year, a mother posted an urgent alert that there was an attempted abduction of her seven-year-old daughter, who had been out walking the dog. There was a white van, following a white pickup truck. Right as her daughter was walking by, an African American man opened the door of the van and came towards her! Her daughter ran all the way home! The urgent alert received dozens of concerned replies. The police were called. And later that morning, I saw construction workers at a site three blocks away, with their white van and white pickup truck parked on the street.
It might help if people were simply more aware of this as a problem, but alerting people is hard. A couple weeks ago, a Nextdoor member in our neighborhood tried to draw attention to the problem of racism on the site, and got attacked by other participants. I waded in to merely say I think she might have a point, and I got attacked. The moderator shut down the discussion thread citing “policy violations on both sides.” So much for civil discourse.
The problem is not unique to Nextdoor—it’s just particularly easy to observe there. The site Hollaback takes an unusual approach to this problem—they discourage mentions of race. The purpose of Hollaback is to support discussion of street harassment. If someone cat calls you on the street or gropes you on the subway, you can go to Hollaback to share your experience—both to express your feelings, get support, and alert the community. But they discourage posters from mentioning the race of their harasser:
Due in part to prevalent stereotypes of men of color as sexual predators or predisposed to violence, HollaBackNYC asks that contributors do not discuss the race of harassers or include other racialized commentary
The more I see the everday racism of my neighbors on Nextdoor, the more I see the reasons for this policy. But it still feels like an extreme solution. (Someone groped me, and I can’t say what they looked like? I can hear the cries of political correctness gone mad.)
There really are (occasional) burglars in our neighborhood, and Nextdoor serves an important function by helping people alert one another. But is it possible to be a black man in our neighborhood and not be reported as suspicious?
The long-term solution is to all work to be less racist. To confront the tacit stereotypes we all hold,. In the short term, how do we stop social networks from making the problem worse? Leave me a comment.
I went to wash my hands the other day, and saw that my husband, Pete, had left something soaking in the sink. OK, I’ll use another sink…. But wait! What is that soaking? It was the charger for his electric toothbrush (unplugged, of course). You know how those get kinda gross, covered in white gunk? I try to clean mine now and then–usually with a bleach wipe. It helps, but it never gets it really clean. Later that day, I saw Pete’s toothbrush and charger positively gleaming. Wow! It wouldn’t have occurred to me to soak something electrical, but I guess you can do it. I was inspired, and soaked mine. It worked like a charm.
Let’s look at this as an episode of learning. Pete and I haven’t exchanged a word about the toothbrush–this post will come as a surprise to him. But through observation, I both developed motivation to do something positive, and learned a new method for approaching it!
Of course you know this post isn’t about toothbrushes. My question is: In what ways do students in face-to-face classes have opportunities for this kind of learning? I don’t take it for granted that this happens a lot–I think sometimes we romanticize the traditional classroom. I’m always surprised at the end of the term when I’m teaching a small class and know everyone’s names, and realize they don’t know one another’s names. They often just know the name of one or two classmates. Though sometimes the support from those one or two friends is critical.
If we could understand more about social and observational learning in the traditional classroom, then we could try to recreate the positive aspects in the online classroom. Or better yet, to go beyond being there (thank you, Jim Hollan), and invent even better mechanisms. This is what my PhD student Joe Gonzales and I are trying to do.
How would you approach it? Leave me a comment, and tell me about your cool work!