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The Solution to Free Speech is a Functional Marketplace of Varied Venues

June 12, 2019 3 comments

I believe in free speech. I believe in a free society where I have the right to say something that deeply offends you, and you may say something that deeply offends me. Censorship of the internet in countries like China is disturbing, and other countries (including the United States and the European Union) are slipping towards censorship one tiny step at a time.

At the same time, I believe in the right to be free from harassment. I believe in the right to be free from crazy, false nonsense showing up on my computer screen (if I don’t want it to). I also believe there is such a thing as “false” and “true,” as I explain in a chapter from my forthcoming book Should You Believe Wikipedia? Truth is socially constructed, and we can sometimes make wrong decisions about what we believe to be “true.”   But truth exists, and all we can do is keep working hard to find it.

So how do we balance these competing desires? The answer is zoning.  There need to be places on the internet with different rules for what it’s OK to say, and what standards there are for verification of claims and politeness. Some of those places should be totally open, modulo respecting the most basic laws like the right to honest dealing in business and freedom from liable.  Other places should have standards.

I volunteer as a moderator on the subreddit r/science, which has over 21 million subscribers. Posts on r/science must link to a peer-reviewed scientific article published in the last six months in a journal with an impact factor of at least 1.5.  Comments must be about the science, and anecdotes and jokes are not allowed. The volunteer mods delete tons of great, interesting content. But that’s OK, because you can post that content on other subreddits like r/everythingscience or r/sciences, where the rules are laxer.  Reddit is one site on the internet that gets this right.  Different subs have different standards, and you can choose one that suits you or go ahead and create your own (as I suggest in my 1996 paper Finding One’s Own Space in Cyberspace).

When there are multiple spaces with different social norms, we can have a marketplace of ideas.  Parents who are upset about inappropriate content on YouTube should send their kids to watch videos on a site with higher standards. YouTube will never improve its practices if we all don’t vote with our feet.  A marketplace doesn’t work unless people have alternatives and make smart choices.

Unfortunately, some sites have become so big that it’s hard to find meaningful alternatives.  A dozen of my friends have proclaimed recently that they are quitting Facebook because they object to Facebook’s practices.  That’s great—that’s what you should do if you don’t like the site’s policies. But what’s the alternative?  In our research on grassroots groups, Sucheta Ghoshal and I have found that groups who do not agree with Facebook’s policies and find its privacy features insufficient often still use it to publicize their cause because that’s where the people are.  They’re stuck.

One of the imperatives in the revised ACM Code of Conduct (the first update in 25 years) says:

3.7 Recognize and take special care of systems that become integrated into the infrastructure of society.

Even the simplest computer systems have the potential to impact all aspects of society when integrated with everyday activities such as commerce, travel, government, healthcare, and education. When organizations and groups develop systems that become an important part of the infrastructure of society, their leaders have an added responsibility to be good stewards of these systems. Part of that stewardship requires establishing policies for fair system access, including for those who may have been excluded. That stewardship also requires that computing professionals monitor the level of integration of their systems into the infrastructure of society. As the level of adoption changes, the ethical responsibilities of the organization or group are likely to change as well. Continual monitoring of how society is using a system will allow the organization or group to remain consistent with their ethical obligations outlined in the Code. When appropriate standards of care do not exist, computing professionals have a duty to ensure they are developed.

The impossibly hard problem that follows is: What should we do in response to very large platforms that are integrated into the structure of society and fail to be good stewards? Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren wants to break up big tech, and she may have a point. The implications are headache-inducing.

In the mean time, one thing we all must do is to vote with our feet. To tell platforms who don’t meet our personal standards (Too restrictive of speech? Too unrestrictive? Or just a lousy user interface?) that we won’t use them until they clean up their act. And to support alternative platforms that emerge as they struggle to get started.  The marketplace of ideas can’t work unless there’s an actual, working, competitive marketplace.

 

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Categories: Uncategorized

What if we all insisted on reasonable NDAs?

August 20, 2017 2 comments

Next week I am attending a mini-conference in which a big tech company (I’ll call it BTC) has invited a group of academics to advise them. Everyone attending was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). The NDA I was sent initially didn’t define what was confidential, and had no time limit.  So basically they’re asking everyone to keep secret who-knows-what forever. Does that make sense?

How can you protect confidential information if you don’t even know what is confidential? A fair NDA needs to spell it out. This is called a “marking requirement.” Any tangible materials containing proprietary information shared with you should be marked “confidential.” Ideally also, the agreement should say that if confidential information is disclosed orally, they will follow-up with a copy in tangible form marked confidential within a few weeks after the disclosure. That last part can be harder to get companies to agree to, because it’s a hassle.

Second, a fair NDA should have an end date. It’s not reasonable to ask you to assume a lifelong obligation, is it? They’re not going to tell me the formula for Coca-Cola—it’s stuff that changes rapidly. At the speed that things change in high tech, a three-year limit is fair. Five years at most.

I told my hosts at BTC that I’d please like some changes to the NDA, and they graciously complied. The back-and-forth process between their lawyers and my university’s lawyers took so long, I almost ended up not going to the event. They were reasonable, and the result is fair. But here’s my question: why doesn’t everyone always ask for more reasonable NDAs? If we all did, then they wouldn’t be sending out the unfair versions in the first place.

Companies keep asking people to sign ridiculous non-disclosure agreements, because folks sign them without objecting. If we all insist on reasonable NDAs, this will no longer be a problem.

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Is it OK to dox white supremacists?

August 14, 2017 6 comments

What do you all think about the ethics of doxing attendees at the white supremacist rally? Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences. However, with the power of the crowd, the consequences are sometimes outpacing what a reasonable person would deem fair (example: puppy poo girl and Justine Sacco). And the consequences of the crowd making mistakes can be devastating to innocent people (like in the ‘find Boston Bombers‘ incident). So how do you evaluate the actions of the people doing the doxing in this case?

Categories: Uncategorized

The Facebook Newsfeed: a PSA and a Challenge

March 12, 2017 1 comment

If your Facebook newsfeed is like mine, you’ve probably seen a bunch of posts that say something like this one I saw this morning:

In honor of someone who means a lot to me…I’m going to say goodbye to some of you…… now I’m watching the ones who will have the time to read this post until the end. This is a little test, just to see who reads and who shares without reading!

These posts are like nails on a blackboard to me. There are a couple reasons. First, they misunderstand how the newsfeed works. Not all your friends see all your posts. So you can’t judge people by whether they respond—you can’t tell if they’ve seen it at all. Second, although the wording of each version of this sort of post varies, in most cases it implies “I read carefully. Some of you, though, are not being careful.” Can’t posters of this meme feel the smugness of the tone? It implies, “If you don’t read my long, wordy Facebook post all the way to the end, then you are a thoughtless and careless person.” Is that what you really meant to say?  Third, the writer is imposing an obligation on his/her readers. Kurt Luther comments, “People’s timeless desire to impose chain letter-like obligations on others has made a smooth transition to the new medium.” Public Service Announcement: Please don’t post this meme.

I think that I understand the better impulse behind the meme. The poster is saying, “I have doubts about whether the connections we are forging on this website are meaningful. I am yearning for a deeper sense of connectedness to people I care about.” I like that impulse. So here’s my challenge: How can we express that desire for more meaningful connections without this obnoxious meme? If you have ideas, leave me a comment! (And thanks for reading to the end….)

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Naturalistic Inquiry and Silk Purses

September 22, 2016 2 comments

For me as a social computing researcher, some of the most insightful and useful parts of the research literature are qualitative sociology written thirty to fifty years ago. For example, The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg (1989) documents how people need a “third place”—one that is neither work nor home. Within the third places Oldenburg studied, he observed timeless patterns of human behavior like the role of “the regulars” and how people greet a newcomer. Or consider The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman, originally published in 1959. Goffman documents how people are always performing for one another, and the impressions they deliberately give may differ from the impressions given off (what people actually infer from someone’s performance). How could we even begin to understand social behavior on sites like Facebook and Twitter without Goffman as a foundation?

When I think about this style of research, I often think about how it would be reviewed if it were submitted for publication today. No doubt Goffman would be told his work was insufficiently scientific—how do you really know there are “impressions given off”? Can you measure them? I doubt he’d make it through the review process.

How do we know that Goffman’s observations are “true”? Honestly, we don’t. The “proof” is in how useful generations of researchers to follow have found his observations. Goffman took messy qualitative data, and used that as a touchstone for his own powers of inference and synthesis. His observations aren’t in the data, but emerged from a process of his examination of the data. It’s probably impossible to make a firm statement about how valuable this type of work is at the time of writing—the evidence is in the value that others find in building on the work later.

Contemporary researchers are still working in this style. I call writing in this mode “silk purse papers.” They say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, except sometimes you can. Insights emerge from messy data in an act of interpretation. The first paper of my own that I would put in this category is my paper “Situated Support for Learning: Storm’s Weekend with Rachael,” published in Journal of the Learning Sciences in 2000. In it, I take a case study of a weekend in which one girl taught another to program and draw broader conclusions about the nature of support for learning—support for learning is more effective when it is richly connected to other elements of the learning environment. I can’t prove to you that those observations are valid, but I can say that others have found them useful.

I’m always vaguely embarrassed when I’m in the middle of writing a silk purse paper. A tiny little voice in my head nags, “You’re making stuff up. You could use this data to tell a dozen different stories. You’re saying what you want to say and pretending it’s science.” But then I remember Goffman, and try to cheer up. It may not be “science,” but it’s certainly a valid mode of naturalistic inquiry. Take a second and think about foundational writings in your area of expertise. How many of those papers are silk purses?

In fact I wonder if we are all always making silk purses. Just because a paper is quantitative does not make it any less interpretive. My colleagues and I just finished a complicated analysis of content people post on Facebook publicly versus post to friends only (to appear in CSCW 2017). It’s totally quantitative work. But what we chose to measure and not measure and how we explain what it means strike me as much acts of interpretation (to be evaluated by the passage of time) as the complicated stories we tell with qualitative data.

Where we as a field get into trouble is when people with naïve ideas about “science” start reviewing qualitative work, and get it wrong. Sociology of science and technology should be featured in more graduate programs in human-computer interaction and human-centered computing. And as a field we need to have a more nuanced conversation about interpretive work, and how to review it.

Online Misbehavior: Blocking Mechanisms and Understanding Mechanisms

August 9, 2016 6 comments

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!

Categories: Uncategorized

Social Media Insults and Donald Trump’s Hair

March 22, 2016 Leave 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!”

Categories: Uncategorized
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