How do you make large scale harm visible on the individual level?

Teams that build security and privacy tools like Brave Browser, Tor Browser, Signal, Telegram, and others focus on usability and feature parity of these tools in an effort to more effectively acquire users from Google Chrome, iMessage, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, and others. 

Do people fail to adopt these more secure and private tools because they aren’t as usable as what they’re already using, or because it requires too much effort to switch?

I mean, of course it’s both. You need to make the effort to switch, and in order to switch you need viable alternatives to switch to. And that’s where the usability and feature parity of Brave Browser and Signal compared with Google Chrome and WhatsApp come in. 

But if we’re living in a world where feature parity and usability are a foregone conclusion, and we are, then what? What needs to happen to drive a large-scale shift away from data-consuming and privacy-invading tools and toward those that don’t collect data and aggressively encrypt our messages? 

To me, that’s where it becomes clear that the amorphous effects of widespread data collection—though well-chronicled in blog posts, books, and shows like The Social Dilemma— don’t often lead to real change unless a personal threat is felt. 

Marginalized and surveilled communities adopt tools like Signal or FireChat in order to protect their privacy and security, because their privacy and security are actively under threat. For others, their privacy and security is still under threat, but indirectly. Lacking a single (or a series of) clear events that are tied to direct personal harm, people don’t often abandon a platform. 

If I don’t see how the use of using Google Chrome, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other sites and tools cause direct harm to me, I have little incentive to make a change, despite the evidence of aggregate harm on society—amplified societal divisions, active disinformation campaigns, and more. 

Essays that expose the “dark side” of social media and algorithms make an attempt to identify distinct personal harms caused by these systems. Essays like James Bridle’s essay on YouTube, Something is wrong on the internet (2017), or Adrian Chen’s essay about what social media content moderators experience, The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed (2014) or Casey Newton’s about the same, The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America (2019), gain widespread attention for the problems they expose, but don’t necessarily lead to people abandoning the platforms, nor lead the platforms themselves to take action. 

These theorists and journalists are making a serious attempt to make large-scale harm caused by these platforms visible on an individual level, but nothing is changing. Is it the fault of the individual, or the platform?

Spoilers, it’s always “both”. And here we can draw an analogy to climate change too. As with climate change, the effects resulting from these platforms and companies are so amorphous, it’s possible to point to alternate explanations—for a time. Dramatically worsening wildfires in the Western United States are a result of poor fire policy, worsening tropical storms are a result of weaker wind patterns (or stronger ones? I don’t study wind). 

One could argue that perhaps climate change is the result of mechanization and industrialization in general, and it would be happening without the companies currently contributing to it. Perhaps the dark side of the internet is just the dark side of reality, and nothing worse than would exist without these platforms and companies contributing. 

The truth is, it’s both. We live in a “yes, and” world. Climate change is causing, contributing to, and intensifying the effects of wildfires and the strength and frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes. Platform algorithms are causing, contributing to, and intensifying the effects of misinformation campaigns and violence on social media and the internet. 

And much like companies that contributed to climate change knew what was happening, as reported in The Guardian: Shell and Exxon’s secret 1980s climate change warnings, Facebook Google and others know that their algorithms are actively contributing to societal harm—but the companies aren’t doing enough about it. 

So what’s next? 

  • Do we continue to attempt to make the individual feel the pain of the community in an effort to cause individual change? 
  • Do we use laws and policy to constrain the use of algorithms for specific purposes, in an effort to regulate the effects away?
  • Do we build alternate tools with the same functionality and take users away from the harm-causing tools? 
  • Do we use our power as laborers to strike against the harm caused by the tools that we build? 

With climate change (and too with data security and privacy), we’re already taking all of these approaches. What else might be out there? What else can we do to lead to change? 

#tweetthedocs: Use Twitter to meet your users where they are

As a tech writer, it’s hard to tell how users get to your docs at all. They might be clicking on in-product help links, searching the web, or getting sent links from support. But you can get proactive about it too. Help users of your product get their questions answered by meeting them where they are—on social media sites like Twitter. You may already rely on marketing, sales, support, and search engines to bring users to your documentation, but social media is a direct option. You can tweet about anything from general topics that answer common user questions to drier topics that are important for people to know. Read on to learn how!

Continue reading

So This Is The New Year

I didn’t start this as a resolution post, but here we are. It’s easier to write the introduction after the essay is written, so here I am to tell you this is a post of my 2015 resolutions. This year is all about purging the “someday maybes” and turning ideas into actions. Taking care of myself and moving forward.

Continue reading

Masculinity, AIM, Ads, and Cops

Here’s what was important this week…

I treated myself to ice cream last night (from the freezer, not a lonely ice cream shop date with myself) and it was delicious. While I gained weight from starting an office job after college, I still have the privilege of avoiding most body policing placed on women.

However, men suffer their own share of body policing. In Hollywood, this manifests itself as an obsession with fit bodies, and fitness. Mens Journal examines the issue, speaking mostly to trainers and talking about the pressure for actors to get “fit” in order to land coveted roles. It’s so important to the industry that:

“There are dozens of hormone-replacement clinics in and around Hollywood, and their business is booming. But there are significant risks: Hormone therapy accelerates all cell growth, whether healthy or malignant, and can encourage existing cancers, especially prostate cancers, to metastasize at terrifying rates. Testosterone supplements can lower sperm counts. For many, the risk is worth it.”

Fitness is just one aspect of a narrow set of masculinity standards imposed on men. For many men, high school is one of the more painful places that these standards are enforced. Well-documented in this great book by sociologist C.J. Pascoe, an essay in The Walrus gets to the heart of many of the standards. A new sex ed program in some Canadian schools works on teaching these high school boys not only aspects about sex that are often glossed over in traditional sex ed courses, it also focuses on relationships, gender identity and expression, and explores these things in a safe space. Importantly,

“Teaching young men to trust, communicate, negotiate, and empathize does not undermine or threaten their manliness. It expands their humanity. It reclaims men’s possibilities.”

Something else that helps men reclaim their possibilities is by supporting women, becoming advocates for them in the workplace, being feminists… Shanley, a writer on diversity in tech, wrote an essay about what men can do to help women if they are in a position of power (in her case, speaking directly to white men in tech). It’s a bit profanity-laden and not completely generalizable, but makes some great points.

Continue reading

Identity on the Internet

Anonymity is valuable to the structure of the Internet, but as the identity of a person becomes fluid, the reputations and identifiability of someone’s online presence becomes increasingly valuable. While jobs rely on user-submitted references, as do academic applications, many also turn to your social media presence or to your search results to gauge reputation. Privacy by obscurity, as records are digitized and indexed, is no longer as viable. But, there is no consistent form of identification across the web. Each service relies on its own username as identifier, with character limits abound, and your ability to hold the same username across services relies on both the uniqueness of your username as well as the date you joined the online service. But are usernames outdated? A self-selected identifier, varying from service to service and format to format? As Mat Honan puts it, ““One of the best things about the online world is how it lets us be whoever we want to be. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice that just because someone else got there first.”

The advantage of a username is that, at least within a service, it “refers unambiguously to a particular person”. That works fine if you know the username of the person, but often you may only know their name. Luckily, with services like Facebook, a person’s unique identifier is their name, provided they haven’t pseudonymized it. Once you have connected with that person, you expect (within the relevant online service) when you type in their name, you will be returned with precisely the person you were expecting to find. The difficulty with this system is finding out the username of another person, and confirming that the person with their name online is really the person you’re looking for.

Continue reading

Bitcoin, Security, and Photography

nananananananananananana BITCOINNNN

I had to talk about it eventually, and Thursday’s news was a good impetus. Newsweek had a big “scoop” potentially unmasking the founder of Bitcoin. The magazine saved this story for the cover of their return-to-print issue. The story features stalking masquerading as investigative journalism, as the author tracked down this man through national records, then tracked his interests to a model train forum, where she emailed him purporting to be interested in trains, then began asking about Bitcoin (at which point he stopped responding).
Then she tracked down his home and family members, and interviewed them extensively about the man and itcoin. She finally paid him a visit at his home, and instead of answering the door he called the cops. This surprised her. Read the article in full, if you’d like to know more about the lengths some people will go to find people who don’t want to be found (and who haven’t done anything wrong).(After some sushi and a car chase the man himself claims he is not involved with Bitcoin).

Continue reading

Protest and Media

Here’s what was important this week…

Are women being infantilized or endangered in the Olympics?

Also, the Olympic medal count gets more interesting depending on whether you look at it in terms of total medalsnumber of gold medals, or medals per capita.

In world news, protests in Ukraine that have been going on for a few months have escalated as the government ramps up its violent response. Just today (overnight for us in the US time zone) a deal was signed between the government and the protestors. Hopefully it will hold. That article (CNN) provides a good overview of the violence, but essentially the protests started as the government aligned itself with Russia, while many citizens wished for more of an EU alignment. Photos (some graphic) of the violence were collected yesterday by In Focus, and the New Yorker is wondering if this protest is the final straw: Will Ukraine Break Apart?Like many of the protests in recent years, the protests have been named somewhat with the square in which they’re occurring. Tahrir, Zucotti, Gezi, and now the Ukrainian protests, combining the word for “square” and the crux of the protests, european integration, to make euromaidan. You can watch four simultaneous live feeds of the park if you like. (The current president of Ukraine also ran for president in 2004 and was “elected” but forced to concede to his opponent after accusations of electoral fraud. One of those protesting the election results also happened to be the sign language interpreter for the state run news channel.)

Continue reading

Identity, amplification, and ownership on the Internet

Here’s what was important this week…

Facebook now allows you to choose a “custom” gender option and fill in your own gender on your profile–to a point. Rather than being a free-text field, Facebook instead offers options which autocomplete. Slate went through the effort of tabulating all 58 of them. Facebook is likely avoiding a free-text field because it wants to avoid trolling, but more likely they want to maintain the purity of their data about users.

One issue with Facebook (and in my opinion, this could be extended to many other social networks) is that it requires code switching. Code switching, typically associated with race and ethnicity, is even featured in an NPR blog devoted to the topic, which is introduced with this article. As the first essay mentioned, “Facebook’s design—really, the design of public and semi-private virtual interaction spaces on the web—is starting to feel like it’s reached its past-due date.” While I think there is a future for social media, the act and necessity of code switching is a tiring one.

As more media show up, we’re finding different ways to interact on each one and access different groups through our social media channels–ideally, we’d only need to code switch if we app switched. Personally, I’ve found my Facebook interactions have transformed since I started using the service–I primarily interact with a few specific friends on their walls/timelines, engage more broadly with a few Facebook groups, and the content that I share most broadly (primarily links) still excludes some friends.

Continue reading