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? 

Tips for live tweeting an event

If you use Twitter and are attending an event that you want to share with your twitter followers, you can live tweet it as it’s happening. While you can live tweet basically any event, these tips focus mainly on talks that you might attend as part of a conference, a meetup, a sponsored speaker series, or another presentation.

I’ve live tweeted several conferences (two as part of a job, such as #SUMIT14), talks, and series of talks as @smorewithface.

First, the basics on live tweeting an event, then some pro tips and best practices to follow before and during the event.

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#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!

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Libraries, Digital Advertising, and the Machine Zone

Librarians are an underused, underpaid, and underestimated legion. And one librarian in particular is frustrated by e-book lending. Not just the fact that libraries have to maintain waitlists for access to a digital file, but also that the barriers to checking out an ebook are unnecessarily high. As she puts it,

“Teaching people about having technology serve them includes helping them learn to assess and evaluate risk for themselves.”

In her view,

“Information workers need to be willing to step up and be more honest about how technology really works and not silently carry water for bad systems. People trust us to tell them the truth.”

That seems like the least that can be expected by library patrons.

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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.

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Torture, Ownership, and Privacy

The Senate Intelligence Committee released hundreds of pages (soon available as a book) detailing acts of torture committed by the CIA.

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Quantified Health and Software Apps

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant last night, about how MyFitnessPal doesn’t give me much helpful data:

While it’s called MyFitnessPal, it doesn’t feel much like a pal, and feels more like a diet app than a fitness app:

It’s like a friend congratulating you for eating a lot of whole wheat, but making a face because the egg you ate has a lot of cholesterol in it, even if it’s the only egg you’ve eaten that week.

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Three Types of Health

Public health in the U.S. tends to focus on chronic diseases (like cancer or diabetes), but in other parts of the world, much of the focus is on drugs that either no longer afflict the U.S., or aren’t cost-effective to treat.

Sickle cell anemia can be treated when it’s identified early. But that doesn’t happen much in the developing world, it is still a serious issue. So a diagnostic test that is simple, fast, and cheap is ideal, and currently in development.

Malaria isn’t a disease most Americans think of unless they’re going somewhere in Africa for a trip. A new diagnostic test (developed with technology that is also used in missile detectors) can diagnose malaria in four minutes in patients that don’t even show symptoms yet, and doesn’t even need a specialist to interpret the results.

Ebola is yet another disease that is more of an edge case–devastating, but rare, especially in the United States. For pharmaceutical companies, this means that it isn’t fiscally worth it to produce a treatment for ebola:

“When pharmaceutical companies are deciding where to direct their R. & D. money, they naturally assess the potential market for a drug candidate. That means that they have an incentive to target diseases that affect wealthier people (above all, people in the developed world), who can afford to pay a lot. They have an incentive to make drugs that many people will take. And they have an incentive to make drugs that people will take regularly for a long time—drugs like statins.”

Cancer is widespread across the globe, and has been around for millennia. For some kinds of cancer, however, genetic treatment is experimentally promising. Rather than attempting to destroy the cancerous cells, targeted treatments have been shown to cause cancerous cells to mature into non-cancerous cells.

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Children, Espionage, and Pain

Here’s what was important this week…

If you have a child abroad, and you’re a U.S. citizen, you can get your child U.S. citizenship as well. However, as Tori Marlan investigates  “the rules that determine what babies can become citizens seem to be butting up against the modern circumstances under which Americans are having babies.” Most notably, modern practices that involve children being born before marriage, or through fertility treatments, or to same-sex couples. Proof is needed to prove that the child is “born of” the U.S. citizen–implied in heterosexual couples, but not as much for homosexual couples. Alexis Madrigal explores further implications that the future of reproductive technology will have for how we define parenthood.

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. indicted 5 members of the Chinese military on economic espionage charges.

As security expert Bruce Schneier points out, we’re guilty of nearly the same:

“The only difference between the U.S. and China’s actions is that the U.S. doesn’t engage in direct industrial espionage. That is, we don’t steal secrets from Chinese companies and pass them directly to U.S. competitors. But we do engage in economic espionage; we steal secrets from Chinese companies for an advantage in government trade negotiations, which directly benefits U.S. competitors. We might think this difference is important, but other countries are not as as impressed with our nuance.”

And James Surowiecki writes for the New Yorker on the fact that the U.S. got its start as an industrial power by engaging in just that kind of espionage, to the point where “State governments financed the importation of smuggled machines.”

As Surowiecki concludes,

“engaging in economic espionage is something developing countries do. When you’re not yet generating a lot of intellectual property on your own, you imitate. These days, China is going to try to steal, and the West is going to try to stop it. But the tactic of using piracy to leapfrog ahead? That looks like an idea it stole from us.”

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Misogyny, Maya Angelou, and Words

A lot has happened since last week.  As a heads up, the first portion of this post is about misogyny and the UCSB shootings last weekend. If you’d rather not read about it, skip below the comic!

Last weekend, a man murdered 6 people and injured 13 more. Misogyny is largely being credited (not much in mainstream media, however) as the primary driver behind his violence. The killer left behind several youtube videos and more than a hundred pages of a violent manifesto. His parents had reached out to his therapist, and the police met with him, but nothing came of the meeting. Part of this is because they based their judgment of him on their face-to-face interaction, rather than on his digital droppings of his thoughts and opinions, perhaps a misprioritization in our current world.

As I’ve written before, there is a real risk in defining people based solely on what they post on social media. But when so much of someone’s thoughts and feelings are revealed online, their narrative becomes more transparent. This man’s narrative was one of violent, extremist misogyny.

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