Friday, July 17, 2015

Reddit plans to stricter content acceptability policies; former CEO Ellen Pao warns users that the "ugly side" is winning


The new CEO of Reddit is proposing much stricter content policies on the platform (“the Web’s front door”) and banning some subject matter altogether, according to a CNN Money story Thursday, link here. It may also put some content behind login (with supposed age verification) screens, voluntarily attempting to do what COPA had specified a few years ago (it was overturned in 2007). 
  
But the former CEO Ellen Pao writes a blunt op-ed on p A21 of Friday’s Washington Post, link here. The print title is “The ugly side of the Internet”; online it is “The troll are winning the battle for the Internet”. She explains well how Internet designers in the 1990s didn’t grasp that immature users could grow “fame” by becoming bullies.  Other commentators have noted that in the 1990s visionaries didn’t see that users would attack each other in more economically or politically motivated ways, with malware. 

She quotes our friends at Electronic Frontier Foundation, “The sad irony is that online harassers misuse the fundamental strength of the Internet as a powerful communication medium to magnify and co-ordinate their actions and effectively silence and intimidate others.”  

She also notes how difficult it is to build profitable business models, attracting mainstream advertisers while keeping the “ugliest” content around that tantalizes people. 

She also talks about the threats, and the cruel irony of saying “stay safe” (which Jahar Tsarnaev had said on one of his tweets after the Boston attack).  

She mentions that up to 40% of users are trolled, and that many or most of these are young women.  Sometimes they have been gays and lesbians.  In fact, Jack Andraka reports general real world harassment in his book (March 18 on Books blog) as a tween, which went away not just from his science fair accomplishments but as he got good at camping, kayaking, swimming, physically challenging stuff.  
  
One of the biggest reasons for the harassment is that we do live in a hyper-competitive, individualistic society, a winner-take-all world where a lot of people, on their own, can’t function well without the formerly compelling social structures around them.  So some people need to see others made to fit into their own familiar structures.  It’s getting harder for “average Joe’s” to make a living, in things like selling, because many old social expectations of how people will interact and receive one another have broken down. Likewise, it gets harder to find and sustain relationships, create and keep families.  The problems become self-perpetuating: security concerns, if nothing else, keep people within their own shells.  This moves quickly into areas like economic inequality, race, and religious intolerance.  
  
I get some flak because I don’t try very hard to “sell” my media stuff, especially physical hard copies of my books.  I simply let people find me.  That doesn’t help others make a living enough, and maybe it can attract the “wrong” attention.  Should something prove others will pay for it (that is want it or need it) before it’s allowed to stay out there?  That sounds like a tempting question. But people will pay for a lot of bad, ugly things.  People won’t pay to “eat their vegetables”.  Should Internet activity become a popularity contest?  That is exactly what the EFF quote above warns against.  
  
There’s also a question of the ethics of self-broadcast and spending time on it, when there are “real people” who need advocates and attention.  I’ve heard that a lot.  So I preach to the choir.  I note that our values have changed.  Our culture makes a lot more in public of making the lives of those in need seem important to others – something that wasn’t as apparent when I was growing up.  Our culture is also more interested in recruiting new converts into these causes including people like me who, in the past, would have been kept at a distance.  I know this is an issue. 
  
Social media is coming into scrutiny now also because it seems to be a recruiting tool for enemies.  This may be overblown.  I think we will find that people are radicalized more in person (when they visit overseas or have other kinds of attention) than just by tweets with links to the Dark Web.  Still, on the surface, this is raising a question about UGC (user generated content) without gatekeepers, and what purpose it is serving when it doesn’t pay for itself.  We call that the “Implicit Content Problem”.  


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