Like a tweet storm that didn't stop. I write about tech, media, politics, and whatever happens to be most exciting to my internet addled brain that day.

Sex/Work

Crises, Justice, and Opportunity

The internet, despite famously being for porn, seems to be losing its horniness. Increasingly, the newly dour internet is cracking down on sex work.

This week, Tumblr, which had long been a haven for the horny internet (especially for women and queer folks), announced it would ban adult content in a ham-fisted attempt to crack down on a child exploitation bot-net problem that had been plaguing the platform:

Another Tumblr user, Luke Healy, told NBC News that the microblogging site was his safe space before he came out to people offline, and the explicit content allowed him room for self-discovery. “It gave me a way to watch and view things and allowed me to explore my sexuality without being scared of someone in my school finding out,” Healy said. “Even now, seven years later, it still feels like that place. I’m scared young people in the closet today won’t have that.” (NBC)

elsewise:

[The] ability to curate and tag search — Chase calls Tumblr “Pinterest for sex” — was instrumental. Sex could be ruled by sensibility, allowing vulnerable and underprivileged communities to connect and start exchanging real information along with nudes. To this day, the top-reviewed and most-followed porn Tumblrs include not just explicit-content curators, but blogs like Orgasmic Tips for Girls,which teaches women how to masturbate, or xxuntilweod, which mixes relatively vanilla clips of women kissing and holding hands with more graphic images of lesbian sex, letting women explore a whole range of queer intimacy without either sensationalizing or censoring it. (Elle)

Separately, a group of incels (far-right violent misogynists) has started filing complaints with payment processors to silence critics and cut off female independent adult content creators/pornographers’ livelihoods:

When Lily Adams, an actor and model who sells access to her pornographic photos and videos, first noticed the ThotAudit movement gaining traction Saturday evening, she took to Twitter, calling it a witch hunt. Within one minute, a ThotAuditor flagged her account and tweeted that she had been added “to the review list for Monday morning.” By Monday, Adams’ PayPal account had been terminated. Wired

In July, Patreon, a platform for independent creators (podcasters, youtubers, artists, etc.) to get paid by their fans announced it would suspend the accounts of anyone posting adult content.

Patreon updated its content policy to limit the sale of adult content including images, video, and other services. The company started preventing creators from advertising adult content on their public-facing page and limited mature content to posts only visible to backers. It also put restrictions on what could be offered through its platform […] The policy change resulted in a ton of backlash, as sex workers and others in the adult industry that rely on Patreon as a primary source of income expressed fear for their livelihoods. (Gizmodo)

Over the summer the the federal government seized and shut down Backpage, a marketplace for prostitution, after finding the site site to be no longer protected by safe harbor laws (the rules that say Facebook isn’t liable for everything that gets posted) under the terms of new anti-human-trafficking legislation (SESTA):

In the aftermath of the new law, sex workers have claimed that efforts to control sex work in the name of public safety are forcing them into riskier situations—working with unknown clients, who they can no longer screen, or on the streets, where the risk of violence is greater. An oft-cited study by researchers from Baylor University and West Virginia University found that, from 2002 to 2010, when Craigslist’s erotic-services site was active and solicitation moved indoors, the female homicide rate fell by seventeen per cent. (New Yorker)

Each of these enforcement actions is bad enough on its own. Tumblr is showing that it doesn’t have a real interest in solving the real problem (child porn) while hurting its users, many of whom are women and LGBTQ. Incels filing complaints with payment processing shows how tactics developed by groups like Sleeping Giants are fair game for anyone to weaponize. Patreon is making it harder to earn a living in sex work independently. And by killing Backpage, the government has risked the lives of sex workers and may have permanently weakened safe harbor laws. And nevermind that attempts to censor “adult” content historically tend to unduly target/affect marginalized groups generally.

Taken together, this all says something insidious about the state of the internet and our social/sexual mores. Sex workers are being banned from vital infrastructure not because they’ve broken any laws but because we find them and their lives distasteful, icky. Because that infrastructure is owned by so few companies, there’s not a damn thing we can do.

So accept that trying to police sex work winds up as harassment and bad faith attempts to control people’s (women's) bodies/limit autonomy. Accept that sex work will never go away, despite how uncomfortable it may make you. Even if you think it’s a mortal sin, focus on harm reduction. Remember that exclusion from the mainstream economy makes sex workers vulnerable. If you can’t/won’t/don’t believe that sex work could be fulfilling to anyone or just under any circumstance, then at least focus on minimizing exploitation. 

Without safe harbor and access to infrastructure to monetize their work, sex workers have to rely on centralized, powerful institutions (the studio system and pimps, of one shape or another). Porn is an powerful example of the core features of the internet: the expansion of options and cultivation of sub-groups and the dangers of ceding moral judgement to a few private actors. (Revisit my post “Free Speech and Fuckery” for more). The internet has led to a massive flourishing (in the long tail) of human sexuality and has allowed individuals in the grey and black market sex economies to operate independently for the first time. Now the clock is turning backwards.

Solutions/opportunities

  1. Porn might be the most obvious use case for cryptocurrency generally and an ICO specifically (incentivize adoption on a two sided market). If transactions happen in cryptocurrency and are processed over a decentralized network, PayPal, Stripe, and the rest can GFTO with their puritanical rules. There’s been some traction on this front and different groups have tried to launch a “vice coin” but none have taken off in any meaningful way. Still, the truism that porn is the first mover for any new consumer tech looks like it could really hold water here if the right team took it up.

  2. As sex workers are increasingly being kicked off mainstream internet infrastructure/service providers, there would seem to be an opportunity to create a publishing platform  focused entirely on independant sex workers. Go indy, focus on underserved groups/demographics/fetishes, and build some cross of Medium and Patreon. 

  3. Prostitution will be legal eventually. That will make life a lot safer for sex workers and create obvious opportunities for both marketplaces and brands. Until then, I’d imagine there’s an opportunity to recreate something like Backpage with a more careful eye towards DMCA Safe Harbor and SESTA compliance. 

Mis-Adventures in Co-Living

99D Classic

This is a re-post from the old 99D site. The original was published February 8, 2018.

Bloomberg covered a rental and co-living boom in China as US and Chinese investors pour huge sums into new tech-forward managed rental companies. (Link)

The initiative to encourage renting homes is spurring some of the most important policy changes in private property ownership since 1988. It’s also creating opportunity for half a dozen companies, including Ziroom, You+ and Mofang Apartment. With already about 1.2 million tenants using Ziroom alone across nine cities in China, the startups are becoming the new gate keepers of social credit: tapping data and technology to determine rent prices, screen tenants and generate uncannily detailed profiles of their hobbies and habits.

This strikes at two trends I’ve long been interested in: surveillant alternatives to traditional credit scoring and co-living. I wrote about the former recently. (Link) Now it’s time to dive into the latter. Quickly, co-living, often referred to as “WeWork for housing,” is the general area of alternative real estate where strangers live in shared apartments with communal resources. I really believe in co-living and want it to succeed.

The combination of delayed marriage, financial uncertainty, and inequality are causing young people to put off buying homes longer and longer. (Link) As a result, cohabitation (unmarried couples living together) is on the rise. (Link) But this leaves a hole in the market for single people. Yes, there are a million and a half rental and roommate marketplaces, but the underlying asset (the apartments) are still generally designed for couples. Supply is staying the same even as demand is changing. We’re shoving a square peg in a round apartment-sized hole.

The continued housing crisis in American cities should prompt us to rethink housing altogether. Obviously we need more units on the market to lower prices (it’s Econ 101, despite what the NIMBYites would have you believe). The difficulty of new construction and the high proportion of single family homes left over from the post-war housing boom:

The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl. (Link)

Instead of just making smaller or crappier versions of existing housing (smaller single family units and homes), we need to imagine wholly new possibilities/models for affordable housing. That is, rather than maintaining the same relationship between people and stuff (renters to kitchens, example), which sets an upper limit on price and square footage efficiency, we can invent a new type of housing that is built for affordability and single people.

I take inspiration from “reverse innovation,” which finds that affordable solutions are not just worse versions of their more expensive counterparts. This is a mental trap that is easy to fall into when exporting products to the developed world (or downmarket). The downmarket version of a wedding cake isn’t a smaller wedding cake; it’s a cupcake.

As Winter and Govindarajan put it, you need to “[cast] off preconceived solutions before you set down to define problems [to] help your company avoid the first trap—and spot opportunities outside its existing product portfolio. Consider the problem of irrigating farms in emerging markets. Farmers will argue for the expansion of the power grid so that they can use electricity to run water pumps and irrigate fields. However, farmers need water, not electricity, and the real requirement is getting water to crops—not power to pumps. If they isolate the problem, engineers may find that creating ponds near fields or using solar-powered pumps is more cost-effective and environmentally appropriate than expanding the power grid.”

We need to take a similar approach to urban housing. If you could build develop new units that are purpose-built as affordable housing with an emphasis on shared communal space, you could dramatically increase the efficiency of urban housing, both in terms of people:square footage and dollars spent. If you increase the ratio of people to real estate resources, you can optimize for utilization while controlling for price. Not everyone needs their own kitchen.

The problem is, most of the early co-living entrants in the US are starting at the top of the market. They promise turnkey luxury real estate replete with features and amenities like house-cleaning, social events, luxury bedding, etc. All that comes at a premium to market-rate apartments, totally defeating the purpose of co-living. I don’t even think it’s good business. The people who can afford to rent an apartment for $1500/month or more have other options. They’re not likely to stay long, leaving companies with empty units with high customer acquisition costs.

Co-living does not solve an acute housing problem for the wealthy. If it solves any problem, it is the difficulty of finding roommates and the problem of modern loneliness. However, co-living introduces renters to potential future roommates and friends, making it easy for people to move out together. (See: other options above). 

Sure, the rentals may be more affordable than they appear when you factor in all those amenities and luxuries, but that’s not what matters here. The people who really, desperately need housing can’t afford co-living as presently constituted. They don’t want or need the amenities that these companies use to attract renters and which, in turn, make the leases more expensive. The thing to watch is whether or not these companies will use their position at the top of the market to establish some traction and prove product viability before pivoting downmarket. Smartphones started as luxury items for the rich and now they’re staples for everyone, for example.

To return to Winter and Govindarajan and reverse innovation, co-living is focused on providing electricity, not on providing water. The problem to solve is making housing more affordable to those can’t otherwise afford it, not making faux-affordable housing appealing to those who can.

Co-living needs to shift its focus from amenities to affordability and reorient itself around solving a real problem for renters. Until it does, co-living is neither useful nor viable.

###

Check OutLanded, a very cool startup that uses grant/foundation money to subsidize down payments for teachers to help them live within the communities they serve. Obviously it’s relevant to the above.

Avoid: Altered Carbon on Netflix. It’s just derivative Blade Runner fan fic with awful writing that takes gratuitous nudity to the point of discomfort.

Follow: Oversharing, a newsletter from Ali Griswold about the “proverbial sharing economy.” (TinyLetter)

Go: to Philly sometime. I had a great time there and will definitely be back. It’s got a lot of charm. 

Read: here’s what I was thinking about when I wrote this post

Engineering Reverse Innovations - Amos Winter and Vijay Govindarajan, Harvard Business Review

Our research suggests that the problem stems from a failure to grasp the unique economic, social, and technical contexts of emerging markets. At most Western companies, product developers, who spend a lifetime creating offerings for people similar to themselves, lack a visceral understanding of emerging market consumers, whose spending habits, use of technologies, and perceptions of status are very different. Executives have trouble figuring out how to overcome the constraints of emerging markets—or take advantage of the freedoms they offer. Unable to find the way forward, they tend to fall into one or more mental traps that prevent them from successfully developing reverse innovations.

For Health Care Workers, the Worst Commutes in New York City Winnie Hu, New York Times

Affordability has become so bad that we’ve literally marginalized our service workers by pushing them beyond the pale of the communities they serve. Commute times are a pernicious form of inequality. Poor people have less time in each day.

The report, “An Unhealthy Commute,” by the Center for an Urban Future, a research institute, concluded that health care workers endure some of the worst commutes in the city. Many rely on public transit — yet live and work in neighborhoods with limited and unreliable bus and subway service. The median commuting time for health care workers using public transit stands at 51.2 minutes — the longest for any class of private-sector workers — compared with 47.3 minutes citywide, the report said.

Density's Next Frontier: The Suburbs - Richard Florida, CityLab

many urban cores are actually developing and densifying. And lots of housing continues to get built at the suburban periphery. Romem argues that America’s real housing problem—and a big part of the solution to it—lie in closer-in single-family-home neighborhoods that were built up during the great suburban boom of the last century, and that have seen little or no new housing construction since they were initially developed.

California’s housing crisis – it’s even worse than you think - Matt Levin, Mercury News

Half the state’s households struggle to afford the roof over their heads. Homeownership-once a staple of the California dream – is at its lowest rate since World War II. Nearly 70 percent of poor Californians see the majority of their paychecks go immediately to escalating rents.

Back on my bullshit

Links and some retro 99D

I know it’s been a very long time. Whenever I stop writing I start feeling like I can’t start again until I have something really good, which… 1) nothing I write I ever really good and 2) is bullshit. But still, that 100% endogenous pressure just compounds over time even as the writing habit/muscle atrophies and picking it up again becomes harder. 

The point is, I’m back with my usual bullshit/garbage. Enjoy, my fellow trash monsters.

  • Buy: this sick burn of Carlyle x Supreme parody tee from Hasan Minhaj. Or don’t because it’s totally sold out and reselling at 10x markups. (Patriot Act Store)

  • Watch: Bodyguard on Netflix. Shades of House of Cards but way more British and slightly less dumb. Tbh I still don’t super get all the twists but it’s a fun watch. (Trailer)

Also make sure to check out the long block at the bottom where, in light of news about China’s social credit system, I’ve republished a post on surveillance and credit-worthiness from the old 99D.

Enjoy.

The death of small businesses in big cities, explained - Rebecca Jennings, The Goods

Couple of things I liked from this interview about neoliberalism and local businesses. One thing in particular stood out in a larger point about developers creating pop-up locations:

They’re curated by these developers, but there’s nothing organic. There’s nothing truly urban or diverse about them. You can’t start a business with a one-year lease. In the first year, you don’t make any profit. If we are a society, we need each other, and we need those small-business people to maintain the social network of our neighborhoods, and they’re being destroyed. Pop-ups are not going to replace that.

It’s interesting to think about how pop-ups don't represent urban dynamism/chaos/vitality but instead are inorganic representations of it - that they’re most like facsimiles of city life. Reminds of this great essay from Amanda Hess in the New York Times: The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’.

Beauty and the Backlash: Disney’s Modern Princess Problem - Erich Schwartzel, WSJ (paywall removed)

For nearly 20 years, Disney employees have debated how far the company should go in updating its heroines for the modern age. The crux: How do you keep princesses relevant without alienating fans who hold fast to the versions they grew up with? Billions of dollars of revenue—dolls, sequels, stage shows and dresses—hang on getting that balance right.

[…]

Disney develops and manages characters such as Mulan or Rapunzel similar to the way Apple Inc. handles new iPhone models, with a secretive process that allows the princesses to debut in public fully formed. Interviews with nearly two dozen current and former employees working across Disney’s sprawling princess operations reveal a perennial push-and-pull over getting the mix of tradition and modernity right, from producing remakes and merchandise built around longtime characters to introducing new characters.

David Stern has no time for war stories - Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated

The Commish has not slowed down since stepping down from the NBA.

To spend time with Stern is to note his brash, tell-it-like-it-is charm, but to also feel as if he's about to hand out an exam, only you're not sure what it's on. His default expression communicates that he is listening to you just long enough to form an opinion or to marshal an argument. He has a tendency to make pronouncements that are directly confrontational but, upon further review, also true. 

I’m a sucker for a good profile, sue me.

You Already Email Like a Robot — Why Not Automate It? - John Hermann, New York Times Magazine

Fair point. Email-talk is weird. Great read on what Google’s quest to automate our email writing reveals about the mode of communication itself and our modern working world.

If, for example, it suggests a certain completion, and enough users take it, that one will be more likely to appear in the future. If a canned reply is never used, this is a signal that it should be purged; if it is frequently used, it will show up more often. This could, in theory, create feedback loops: common phrases becoming more common as they’re offered back to users, winning a sort of election for the best way to say “O.K.” with polite verbosity, and even training users, A.I.-like, to use them elsewhere. Such a dynamic would take root only where a behavior is already substantially automated — typed, at work, more as a learned performance rather than as an expression of will, or even an idea. Smart Compose is, in other words, good at isolating the ways we’ve already been programmed — by work, by social convention, by communication tools — and taking them off our hands.

One particularly great detail here is that the basis for the machine learning models Google uses for Smart Reply and Smart Compose is a cache of 600,000 emails from Enron made public through discovery, now know as “The Enron Corpus.” It’s apparently the biggest such set of emails out there. For more, check out this read from 2013:

Beijing to Judge Every Resident Based on Behavior by End of 2020 - Bloomberg News

China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

Been talking about this one for a while so I want to re-up a post from the old 99D about this (in full below):

Surveillance and Credit - January 3, 2018

I got into an argument with a lady on a plane. A flight attendant had to be called. The details of this fight are not important but to suffice to say the stewardess wound up apologizing to me and various passengers remarked to me that the lady was crazy. So I was right and I won. I was even given an opportunity to file a complaint against my new nemesis!

Filing the complaint would have had one of two possible outcomes: either nothing would happen because the complaint would go into a void where it wouldn’t merit enough attention to demand followup, or it would linked to the lady’s customer data in the airline’s customer relationship management database. In the former case, it would obviously not matter. In the latter case, the complaint could follow my enemy around like a scarlet letter, marring any and all future interactions with customer service reps from the airline who, upon opening her file each time she called, would see a note about her being “difficult” on a flight in late 2017. That might make them less likely to do her favors in the future. Each denied request would be my small victory. 

I did not wind up filing the complaint against her for two reasons: the first was the it seemed like too much bother. My pettiness and vindictiveness are only matched by my laziness. The other reason was my fear that filing a complaint could go on myrecord in the airline’s CRM (they software they use to keep customer records). So, as is often the case in my petty feuds, nothing happened.

We are increasingly at the mercy of invisible, un-questionable data and analytical systems that drive crucial life events like who we meet, what job we can get, whether we can buy a house, etc. So an online tiff might seem silly and frivolous until it potentially affects your ability to book a flight. This is explored really well in the January 2018 issue of Wired, which delved into the depths of China’s “Social Credit Ratings,” and Alibaba’s “Zhima Credit” score, each more technologically and ubiquitous versions of credit scores:

Witty Title TBD

Remember to come up with a good subhead too

Happy New Year and Shanna Tovah. After a brief hiatus, the Jews are back online and I’m back with some more of my signature blend of good shit. (In fairness, I didn’t really log off for Yom Kippur anyway.)

Big thanks for tuning in as always. Wish I had something more exciting to put in the upfront but at least I’m keeping the content/aggregation trains running.

Choo choo.

  • Follow up: I’ve made no secret of my disdain for Juul. It’s clearly increasing the number of young nicotine users and is not a cessation tool. Now there’s two new great pieces of news on that front. 1) the FDA looks like it’s gonna crack down on Juul, per NYT. 2) Roman has launched ZeRo, a new medication assisted treatment service to actually help smokers quit. Stay tuned.

  • Watch: Season Two of American Vandal on Netflix. It’s the best true crime documentary out there and is a truly hilarious parody of the genre. (Trailer)

  • Lose your mind: by going down the internet rabbit hole of “Johnny Johnny” aka “Yes Papa” videos. (Link) And as a refresher, recall this article from last year about disturbing, absurdist children’s videos on YouTube.

The main event:

For Valentino Dixon, a wrong righted - Max Adler, Golf World

This is gonna be a great movie: when the DA wouldn’t open his case, Golf Digest did.

Although Dixon has never hit a ball or even stepped foot on a course, the game hooked him when a golfing warden brought in a photograph of Augusta National’s 12th hole for the inmate to render as a favor. In the din and darkness of his stone cell, the placid composition of grass, sky, water and trees spoke to Dixon. And the endless permutations of bunkers and contours gave him a subject he could play with.

[…]

It took about a hundred drawings before Golf Digest noticed, but when we did, we also noticed his conviction seemed flimsy. So we investigated the case and raised the question of his innocence.

A Brief (and Very British) History of Workplace Bathrooms - Linda Rodriguez, Topic

By the 19th century, the question of what a “civilized” society ought to look like—hint, it didn’t include shit-filled streets—was increasingly on the minds of working-class reformers, the burgeoning middle class, and philanthropic types. The Victorians’ obsession with cleanliness and its proximity to godliness, their interest in the transmission of disease, and their prudishness around matters involving nether regions eventually led cities to try to figure out just what to do with all their crap. By 1866, most of London was connected to an underground sewer system designed by engineering hero Sir Joseph Bazalgette. Aboveground, beautifully appointed public pay toilets—well lighted and with mahogany seats and seven-foot-high, floor-length partitions, and in one case, goldfish in the cistern—began popping up all over the city.

Why 95.8% of Female Newscasters Have the Same Hair - Torey Van Oot, InStyle

Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, analyzed more than 400 publicity images for local broadcast journalists and found that 95.8 percent of female anchors and reporters had smooth hair. About two-thirds had short or medium-length cuts. Nearly half of the women were blond. Zero had gray hair. Just one black woman in the UT study sample wore her natural curls.

Relatedly: The Politics of Blondness, From Aphrodite to Ivanka - Amy Laccora, The Cut

Do we really ‘believe women’? How the Kavanaugh accusation will put a slogan to the test. - Monica Hesse, Washington Post

Are you willing to believe one woman if it means explicitly, definitively not believing one man? How many women’s testimonies are worth one man’s protestations? In the long list of vastly important issues facing America today, where do you place, “believing women”? Is it above or below, say, “climate change” or “upholding Citizens United”?

These aren’t meant to be leading or accusatory questions. They’re not even really about Brett Kavanaugh. They’re about what it means to develop your personal moral code when cases are deeply messy, as these types of cases often are. These questions are about forcing yourself, honestly, to imagine what standards you would be applying if the accused was from a different political party. Or if the accuser was. Or if the timing was of the accusation was different. Or, or, or.

This is a tough one. I’m not sure when the right time to have a good faith conversation like this is but it’s going to need to happen. I stress good faith because lots of people (accused men and their friends) have been making arguments about witch hunts etc. that are just meant to distract and discredit.

Inside The Most Vicious Fight on the Internet - Joseph Bernstein, Buzzfeed News

Remember what I wrote last week about the internet’s tremendous power to bring together niche communities? Here's the dumbest testament to that power you’ll see today.

You see, pit bulls are up there (down there?) with ethics in games journalism among the most toxic, most hopelessly partisan topics of discussion in the blathersphere. Every news story related to these dogs, every morsel of information about their being and their behavior, drips through a filter of pure ideology before being splattered back onto social media and a constellation of special interest sites. There is no middle ground.

How EA Sports made Shaquem Griffin look like himself in ‘Madden 19’ - Kofie Yeboah, SB Nation

Pretty cool stuff (and a bit lighter than the rest of this post).

Griffin is a special linebacker. He overcame losing his left hand at 4 years old to a prenatal condition and turned that into balling out at UCF. Behind the senior leadership of Griffin, the Knights went undefeated in 2017 and earned the right to spark a national championship debate with Alabama (they did win the SB Nation mascot championship for what it’s worth).

While Griffin was making a name of himself at UCF, he was catching the attention of an Electronic Arts Orlando office less than 20 miles away. Griffin’s stardom stood out among producer Ben Haumiller and the rest of the office.

Free Speech and Fuckery

Unpacking An Online Conundrum

This post has been (re)written multiple times over the course of the last 18 or so months. Sadly, it’s all still relevant even some of the anecdotes now feel stale. This is tricky stuff and I can’t pretend like it’s a settled issue. Hell, this is called 99% Derisible for a reason.

Here’s a fact about me: I’m a (recently joined) ACLU member and am opposed to anything that even appears like a restriction on free speech.

Now that I’ve checked my priors…

Any tool that we create today to restrict speech will inevitably be used in a way that we (I) don’t like. We can’t hope to completely eradicate the possibly of some later flirtation with anti-free speech autocracy. So the best way to guard against such abuse is to prevent the use and creation of such tools in the first place.

However, there is a good argument to be made that by using certain ugly or distasteful tools - in this case by limiting the appalling speech that might precipitate and catalyze violence - we can stop the rise anti-democratic forces preemptively. If bad actors use speech to animate violence, we must cut off their access to speech. Clutching impotently at the hem of clean-cut civil libertarian ideals only hastens the rise of those forces we want to disempower (Yascha Mounk and Sammy Koppelman discuss it early in this podcast). 

On the other, other hand, this line of thinking might just misunderstand what the internet is.

The most enduring quality of the internet since its inception has been its propensity to foster subcultures and niche groups. Online, we have everything from bronies to DSA video game reviewers to people who watch baby shark on repeat. And these are the tame ones. Online, the total addressable market for any product and the total possible community for any group is the whole world (h/t Ben Thompson). Everyone and every idea has a place and audience online. No one is alone. This is incredible! We’ve broken the 3 channel oligopoly on news media to tell the stories that would have never been covered (or never been given a fair shake) 30 years ago. We’ve enabled the creation of infinite channels across infinite spectrum, blazing a trail for unprecedented access to expression and validation. Every niche and every need can be served online without the constraints of shelf space and limited spectrum.

But the internet’s power to bring together otherwise marginalized groups is a double-edged sword by nature (much like the one Mickey Rourke tried to kill me with). The internet brings together disparate people to validate their otherwise underserved needs and views. The exact same tools that empower the trans black kid in the South who finally knows she isn’t alone gives the neo-confederate white supremacist a sympathetic ear for his bigotry. The signal-boosting power of the internet doesn’t care about whether or not *I* think something is noble. If an idea can attract attention, it will. And if an idea does attract attention it will find an audience.

We have to accept that there is no easy mechanism to allow only those people who we want to have a voice to express it. In an abstract sense, the tools and platforms themselves may be neutral but those that wield and build them are not. If it becomes acceptable to use censorship tools against people, they will eventually be used in ways you don’t like. 

We’ve let individual judgement become the sole arbiter of free speech.

Last year (when I did my first draft of this post), the internet collectively decided that Neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer would be no more. It was de-listed from Google, kicked off its cloud provider, and blocked from most of the conventional/consumer internet. That time was easy. We all agreed that the Daily Stormer was awful and best erased from the world. It won’t always be this simple. Late last year, Twitter banned Kremlin propaganda outlet Russia Today from advertising, and things go murkier. Twitter banned a media company from advertising (e.i. expressing itself), because of its politics. But maybe that’s easy when it’s Russia, so whatever. When Twitter suspended Roger Stone for using excessive profanity and making threats at journalists, we all cheered. But conservatives rightly demanded to know why Keith Olberman, who regularly does the same but is liberal, didn’t suffer the same fate. When a rogue twitter employee temporarily suspended Trump’s account as an act of protest on his or final day, it brought this brewing problem into sharp relief once again. This was an aberration caused by poor internal controls but it nevertheless illustrates a point: single private actor (be it an individual employee or the company itself) could silence the President’s primary method of communication with a keystroke. We’ve let individual judgement become the sole arbiter of free speech. We’re betting a lot that we’re making the right call and we haven’t done much to prove it.

The problem isn’t Twitter or Facebook or Google on their own.

The problem is that we have functionally ceded the public square to a few private companies. And make no mistake, the internet is speech and there is no speech without the internet (reasonable people can disagree about this). The bell cannot be un-rung. That you can still print a pamphlet is fairly worthless if you can’t post it online. This leaves us with a set of impossible choices: we can accept that certain private actors have unilateral power to restrict speech entirely (as Cloudfare did when it took down the Daily Stormer), we can restrict their ability to do so and so thrust government into a role policing speech by limiting the autonomy of those private actors, or we can create a public “cloud provider of last resort” - a government entity that will host any domain/content for anyone - and in doing have the government endorse all manner of vile, dubiously protected speech

And yet in the face of all that, we already know that unrestricted speech affects access and not indiscriminately. There’s a reason 64% of twitter users are male: women just face too much abuse on the platform. In a deeply unequal society, equality favors the status quo. Moreover, we know that de-platforming actually works. Milo (and alt-right troll) has basically disappeared since being permanently banned from Twitter. This brings us back to the dilemma at the start: what if the only way to protect speech is to restrict it selectively? The tools seem to be effective, making the choice to use them all that much harder.

There don’t appear to be any good options to fixing this. Hell, we don’t even know the scope and scale of the issue because none of these platforms open themselves up for academic study (certainly not after Cambridge Analytica) and have no incentives do run the studies themselves. Facebook doesn’t want to know its affect on radicalization

There is no real end to this blog post for me. I don’t have an answer or even an inkling of the right idea beyond my instincts towards unfettered free speech. Amidst the issue of fake news and mass shootings and white supremacy, this is the crisis of our time. I hope smarter people are thinking earnestly and honestly about this. 


Anyone who tells you its easy is either stupid, lying, or lying to themselves.

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