If only we’d known, say the people who knew

Writing on Twitter, co-founder Ev Williams (@ev) talks about the problem of abuse and harassment on the platform.

*And*, yes, we (Twitter) should have invested more heavily in abuse before. I think we did more in the early days than we often get credit for (and they are doing way more today). *And* I personally underestimated the looming problem during my brief tenure as CEO.

Had I been more aware of how people not like me were being treated and/or had I had a more diverse leadership team or board, we may have made it a priority sooner.

This is something you see from all the social media heads: if only we knew people were being bad on our services! But they did know. High profile publications were highlighting the problem of abuse more than ten years ago.

Here’s just one example, from the high profile news site C|Net. It describes Twitter’s “wishy-washy” approach to online abuse and compares it unfavourably to other social sites.

Either way, what Waldman calls “community management” is something that Twitter has to sort out–fast. As Twitter breaks further out of Silicon Valley culture, the service will invariably have to deal with users who cry foul over far tamer situations. Much like its famous outages, which the site finally addressed in full this week, abuse and harassment is something that Twitter can’t simply ignore.

The date stamp on the article? May 2008.

Fun with filters

The chat app SnapChat is back in the headlines after its new gender-swapping filter went viral. The filter makes boys look like girls and vice-versa, and as you can see above the results are pretty funny – although I seem to have the dubious honour of being the only person who looks older when the feminising filter is switched on. Boo!

I think it’s just a bit of daft fun, albeit horribly stereotypical in its idea of gendered appearance, but on trans forums I’ve seen a range of reactions from trans people: some like me just want to see what it does and how daft the results are, but others see what they might look like after transition – or more poignantly, what they might have looked like had they transitioned. Not everybody is in a place where they can be themselves.

Like anything else on the internet, some people have concerns about the filter – Time magazine covers the issues here.

While many acknowledged that the filter is fun, for some it’s been jarring to see their social networks manipulating their gender so casually. Others have said that they are concerned that some people are using the filter in problematic ways.

Most sensible concerns aren’t about the filters, but the way they’re being used. Some people – man people, inevitably – are using the filters to make profile pictures for dating apps. The intention is to have a laugh, and some have shared the saddeningly predictable responses they’ve received with hilarious consequences. But some people argue that what these people are doing ties into something that’s a lot darker, which is the concept of trapping.

“Trap” is a word some people use to describe trans people, primarily trans women, who don’t look trans; it’s a trope in some pornography where a man is seduced by a beautiful woman before, surprise! But out in the real world, trap is a slur associated with violence. There have been multiple occasions of very violent and sometimes fatal attacks on trans women, the perpetrators claiming the “trans panic” defence: I took her home, I didn’t realise she was trans, and when I discovered the truth I lost my mind. It’s a variation of the gay panic defence, and sadly it’s still a legal defence in many parts of the world.

As Cáel Keegan points out in the Time piece, playing around with gender is something many trans people don’t have the privilege to do in safety.

“If trans people are accused of trapping, it can be deadly,” said Keegan. “It’s a privilege to be able to play with being a different gender.”

I thought this post – which went viral on social media a few days ago – made a good point:

For trans people, transition is a lot more difficult and a lot more painful than playing with an app on a smartphone.

As one of Time’s interviewees put it:

At the end of the day, you get to just turn it off and it’s not sort of a reality for you.

Twitter: our rules don’t apply to white guys

As Twitter continues to ignore calls to ban nazis from its platform, a leak provides one explanation: fear of collateral damage. Twitter fears that if it were to ban white supremacist hate speech, that might mean banning some US republican politicians. Politicians such as, er, the President of the United States.

That fear only appears to apply if the collateral damage affects white people. According to Vice, reporting the claims of a disgruntled employee:

When a platform aggressively enforces against ISIS content, for instance, it can also flag innocent accounts as well, such as Arabic language broadcasters. Society, in general, accepts the benefit of banning ISIS for inconveniencing some others, he said.

In other words, it’s okay to have collateral damage if it affects brown people.

Twitter denies it all, of course. But Twitter is awfully slow to act on hate speech when it’s perpetrated by white guys. Founder Jack Dorsey followed a number of alt-right demagogues on the service and won’t even say if he’d have a problem with Trump posting tweets calling for the murder of journalists. Vanity Fair:

Dorsey has typically been evasive when questioned about banning white supremacists, only saying, “we’d certainly talk about it,” when asked point-blank if Trump asking his followers to murder journalists would warrant a ban.

Twitter has become a megaphone for hatred: white supremacy in particular, but bigotry of all kinds. And it does appear to operate a double standard where members of minorities can be abused in horrendous ways and then kicked off the service if they dare to answer back.

Last year, the actor Seth Rogen had a months-long conversation via Twitter direct messages with Dorsey about the problem of nazis and other white supremacists on the service. His conclusion:

I’ve been DMing with @jack about his bizarre need to verify white supremacists on his platform for the last 8 months or so, and after all the exchanges, I’ve reached a conclusion: the dude simply does not seem to give a fuck.

Sell your kids for clicks

There’s a deeply worrying article in The Guardian about the rise of child labour on the internet.

Making videos of your kids might not seem like work, but it is: as one interviewee puts it, “it’s not play if you’re making money”. Child performers are subject to laws designed to protect them from exploitation not just by employers but by their parents. Online, those laws are being evaded or avoided.

Money made online by children, and that money can be significant, goes directly to their parents, because children can’t have social media accounts on the likes of YouTube or Facebook.

We’re easily seduced by technology, and that seduction often blinds us to the distinctly old-fashioned things that technology enables: union-busting, unethical practices and “disruption” not just of industries but of the laws designed to protect individuals from rapacious employers and greedy parents alike. YouTube may be relatively new, but children being exploited by the people behind the cameras is not.

 

Like tears in the rain

MySpace, the leading social network from the pre-Facebook days, has accidentally (?) deleted more than a decade’s worth of music. Every piece of music uploaded to the platform between 2003 and 2015, some 50 million songs from 14 million artists, is gone like tears in the rain.

This is an important lesson: digital does not last forever.

We’ve seen this happen again and again with user-submitted content; some of my own music was trashed back in 2003 when MP3.com was sold and its archive effectively destroyed. Always assume that sooner or later, remotely hosted services will be sold, will shut down or will do something unspeakable to your stuff.

But content you pay for isn’t forever either.

Your Spotify subscription, your Netflix account, your Apple Music: the availability of content on these services is not infinite. Contracts and licenses expire, catalogues are pruned, accidents happen, copyright holders revoke permissions… for myriad reasons, things disappear.

Sometimes things don’t disappear, but they stop working. My PlayStation told me today that some of the games I downloaded last year on the understanding that they were mine forever would lose most of their features later this year: the servers on which these older games depend will be switched off, removing features like online play and multiplayer. The games also depend on my PlayStation Plus subscription remaining current. If I don’t keep paying that, they stop working completely.

If you bought copy-protected music or movies in the early 2000s you may be familiar with a similar problem when authorisation servers are switched off: for example, in 2008 MSN and Yahoo both turned off the copy protection servers for their music services, so any downloads you’d bought could no longer be authorised. If you changed computer, you wouldn’t be able to authorise your legally purchased music to play on it.

There’s not much you can do about subscription services changing their catalogues, but for content you create yourself or that you’ve bought rather than rented it’s a very good idea to ensure that you have a local copy of whatever lives in the cloud. And while you’re at it, make sure that copy is in a format that’s free from copy protection, in a widely supported file format and in the best possible quality.

Unexpected item in the fast lane area

I’m very cynical about driverless cars. To an extent I think they’re a solution to the wrong question: now that humans are largely a city-dwelling species (and one facing devastating climate change), the smart thing to do would be to make public transport better and more efficient. For example, I live in Glasgow: our buses pollute, and our subway system is tiny and shuts down completely every Sunday evening at 6pm.

Expanding the Subway, as in this proposal, would transform public transport in my city and make thousands, maybe millions, of car journeys unnecessary. Unfortunately doing so would also cost £5 billion, at a time when some of our city’s treasures are under threat because of maintenance costs. I’m not optimistic.

There are other ways to improve cities. Electric bikes take up considerably less room than cars do and require considerably fewer resources to make and to power: because they don’t have to hurl one and a half tons of metal around, they use a fraction of the energy electric cars do. You don’t need enormous parking spaces, or wide streets, or any of the other things we need to cater for enormous vehicles that typically contain just one person.

But underground trains and bikes aren’t sexy, and driverless cars are.

My concern isn’t just the environmental impact. It’s the tech. We can’t get wireless printers to work. We think the tech industry can make driverless cars safe?

This Twitter thread by Michael T Spooky (everybody on Twitter changes their name for October; I’m currently Carrie, Like In The Film Carrie) articulates it very well by comparing self-driving cars to the self-checkouts you find in shops.

I agree with him on this bit:

…making an automated system that’s 95% as good as a human is relatively easy and one that’s 100% as good as a human is very hard. I think it’s becoming clear that autonomous vehicles are going to turn out like this

Self-checkouts aren’t fully automated. They’re semi-automated. The tech isn’t good enough to ensure that, say, eight people can checkout simultaneously without any of the tills going in a strop. I used one yesterday that in best Trump style refused to accept the existence of biscuits.

So what happens instead is you get things mostly automated, with a human overseer. That’s fine for checkouts. It’s not so good for cars.

A driverless system that needs human supervision isn’t driverless.

Tech is invaluable in cars. From ABS to airbags, traction control to parking sensors, it makes cars safer. But I think it’s best suited to driver assistance, not driver replacement. Driverless vehicles work fine on rails – the aforementioned Subway is getting driverless trains in 2020 – or in the air (fans of driverless cars like to talk about the success of autopilot, which is of course a great technology. However, show me the autopilot that can handle Glasgow’s West End during the school run). But on the roads the challenge is almost infinitely complex and the stakes are incredibly high.

As Mr Spooky concludes:

…when you hear the “World of Tomorrow” tales about driverless cabs whisking us on couches everywhere at 120mph, please also realize that the UNKNOWN ITEM IN BAGGING AREA dystopia is a just-as-likely path.

Calling time on my Apple Watch

I’ve had all three generations of Apple Watch, but it’s time to call time on it. It is an incredibly clever device and it felt very futuristic when it first came out. But it does absolutely nothing to make my life better.

That’s not to say it can’t be useful. It can. But it’s not useful for me. The longer I have it the more things I turn off, and the more annoying I find things that didn’t used to bug me quite so much. For example, the lack of an always-on display has become intensely irritating, especially when the display doesn’t always come on when I want it to. Of all the things I want a watch to do, showing me the time straightaway is the most important thing for me. And it still doesn’t do that properly.

Siri voice control still doesn’t work reliably, and dictation is still incredibly patchy. I don’t run or swim so its fitness tracking is irrelevant. I don’t need a remote control when I’m listening to music on my iPhone. The Hue complication doesn’t do what I want it to do. I keep notifications turned off because I don’t want to be interrupted when I’m doing something else, which is most of the time. I don’t use the weather app complications any more because more often than not, they don’t update. I don’t use Apple Pay on it because paying with your wrist is stupid and it means having to tap in a PIN code every time you want to unlock the watch. It wakes me up when I’m trying to have a nap. When I travel it means Yet Another Bloody Charger, and when I go to gigs it’s Another Bloody Thing To Put Into Airplane Mode.

Also, it’s ugly. I’ve experimented with endless colours and strap colours and fabrics, but it’s still a small computer screen rather than a piece of jewellery.

I like to point out that often, technology answers a question people aren’t asking. That’s definitely the case for me and the Apple Watch. For me, it doesn’t answer the only question I have about it, which is: why am I persisting with a device I don’t particularly like any more?

Time for a Timex instead. All it does is tells the time. That’s all I want a watch to do.

 

Sympathy for the Devil

This New York Times story about the parents of Noah Pozner, who was murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre, is horrific.

In the five years since Noah Pozner was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., death threats and online harassment have forced his parents, Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner, to relocate seven times. They now live in a high-security community hundreds of miles from where their 6-year-old is buried.

“I would love to go see my son’s grave and I don’t get to do that, but we made the right decision,” Ms. De La Rosa said in a recent interview. Each time they have moved, online fabulists stalking the family have published their whereabouts.

Inevitably, Donald Trump believes that the man responsible for this horror, the snake-oil salesman and human stain Alex Jones, is “amazing“. His channels do big numbers for YouTube and Facebook.

Jones and other demons hide behind the right to free speech, which is enshrined in US law. In our social media age US law is global: the likes of Facebook and Twitter are US companies who take a US approach to the content they publish.

Whether by accident or design, that means they’ve become platforms for some of the worst people on the planet. I think it’s by design, because Facebook and Twitter do make editorial choices. Facebook won’t let you upload a photo of a woman breastfeeding. Twitter won’t let you use the name Elon Musk in your Twitter handle.

That’s beyond the pale. Holocaust denial, targeted attacking of women and minorities, inciting racial hatred, rape and death threats… that’s all fine, it seems. On Twitter, right-wing armies relentlessly attack people without consequence; the people they assault are the ones who often end up banned.

The supposed right to online free speech is starting to resemble the US right to bear arms: something that’s been perverted and used to cause untold misery. What scares me is that we’ve only scratched the surface of its malign power.

The end is neigh. Get on your bike

Not as sci-fi as transport pods, but ebikes are affordable and available now.

According to former General Motors VP Bob Lutz, as far as personal transport is concerned the car is about to go the way of the horse.

A minority of individuals may elect to have personalized modules sitting at home so they can leave their vacation stuff and the kids’ soccer gear in them. They’ll still want that convenience.

The vehicles, however, will no longer be driven by humans because in 15 to 20 years — at the latest — human-driven vehicles will be legislated off the highways.

Lutz reckons that the big names of the future won’t be car makers. They’ll be Uber, or Lyft, or whatever other high-tech, tax-dodging, anti-regulation “disruptor” gets the market. He’s probably right.

You know things are changing when Ford – Ford! – exits the mass market car business.

The company responsible for launching the modern carmaking era with Henry Ford’s assembly line will pivot away from being a full-line automaker, shrinking its passenger-car lineup and shifting only to low-volume, high-margin models.

The idea of autonomous transport modules whooshing around the place is undoubtedly appealing, but in the UK we live in a country that hasn’t got the hang of trains yet, and we’ve been running them commercially since 1812.

So you’ll understand why I’m just a little bit cynical.

I’m still not too sure about autonomous vehicles. I think they’re coming, but not as quickly as many people predict: in the shorter term electric bicycles are having a bigger impact because the technology is simpler, the benefits much more dramatic and the cost of entry much, much lower.

They’re less likely to kill you, too.

As industry observer Horace Dediu pointed out on Twitter:

For distances up to 9 km the eBike is the fastest mode of transport in urban areas. Half of Germany’s 30 million commuters travel less than 10km to work.

As the Treehugger blog notes:

In most European cities, e-bikes are faster than cars. You do not have to work as hard or get as sweaty so they work in hot environments, and you can bundle up for the ride in colder cities. New bikes are being designed that are safer and easier for older riders

I live in Glasgow, and I don’t cycle. It’s only partly because I’m lazy. It’s mainly because the roads near me are busy, the drivers are all mental and there aren’t any bike lanes. Bike lanes and e-bikes could transform cities like mine, probably more than any gleaming white hyperconnected travel pods. And for considerably less money too.

Autonomous vehicles, especially car-like ones, are still enormously resource-intensive and inefficient modes of transport. That’s not going to change in the foreseeable future.

Treehugger again:

Perhaps instead of being so obsessed with making the world safe for autonomous cars, we should be concentrating on making them safe for bikes and e-bikes; they are going to carry a lot more people a lot sooner.

I’ll take the quiet life

I’m doing something I should probably do more often: unfollowing a lot of people on social media. It’s not that they’re bad people. Quite the opposite. It’s that unfortunately good people often share bad things.

I block or filter out a lot of people on Twitter and other networks: nazis, bigots, people who point at planes, men’s rights activists, accounts sharing overly graphic images of cruelty, and arseholes of various kinds. And the reason I block them is because they post things I don’t want to see or read.

Unfortunately, many of the people I follow take screenshots of those things and post them online, thereby making me look at the very worst examples of the things I don’t want to see.

They’re doing it for good reasons, such as battling bigotry or cruelty. But they’re doing it in a way that forces me to see things I don’t want to see: the way social media works is that when they post it, it’s injected straight into my timeline whether I want it or not.

In effect, it overrides my choice. I’ve said “I don’t want to see this”, and the social network says “I’m going to show it to you anyway, again and again.”

It’s not that I want to live my life in a bubble, free from any bad news. It’s that there’s a limit to how much time you can spend staring into the abyss every day when you’ve got stuff to do. If you’re not careful on social media, the abyss follows you around all day demanding you stare into it again and again and again.