When did tech people get so authoritarian?
I grew up on Slashdot. We used to quote Ben Franklin at each other: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
(And like, that quote wasn’t just about tradeoffs. It was about how authoritarians would use safety as an excuse to take away freedoms, but in the end you’d end up with less freedom and less safety than before.)
Meanwhile in 2018, I saw this Onion video in the comments Hacker News: Facebook Employees Explain Struggling To Care About Company’s Unethical Practices When Gig So Cushy
Basically all of these criticisms boil down to “Facebook doesn’t censor enough” “Facebook lets people talk to each other without having a nanny review everything that was said”.
Also from yesterday: Facebook apologizes for not censoring enough. “We should have done more surveillance. We regret just letting people talk about whatever they wanted. We should have policed what people were allowed to talk about more.” – Sheryl Sandberg paraphrased. Meanwhile, comments are all like “Sorry, Facebook already fucked up by not censoring enough in the past, I’m not giving it another chance.”
Something changed in the time between Slashdot and Hacker News… but what?
I’m going to offer an alternate and somewhat unpopular take to the ones that are already filling the notes of this post.
What changed was this: the tech people got what they wanted, built systems according to the ideals they espoused… and they discovered these ideas don’t actually work. As I’m sure anyone in this post who has ever argued with dumbass Tumblr communists knows, it is much easier to have uncompromising principles when you’ve never had the power to implement them, and never seen those principles subjected to an empirical test of how well they work in the real world. The difference between 2003 and now is that the Slashdot ideals have been subjected to empirical tests… and they have failed badly.
Specifically, we now understand better that in a fully-unmoderated space, free speech dies by harassment and heckler’s veto (if the space doesn’t self-select for a particular hobby/interest/ingroup, which is
why this problem wasn’t nearly as bad on Usenet/forums as it is on
Twitter/Facebook). People in favor of moderation (or censorship) are frequently cast as “opposing free speech”, but this requires a highly particular definition of “free speech”, which rather aribitrarily excludes the speech of people driven off the platform by trolls and Gish Gallop campaigns. Don’t take my word for it; here are two takes on this from Techdirt and the Yale Law Journal, which are not anti-free-speech publications:
Obviously all the problems of censorship have not gone away. I don’t disagree with any of the notes pointing out all the downsides. But reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and you can’t just handwave away all the problems of a lack of moderation by pretending they don’t exist; though it may be annoying and difficult, and will never have the beautiful purity of anti-moderation absolutism, we need to reach a happy medium here. The shift you’re complaining about is people updating their beliefs as new information comes in.
Specifically, we now understand better that in a fully-unmoderated space, free speech dies by harassment and heckler’s veto
I call shenanigans, by which I mean: This has literally never happened so how the hell do we now “understand” this non-truth?
What actually happens is that facebook (and twitter) make their money by providing an algorithmically enhanced user experience, and if those algorithms presents some nonsense, that’s now facebook’s fault. “WHY,” cry people, “ARE YOU SHOWING ME THIS???” If facebook would just show you, in chronological order, all the content posted or shared by peopel you follow, and nothing else – acting less like a newspaper that selects which letters to show on Letters to the Editor and more like the US Postal Office and just bringing all the letters – this entire problem would go away overnight.
But then they can’t “drive engagement,” so they won’t do this.
OK, this is really “the recent content posted/shared by people you follow, in chronological order”, and my adblocker may be to thank for the “and nothing else”, but this exists and it AFAIK straightforwardly works.
The other half of making this work is unfollowing people who make repeated bad posts, even if they are people you have at points been friends with. If it’s important and you need to know it, they will probably figure out how to contact you, and a reasonable person wouldn’t blame you for unfollowing someone who kept posting dozens of dumb political memes regularly.
You can get approximately the same in twitter by turning off the quality filter.
I shouldn’t have said they “won’t do this,” I should have said “they won’t make it their default user experience,” and it’s their default UX they get pilloried for.
The US Postal Service sends a lot of Nazi material out – every time a Nazis mails another Nazi – but nobody complains because they don’t see it in their feed.