Essays on Technology and Culture

Randi Harper on the Problem with Verified on Twitter

Abuse filters are a lot like anti-spam. They look for patterns in data. When I’m creating rules for filtering abuse in my own software, I look at a combination things like account date creation, if the profile pic is still the default, who the person interacts with, if that person interacts with people I’ve got blocked, who they follow, how many tweets they’ve sent, how many of their tweets are retweets versus original content, etc. It’s a huge list, and it creates a risk score. Any one or two or three of these things isn’t enough to get you caught by my anti-abuse filters, but a combination of many means I won’t have to see your tweets. As I was building out this system, many things became clear. While some mob harassment shares very distinct characteristics, this is generally limited to abuse that exists within communities on Twitter.

— The problem with Verified on Twitter

Verification is only one, small, tool out of many that needs to be in place for Twitter to protect its users from abuse. This is the sort of thing Twitter’s team would know and understand if solving abuse was a priority. Anyone who thinks being verified would be a panacea for the abuse problem on Twitter, (like a certain Mr. Calacanis) would do well to give Randi’s well-considered post a read.

Charlie Warzel – “A Honeypot for Assholes”

This maximalist approach to free speech was integral to Twitter’s rise, but quickly created the conditions for abuse. Unlike Facebook and Instagram, which have always banned content and have never positioned themselves as platforms for free speech, Twitter has made an ideology out of protecting its most objectionable users. That ethos also made it a beacon for the internet’s most vitriolic personalities, who take particular delight in abusing those who use Twitter for their jobs. This spring, the Not Just Sports podcast posted video of sports fans reading a sampling of the hateful tweets that the sportswriters Sarah Spain and Julie DiCaro received while writing and reporting. The video amassed over 3.5 million views on YouTube. Its message: This level of depravity is commonplace on Twitter.

— Charlie Warzel – “A Honeypot For Assholes”: Inside Twitter’s 10-Year Failure To Stop Harassment

Scathing. This only confirms my theory that Twitter’s apathy on abuse and harassment is baked into the company’s culture, and that the teams responsible for fixing the problem are rendered powerless because of it. I’m starting to suspect that the only solutions for Twitter’s endless harassment problem are either a new service with anti-harassment baked in from the start, or for Twitter to be bought out and its executive staff replaced.

Neither option seems likely to me.

Maciej CegÅ‚owski – The Moral Economy of Tech

We should not listen to people who promise to make Mars safe for human habitation, until we have seen them make Oakland safe for human habitation. We should be skeptical of promises to revolutionize transportation from people who can’t fix BART, or have never taken BART. And if Google offers to make us immortal, we should check first to make sure we’ll have someplace to live.

Maciej CegÅ‚owski – “The Moral Economy of Tech”

Maciej CegÅ‚owski is one of the smartest people in the tech space right now, and we are better for having him to take so much of the bullshit in the industry to task. There’s so much gold in this talk that I struggled to find just one good piece to use for the pull quote here. If you really want a TL;DR version of this, though, I’ll pull this one quote as well

What we’ve done as technologists is leave a loaded gun lying around, in the hopes that no one will ever pick it up and use it.


Please read this, and think about the world we’re creating with our technology—a world of surveillance, massive data that is both unsecured and impossible to secure, and increasing econmic inequality that can’t just be solved by “learning to code”.

Farming and the Social Web

I wonder how much better we could make online spaces if we took more cues from farmers. Because any farmer can tell you, the deer will never decide to stop being deer. It’s your job to protect your garden. Or, at least, make it inhospitable enough that the pests move on to the next one.

Derek Powazek – Today I Built a Chicken Coop

Too many people who build spaces online suffer from a blind spot on human behavior. They either are blind to the idea that some people are going to trash a public space, (see also Microsoft’s Tay bot for just the latest in a long string of examples), or they are blind to the idea that curation is necessary to a good community. It is no longer enough to just build something and wait for people to come. Online spaces need care, curation, and cultivation. Anything less is just begging for the deer to destroy your crops.

Tim Cook on the All Writs Act

The implications of the government’s demands are chilling. If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone’s device to capture their data. The government could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software to intercept your messages, access your health records or financial data, track your location, or even access your phone’s microphone or camera without your knowledge.

Tim Cook’s letter to Apple Customers

Read this. If you value you freedom, your security, and your privacy, read this.

A backdoor for the government can be used by malicious actors, both within the government and without. It can be used to spy on anyone, whether they are a suspect in a crime, a political agitator who has done nothing against the law, or even an ordinary, law-abiding citizen. A backdoor can be used to spy on ex-lovers or new flames, and existing ones already are.

That is the crux of the issue. There is no way to ensure that a backdoor will only be used by the “good guys.” It is impossible to do so. The only way to avoid this is not to have a backdoor in the first place—for anyone.