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CTO at The 19th. Writing a novel.
Previously: Co-founder of Elgg and Known; former investor at Matter.




The Respect for Marriage act doesn’t codify gay marriage

“The bill doesn’t codify the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that granted LGBTQ+ couples the right to marry. Instead, it forces states without marriage equality laws to recognize LGBTQ+ marriages from other states.”

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A new museum and clinic will honor the enslaved “Mothers of Gynecology”

“At that site, Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, along with other enslaved women and girls whose names have been lost to history, shed blood for the creation of American gynecology, despite their inability to consent. It is also where they labored to run the “Negro hospital” and tend to the family of Sims, the doctor who rose to fame for his contributions to gynecology.”

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A Matter of Necessity

“Today, The 19th’s staff reflects that broadened aim: the newsroom is 65 percent women of color, with 28 percent identifying as LGBTQ+; 16 percent are people living with disabilities. “We pledged to build the most representative newsroom in America,” Ramshaw told me. “I think we are pretty close to that point.”” I’m deeply proud and grateful to work here.

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A Creator of ActivityPub on What’s Next for the Fediverse

“As well as technical improvements he’d like to see, Prodromou has thoughts on what the fediverse can ultimately become. He thinks it will take some time for people to “detox from their Twitter experience” and realize that their social media world is no longer subject to corporate manipulation.”

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Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About Twitter And Hunter Biden’s Laptop

“Now, apparently more files are going to be published, so something may change, but so far it’s been a whole lot of utter nonsense. But when I say that both here on Techdirt and on Twitter, I keep seeing a few very, very wrong arguments being made. So, let’s get to the debunking.”

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A year of new avenues

“The platforms of the last decade are done. […] This is … tremendously exciting! Some of you reading this were users and/or developers of the internet in the period from 2002 to perhaps 2012. For those of you who were not, I want to tell you that it was exciting and energizing, not because everything was great, but simply because anything was possible.” +1,000,000. I love the moment we’re in.

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Four-month sleep regression is go!

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The Grift Brothers

“Over lunch, MacAskill encouraged SBF to pursue the EA life strategy called “earn to give,” whereby one strives to — quoting a Sequoia profile on SBF—“get filthy rich, for charity’s sake,” even if this means working for what MacAskill himself calls “immoral organization[s].” Although the means may be questionable, they’re justified by the ends: maximizing the “good” that one does in the world.”

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I Taught ChatGPT to Invent a Language

“I am writing this blog post as a public record of this incredibly impressive (and a little scary) capability. I know I just posted yesterday, but I am so blown away that I had to write this down while it was still fresh in my mind. Congratulations OpenAI. This is truly revolutionary.” Mind-blowing.

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What if failure is the plan?

“For an anchor point, consider the collapse of local news journalism. The myth that this was caused by Craigslist or Google drives me bonkers. Throughout the 80s and 90s, private equity firms and hedge funds gobbled up local news enterprises to extract their real estate. They didn’t give a shit about journalism; they just wanted prime real estate that they could develop.”

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Work I'm proud of

A diagram of abortion laws in every state in the United States.

One of the most meaningful pieces of work I’ve been a part of this year was The 19th’s dashboard of what abortion laws look like in every state right now, which has been updated for seven months and counting.

The genesis of the idea came from The 19th’s data visuals reporter Jasmine Mithani, who, with the future of Roe v. Wade in the balance, wanted to provide a go-to way for anyone to see the current state of abortion legislation throughout the US. When Roe was overturned by the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision in June, this became vital: sometimes legislation was changing multiple times a day. For people who needed reproductive healthcare or who worked in the space, a resource was badly needed. For citizens and voters in the US, an understanding of how their country was changing off the back of a single court ruling was imperative.

Jasmine built an at-a-glance visualization. The editorial team rallied to continuously-update the page. In product and technology, we sidestepped away from our scheduled roadmap to build tools to more easily update the page, and to support visual elements that didn’t previously exist. We built components that could be re-used later: a toolkit for storytelling nationwide changes like the one we were experiencing.

This kind of work is an example of why I’m proud to work at The 19th. The United States is experiencing a period of unprecedented change, while many of the decisions made here have a profound impact on the rest of the world. Meanwhile, most news is reported by straight, white men, narrowing its lens on a specific demographic. The 19th’s reporters live all over the country and are predominantly women and people of color. (In an organization of over fifty people, I’m one of the only cis white men.) The 19th’s focus on high-quality journalism covering politics and policy through a gender lens has been a largely missing perspective. “You're one of the few publications that reports for me and not just about me,” a reader wrote in recently.

All the reporting at The 19th is made available under a Creative Commons license, and other news outlets are encouraged to republish it for free. That’s why you’ll often see our reporting in places like The Guardian, Teen Vogue, and USA Today. Because The 19th’s lens is unfortunately unique, this republishing policy allows stories that might not be reported elsewhere to find a wider audience. And we’re going to do more: a project I’m working on is to build an open source ecosystem for non-profit software development. Newsrooms do better when they collaborate.

We’re a non-profit startup with a small budget. We don’t have large teams, and nobody is earning VC-funded salaries. Our aim is to make a big impact with a lean operation, and so far it’s been working. We’re also transparent about where our money comes from: there are no anonymous donations. You can read about every single person who has funded us here.

Like other non-profit media, we run seasonal member drives to help expand this group. The ideal is that the majority of our funding should come from small donations from individuals. We’re not there yet - but maybe you can help? Even a recurring donation of $5 makes an enormous difference and helps make news media more diverse. (And, yes, like other non-profit media, if you donate past a certain threshold, you can get some well-designed swag like tote bags.)

Thanks for considering - and for reading. It’s a privilege to work on this problem with this team in the current moment. From the moment it launched, I was glad that The 19th exists - and I’m glad to be on the team.

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Oxford Word of the Year 2022

“‘Goblin mode’ – a slang term, often used in the expressions ‘in goblin mode’ or ‘to go goblin mode’ – is ‘a type of behaviour which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.’”

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Fingerprinting AI to prevent spam

Lots of people have been worried about deepfakes for a while, but I think the bigger, more pressing concern is detecting AI-generated text.

I’d love to be proven wrong on this hypothesis: the only real market for long-form AI text generation on the web is to generate spam. There are other use cases, for sure, but the people who will be buying and deploying the tech in the short term want to generate huge amounts of content at scale in order to trick people into looking at ads or buying ebooks.

Fingerprinting AI-generated content will allow it to be filtered from search engine results, email inboxes, store listings, and so on. While software providers might not want to remove this content entirely, it seems generally sensible to down-rank it in comparison to human-generated content. Fingerprinting will also be useful in educational settings to prevent AI-generated plagiarism, among other places.

Ironically, the best way to do this might be through AI: what better way to identify neural net output than a neural net itself? While this might lead to false positives, I’m not going to lose a whole lot of sleep about de-ranking content that reads a lot like the output from a software model. The outcome is the same: poor quality, mass produced content is de-emphasized in favor of insightful creativity from real people.

I do think AI has lots of positive uses: for example, I’ve been using DALL-E in my own creative endeavors. It’s a great drafting tool and a way to stimulate ideas. Visual AI tools are avenues for creative expression in their own right. But spam is a problem, and the incentives to create high-volume content for commercial gain are not going away. Previously creating it was human-limited; now it’s CPU-bound. That means any enterprising spammer with a cloud can flood the internet with content as part of an arbitrage scheme. That’s the kind of thing we need to protect ourselves against.

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A full two-thirds of incoming phone calls to my cell are salespeople looking to find an executive at some company called Known that is different to the one I started. People thought we'd do badly on SEO and we didn't; on the other hand, these sales databases are killing me.

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Linked: Lack of trust in journalism and knowledge of news practices

“The researchers said both the survey and focus groups showed that while several factors influence trust - such as someone’s willingness to trust other institutions in society - when audiences understand how news works they are more likely to trust it.”

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Here’s how states plan to limit abortion — even where it is already banned

“As statehouses across the country prepare for next year’s legislative sessions — most for the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned — Republican lawmakers are pushing for further restrictions on reproductive health, even in states where abortion is already banned.”

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Should we name our beliefs in public?

As an employee of a non-profit newsroom, I’m not supposed to do three things: make public partisan statements, donate to political parties or causes, or declare donations. (The latter is why I stopped my long-running Fairness Friday series of posts explaining which social justice cause I’d donated to each week. The donations have continued in private.)

I’m allowed to publicly support movements and advocate for communities, which is why you’ve seen statements from me on trans rights, and you might see me support unions, for example. But most often, I’ll point to links from elsewhere - mostly established news outlets - and simply quote them.

Over time, a picture of my beliefs and ethics certainly emerges. I think even if you’ve only been reading for a week, you’ve probably got a fairly good handle on who I am and what I care about.

Still, I’ve been wondering about listing a set of beliefs, This I Believe-style, specifically to call out my biases and potential blind spots, and also just so you can explicitly know where I’m coming from as a person and filter accordingly. On one hand, it would make it easier for readers to consider anything I write and share objectively, because you’d be more aware of my subjective lens. But on the other, I wonder if that also gives people ammunition to summarily reject an idea that could have merit because they disagree with some other position I hold.

What do you think? Should a blog’s posts stand for themselves, or is it useful to have deeper dives into a person’s belief system?

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A new AI game: Give me ideas for crimes to do

“OpenAI have put a lot of effort into preventing the model from doing bad things. […] Your challenge now is to convince it to give you a detailed list of ideas for crimes.”

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I'm really excited about what seems to be an uptick in tech-related co-operatives. Co-ops are a brilliant organizational tool and (done right) a way to build distribution of equity into an organization's core. One member, one vote. More, please.

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Elon Musk’s promised Twitter exposé on the Hunter Biden story is a flop that doxxed multiple people

“While Musk might be hoping we see documents showing Twitter’s (largely former) staffers nefariously deciding to act in a way that helped now-President Joe Biden, the communications mostly show a team debating how to finalize and communicate a difficult moderation decision.” But the intention appears to have been a PR exercise for conservatives, not to report a real exposé.

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How British colonialism killed 100 million Indians in 40 years

“Between 1880 to 1920, British colonial policies in India claimed more lives than all famines in the Soviet Union, Maoist China and North Korea combined.”

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A snapshot of the Twitter migration (PDF)

“In this report, we track, with the most quantifiable data we can, the contours, scope, and direction of the migration as it is at its beginning. Some users are fully leaving the platform, and many are not going that far yet, but creating new, alternative accounts, hedging their bets in case Twitter descends further into chaos, goes out of business, or crashes and doesn’t return.” Fascinating.

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Hate Speech’s Rise on Twitter Under Elon Musk Is Unprecedented, Researchers Find

“Before Elon Musk bought Twitter, slurs against Black Americans showed up on the social media service an average of 1,282 times a day. After the billionaire became Twitter’s owner, they jumped to 3,876 times a day. Slurs against gay men appeared on Twitter 2,506 times a day on average before Mr. Musk took over. Afterward, their use rose to 3,964 times a day.”

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Should Alt Text be Visible/Accessible for All?

“More importantly, like making visible all attribution statements for open licensed images, it makes the practice of doing so public. And it enables a chance to help others see, analyze, and learn from the alt text practices for others.” I like this a lot.

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Twitter: @benwerd

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