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

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benwerd

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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.

· Posts

 

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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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?

· Posts

 

Assessing the teams behind products and technologies

One of the things that makes me proud to work at The 19th is our equity lens that pervades everything we do. While it's most obvious in our reporting, it touches every aspect of the org.

I’ve been writing a technology assessment framework that we can use when we’re evaluating services, libraries, and technologies that we might want to buy or install for use at work. (This is different to the one we use for tech we may want to build ourselves.) I haven’t been able to find one out in the wild that considers ethics as part of its rubric, but I feel strongly that it’s appropriate.

As well as details you’d expect, like cost, resources needed, and timing, I’ve been considering how to evaluate the team.

These are the questions I'm asking about the team - a subset of the whole that addresses the real people you're building a relationship with when you use their products. I'd love your feedback on them. What would you ask? What am I missing?

If you’re using a similar rubric in your place of work, would you consider sharing it?

Who

Who is the team behind this technology or product?

Is it a startup, a volunteer, a non-profit, etc?

Equity

Is the team representative of the audience we seek to serve?

Has the team made statements or endorsements that might make members of our community feel unsafe? (For example, supporting a known hate group.)

Do the terms of service allow the team to work with hateful groups and do they already?

Privacy

Is the team a good steward of our community’s privacy?

Have there been any known privacy violations? (For example, misusing personal information.)

Has the team made statements or taken action that might cause us to question its commitment to privacy?

Security

How does the team ensure the product’s security?

Have there been any known security violations? (For example, leaked data or known hacks.)

Has the team made statements or taken action that might cause us to question its commitment to security?

Democracy

Has the team undermined or influenced free and fair elections in the US or elsewhere?

Has the team’s leadership endorsed erosion of democratic rights? (For example, rolling back voting or civil rights, or endorsing neo-monarchist movements.)

Sustainability

Does the team maintain a known environmental policy? (For example, does the datacenter run on renewable energy?)

Has the team made statements that deny the impact of climate change?

· Posts

 

Reading, watching, playing, using: November, 2022

This is my monthly roundup of the articles and streaming media I found interesting. Here's my list for November, 2022.

Streaming

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Absolutely batshit. I loved (almost) every minute. Weird Al is a treasure and must be kept safe at all costs.

My Spotify Top Songs 2022. Spotify is a problematic platform, but I love this every year, and spend a lot of the next year listening to the playlist of top songs it makes for me. This is my playlist for 2022.

Notable Articles

AI

Wordcraft Writers Workshop. “Because the language model underpinning Wordcraft is trained on a large amount of internet data, standard archetypes and tropes are likely more heavily represented and therefore much more likely to be generated. Allison Parrish described this as AI being inherently conservative. Because the training data is captured at a particular moment in time, and trained on language scraped from the internet, these models have a static representation of the world and no innate capacity to progress past the data’s biases, blind spots, and shortcomings.”

4.2 Gigabytes, or: How to Draw Anything. “I envisioned a massive, alien object hovering over a long-abandoned Seattle, with a burning orange sky, and buildings overgrown as nature reclaimed the city. Later that night, I spent a few hours creating the following image.” Amazing.

Business

1 in 4 hiring managers say they are less likely to move forward with Jewish applicants. “26% of hiring managers say they are less likely to move forward with Jewish applicants; the top reason for negative bias is belief Jews have too much power and control […] Respondents also wrote in a number of derogatory comments regarding how they identify an individual as Jewish. These write-in responses included: “voice,” “mannerisms,” and “they are very frugal.”” Horrifying.

Is Elon Musk a bad boss? Ask Tesla, SpaceX, Twitter workers. “But there’s plenty in the public record. Personal attacks. Union busting. A casual attitude toward factory floor injuries and other health concerns. A dismissive approach to workplace racism. And an allegation involving a horse and sexual favors.”

Legal right to request remote working to be delivered by end of the year (in Ireland). “An amendment to the bill is now expected that will allow all workers to request remote working.” In Ireland right now but expect it everywhere soon.

Venture Capital Isn’t the Problem—It’s Venture Capitalists. “Investors are more likely to place their bets on companies led by founders with elite educational backgrounds and stacked resumes, when business-related factors such as the market sector the company belongs to have a much larger effect on its financial future.”

LLY Stock Dives — Taking Novo, Sanofi With It — After Fake Twitter Account Promises Free Insulin.Honestly the fact that this led to a stock dive just makes me really sad.

Climate

COP27: Sharp rise in fossil fuel industry delegates at climate summit. “Campaign group Global Witness found more than 600 people at the talks in Egypt are linked to fossil fuels. That’s more than the combined delegations from the 10 most climate-impacted countries.”

Facing a call for climate reparations, wealthy nations propose an insurance scheme. “Advocates for loss and damage warned that insurance schemes like those promised by Global Shield are an insufficient solution to loss and damage, and they worried that such programs will distract from the demand for separate direct funding.”

Oregon tried to publicize wildfire risk. The backlash was explosive. ““A lot of people were just, you know, shocked,” Chaisson told Grist. “The big thing that people think of is, you know, the worst-case scenario, which is losing your insurance and having your property taken away.”” Obvious room for benefits for people whose homes fall in high-risk zones.

Coding

Tracking Mastodon user numbers over time with a bucket of tricks. “I’ve set up a new git scraper to track the number of users on known Mastodon instances over time.” Great little tutorial on gathering data and building a really interesting graph out of it.

Crypto

ConsenSys Under Fire for Collecting MetaMask Users’ Wallet and IP Addresses. ““When you use Infura as your default RPC provider in MetaMask, Infura will collect your IP address and your Ethereum wallet address when you send a transaction,” Consensys said.”

Stephen Diehl: Crypto is the ‘commoditisation of populist anger, gambling and crime’. “In my most empathetic reading of crypto investors, look at this country — how many young people feel that they have a chance of getting on the housing ladder? A lot of them feel that they need to invest in higher-risk assets because they need higher returns.”

Interview: Fallen crypto CEO Sam Bankman-Fried opens up about FTX, Alameda Research, and his regrets. “It was past midnight Bahamas time, where Bankman-Fried is reportedly still located, and we went back and forth on Twitter for more than an hour.” Remarkable interview.

FTX’s Balance Sheet Was Bad. “The problem was in its balance sheet, which was full of snakes, and its governance, which put all the snakes there.”

Culture

'Y'all,' that most Southern of Southernisms, is going mainstream – and it's about time. “My examples push “y’all” back 225 years before the citation in the “Oxford English Dictionary,” and they show that the word appeared first in England rather than the United States.” Wait, does this mean I can use y’all in my accent? Should I?

Books We Love. NPR’s annual list of recommended books is as extensive and as beautiful as ever.

Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction Predicted the World We Live In. “What readers, fans and scholars often note about Butler’s work is its predictive qualities: Her vision about the climate crisis, political and societal upheaval and the brutality and consequences of power hierarchies seems both sobering and prescient.” She was brilliant. And this tribute is beautifully done.

Democracy

Republicans doubled down on anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in the midterms. It wasn’t a winning platform.“According to exit polling from LGBTQ+ advocacy organization the Human Rights Campaign and data analytics firm Catalyst, voters ranked LGBTQ+ issues as low on their list of priorities for 2022. More than half (52 percent) chose inflation, and 29 percent picked abortion. Transgender health care and participation in sports came in last on the list of issues with just 5 percent.”

‘People underestimated them’: Advocates for Black women in politics want the Democratic Party to learn from the midterms. “We need early investments for these Black women candidates – Black candidates in general – but especially for Black women, who we know receive less financial contributions than a White woman or a White man running for these positions.”

John Fetterman and Social Media: How His Campaign Built a Winning Strategy. “The entire time I was running this program, I was like, “This is going to be a presidential-[campaign] level team in the content we produce and money we raise and folks who organize.” I do think it will be an example for other campaigns. I hope what we do sets an example for the upcoming presidential cycle.”

Nick Fuentes Says the Results of the 2022 Elections Prove 'Why We Need a Dictatorship'. ““When you look at these things like abortion, it’s popular,” Fuentes added. “And you can thank the Jewish media for that. Abortion is popular, sodomy is popular, being gay is popular, being a feminist is popular, sex out of wedlock is popular, contraceptives—it’s all popular. That’s not to say it’s good. That’s not to say I like that. Popular means that people support it, which they do. It sucks, and it is what it is, but that’s why we need a dictatorship. That’s unironically why we need to get rid of all that. We need to take control of the media or take control of the government and force the people to believe what we believe or force them to play by our rules and reshape the society.””

What the results of the midterms mean for women’s representation, by the numbers. “The number of women in Congress has stabilized, and next year a record-breaking number of women will serve as governor — including the first out lesbian governor in the country’s history.”

Democrats went all-in on abortion. For many, it worked. “The outcomes of these votes will drastically shape what abortion access looks like in the months and years to come.”

Progressive candidates score crucial wins in midterm elections. “With progressives growing their margins in Congress, regardless of the outcome of the remaining uncalled races, Democrats need to take note of the powerfully fought and won campaigns, driven by progressive ideals, that galvanized voters. This sends a clear message and roadmap that going into 2024 Democrats must lean into the popularity of the progressive platform, not write it off.”

Fetterman Beats Oz in Key Pennsylvania Senate Race. ““He leaned into his record as a criminal justice reformer and not away from it,” Corrigan said. “He’s brave and he was rewarded for it.””

U.S. Senate: Demings, Beasley fall short of wins in Florida and North Carolina. “It’s very disturbing that we would continue to have zero Black women senators for this next term. It’s another indicator that we are failing to be a truly democratic society.”

How Political Campaigns Use Your Phone’s Location to Target You. “Political operators have reportedly used these capabilities to target people based on church attendance, visits to specific government buildings, and as they attend political rallies. One firm even claims to have repeatedly signed up prominent campaigns wanting to target the “captive audience” in line to vote on election day, though it says it discontinued that product.”

Senator Wyden Asks State Dept. To Explain Why It’s Handing Out ‘Unfettered’ Access To Americans’ Passport Data. “The Department’s mission does include providing dozens of other government agencies with self-service access to 145 million American’s personal data. The Department has voluntarily taken on this role, and in doing so, prioritized the interests of other agencies over those of law-abiding Americans.”

Homeland Security Cops to Manufacturing Terrorists for Trump. “The Department of Homeland Security launched a failed operation that ensnared hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. protesters in what new documents show was as a sweeping, power-hungry effort before the 2020 election to bolster President Donald Trump’s spurious claims about a “terrorist organization” he accused his Democratic rivals of supporting.”

How Is Slavery Still Legal? “What’s disturbing is that not only do the “tough on crime” types believe in prison slavery, but even liberals like Gavin Newsom can’t be counted on to oppose it. But it’s up to the rest of us, those with a functioning moral compass, to work to eradicate slavery once and for all.”

Health

Eli Lilly CEO says insulin tweet flap “probably” signals need to bring down cost. ““It probably highlights that we have more work to do to bring down the cost of insulin for more people,” Ricks said of the Twitter fury.” Amazing that this is what they needed.

Labor

Tech Workers Union Local 1010. This seems good.

NewsGuild-CWA strongly condemns judge and Starbucks for seeking messages between reporters and workers. “These union-busting tactics must end, and journalists’ communications with sources must be protected. Starbucks has already committed over 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act.”

Media

Illustration.lol - Editorial illustrations from around the world. A really nice visual database of journalism illustration. Beautiful and inspiring.

How much press are you worth? “This website calculates your press value based on current reporting in America, to expose bias and to advocate for change.” I would be worth a below-average 17 stories if I went missing.

Post, the latest Twitter alternative, is betting big on micropayments for news. “Consumers have changed their behavior. They want to consume their news in their feed. And so, obviously, consumption from a feed does not work with subscription. And social media networks, with their advertising-based model, promote the worst in us because it works. I mean, the algorithms are don’t really care. They just, you know, try to achieve the engagement at any cost, right?” OK, but open, non-proprietary feed technology is available and widely used …

News Outlets Urge U.S. to Drop Charges Against Julian Assange. “In a joint open letter, The Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País said the prosecution of Mr. Assange under the Espionage Act “sets a dangerous precedent” that threatened to undermine the First Amendment and the freedom of the press. “Obtaining and disclosing sensitive information when necessary in the public interest is a core part of the daily work of journalists,” the letter said. “If that work is criminalized, our public discourse and our democracies are made significantly weaker.””

We Can't Depend on Platforms Anymore. “For a solid decade, many media operators thought they could build a sustainable business on the backs of the platforms. Those days are dying. Owned audiences are the future like they always should have been.” Spoiler alert: we never could depend on platforms.

Online mobs are now coming for student journalists. “Targeted online harassment has become a pervasive threat to newsrooms across the country. A 2019 survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that 85 percent of respondents believed their career had become less safe in the past five years and more than 70 percent said they experienced safety issues or threats as part of doing their job.”

The unbearable lightness of BuzzFeed. “In 2016, BuzzFeed stories posted on the platform had 329 million engagements; by 2018, that number had fallen to less than half. Last year, BuzzFeed posts received 29 million engagements, and this year is shaping up to be even worse.” I had no idea it had fallen so far.

Most media predicted a red wave. Here’s how The 19th got the election right. “The media missed the concerns and the motivations of many voters and failed to capture the full electorate. At The 19th, we remained focused on you.” I’m proud, as always, to work here.

Why Meta’s withdrawal from journalism will hurt local media companies. “Looking beyond LMA, any guesses on who is the largest funder of Report for America? That’s right. The Meta Journalism Project donated $6.5 million. I believe that’s a little more than 40% of the total raised to date. That means 120 reporters could go away if other funders don’t step up.” Repeat after me: don’t depend on Meta. For anything.

Farewell from Protocol. This makes me so sad. I really loved Protocol.

If You Want to Understand How Dangerous Elon Musk Is, Look Outside America. “Musk is right that the world needs a digital public square; unfortunately, he seems to have little idea that creating one involves balancing free speech against abuse, misinformation and government overreach.”

Media Companies Are Having Their Worst Year in Three Decades. “Advertising and affiliate fees are the two biggest revenue streams for most traditional media companies. Now they are both in secular decline.”

Society

What’s a Black life worth to insurance companies? “Black households were actually slightly more likely than white households to have life insurance — eight out of 10 Black households had some form of life insurance vs. seven out of 10 for whites. Yet even when incomes were similar, the median amount of life insurance coverage for white households was three times that of Black families — $150,000 vs. $50,000.”

CHARACTERISTICS - WHITE SUPREMACY CULTURE. “While white supremacy culture affects us all, harms us all, and is toxic to us all, it does not affect, harm, and violate us in the same way. White supremacy targets and violates BIPOC people and communities with the intent to destroy them directly; white supremacy targets and violates white people with a persistent invitation to collude that will inevitably destroy their humanity.”

With no child tax credit and inflation on the rise, families are slipping back into poverty. “U.S. households are having to pay between $300 to $400 more each month compared to last year because of inflation. Food insecurity is rising once again. Now, advocates are pointing to a growing body of work that shows how low-income and marginalized families relied on the program to survive.”

Finding Affordable Child Care Has Never Been Harder. “America’s child-care infrastructure was broken before the pandemic, but the past few years have pushed it to the brink. Now, as more employers expect workers back in the office, a perfect storm of day-care closures, staffing shortages, and inflation have made finding affordable child care harder than ever.”

Doctor who provided abortion care to 10-year-old fights to protect medical records. “As a physician, I never imagined that I would be in the position to engage in a legal fight to protect the rights of women and girls to not have their private medical records released for political purposes. But nonetheless, I feel strongly that this fight — the fight for physicians to compassionately provide abortion care to every single person who needs their care and their patients to access safe, legal abortion care, free from fear of criminalization — is worth waging.”

Colorado Springs shooting shares eerie parallels with 1980 anti-LGBTQ+ massacre. “This past Saturday, 42 years to the day after the West Street shooting, five were murdered and 18 wounded at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ bar in Colorado Springs. A suspect, 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich, is in custody and faces murder and hate crime charges. “These things don’t change,” Humm reflected. “I mean, the anti-gay atmosphere, anti-LGBTQ atmosphere is everywhere.””

Club Q shooting reshapes Trans Day of Remembrance for Colorado Springs community. “That the shooting took place on the evening before TDOR, a day honoring trans homicide victims, makes the tragedy even more painful, multiple advocacy groups said. They said the shooting is part of a bigger landscape of growing political attacks and harmful rhetoric aimed at trans people.”

How Stochastic Terrorism Uses Disgust to Incite Violence. “Dehumanizing and vilifying a person or group of people can provoke what scholars and law enforcement officials call stochastic terrorism, in which ideologically driven hate speech increases the likelihood that people will violently and unpredictably attack the targets of vicious claims.”

It Was a Bad Week for Billionaires With Delusions of Saving the World. “The money Mr. Bezos is now so magnanimously distributing was made through his dehumanizing labor practices, his tax avoidance, his influence peddling, his monopolistic power and other tactics that make him a cause of the problems of modern American life rather than a swashbuckling solution.”

Tech Titans Like Elon Musk Want to Save Earth by Having Tons of Children. “We are the Underground Railroad of ‘Gattaca’ babies and people who want to do genetic stuff with their kids.” Go ahead and tell me this isn’t white supremacy.

How I turned $15,000 into $1.2m during the pandemic – then lost it all. ““It’s about detachment,” my parents said in the end. “All the things in your life … you have to also be prepared to live without them.””

The Dangers of Context Collapse. “Context collapse itself is the phenomenon of highly-contextual information being used, purposefully or otherwise, in an ambiguous manner which leads to confusion.” Great post on a common rhetorical weapon.

Pasadena school becomes nation’s first named after Octavia Butler. “Everyone said, ’She’s a seer and she’s prescient, but she … just paid attention. She was always tuned into the climate crisis and doing research on that. It’s almost as if we’ve caught up with her finally.””

Military spouses bear the financial, logistical impact of frequent moves. “Manjarres, a nurse, said a lot of the household stress, including the moves, falls on her. Her husband’s high rank requires he leave for deployments regularly and for long periods of time, making it difficult for her to find employment at each of their stations, depending on the size of the military base and the needs of her growing children. Her husband missed her son’s whole first grade year, she said.”

Study on Harvard finds 43 percent of white students are legacy, athletes, related to donors or staff. “43 percent of white students admitted to Harvard University were recruited athletes, legacy students, children of faculty and staff, or on the dean’s interest list — applicants whose parents or relatives have donated to Harvard. That number drops dramatically for black, Latino and Asian American students, according to the study, with less than 16 percent each coming from those categories.” Clearly relevant in the context of revisiting affirmative action.

Startups

How to Build A Winning Paid Membership Program. “Chinese platforms have been experimenting with paid membership models for over a decade and offer new frameworks for the West to consider. They are also a great source of ideas for individual features that are universal.”

Technology

Mastodon Isn't Just A Replacement For Twitter. “The age of Big Social may be ending, as advertisers shift to platforms like TikTok and streaming video that are more like entertainment channels. For many reasons, we say: good riddance. The damage commercial social media has done to politics, relationships and the fabric of society needs undoing. As media scholar Victor Pickard suggests, “Hopefully Twitter’s collapse will lead to a more expansive conversation about the relationships between capitalist imperatives and the communication [and] information needs of democratic societies.””

Thinking about taking your computer to the repair shop? Be very afraid. “Researchers at University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recovered logs from laptops after receiving overnight repairs from 12 commercial shops. The logs showed that technicians from six of the locations had accessed personal data and that two of those shops also copied data onto a personal device. Devices belonging to females were more likely to be snooped on, and that snooping tended to seek more sensitive data, including both sexually revealing and non-sexual pictures, documents, and financial information.”

PSA: Do Not Use Services That Hate The Internet. “If posts in a social media app do not have URLs that can be linked to and viewed in an unauthenticated browser, or if there is no way to make a new post from a browser, then that program is not a part of the World Wide Web in any meaningful way. Consign that app to oblivion.”

Defederation and governance processes. “To “keep things the way they are” is always an option, never the default. Framing this option as a default position introduces a significant conservative bias — listing it as an option removes this bias and keeps a collective evolutionary.” Some great thoughts on collective decision-making that pertain directly to open source.

How to Weave the Artisan Web. “Now, why should we bring back that artisan, hand-crafted Web? Oh, I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a site that’s not run by an amoral billionaire chaos engine, or algorithmically designed to keep you doomscrolling in a state of fear and anger, or is essentially spyware for governments and/or corporations?”

The cost of your cat pictures. “Anyone who thinks that social media sites are “public spaces” is welcome to propose that Congress gives Facebook $30,000,000,000 a year to keep up that infrastructure. Otherwise, no, it’s not. That’s $30,000,000,000 a year in private money being used to buy private property.”

Amazon Is Gutting Its Voice Assistant Alexa. “By 2018, the division was already a money pit. That year, The New York Times reported that it lost roughly $5 billion. This year, an employee familiar with the hardware team said, the company is on pace to lose about $10 billion on Alexa and other devices.” The strategy depended on Alexa users paying for goods and services through the assistant - and they just didn’t.

Word Persons and Web Persons. “It’s likely that both word persons and web persons are in the minority on the modern internet. Most people would rather read short snippets of text rather than long blog posts. Most people would rather use apps than browse the web or consume content rather than write it or create their own websites always. But hopefully there will always be room for those of us who enjoy plain text and simple HTML.”

Introducing Substack Letters. I like this quite a bit. I want to do it on my blog with someone else who’s writing on their blog.

Tanya O’Carroll v Meta; Landmark case to stop Facebook spying on us. “We shouldn’t have to give up every detail of our personal lives just to connect with friends and family online. The law gives us the right to take back control over our personal data and stop Facebook surveilling and tracking us.”

Announcing the Science Eye. Here I am debating social media content policies; meanwhile very impressive people I used to work with are building this.

We Joined Mastodon. Here’s What We Learned About Privacy and Security. “If you’ve been considering signing up for Mastodon, here are some things we have been thinking about as we take the leap.”

Slocan Statement. “The following is intended as a starting point, a first draft towards establishing a shared charter that would serve to protect, support, and enrich the nascent Fediverse.” A necessary, characteristically thoughtful start from Blaine Cook.

A guide to potential liability pitfalls for people running a Mastodon instance. “This is not about just creating a Mastodon account: it’s for people who are running a Mastodon server. If you just made an account on someone else’s server, you can safely ignore this.” This is actually great advice for anyone running an online community, on Mastodon or otherwise.

I’ve been thinking a lot. “Web people can tell you the first site they ever saw, they can tell you the moment they knew: This, This Is It, I Will Do This. And they pour themselves into the web, with stories, with designs, with pictures.” This piece on web people vs startup people resonates for me, hard.

The long-awaited US broadband internet maps are here — for you to challenge. These broadband maps are an important inclusion issue - and here we’re still talking availability rather than accessibility. Right now some of the most vulnerable in society are left offline.

Mozilla Foundation releases the highly anticipated Mozilla Firefox 1.0 web browser. “Today’s announcement marks the worldwide launch of Mozilla Firefox.” 18 years ago, this saved the web.

Mysterious company with government ties plays key internet role. “Your investigative staff will collect its best evidence while users are lulled into a false sense of security afforded by web, e-mail or VOIP encryption.”

Palmer Luckey Made a VR Headset That Kills the User If They Die in the Game. “It is also, as far as I know, the first non-fiction example of a VR device that can actually kill the user. It won’t be the last.”

Signal Stories are now available on iOS and Android. “Stories are now available to everyone on Signal, allowing users of the encrypted instant messaging service to create and share images, videos, and texts that automatically expire after 24 hours.” But why?

Why is everyone leaving Twitter for Mastodon? “Mastodon feels like 2007. It’s rough around the edges, but does the job. It doesn’t work the same as Twitter. There’s no algorithm and no slick social media marketing teams targeting you. It’s a little harder to find your friends and nothing quite does what you think it will do. And I’m convinced that’s why everyone is loving it.”

Mastodon's Founder Has a Vision to Democratize Social Media. “The recent influx from Twitter, Rochko says, has been a vindication. “It is a very positive thing to find that your work is finally being appreciated and respected and more widely known,” he says. “I have been working very, very hard to push the idea that there is a better way to do social media than what the commercial companies like Twitter and Facebook allow.””

Ian Coldwater on Twitter: "Dotcom crash survivors, what is your actionable advice for people?". A great thread of advice for younger engineers in a recession, from people who survived previous tech downturns.

Mozilla Ventures: Investing in Responsible Tech. “Mozilla Ventures will be a $35M+ venture capital fund for early stage startups whose products or technologies advance one or more of the values in the Mozilla Manifesto. Privacy. Inclusion. Transparency. Accessibility. Human dignity.” YES!

Tech Policy. From the Kapor Center: “We have developed a framework for systemic change that outlines a set of nine core technology policy areas that call for expanded access to technology pathways, increased tech accountability and worker protections, and greater investment in infrastructure and innovation.”

Twitter

Twitter Thrills Far-Right Trolls by Silencing Left-Wing Voices. “Twitter was a place where communities could gather, despite harassment, because the worst hate speech was banned through content moderation. “Musk has made it clear that’s no longer part of the product,” Loder said. “The entire Twitter information security community has moved to Mastodon.” Some activists who helped create Black Twitter are already talking about how to rebuild their community on that site too.”

Bye, Twitter. “Speaking as a random was-successful-on-Twitter person, I can see no good arguments for redirecting my voice into anyone else’s for-profit venture-funded algorithm-driven engagement-maximizing wet dream.”

Twitter Blesses Extremists With Paid 'Blue Checks'. “Hatewatch’s investigation of extremists’ use of Twitter Blue, based in part on a third-party public list of paid blue-check accounts, found that white nationalists, anti-LGBTQ extremists and other far-right individuals and groups now sport what was once a symbol of credibility on the platform.”

I told my team to pause our $750K/month Twitter ads budget last week. “I’ve seen a lot of technical and ideological takes on Elon Twitter but wanted to share the marketing perspective. For background I’m a director at a medium sized b2b tech company (not in finserv anymore) running a team that deploys about $80M in ad spend/year.”

CBS News Pauses Twitter Posts 'In Light of Uncertainty' Over Platform. “In light of the uncertainty around Twitter and out of an abundance of caution, CBS News is pausing its activity on the social media site as it continues to monitor the platform.”

Twitter Architecture, annotated on Miro. A whiteboard diagram of Twitter’s architecture from a photo taken by Elon Musk, annotated by Justin Hendrix, Luke Dubois and Mark Hansen. Fascinating!

There Is No Replacement for Black Twitter. “One former Twitter employee I spoke with described this next phase in grim terms: It’s “the end of Black Twitter and Black people at Twitter.”” And so far, the replacements don’t come close.

Twitter as representation of the relevance and value of “Word People” in oral culture. “It’s interesting to divide the internet into Word People and Image People because the Internet is a modern evolution of oral culture — and technological/bandwidth limitations have enabled text to serve as the leading means to transfer information online up till now.”

The lost thread. “The speed with which Twitter recedes in your mind will shock you. Like a demon from a folktale, the kind that only gains power when you invite it into your home, the platform melts like mist when that invitation is rescinded.”

What’s Twitter’s Future? The Former Head of Trust And Safety Weighs In . “It was for this reason that I chose to leave the company: A Twitter whose policies are defined by edict has little need for a trust and safety function dedicated to its principled development.”

Inside Elon Musk’s Takeover of Twitter. “Twitter executives also suggested assessing the lists for diversity and inclusion issues so the cuts would not hit people of color disproportionately and to avoid legal trouble. Mr. Musk’s team brushed aside the suggestion, two people said.”

Elon Musk addresses advertisers and asks them to keep using Twitter. “Musk’s expansive plans for Twitter include adding financial products to the mix. It could begin, he said, with Twitter allowing users to pay each other through the platform, with the company setting up each user with an initial gift of $10 to test it out. Over time, Musk added, Twitter will offer the ability for users to transfer money out of its system to third-party banks — and then to market its own banking services.” Called it.

Hope for a post-Musk net. “What institutions need we create now, in this new reality? Note that I did not say what new technologies. We have lots of technologies; more than enough, thank you. What we need are human standards, norms, and means to discover and support quality and credibility, talent and utility.”

Twitter Now Asks Some Fired Workers to Please Come Back. “Some of those who are being asked to return were laid off by mistake, according to two people familiar with the moves. Others were let go before management realized that their work and experience may be necessary to build the new features Musk envisions, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing private information.”

The addictive nature of Twitter. “Pretending Twitter is the answer to gaining respect for and engagement with my work is an addict’s excuse that removes responsibility from myself.”

Writing

Don't Just Create One Big Story, Build a Mosaic of Tiny Stories! “I often find a really good story is made up of a ton of smaller stories, like building blocks or facets, which enrich the whole by adding more random choices and disasters and discoveries that people made a long time ago. How do you go about doing this? Just look at any object or building or artifact in your world and ask yourself, “How did it get to be the way it is now?” And then pick the answer that seems the most interesting and fertile.”

Ray Bradbury on feeding your creativity. “He said that nothing is lost and you must resist the urge to throw out things that meant so much to you when you were younger. What is most important, he writes, is “the continual running after loves.””

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Transphobia in open source

A major developer of open source social networking software has a rather public statement about his opposition to “trans ideology” on his website. I won’t link to the statement, but I want to make my stance clear.

There is no such thing as “trans ideology,” which, as a phrase, reminds me of people talking about “the gay agenda” decades ago. It doesn’t exist. Trans people are not a threat. They are a marginalized, vulnerable group that is often denied fundamental human rights and that is currently being vilified by certain politicians and corners of the press. Transphobia is rife, unfair, and dangerous to this community. Like all bigotry, it’s also harmful and unpleasant to be around.

Trans men are men. Trans women are women. It is not a choice.

Open source software is built as (or, at least, should be built as) a community. While a person’s beliefs should be irrelevant to their ability to build software, they are not unrelated to how they show up in a community and how safe people feel communicating with them. It is essential to use an equity lens to build open source communities, ensuring they are open - structurally and emotionally - to contributions from vulnerable and underrepresented people.

A person’s politics and beliefs are their own until they choose to make them public. I would rather prioritize making the communities I am a part of more equitable, so I will not knowingly work with someone who has publicly expressed transphobic views, just as I won’t work with someone who has voiced racism, homophobia, or sexism. While these forms of bigotry don’t directly impact me because of the disproportionate power white, cisgender men like myself have in society, they certainly affect the people around me. My actions matter, particularly as I have more choices than more vulnerable people.

Some have painted acceptance of transgender people as opposed to acceptance of people with religious beliefs. It is not. It’s perfectly possible to be a Christian, for example, and to be open and inclusive to all people. I’m delighted to know many such Christians, Muslims, Jews, and people of all faiths. This supposed dichotomy is widespread and worth calling out: it’s fake and is often used as a cover for intolerance that has nothing inherently to do with religion. By helping to make communities I’m a part of open to trans people, I am not closing them to any other group other than the intolerant.

This is not simply a matter of opposing views. It’s a matter of accepting people for who they are and providing safe communities where they can do good work. There’s nothing abstract about it and it’s not a political debate.

Lastly, these statements are sometimes derisively described as “virtue signaling.” In some ways, that’s true. What I’m trying to say to my trans friends is simply this: you’re safe with me, and I care about you. I think that’s worth signaling.

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The fediverse and the indieweb

I love the indieweb and what it stands for:

When you post something on the web, it should belong to you, not a corporation. Too many companies have gone out of business and lost all of their users’ data. By joining the IndieWeb, your content stays yours and in your control.

This principle is absolutely true, but on a deeper level, I’m also uncomfortable with the level of wealth hoarding and rent seeking on the modern internet. There’s no need for us all to be pouring our conversations, identities, and data into someone’s multi-billion-dollar for-profit enterprise. By owning it ourselves, we’re decentralizing the value created. While it’s not necessarily an anti-capitalist stance, it’s certainly an anti-monopoly one.

I didn’t start Known to be an indieweb platform: I initially built it, back when it was called Idno, to be a simple way to start a private community on your own terms. My intention was always to add decentralization to these communities, and I was enamored by the vision of the indieweb when I met members of the community and saw what they were building. Turning it into a way for a single person to post using the indieweb just made sense to me, and that’s how a lot of people use it - including me on my own website.

The best way to drive adoption for a web standard is to make it as easy as possible to build with. Any good web technology should be implementable inside of an afternoon, so that a casual hacker can feel like they’ve made good progress. (Too many technologies are built to be used at Facebook scale, which is needless.) HTML works this way; so does RSS. And the indieweb technologies - microformats to add machine-readable meaning to content, micropub to provide a standard way to publish, and webmention as a mechanism for decentralized replies chiefly among them - all follow this rule too. They’re easy, fault-tolerant, and are built using a very similar mindset to the web itself. I love them.

Lately I’ve been drawn into the fediverse through Mastodon - you can follow me at @ben@werd.social. The underlying technology behind the fediverse, ActivityPub, at first glance seems a little harder to implement. In fact, I was a little scared of it, because it requires a mix of light cryptography and a handful of less HTML-like document standards that seem easy to get wrong. But dig a little deeper and it’s not particularly difficult to get started with, with huge reward: connecting to a network of millions of people who are all actively having conversations.

So I’m newly-invested in implementing ActivityPub and building end-user tools that join the network. I’m excited to build things that people can use to, in turn, build something new. There are a ton of opportunities here: we’re in a particular moment where the fediverse looks like it could be the future, and the more tools and onramps we build, the more likely that becomes. That fits directly into those indieweb principles of owning your own content, and my additive principles of devolving wealth and ownership.

Luckily, it’s not a zero-sum game. I can still keep and maintain my indieweb implementations and participate in its network of blogs and personal sites, while also adding ActivityPub and widening my lens to the fediverse’s interlocking communities. I get to own my content and online identity, which means I get to choose who and what I interact with.

I have one exception. One of the indieweb’s oldest ideas, Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere, is something I plan to retire in my own use. The idea is that you publish on your own site but then mirror that content to a third-party silo like Twitter, ideally with a link back to your site. But with the growth of the fediverse, I’d like to be done with doing that. I’ve already stopped publishing to Twitter, and I think Instagram and Facebook will quickly follow suit. Right now my only real syndication is to LinkedIn, and I don’t know that I want to make that network exactly central to my existence online.

So instead of Publishing on my Own Site and Syndicating Elsewhere, I plan to just Publish and Participate. I want my site to connect to the indieweb; to the fediverse; to people who are connecting via RSS; to people who are connecting via email. No more syndication to third parties. My own website sits in the center of my online identity, using open standards to communicate with outside communities.

That principle wasn’t possible when I started building Known, and I’m excited that it is now. I’m late to the party: micro.blog, for example, does this already. But better late than never. Let’s participate and embrace every open network out there - and do what we came to do, which is publish, reply, converse, and learn from each other. I can’t wait.

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Support our work

Speaking of The 19th:

The 19th is a non-profit newsroom that reports at the intersection of gender, politics, and policy. We were one of the only newsrooms to call this election correctly - because we listened to women and people of color.

Some pieces we’ve published include a dashboard exploring abortion legislation in the post-Roe world, coverage of nursing shortages, and an exploration of whether women will qualify for the draft.

We need your help. This Giving Tuesday, please consider donating to support our inclusive newsroom and help us keep reporting. Even a little bit helps. Thank you.

By the way, how cool is this preview image? Rena Li is a genius.

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Doing management training today

I’m doing management training today with all the other managers at The 19th. We're spending a lot of time considering how to be an anti-racist leader, which I'm finding tremendously valuable. I’m very glad to be doing this, and I’m glad for techniques and tactics to actively work towards equity.

I will never work for an organization whose leaders are not invested in DEI or consider it to be a hindrance. It says so much about what they care about and who will benefit from their work. I won’t link to them here, but there have been lots of examples lately of leaders complaining about movements for equality. I find it mind-blowing: the reddest of red flags.

I’m really glad to be working here. Equity should be distributed, not hoarded. And I’m grateful to listen and learn how to do this more effectively.

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Thankful

My favorite thing about Thanksgiving is the admittedly slightly hokey tradition of going around the table and saying what you’re thankful for. There’s a lot to be skeptical about - this is a holiday that celebrates colonization and the eradication of entire nations - but this one act, bringing gratitude front and center, is good.

As I write this, I want to acknowledge that my baby and I have directly benefited from the occupation of Ohlone, Wampanoag, Lenape, and Latgawa lands - and indirectly for the occupation of North America as a whole.

I have a lot to be thankful about.

This year, I’m thankful for my baby: his sly grins and the sense of humor I can already see develop give me life. He is responsible for my permanent state of absolute sleep deprivation, but also, far more importantly, for so much fun and purpose.

I’m thankful for my family and friends: my allies.

I’m thankful for all the wonderful people in my life who embody kindness, empathy, wisdom, mentorship, and knowledge.

I’m thankful that I live in a context of peace and democracy - however imperfect it might be, I did not wake up in fear of my life this morning, unlike so many other people today.

I’m thankful for my job: it’s a big deal to have found a place to do meaningful work that also happens to be full of empathetic, lovely people who genuinely care about the world and about each other. I’m thankful that it gives me space to be a three-dimensional human.

I’m thankful for the internet, and for the web. The real web, that is: the one that operates as a commons with no central ownership and is a bedrock for us all to build on, for all the definitions of building.

I’m thankful for everyone who is working towards a kinder, more equal world, even when so much is aligned around individualism over community, profit over equity, and exclusivity over inclusion. It’s often rough, thankless work, but it makes the world so much better - and it gives me hope that the world my baby grows up to inhabit might not be terrible after all.

I’m thankful to have health. I’m thankful for healthcare: for vaccines, for the miracle of transplantation, for genetic therapies, for mental health support, for ICUs and children’s ERs. I’m thankful for all the scientific research and testing that makes all of this possible.

I’m thankful you’re here. I’m thankful we’re all here, together, not just surviving but building something better.

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Socratic blogging

I like Substack’s emphasis on letters between publications: a way to have an in-depth conversation between two bloggers who have a different point of view on a different topic. It reminds me a little of CJR’s Galley site, which hosted some interesting conversations.

But of course, you don’t need Substack or to be in CJR’s circle to create a conversation in this way. All you need is to have a counterpart writer, a blog or a newsletter each, and a willingness to correspond over thoughtful, long-form posts on a single topic for around three posts each.

If you want to get technical, you can even use microformats u-in-reply-to syntax and webmentions to conversationally glue the blog posts together. But the most important thing is to write and explore an idea.

It’s a lovely way to dive deep into a contentious topic, and I’d love to see more of it.

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Moderation on Mastodon: there's a lot of work to do

I’ve realized that I need to temper my enthusiasm for Mastodon. I worked on open source social networking platforms for a full decade of my life, and I’m very emotionally attached to this moment. I really want the fediverse to work.

I come by it honestly: I do think that a collectively-owned platform based on open protocols and an ecosystem of compatible tools - a social commons - is both more ethical and more resilient than a platform that is owned and run by a giant corporation with thousands of employees, shareholder obligations, and valuation requirements.

But my emotional involvement has led to me finding myself wanting to be reflexively defensive about its shortcomings, and this serves nobody. I’m enthusiastic about it, but many of the problems that people are bringing up are legitimate worries - and some of them may be showstoppers if they aren’t dealt with quickly.

I’m particularly concerned with moderation. In the fediverse, every server has a different set of content policies and a different team of moderators. Theoretically, this is good: people with specific needs or from vulnerable communities can find themselves posting from a more supportive context than they might find on monolithic social media. Field-specific instances, for example in genetics, can establish content policies relating to scientific accuracy that couldn’t possibly be enforceable on a monolithic site. But at the same time, this patchwork of content policies mean that moderation can be arbitrary and hard to understand.

Journalist Erica Ifill woke up this morning to find that she’d been banned from her Mastodon instance for no obvious reason. Block Party founder Tracy Chou’s content was removed from the largest instance on the grounds that criticizing patriarchy was sexism. In both cases, the action was reversed with an apology, but harm was done. An understanding of power imbalances is an important part of being a content moderator, but while software is provided to technically moderate, there are very few ecosystem resources to explain how to approach this from a human perspective. Open source software can sometimes fall into the trap of confusing code for policy, and Mastodon is no exception.

And then there’s the harassment. As caroline sinders wrote:

The blocking feature is like horror house anxiety game- I block when I see their new account, hoping I’ve now blocked all of them but knowing I probably never will. Because it’s a federated system, and you can have accounts on multiple servers, it means there’s multiple accounts I have to block to create some digital safety and distance.

All this turns the selection of an instance when you join the network into a high-stakes choice. Does the instance have the technical resources to stay online? Does it have the social resources and insight to moderate effectively? By what rules? What are the spoken and unspoken beliefs of its owners that might affect how you post and who you can reach?

Which isn’t to say that commercial services don’t have the same problem. Clearly, they do, as can clearly be illustrated by the change in content policies at Twitter under Elon Musk compared to its previous management. Not only are content policies on commercial services notoriously imperfect, but moderation there is often undertaken by low-paid workers who frequently experience PTSD.

With a commercial service, though, you’re dealing with one service provider, rather than a patchwork, and the choice is more binary: you can take it or leave it. The fediverse gives its participants more choice, and there’s correspondingly more nuance to the decisions a user must make.

It’s unwise to dismiss these issues. They disproportionately affect people from more vulnerable communities who are more likely to experience harassment, both from admins and from other users. At their worst, they can represent real threats to physical safety; at best, they make the platform hard to trust for someone trying to use it as a basis for sharing and discussion. Mastodon has been the home for some queer communities for some time, but it’s notable that women and people of color have often had a bad experience.

I think the fediverse needs some real investment in online safety beyond what’s been done so far. Incremental approaches are probably the most feasible, rather than trying to get to the perfect thing more quickly.

Here are some suggestions as a subset of what might be useful:

A free course for moderators, with certification. Take the course - which should stress inclusion and power dynamics - in your own time. Then get a verified certification that admins can place on their Mastodon profiles. New Mastodon users could search for instances that have trained admins. Mastodon instances could actively solicit participation from potential moderators who have passed the course. (Perhaps there could be levels: for example, basic, intermediate, and advanced.)

Search that highlights moderators. The identities and beliefs of an instance’s moderators are so important that they should be placed front and center when selecting a new instance. In one recent example, I’m aware of a journalist picking an instance only to discover that its owner was notoriously transphobic. Some users might prefer instances run by women or people of color.

Standardized content policies. Content policies that can be built using pre-defined blocks, in the same way that Creative Commons licenses can be chosen based on your needs. These could be advertised in a machine-readable way, so that new users can more easily search for instances that meet their needs. Better user interfaces could be built around selection, like a wizard that asks the new user about themselves and what they care about.

Instance ratings. Right now an instance is often defederated by other instances for bad behavior, but there’s no equivalent for new users. Reviews on instances could help users pick the right one.

Shared, themed blocklists. Shared blocklists for both users and instances would make the process of removing harmful content far easier for admins. Here, if my instance blocked another instance for hosting racist content, every other instance subscribed to my racism blocklist would also block that instance.) Similarly, if I blocked a user for racism, every other user subscribed to my racism blocklist would block them too. The reverse would be true if they blocked an instance or a user, too.

These are some ideas, but experts who have worked in harassment and user security would likely have others. These are skills that are badly in demand.

Please don’t mistake this post: I’m very bullish on the fediverse. I’d love for you to follow me at https://werd.social/@ben. But particularly for those of us who have been waiting for this moment for a very long time, it’s important that we temper our excitement with an understanding of the work that still needs to happen, and that there’s much to do if we’re to create a network that is welcoming to everyone.

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Tweet you again someday

I’ve locked down my Twitter account and removed syndication to the platform. I won’t be posting there regularly. A lot would need to change for me to meaningfully return.

You can still find me in plenty of places, which are listed on my homepage. I’m actively posting to Mastodon quite a bit these days, so that might be your best bet, but I’ll also be sharing on LinkedIn.

Let’s stay in touch.

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What is a globalist?

A word I’ve seen used frequently by people across the political spectrum, particularly since Trump’s election in 2016, is globalism. At first, I understood it to be a kind of alternative to nationalism: thinking on a global scale rather than prioritizing your own nation first. But the more I saw it used - to encompass exploitation of the global south, for example - the more I realized I didn’t fully understand it.

It turns out to be an overloaded term: there are a few different kinds and definitions of globalism. Understanding the distinctions helped me, and I hope they help you, too.

It’s worth saying: I program computers for a living. I’m not an economist or a sociologist. I welcome corrections and comments from more informed readers.

Imperialist globalism

America was very concerned about Soviet expansion after WWII. At the time, the diplomat George Kennan, who heavily influenced the Truman doctrine of involving the US in containing the Soviet Union, said:

[W]e have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. […] Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.

So read through this lens, American globalism was originally a project to maintain American wealth, potentially at the expense of other nations. This is often called visionary globalism, but I hope you’ll agree that imperialist globalism is a more apt name.

Vincent Bevins’s brilliant book The Jakarta Method describes some of the methods the US employed (and employs) to try and maintain this power. It’s easily the best non-fiction book I read this year.

Market globalism

Market globalism is interested in establishing relationships between nations to create a consumerist world rooted in free markets. In market globalism, nations’ economies are integrated and interdependent, with consumer-oriented trade as the goal.

It’s a neoliberal vision of the world: one where market solutions are better than socially-oriented, community-based ones. Here, capitalism and small government are the order of the day and actively promoted in the structure of (for example) aid packages and treaties. The vision does not consider equality or quality of life, except within the ideological (and highly debatable) claim that free markets naturally lead to these things.

Justice globalism

In contrast, justice globalism prioritizes establishing fundamental human rights around the world, rooted in democracy, principles of equality and dignity, and international law.

Justice globalists claim universal principles applicable to all societies irrespective of religion or ideology. This view privileges human rights, democracy, and the rule of law as incontrovertible global goods. In bringing all persons under the rule of international laws enforced through national or international courts, the cause of global justice is advanced. Conversely, exceptions to the rule of law weaken justice and undermine global order.”

This is highly related to the global justice movement, which seeks to establish a more equal distribution of resources worldwide. The global justice movement is less concerned with international law, so the two things can’t be considered entirely equivalent.

(If you’re wondering: of all the ideologies on the list, this is the only one that resonates with me. I identify as a justice globalist.)

Religious globalism

From Oxford University Press: “Religious globalisms strive for a global religious community with superiority over secular structures.”

New World Order globalism

There’s a reason the term has become more common post-2016. In right-wing movements lies the idea that there’s a “global cabal of elites” who seek to control the world.

It’s a dog-whistle:

[It] recalls one of the most widespread anti-Semitic stereotypes: that a Jewish cabal secretly controls the world from behind the scenes. It’s a smear popularized by “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a turn-of-the-20th-century anti-Semitic Russian forgery purporting to detail how Jews will use socialism, international institutions and control of the media to take over the world.

After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union last year, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke called it a victory over the “Jewish globalist agenda.” “Jewish globalists” are likewise a favored topic of The Daily Stormer, an anti-Semitic site.

From Donald Trump to Viktor Orban, this rhetoric has been used as a thinly-veiled reference to Jews in an attempt to rile up a racist base. It’s notable that the examples of individuals who are a part of this supposed cabal - for example, the hedge fund manager George Soros - are Jewish.

A note about globalization vs globalism

Globalization can be defined as the rate of expansion of globalism. So whereas globalism is the thing, globalization is the process of getting to the thing.

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Join us at our free Future of the Workforce event in Austin tomorrow

I’m in Austin for The 19th’s Future of the Workforce event at the South Congress Hotel tomorrow. It’s free to attend in person, and I’d love to see you there! And if you’re further afield, you can still register to watch online.

From the event page:

Are the shifting norms of the last few years here to stay — or will large businesses continue to push for a return to pre-pandemic “normal?” How can business leaders balance economic growth and emerging technologies with the rights and needs of workers? The 19th is gathering business and policy leaders who think deeply about labor to discuss the future of the workforce.

It’s going to be a great event. Please join us.

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En route to Austin

I’m on an early flight to Austin for a really interesting work week: meeting The 19th’s board, attending and supporting our Future of the Workforce event, working on strategy with the leadership team, and building process with the product team. I’m hopeful that I’ll get to eat some tacos and spend some time walking around in between, but it’s a pretty full-on agenda.

It’s the first time I’ve left my son, and I’m not feeling great about that. I know he’s doing fine and will be well looked-after, but I can’t help but miss and worry about him.

I don’t like flying, and this is a really uncomfortable flight. I wish we had high speed rail. There are people who brag about being in the air all the time and that they have status; I think we’re long past the point where this is something to be proud of. I feel a bit ashamed whenever I board a plane, and honestly, I kind of think I should.

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The fediverse is happening. Here's how to take part

As Evan says, this is happening. The fediverse is growing much faster than any centralized social network, and you’re going to want to be involved.

I’ve been trying to explain what the fediverse actually is in a few different contexts. One thing that’s revealed to me is that there’s a whole generation of internet users whose entire model of how things work is based on the centralized, VC-funded service model. For them, a service is tied to a domain name and run by a company, and that’s it - even though they likely use email every day. It’s a surprising (to me) way that the prevailing business models for the web have changed the conversation.

So, here’s my attempt to explain it - and why you need to take part.

TLDR version

Everyone’s joining a new social network that is run as a commons instead of as a private company. Nobody can buy it or own it. And it’s growing very quickly.

Sign up using any server that fits with your own location and values and you can talk to anyone across the network, regardless of which server they use.

If you want, grab an app for your mobile device, and you’re good to go.

What is the fediverse?

Like Twitter or Facebook, the fediverse is a way to connect with people and have conversations with them on the web. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, nobody owns it, and it doesn’t have any central point. It’s like the web itself: anyone can run a website using any hosting provider, and then anyone with a web browser can access it. But instead of being a collection of pages, it’s conversations. Anyone can have a conversation using any fediverse provider, and anyone with fediverse software can access it and take part.

That also means there’s no business model; no ads; and no billionaire acquirer who can ruin it. It’s communally owned and maintained as a commons, like the web. (Technically it works using an open protocol called ActivityPub, but unless you’re a developer you don’t need to worry about that.)

Lots of different software can access the fediverse. The most popular right now is something called Mastodon.

How can I take part?

To be a part of the fediverse, you need to make an account and a profile on any fediverse-compatible service.

Lots of people run Mastodon instances. You can converse with anyone on the fediverse using them, but each one has its own rules and policies about what you can post if you create a fediverse account using it. For example, newsie.social is for people in journalism; mastodon.lol describes itself as “a community friendly towards anti-fascists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, hackers, and the like.” You’re likely to be booted off if you have conversations that go against the ethos of the server.

Anyone can install their own - either with their own technical server knowledge or using a hosting provider like masto.host. I maintain werd.social just for me. A lot of news organizations - and even the German government - run their own closed sites. When an account is hosted on a closed site for an organization, you can be sure that the user really is a member of that organization; it’s like verification on Twitter, back when verification meant something, but any organization can do it.

It’s all free, but it’s always a good idea to contribute to the instance’s server costs if you can. After all, there aren’t any venture capitalists with deep pockets, people buying ads, or surveillance capitalism business models paying for it all.

How can I find my friends?

If you’re moving from Twitter, it’s a good idea to stick your fediverse username in your profile. Mine is @ben@werd.social. Then there are a few different tools that let you find your Twitter friends’ new Mastodon accounts:

Fedifinder will scrape your followed users, your followers, and your lists for fediverse handles, and then export them in a format that you can import straight into Mastodon. Debirdify also does the same thing. Twitodon needs both parties to actually be registered with Twitodon itself to work.

What about finding interesting conversations?

The fediverse doesn’t have universal search. At some point, this will probably change: this is one place where someone is likely to find an opening for a VC-funded service, for better or worse. For now, you can find topics you’re interested in through hashtags.

Mastodon also has the concept of the content warning (“CW”), which you can think of as a wrapper around posts. If you’re posting something that you think others might not want to read, you can wrap it in a CW. So when you search for conversations attached to a hashtag, you might see a lot of CWs. There’s an easy setting in Mastodon to automatically open content wrapped in these warnings - if you don’t have triggers for certain topics, it’s a no-brainer to turn this on.

So is this just like Twitter?

No. It’s its own space with its own norms and forms. It’s far more flexible than Twitter, but also more welcoming in some important ways: communities tend to be more inclusive and considerate around things like alternative text on images for the visually impaired. It certainly also has its problems.

It’s undeniably true that it’s got rougher edges. This is an open source, decentralized space, with software that’s largely been written by volunteers. That’s how the web and email both got started; the software, and community norms on the fediverse itself, will both evolve over time. The exciting thing is that we all get to get involved and help it grow and change.

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On Twitter DMs

In my Twitter security post I mentioned that you should delete DMs. Ted Han pointed out to me that you can only delete them from your own inbox: the other party can still see them, and they’re consequently still available on Twitter’s infrastructure. It may still be worth deleting them, but only to prevent someone from finding them if they break into your account.

A good idea going forward, though, is not to use DMs and go to another platform. For example, Signal is a great solution for encrypted messaging.

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Security on Twitter

Yesterday I sent a memo to all staff advising them on the situation at Twitter and how it pertains to their own security. I thought it might be useful to share a version of this information with you, too.

Twitter’s Chief Information Security Officer, Chief Privacy Officer, and Chief Compliance Officer all quit on Wednesday night. One can reasonably infer that the team at Twitter is being asked to do things that these people were not comfortable with, and given their roles, it’s reasonable to consider Twitter to be insecure going forward.

At the same time, it’s still where a lot of people find community and reach. You might not want to leave it right now. Here, then, are some suggestions about how to stay safe while remaining on the platform.

Enable non-phone two-factor authentication. Twitter allows you to log in with two-factor auth. Using your phone number leaves you open to having that number leaked - or used for other purposes by the company - in the future. I always recommend using an authentication app. Authy is a good stand-alone app, but this functionality is also built into password managers like 1Password.

Remove your credit card number. If you’ve bought ads, remove your payment details from the system. We know that credit card numbers are stored insecurely on the platform.

Remove sensitive DMs. DMs on Twitter are not encrypted. They could be leaked or mined by the company for other purposes.

Use a password manager to generate your password. Don't try and use a password you've invented yourself. And don't share this password with any other system: it’s just for Twitter.

Use a canary email address, if you can. All Google-powered email addresses can have arbitrary labels added to them using a +. For example, the address ben+twitter@werd.io will still get to me - but if I use that label on my email address in my Twitter account, I'll know my account has been compromised when other entities start using it.

Post via the web or using a third-party app. We know that Twitter tracks very detailed location information from its app users. Web browsers keep you safe, so posting via the web does not carry the same risk.

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Publishing for the privileged

Two service updates I’m interested in:

Substack has introduced a “bestseller” badge for its top-selling newsletters, as a sign of quality. Newsletters on Substack don’t need to have paid tiers, but this badge is only given out to newsletters that have a lot of paid subscribers. The implication is that non-paid newsletters will experience FOMO - and potentially a drop in new subscribers because they don’t have the badge - and try to climb the ladder. It’s the first time that Substack, to my knowledge, has tied quality visibly to revenue.

Twitter has started selling its blue “verified” badge for $8 a month, replacing the previous system that gave badges to notable individuals in order to protect them from impersonation and abuse. Twitter will also demote tweets from non-verified users, treating them like “email spam”, effectively meaning that you’ll need to pay a minimum of $96 a year to get reach on the platform. Again, this ties revenue to quality: the only people worth being heard, according to Twitter’s new leadership, are people with money. Notably, the feature is only available on iOS in the “US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK”, which fundamentally limits the global inclusivity, and therefore the value, of the platform. It’s an odd choice. Based on precedent from Musk, I expect it to be partially rolled-back on a whim, but it’s here for now.

The danger with both plans is that only people with money can be heard. A Substack newsletter by someone with no existing following is unlikely to make it into the bestsellers list; therefore, people who already have privilege and power will find it cemented by the platform. And while $96 might not seem like a lot of money from an upper middle class American perspective, for most people in the world it’s an unjustifiable cost. Without mitigations, we’re likely to find ourselves in a world where voices from vulnerable populations remain underheard or even suppressed.

That’s clearly a problem from an equity and inclusion standpoint - and therefore also in terms of reader experience. The narrower the context and demographics of the people who produce most visible content are, the more homogenous it becomes, and therefore the more boring. We all gain a lot by being exposed to people from contexts and backgrounds different to our own. Not only is building a platform that elevates diversity the right thing to do ethically, it builds a healthier community with more interesting conversations. It’s better all the way around.

I think we’ll see the two platforms diverge in their approaches. Substack will quickly figure out that it needs to elevate different voices to continue to grow: audience diversification is key to it. Twitter, meanwhile, will probably not figure this out in a way that it can act on, not because there isn’t a way for it to be acted on, but because it seems to have lost all semblance of acting on a coherent strategy or mindset under Musk. Substack has some real editorial ethics problems to contend with, but it seems to be adept at the fundamentals of community growth.

I also want to call out that Medium under Tony Stubblebine is figuring out these problems in a very thoughtful and transparent way. As Tony points out in the last link, the quality bar is not up for debate; the question is, who’s in consideration to find an audience to begin with.

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It's time to be heard

Alright, America. All eyes are on us.

There’s a lot of propaganda out there asking us not to vote. “It doesn’t make a difference,” they’ll say. Or: “the lines are really long.” Or they’ll talk down the whole process, as if democracy isn’t cool, or participating in it is some kind of affront to a higher cause. Or they’ll suggest - wrongly and maliciously - that the whole thing is rigged.

Bullshit. Vote. This is the bare minimum table stakes for living in a democracy. Picking our elected representatives matters. Voting on ballot initiatives matters. This is the way we get to have a say.

There are a lot of politicians who think not every eligible citizen should vote. Paul Weyrich, a conservative political activist, memorably said in a speech:

"I don't want everybody to vote. […] As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

More recently, poll workers have left their positions after threats and harrasment. And the Brennan Center for Justice reports that “at least seven states enacted 10 laws that make voting more difficult — of these, 5 laws in five states are in place for the midterms. […] Since the beginning of 2021, lawmakers have passed at least 42 restrictive voting laws in 21 states.”.

Meanwhile, the neoreactionary movement, which wants to replace American elected government with a CEO-like monarchy, has found deep pockets in billionaire former Facebook board-member Peter Thiel and at least two Senatorial candidates.

For better or worse, America has an outsized influence on the world. Our votes help shape not just our communities, but communities everywhere. The representatives we pick shape our local culture and global economies; they can be the difference between war and peace, collaboration and colonization, poverty and living well. It’s not an idea to take lightly.

Democracy is precious. Our voices matter. We’ve been given a Constitutional right, and we need to use it. As a citizen, you have the right to use it. Today is the day.

If you need help, here’s how.

 

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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Subscribing to news with a different lens

I’m the CTO for The 19th, a women-led newsroom reporting on politics and policy with a gender lens. I’m super-proud to be here: it’s the most empathetic team I’ve ever worked on, and the journalism it produces is vital in the current moment.

There are a few ways you can keep on top of it:

The daily newsletter is produced by Annelise McGough. It’s intelligent, concise, and will make you smarter.

There’s also a weekly newsletter, which contains a weekly column and a deeper dive. The two newsletters are complementary.

There’s an RSS feed, of course! The 19th produces a handful of high-quality stories every day that won’t overwhelm your feed.

I was a subscriber long before I worked here, and I applied because I love the journalism. I say this as a fan more than a staff member: you should check it out.

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What to blog

A while back I wrote a single-page site, Get Blogging, that’s designed to be a guide to which blogging platform to pick. It doesn’t actually tell you how to blog - and perhaps inevitably, I’ve started receiving lots of emails asking how to do just that.

There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but here’s how I’ve answered it in the past:

A blog post is not the same as an essay or article. It’s simply an update to the log of information you’re writing on your website. That stream of posts, together, makes up your blog. So a post can be as short or as long as you like. It’s your voice, so they can also be as formal or informal as you like. I use a pretty informal voice in my blogging because that’s what comes naturally to me. You don’t need to do the same thing as me, or as anyone else.

Some examples:

Eventually, it becomes second nature: jot down some thoughts and hit publish. Until then, think of it like starting a running habit. The first few days you run, it’s awful and you think it’ll never feel any better. But after a few weeks, you start getting antsy if you don’t run. If you’re not used to writing, it can feel like a slog, but it’s worth getting over that hump.

I once gave someone the advice to write something interesting to them on their blog every weekday for a month - and then to comment on someone else’s blog. Those comments are important: blogs are a community spread across thousands of sites, and it’s a good idea to join in and add value where you can. Don’t comment to self-promote; comment to share and uplift.

And then how do you gain an audience? First: don’t think of it as an audience. It’s a community, and you’re joining it, not gaining it.

There are plenty of sites out there that purport to tell you how to get 100,000 readers and a bunch of money really quickly. They’re all grifters, trying to (you’ve guessed it) gain a ton of readers and a bunch of money really quickly. You can try and hustle people out of cash, but I’d argue that this isn’t really blogging. Blogging is putting your earnest self on the page, one way or another, so that other people who feel or think the same way can find and connect with you.

To build an enduring community of readers you need to be authentically yourself, post about what you’re really interested in, share regularly, interact with other peoples’ blogs, and more than anything, keep it up. Good luck.

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A Mastodon introduction

Here’s what I wrote on my Mastodon profile to (re-)introduce myself to the fediverse:

Hi! I'm Ben Werdmuller. I've been a blogger since 1998. These days I post regularly at werd.io. Writing is my first love, and I'm working on a novel.

I founded two FOSS social platforms (Elgg and Known), worked at a mission-driven investor, worked at Medium, and was Geek in Residence at Edinburgh Festivals. Today I'm CTO at The 19th (19thnews.org), a women-led newsroom that reports on gender, politics and policy.

If you’re on Mastodon, or any other Fediverse-capable site, add me at @ben@werd.social.

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Voting on the indieweb

If you’re an American citizen, you should vote in next week’s election. Maybe you already have: I sent in my mail-in ballot, which is by far the easiest and most convenient way to do your democratic duty, as well as the best way to vote while researching your choices. (All of which is probably why so many people want to do away with it.)

I was asked a while back if there was an indieweb solution for adding a widget on your website to help people register to vote. I wish this was an easier problem to solve than it is: because every jurisdiction has different voting infrastructure that doesn’t adhere to any reliably shared principles or standards, there’s no open source way to make this work without staying on top of every single voting portal. There are proprietary embeds to make this work - notably from vote.org - but they offer very few customization options and essentially require a full-page takeover. To customize more fully, you need to pay: a way for the underlying nonprofit to pay its bills, but counter to the mission of getting more people to register.

It seems to me that it would be in the interests of political parties to create simple voter registration tools and make it as easy as possible to integrate them into your site or app. Let people register as easily as possible, and direct them to the voting option that’s best for them, all from the websites and apps they’re already using. (And then, perhaps, track their registration automatically so they know if it was rejected for some reason.) Democracy is strongest when every citizen can use their democratic right to vote.

I’m not a govtech guy, but I’m aware this is pie in the sky thinking. Still: the best way to make this happen would be to create a single standard for election registration. Provide a single interface standard and a set of APIs that all local election portals must implement, then make it incredibly easy for them to do so by providing libraries and open source software. The current, standards-less, highly-federated way government software works is ludicrous, and can only lead to a bad citizen experience. Not everyone needs to use the same software, but surely it should be possible to get states to agree to some base technical standards, in the same way they all now use HTTP and HTML.

This post is mostly brought to you by anxiety about the election. I feel powerless to stop what I think is almost inevitably going to happen. Please, please, please, please vote.

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Email: ben@werd.io

Twitter: @benwerd

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