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

benwerd

benwerd

werd.social/@ben

19thnews.org

 

Asking what will replace Twitter is missing the point. It’ll be Substack and Mastodon and WordPress and Hive and Post and Tumblr and weird blogs and god knows what else. And that’s beautiful! It’s all the web. A monopoly on conversation is not the goal.

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The value of a tool is not the money it can make for its creators.

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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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Join us for our last event of the year. Free and online as always.

We’re talking with leaders who are taking bold actions, both locally and nationally, to develop equitable and sustainable communities that are more livable and adaptable for the most vulnerable groups. We’ll learn from them about the steps we can take, individually, to make a difference where we live now — and which ideas are scalable for broad impact.

Speakers include:

Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation
Leah Thomas, Author and Advocate, "The Intersectional Environmentalist"
Jenny Wu, Managing Director of Development, Jonathan Rose Companies



https://19thne.ws/decevent

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I’m on the waitlist and I’m interested to try it, but I’m super-skeptical about Post. It sounds like they’re trying to drop a fully-established social network designed around newsy influencers. Every successful network has always grown a community organically.

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Matt Mullenweg has reportedly committed to add ActivityPub to Tumblr. This is a huge deal. Exactly what I hoped to see: a growing federation of social platforms, all committing to work with each other. It’s happening.

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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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I disabled syndication to Twitter. I won't be posting there regularly. I'm not closing my account, but I locked it down, and a lot would need to change for me to return.

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I can’t imagine the horror of being in a situation with an active shooter. Nor the bravery of the person who subdued him. Nor the pain of losing a loved one to an act of hate just for being who they were. The act is sick; the existence and availability of these weapons is sick.

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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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My career mission: to work on projects with the potential to make the world more equal and informed. Which should tell you a lot about where I will and won’t spend my energy.

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Unpopular opinion: I'm not sure "unity" is something we should aspire to as such. We should aspire to be inclusive and free from hate. But within that, I aspire to a kaleidoscope of contexts, religions, and POVs with a representative democratic structure that serves us all.

Or to put it another way: the idea that there should be a prevailing patriotism or one dominant religion is undemocratic to the point of being regimented. Diversity will set us free.

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I made two concrete life decisions this week. Keeping them to myself, but I'll probably reference this post in the future.

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Twitter had 7500 staff to begin with. Then Musk fired a lot, dropping the total to 3700. Now 1200 have opted to take severance, leaving the total at 2500. Do I have that right? I wonder what that looks like across teams?

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People are saying things like “let’s get back on AIM” and I’m just sitting in the corner pre-dating everything everyone comes up with and feeling as old as literal dust.

“Remember MySpace?” Why, yes I do. I was saving into a pension at the time.

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The people pulling through for Musk and sleeping on office floors are selling out their colleagues - and particularly the ones who can’t do that because of their life circumstances. It’s not remotely admirable and I hope their names are remembered.

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I don’t think this is going to be a good few years for tech. (The signs are subtle, I’m sure you’ll agree.) If you’re in the industry, plan accordingly. If you’re not but heavily depend on specific SaaS platforms, make contingency plans.

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I've taken my Twitter link off my website. I'd much rather promote my profiles elsewhere: Mastodon, GitHub, LinkedIn.

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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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Had a plotting idea that absolutely made me want to climb on the furniture in excitement. That's exactly what I've been hoping for. This is getting fun.

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At this point it's worth asking how financially secure every crypto exchange is, including Coinbase.

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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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New conspiracy theory: he's intentionally tanking the company to take it through bankruptcy, shed its debt, and emerge on the other side with its userbase largely intact, ready to form the basis of his "everything" startup.

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Email: ben@werd.io

Twitter: @benwerd

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