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Misc

More Sarah Mixtapes — August, September, October 2021

Every month, I make Sarah a playlist of songs she might particularly want to hear. Sadly, I’m a little behind! Here are the latest three.

August 2021: Disco will never die, if we keep it in our hearts.

  • נעימת ערש by Matti Caspi
  • Cannonball by The Breeders
  • Shut Out by The Buttertones
  • I Want Your Love by CHIC
  • Fresh by Kool & The Gang
  • Bad Girls by Donna Summer
  • Green Onions by Booker T. & the M.G.’s
  • I Put A Spell On You by Nina Simone
  • Get out of My Life Woman by Lee Dorsey
  • Coffee by Sylvan Esso
  • Swaying leaves and scattering breath by envy
  • Oh! Sweet Nuthin’ by The Velvet Underground
  • This Love Won’t Break Your Heart by Annalise Emerick
  • איך זה שכוכב by Matti Caspi

July 2021: New Wave music is possibly the highest form of art there is

  • Love Is A Stranger by Eurythmics
  • Two of Hearts by Stacey Q
  • Rio by Duran Duran
  • Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat
  • Der Kommisar by Suzy Andrews
  • Totally Wired by The Fall
  • Never Say Never by Romeo Void
  • West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys
  • Rapture by Blondie
  • Cccan’t You See by Vicious Pink
  • Blue Monday by New Order
  • Girls on Film by Duran Duran
  • Pale Shelter by Tears For Fears
  • The Politics of Dancing by Re-Flex

October 2021: Songs I really liked in 2012

  • Shoplifters of the World Unite by The Smiths
  • Kisses Sweeter Than Wine by Pete Seeger
  • You Must Be out of Your Mind by The Magnetic Fields
  • Somebody That I Used To Know by Elliott Smith
  • All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix
  • God’s Gonna Cut You Down by Johnny Cash
  • My Spit by Calamity Jane
  • Die For The Government by Anti-Flag
  • Rise Above by Black Flag
  • Black Flags feat. Boots Riley by Atari Teenage Riot
  • Fuck Police Brutality by Anti-Flag
  • Player’s Ball by Outkast
  • Verses from the Abstract by A Tribe Called Quest
  • How Soon Is Now? by The Smiths

As always, thanks to to spotlistr.com for making exporting playlists to text easily.

Categories
Misc

My on-camera debut

A few months ago, a camera team and a few reporters came to my home. They asked me a lot of questions! It took all day. I started out in a sweatshirt — after a few hours, I started sweating. But I had to keep it on, because of visual coherence. It was draining.

It was also scary. Was I saying the right things? Would I say something I regret? How do tell the truth as I see it without accidentally being hyperbolic, or inartful, or something else?

There was more than one reason I was sweating bullets throughout the whole thing.

I did it, though, because the reporting team was filming a documentary about social media, and they specifically wanted to talk to me. I felt like the national conversation was pretty simplistic, on the whole, and perhaps I could do my part in making it more sophisticated.

The show, Fault Lines, is also hosted on Al Jazeera, which I don’t love. (When you watch the show on YouTube, there will be a little disclaimer: “Al Jazeera is funded in whole or in part by the Qatari government”).

My on-camera time ended up being about 1 minute long, making pretty standard points. Something like: “virality is dangerous. You could change social media products to optimize for not just engagement and growth”. I hope the points I made during the other hours of footage helped nudge the overall project in a better direction.

Not sure how to feel, now that it’s over. I guess if nothing else, it was training for next time. Hopefully then it’ll be less scary.

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Misc

Funding the mayors of reddit

If I were an eccentric billionaire, I’d fund “the reddit mayors” of the world.

Not just on reddit, of course. I’m talking about the people doing journalism and high quality work, in the place where people actually are. I’m thinking about the mods of /r/askreddit, or people making incredibly good longform youtube video, or the people who write really long, thoughtful comments consistently on whichever platform. I call them the mayors (and reporters) of the internet.

When there’s a world crisis, or a big spot of news, or even just on a random day in response to a viral video, look for the helpers. The people who set up megathreads, or crowdsource amazingly detailed annotated maps, or triage a beautiful wikipedia article. They’re doing valuable, unpaid, and important work journalism and civil society. They’re the stewards of truly giant communities. Often, very real communities.

It’s beautiful that they are doing it for free (and many have been for well over a decade). But that won’t last forever.

Let’s look at subreddit moderators as an example. They do work as a labor of love, and that’s amazing. But what happens when they burnt out? What happens when they get old, and “retire”? Who will replace them?

I worry that the people who will replace the founding “greatest generation online” will be motivated not by the aughts-era patriotism of The Internet, but by ideological and financial motives. Not because the next generation will be composed of worse people. It won’t! But because the value of capturing a subreddit, or of being a star wikipedia editor, is so high, that it’ll be very attractive for outside organizations to subsidize their own people to do it. And the motivations of those outside organizations won’t be pure.

As /u/qgyh2 and other mods of /r/worldnews retire, who will they choose as their successors? Presumably the people they’ve found to be helpful, civic-minded, amazingly productive, and a pleasure to work with. An intelligence agency (for example), has the resources and motivation to pay a person (or team of people) to be that helpful star recruit. Normal people wouldn’t be able to compete. And once that agent is in, then they have access to a lot of power they can abuse.

Imagine what an intelligence agency would do with the control of a chunk of the default news ecosystem of tends of millions of people. Iran pushing articles in /r/worldnews that embarrass Israel or the US. India getting their mods in to push anti-muslim, or anti-China articles. Heck, imagine what a company would do. It doesn’t need to get outlandish — imagine Tesla secretly placing mods in control of /r/technology, or Sony eventually gaining control of top wikipedia editors.

It doesn’t take a lot of money to do this sabotage. Just some labor costs and patience.

That’s why we need an eccentric billionaire to stop this from happening. All they need to do is start paying a basic income to the mayors of reddit (and Wikipedia, and perhaps other platforms). Suddenly, we’re no longer depending on the goodwill of volunteers as our thin blue line. Suddenly, we have inoculated moderators from many of the temptations of corruption. And if that funding is stable and committed, potential future moderators can devote more time to doing good work, because they know there’s a payoff at the end.

There are still pockets of the good-spirited, volunteer internet left. They underpin so much of our society. But remember Heartbleed? Turns out that OpenSSL, a key component of a secure internet, used by billions of people and untold software projects was actually just maintained by two people. That system “worked” — until it didn’t. To disastrous effect. And now open source funding is a little bit better.

I don’t think we will have a dramatic wake up call for the mayors of the internet like we did with Heartbleed. Instead, things will get worse and worse, gradually and subtly. Until one day we look around and see that the last pockets of the civic-minded web have been corrupted away.

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Misc

The vast right wing conspiracy

Imagine, if you will, a vast right-wing conspiracy.

They infiltrate the summer camps and youth organizations of promising leftist children. Then they go to work defanging them. They teach these children that gaining power is bad. Don’t become a CEO, don’t get money, don’t get elected, don’t enter the powerful parts of society. They introduce terms that will make those kids sound ridiculous or even slightly sinister to the vast majority of the population. They make sure that only a few orthodox tactics are taught — a brittle monoculture of “how to make change” develops.

These dastardly right wingers do a purposefully terrible job teaching the leftist children social skills. These innocent children are taught that hate and distrust — of each other! — is the only way to be safe. To be constantly on edge. In some sick Milgram experiment, they “learn” that other people might say they’re friends, but never can be trusted. Everyone, including your best friends, should automatically be under suspicion. Denunciation and severing relationships is the only way to survive.

But it gets worse. Imagine that, before they are returned to broader society these children are carefully coached into powerlessness for the rest of their lives. The only virtuous career choices are librarian, teacher, nurse, or professional do-gooder, and maybe not that last one either. The only way to rebel in this society is to do so through a complicated process where means are ends, ends are irrelevant, and winning means selling out. If you don’t have very little money and organization; if you’re not rooted in the most powerless people — well, you might as well give up now.

Imagine that the indoctrination works. The kids grow up and believe not only all that, but also that this is the only way to be a true leftist. And anyone who says otherwise is confused at best and an enemy at worst.

Imagine that.

Now, imagine that there’s no conspiracy at all. It all just happened … naturally. Which is worse?

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Misc

Cranky but smiling

During the Roddenberry Fellows retreat, we had this exercise where people put down their identities on virtual post-its. Many people wrote things like: “first gen college student”, or “Black”. I understood the directions a little differently.

I like the output though. It’s a pretty accurate depiction of who I am. So I thought I would share. Anything surprise you? Anything I missed?

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Misc

The front cover of the alumni magazine

When I was young, I had a peculiar relationship with my college. I loved it in the way that a certain type of american liberal loves their country: it has so much promise, the people are so good, there’s a ton of embedded culture and history here that is amazing. And yet, the people running it keep making terrible choices. Like the church in Dante’s Paradiso, it’s adulterated, corrupted, attacked, compromised — but still divine.

I founded and ran a publication based on that premise, starting my first semester freshman year. That was my biggest, most important, center of my identity.

We had so many adventures. We memorably liveblogged a weird student union judiciary hearing, to the hilarity of the audience and judges. We ran a political party. We helped kick out the president of the school (not the student union, the whole school). I made friends, we had generations of contributors. Alumni of the blog went out to found magazines of their own, or be hotshot national reporters, or do wonderful organizing in cities and rural areas across America.

I loved it. I loved Brandeis so much. (Still do). But it was hard to express, since my commitment to my understanding of Brandeis’ ideals often meant I clashed with the people in charge of running the organization. It didn’t help that I was a teenager. To this day I have regrets about different fights I picked, or positions I took, or things I said.

At the end of senior year, something important happened. The “establishment” (did it even exist?) sent out an olive branch (or was I just overthinking it?). I got the David A. Alexander ’79 Memorial Award for Social Consciousness and Activism. An official object, that was presented me on a stage, for the work that I did.

It was one of the happiest days of my life. It felt like people understood what I was trying to do — love my school, love the people in it, and be driven by that love to try to improve things.

Years later, I became a member of the Louis D. Brandeis Legacy Fund at the university. Again, it felt like my home loved me back.

None of that compares to what happened earlier this month.

Gideon Klionsky posting on my Facebook wall: "The front of the fucking alumni magazine?!"

In October, Laura Gardner, editor of the Brandeis Magazine (and the Executive Director of Strategic Communications) emailed me. She saw the Protocol post announcing the launch of the Integrity Institute and thought it might lead to a great feature story. She connected me with the amazing Julia Klein, and soon we were on the phone (and videochat) talking for hours and hours. We talked about my times at Brandeis, my parents, my life after. We talked about hopes and dreams and fears. How I grew. How I changed. I even learned some family history in the course of fact-checking with my mom.

In December, Mike Lovett, the university photographer, visited my apartment, and we did a photoshoot. It was so fun! He taught me about lighting, and angles, and shared some stories about the other people he photographed in his time. (Pro tip to the Brandeis children — one does NOT wear a hoodie of another college when you show up for a photoshoot for yours. Come on, you know better than that).

Finally, in early March, I got the physical, printed magazine with a little surprise — they made my story the front cover. You can read it here. I’m glad my parents got to see this day.

But also I’m glad for me. I love Brandeis. I miss it. I wish I could go back. It’s nice to see they love me too.

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Misc

I’m a Roddenberry Fellow!

Oops! I realized I forgot to tell you.

So, I had been a little cagey about what I’ve been up to lately, now that my year as a Berkman-Klein Fellow is over (now I’m a Berkman-Klein Affiliate, which is pretty similar, but that’s another story).

So here’s the news! I’m a Roddenberry Fellow. Yes, it’s named after Gene Roddenberry. I have been since January.

Per the website: The fellowship is “awarded to extraordinary leaders and advocates who use new and innovative strategies to safeguard human rights and ensure an equal and just society for all.”

The fellowship is for me to help grow Integrity Institute. So far, I’ve met the other fellows. They are very cool. We did a weeklong online “retreat”. We talked about the politics of star trek. It was pretty nice.

Thank you Russ Finkelstein who pushed me apply, and is in general a wonderful person.

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Misc

“Integrity as city planning” meets actual city planners

This one is fun. This one is really fun.

You may remember that a while ago I published my big piece on Governing the city of atomic supermen in MIT Tech Review. I really liked it, the world seemed to like it, it was a big deal! The central conceit of the piece is that social media is like a new kind of city, and that integrity work is a type of new city planning.

So! There’s a community of people who are obsessed with actual, real, cities. One of them, Jeff Wood of The Overhead Wire, reached out to me, and we had an amazing conversation. Him from the city planner / city advocate world, me from the internet.

You might think that this gimmick would only last for about 20 minutes of conversation, and then we’d run out of things to talk about. That’s reasonable, but it turns out you’re wrong! We just kept talking, and the longer we went, the more interesting it got.

I can’t think of a more fun or more deep podcast episode I’ve done. If you haven’t listened to any yet, this is the one to check out.

LINK

We talked about fun new things like:

  • To what extent is social media like the mass adoption of the automobile?
  • Are company growth metrics the analogue of “vehicle miles traveled” goals/grants by the Department of Transportation?
  • Is there a coming collapse of rotten social networks due to all the spam and bots? Is that like climate change?
  • I learned a lot about hot new topics in urbanism! Like the four-step model.
  • Induced demand in freeways as an analogue to bad faith accusations of “censorship” when social media companies try to crack down on abuse.
  • Path dependency is a hell of a drug.
  • Corruption, the history of asphalt, and ethics in social media / city governance. Building code corruption and “lets bend the rules for our large advertisers” corruption.

My quick notes on the conversation:

  • First 14 minutes or so: Intro to me, integrity design, theory of integrity. Mostly stuff you might have heard before elsewhere.
  • Minutes 14 – 23: Do you actually need to bake in integrity design from the beginning? How is growing a social app similar to (or not) growing a city from a village? Online vs in-person social behavior.
  • Minute 19: A lot of the work has shaded into organizational design. What I imagine they teach you in MBA school. How to set up an organization with the right incentives.

The growth of a city is in some sense bounded by the number of homes you can build in a period of time, right? You’re not going to see a club of 15 artists turn into a metropolis of 2 million people in the span of two weeks. It’s just physically impossible to do it. And that gives people some human-scale time to figure out the emerging problems and have some time to experiment with solutions as the city grows. And that’s a sort of growth. That’s a story about the growth of a small platform to a big one, but it’s also the same kind of thing of just how lies are spread, how hate speech is spread — any sort of behavior.

Minute 22
  • Minute 24: Power users of social media. Power users of automobiles. How are they similar and differnet?
  • Minute 30: The reason spam is a solved* problem on email is that the email providers have a sort of beneficient cartel. (Before Evelyn Douek corrects me — “solved” in the sense that we’re not having a panic about how gmail is destroying society, or that outlook’s spam filter isn’t working)
  • Minute 35: Jeff Wood brings up a new metaphor. “20 is plenty” (as a speed limit for cars). How well does it work for online?
  • Minute 40: My pet metaphor for integrity work — platforms are often a gravity well that incentives bad behavior. Doing the wrong thing feels like walking downhill, doing the right thing takes effort.
  • Minute 41-45: Vehicle Miles Traveled, the 4-step model, departments of transportation. Cars and social media and bad metrics. Bad metrics -> bad choices
  • Minute 46 – 51: If at first you don’t do the right thing, then you try to do the right thing, then people will complain. Whether its the suburban sprawl or not cracking down on spammers. They’ll act all righteous and go yell in public meetings. But in the end they did something wrong (in the social media case) or were receiving an unjust subsidy that you’re finally removing (in both cases).
  • Minute 53 – 58: We’ve been talking design here. But let’s not forget actual, literal corruption.
  • Minutes 58 onwards: Ending

These notes don’t do it justice. It was just such a delight. Grateful to Jeff Wood for a great conversation.

Categories
Misc

A right-libertarian take on integrity work

Back in 2020, you might remember that I had yet to commit to integrity work as my big next focus of ideas and identity. What was I focused on instead? Political economy. Specifically, I was in the orbit of the lovely Law and Political Economy project. They’re great, check them out!

You might particularly remember that I went on one of my first ever podcast appearances, with my friend Kevin Wilson, Libertarian. We talked about a right-libertarian case for breaking up Facebook. It was fun!

Well, it’s been over a year since then, and I went back on his show. This time, I talked about Integrity Institute and some of my ideas for libertarian-friendly ways to do integrity work.

The title of the episode is: Can you fix social media by targeting behavior instead of speech? I really liked it. It was fun, nuanced, and far-ranging. We went so over time, that Kevin recorded a full bonus spillover episode going over the “how do you make this beautiful future actually happen”.

I’m told that for some of my biggest fans (aka my parents) this is their favorite podcast I’ve been on. Kevin does a great job asking questions that both give me time to sketch out a full answer, but also push me out of my comfort zone. Give it a listen.

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Misc

Some thoughts on human experience design

There’s an organization, All Tech Is Human. They’re pretty cool! At Integrity Institute, we’re figuring out how to be good organizational friends with them.

They asked me, and a bunch of other people, to answer some questions about technology and society. I like my answers. Here they are! And here’s the link to the full report. (Uploaded to the Internet Archive instead of Scribd — thanks Mek!)

In it, I try to keep the focus on people and power, rather than “tech”. Also, content moderation won’t save us, care must be taken with organizational design, and a cameo by the English Civil War. Plus — never forget Aaron Swartz. Let me know what you think!

Tell us about your current role:

I run the Integrity Institute. We are a think tank powered by a community of integrity professionals: tech workers who have on-platform experience mitigating the harms that can occur on or be caused by the social internet.

We formed the Integrity Institute to advance the theory and practice of protecting the social internet. We believe in a social internet that helps individuals, societies, and democracies thrive.

We know the systemic causes of problems on the social internet and

how to build platforms that mitigate or avoid them. We confronted issues such as misinformation, hate speech, election interference, and many more from the inside. We have seen successful and unsuccessful attempted solutions.

Our community supports the public, policymakers, academics, journalists, and technology companies themselves as they try to understand best practices and solutions to the challenges posed by social media.

In your opinion, what does a healthy relationship with technology look like?

Technology is a funny old word. We’ve been living with technology for thousands of years. Technology isn’t new; only its manifestation is. What did a healthy relationship to technology look like 50 years ago? 200 years ago?

Writing is a form of technology. Companies are a form of technology. Government is a form of technology. They’re all inventions we created to help humankind. They are marvelously constructive tools that unleash a lot of power, and a lot of potential to alleviate human suffering. Yet, in the wrong hands, they can do correspondingly more damage.

Technology should help individuals, societies, and democracy thrive. But it is a truism to say that technology should serve us, not the other way around. So let’s get a little bit more specific.

A healthy relationship to technology looks like a healthy relationship with powerful people. People, after all, own or control technology. Are they using it for social welfare? Are they using it democratically? Are they using it responsibly? Are they increasing human freedom, or diminishing it?

We will always have technology. Machines and humankind have always coexisted. The real danger is in other humans using those machines for evil (or neglect). Let’s not forget.

What individuals are doing inspiring work toward improving our tech future?

If we lived in a better world, Aaron Swartz would no doubt be on top of my list. Never forget.

If one person’s free speech is another’s harm and content moderation can never be perfect, what will it take to optimize human and algorithmic content moderation for tech users as well as policymakers? What steps are needed for optimal content moderation?

Well, first off, let’s not assume that content moderation is the best tool, here. All communications systems, even ones that have no ranking systems or recommendation algorithms, make implicit or explicit choices about affordances. That is, some behavior is rewarded, and some isn’t. Those choices are embedded in code and design. Things like: “How often can you post before it’s considered spam?” or “Can you direct-message people you haven’t met?” or “is there a reshare button?”

Default social platforms have those settings tuned to maximize engagement and growth — at the expense of quality. Sadly, it turns out, content that has high engagement tends to be, well, bad. The builders of those platforms chose to reward the wrong behavior, and so the wrong behavior runs rampant.

Fixing this can be done through technical tweaks. Things like feature limits, dampers to virality, and so on. But companies must set up internal systems so that engineers that make those changes are rewarded, not punished. If the companies that run platforms changed their internal incentive structures, then many of these problems would go away — before any content moderation would be needed.

We’ll always need some content moderators. But they should be a last resort, not a first line of defense.

How can we share information and best practices so that smaller platforms and startups can create ethical and human-centered systems at the design stage?

Thanks for this softball question! I think we’re doing that pretty well over at the Integrity Institute. We are a home for integrity professionals at all companies. Our first, biggest, and forever project has been building the community of people like us. In that community, people can swap tips, help each other learn best practices, and learn in a safe environment.

Drawing from that community, we brief startups, platforms, and other stakeholders on the emerging knowledge coming out of that community. We’re defining a new field, and it’s quite exciting.

Going more abstract, however, I think the problem is also one of defaults and larger systems. How easy is it for a startup to choose ethics over particularly egregious profits? How long will that startup survive (and how long will the CEO stay in charge)? The same goes for larger companies, of course.

Imagine a world where doing the right thing gets your company out-competed, or you personally fired. Pretty bleak, huh?

We’re trying to fix that, in part by enforcing an integrity Hippocratic oath. This would be a professional oath that all integrity workers swear by — to put the public interest first, to tell the truth, and more. But that’s only one small piece of the puzzle.

What makes YOU optimistic that we, as a society, can build a tech future aligned with our human values?

In 1649, the people of England put their king on trial, found him guilty of “unlimited and tyrannical power,” and cut off his head. I imagine this came as quite a shock to him. More interestingly, perhaps, I imagine that it came as a shock to the people themselves.

In extraordinary times, people — human beings — can come together to do things that seemed impossible, unthinkable, even sacrilegious just a few days before.

Within living memory in this country, schoolchildren were drilled to dive under desks due to threats of global nuclear Armageddon. Things must have seemed terrible. Yet, those children grew up, bore children, and made a gamble that the future would indeed be worth passing on to them. I think they were right.

We live in interesting times. That’s not necessarily a great thing: boring, stable, peaceful times have a lot going for them. It doesn’t seem like we have much of a choice, though. In interesting times, conditions can change quickly. Old ideas are shown to be hollow and toothless. Old institutions are exposed as rotten. The new world struggles to be born.

I look around and I see immense possibilities all around me. It could go very badly. We could absolutely come out of this worse than we came in. Anyone — any future — can come out on top. So, why not us? Why not team human?

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Misc

Social media that helps your friendships blossom

On Facebook, a few days ago, I noticed a weird trend. All of a sudden, I’d been getting a new type of notification. I posted about it, and got a ton of replies:

For years, inside of facebook, I argued that the app could help deepen friendships instead of just cataloging them. What about a “people who used to be close to, who you haven’t messaged [or commented on their posts] for a while, feature”? How about proactively helping heal cross-cutting cleavages by reminding you that you’re friends with people of identity X?

I have no inside knowledge here, but something weird has been happening on my facebook lately. I keep getting notifications that “person X has posted”, where person X keeps changing. Is someone on the inside finally trying to make it happen?

But this new feature has problems. It’s a good idea, but I’m not sure it’s implemented well. Why are these notifications and not feed units? If you change the behavior of the app, you’d want the initial interactions with the new feature to be of high quality, yet they typically link to low-quality posts. And rather than an invitation to reconnect with a person, they are an invitation to view that person’s posts, with no explanation.

Typically, when fb notifications start pushing something that isn’t directly tied to me (“person X commented on your post, Y people liked a post”) I click the ignore button a few times. Then the system learns, and they stop. It’s been over a week, and these notification units keep coming. Either I’m in a half-baked A/B test, or someone really, really, is pushing this new feature. If I’m right, I salute the impulse. But the implementation is not ready for prime time.

Is it just me? Am I the only one seeing these? Or are y’all getting this too?

FB post here

Kushaan even tweeted it out.

The whole episode got me thinking. Can I break out of my normal habits and use, say, Facebook, in ways that make me happier? I already cut out all pages and groups, but maybe I could do more.

So I spent ten minutes looking through stories on FB Messenger / IG, and replying enthusiastically to slices of life from old friends. It was … invigorating. It’s easy for me to type up thoughts. But maybe the real key to internet happiness is just cooing over a cute baby.

In that vein, here’s a picture of Sarah and me dressing up for new years, right before we started an epic battle in Gloomhaven. No big idea, just a little glimpse of a life.

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Misc

Integrity work is hard because of core company metrics

This is a quick and dirty little post — I tried to explain a theory of integrity to a friend via a series of texts. Wonder what you think of it:

Everyone is asking “how do I understand feeds and algorithms?”. Well, luckily we don’t have to start from scratch. How do the companies themselves understand these systems that they created?

They do it through metrics. Every time a change is teed up, it’s tested in a randomized controlled trial. By comparing the changed metrics from control vs the new feature, they get a sense of how well the feature does.

Those changed metrics are the skeleton key to understanding these companies. Each team has their own particular metrics, but the entire company shares a set of top metrics — every experiment in every team is evaluated in regards to those company metrics. Those core metrics matter. The top metrics generally measure two things — growth, and engagement. Let’s simplify for the moment and shorthand it to “growth” for now.

We can think of the news feed (or twitter feed, or whatever) as being shaped by a *search*. To simplify just a bit, engineers are turning knobs of settings slightly, then checking the output — did growth go up? It’s hill-climbing. Just a slower process of what machine learning is — finding local optima in n-dimensional space. We can think of the entire platform as being shaped by that same search — not just the ranking algorithms but the design choices of features themselves!

The job of an integrity team is to *not* optimize on that metric. In a heavily optimized platform, that means that to do their work well, they’ll almost always have to erode growth somewhat. (Again, it’s not *necessarily* true, but in a world that is heavily optimized, that means that every setting is tuned perfectly to only growth). Imagine that they’re able to successfully fight the internal battles to be able to make the change that moves the company off the top of that hill. Now, every other team is heavily incentivized to roll back those changes and move back up that hill.

It doesn’t have to be conscious — often it isn’t! It’s just that there’s a juicy ability to get lots of growth impact by moving the settings back. They won’t necessarily even know they’re doing it — but it’ll probably happen.

This is why integrity work is so hard — and why organizational design needs to be part of the discussion.

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Misc

The July 2021 Mixtape

Every month, I make Sarah a playlist of songs she might particularly want to hear. I’m a little behind, both in posting about them, and making them.

This month’s playlist has the theme: “Evidence that some good music did exist in the 90s.”

Here it is. And, because proprietary services are bad, let’s export to text (thanks to spotlistr.com):

The July 2021 mixtape:

  • You Learn – Live / Unplugged by Alanis Morissette
  • Fight For Your Right by Beastie Boys
  • Black Swan by Thom Yorke
  • Smells Like Teen Spirit – Radio Edit by Patti Smith
  • Where Did You Sleep Last Night – Live Version by Nirvana
  • Zombie by The Cranberries
  • Basket Case by Green Day
  • Just Can’t Get Enough by Depeche Mode
  • Popular by Nada Surf
  • Divine Hammer by The Breeders
  • Every You Every Me by Placebo
  • Unintended by Muse
  • A Movie Script Ending by Death Cab for Cutie
  • All I Really Want – 2015 Remaster by Alanis Morissette

Love Sarah!

Categories
Misc

The June 2021 mixtape

Every month, I make Sarah a playlist of songs she might particularly want to hear. I’m a little behind, both in posting about them, and making them.

This month’s playlist has the theme: “Start with a light dusting of crooning folk before rapidly upping the tempo into some light bangers”

Here it is. And, because proprietary services are bad, let’s export to text (thanks to spotlistr.com):

The June 2021 mixtape:

  • Boat Behind by Kings of Convenience
  • Rivers by The Tallest Man On Earth
  • Chalk by Blanco White
  • Take Me To The Riot by Stars
  • First Love / Late Spring by Mitski
  • Heretic Pride by The Mountain Goats
  • Burning Down the House by Talking Heads
  • I’m So Tired by Fugazi
  • 2021 Remaster by The ShinsThe Past and Pending
  • Androgynous by The Replacements
  • Masterpiece – (solo) by Big Thief
  • I Don’t Want to Get Over You by The Magnetic Fields
  • Catholic Country by Kings of Convenience; Feist

What do you think?

Categories
Misc

Governing the city of atomic supermen

Social media is a new city, great and terrible. It’s also a dictatorship where all the residents have super powers. People can teleport, fly, churn out convincing android minions, disguise themselves perfectly, and coordinate telepathically.

How do you deal with this? What’s a fair way to govern a place where it’s hard to tell a robot minion from a real person, and people can assume new identities at will?

Thankfully, MIT Tech Review allowed me to ask and answer that question in a fancy publication!

Here’s the full article: How to save our social media by treating it like a city

Thank you to my Berkman fellow friends for helping me edit and polish it. Thank you also to a bunch of other friends (and family) too. It took months, and was a team effort.

Here’s my tweet announcing it:

Some quick points if you’re in a hurry:

  • Social media is like a new kind of city. There are good parts and bad parts. Right now, it’s a city of atomic supermen — people have tons of powers that they don’t really have in the physical world.
  • Our rules, norms, and intuitions right assume that you *can’t*, for example, teleport.
  • Eventually, we’re going to figure out the rules and norms that work really well for that kind of world. For now, we’re mostly stuck with the norms we’ve evolved till today.
  • So let’s change the physics of the city to make the residents a little less superpowered.
  • Make it harder to make fake accounts. Make new accounts have to prove themselves with a “driving test” before they have access to the most abuseable features. Put stringent rate limits on behavior that could be used for evil
  • Notice that none of this involves looking at *content* — if we design our online cities well, with speed bumps and parks and gardens and better physics, we can lessen the need for content moderation. This is the alternative to “censorship”.
  • Much, possibly most, of the integrity problem on platforms is spam of one sort or another. We know how to fight spam.
  • Now to the next point: corporate behavior. You can create an amazing set of rules for your platform. But they amount to less than a hill of beans if you don’t enforce them. And enforcing unevenly is arguably worse than not enforcing at all.
  • If you try to fix your system, perhaps by fixing a bug that allowed spammy behavior — there will be entities that lose. The ones that were benefitting from the loophole. Don’t let them stop you by loudly complaining — otherwise you can never fix things!
  • And now to the biggest point: listen to integrity workers. My coworkers and I had actual jobs where we tried to fix the problem. We are steeped in this. We know tons of possible solutions. We study details of how to fix it. We don’t always win internal battles, of course.
  • But we exist. Talk to us. Other integrity workers have their own frameworks that are equally or more insightful. They’re wonderful people. Help us — help them — do their jobs and win the arguments inside companies.
  • PS — Join the Integrity Institute.