Categories
Misc

I’ll be on a panel in NYU on Dec 15th

So, as part of my work with the Integrity Institute, I get to be on a fancy panel.

Wanna come?

Here are the details, copied from the website:

Reducing Harm on Social Media: Research & Design Ideas

Wednesday, December 15, 2021  |  3:00 – 4:15pm ET

When social media platforms first launched nearly two decades ago, they were seen as a force for good – a way to connect with family and friends, learn and explore new ideas, and engage with social and political movements. Yet, as the Facebook Papers and other research have documented, these same platforms have become vectors of misinformation, hate speech, and polarization.

With attention around social media’s impact on society at an all-time high, this event gathers researchers and practitioners from across the academic, policy, and tech communities to discuss various approaches and interventions to make social media a safer and more civil place.

Panelists

  • Jane Lytvynenko, Senior Research Fellow, Technology and Social Change Project, Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy (moderator)
  • Niousha Roshani, Deputy Director, Content Policy & Society Lab, Stanford University’s Program on Democracy and the Internet
  • Rebekah Tromble, Director, Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics, George Washington University
  • Joshua A. Tucker, Co-Director, New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics
  • Sahar Massachi, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Integrity Institute

Categories
Misc

I’m on the Lawfare Podcast

As part of the Integrity Institute rollout, Jeff and I were on the Lawfare podcast with Evelyn Douek and Quinta Jurecic. It actually turned out really good!

The editing was polished and lightweight enough that you can’t really tell that it was edited, but also thorough enough that we come across as crisper than we are in real life.

And we talked for an hour! I think it’s a good overview of what we’re thinking right now and how we see the world. Check it out, I’m proud of it.

https://www.lawfareblog.com/lawfare-podcast-what-integrity-social-media

Categories
Misc

Updating /now for 2021

Previously on sahar.io

In writing letters to old friends, I’ve found it a little hard to get a sense of “how are they doing these days?”. Skimming Facebook doesn’t seem to be great way to figure that out, for a few obvious reasons. I ask them, of course, but that too often tends to get a 2-3 sentence answer about their last few weeks, instead of the more fully considered sense of who they are and what they’re about.

I can’t blame them, though. In telling the story of my life, who I am these days, etc, I can get similarly tongue-tied. Luckily, Derek Sivers has a solution: the now page.

So — I wrote up what I’m up to these days.

Some time has passed, and I’ve updated the page. Here’s what it looks like now, Nov 3rd, 2021:

Last year, I had quit my job at Facebook and moved into Somerville. I dove into my neighborhood, started a bunch of projects, and tried to heal from burnout. I wasn’t done with that, but had to put that all on hold to participate in the 2020 election. I also become a fellow at Berkman-Klein.

Up until recently, this year, I was working on a secret project with many friends and former coworkers. This involved an in-person retreat, a ton of conversations, dreams, and documentation. Talking to possible donors. Briefing journalists and helping them better understand how the world worked.

Now that we’ve gone public, I can finally tell you what my life is like!

Now, I’m excited to finally talk about the big project: The Integrity Institute

When I started diving into the Berkman fellowship, I started noticing something strange: people started taking me very seriously. Journalists, academics, activists, even policymakers not just wanted to ask me questions: they took my answers seriously.

Turns out that things seemed obvious to me (due to my time at Facebook) were not so obvious to people on the outside.

This was cool, but made me uncomfortable. There were integrity people, many who had since left Facebook, who I looked up to. Surely they deserved a platform too.

So I gathered them in January 2021. We decided to found a group that would be a combined professional association for integrity workers, a think-do tank, and a place to research what an “integrity science” would look like.

Fast forward months, and here we are.

With Jeff Allen, I’m running The Integrity Institute. It’s great! Check it out. (Here’s a lovely piece laying out what we’re up to).

Now, I’ve been focused on just a few other projects. Matchmaking (of many kinds), making mix tapes for Sarah, and thinking big thoughts with Berkman people. I helped kick ICE out of Massachusetts, but that honestly didn’t involve much work for me.

One day soon I hope to revive Yenta as well. The FB posts are still happening, but the substack is a bit dormant.

It feels weird to have One Big Project instead of lots of little ones. I miss hanging out with people, and generally relaxing. I miss being relaxed.

Categories
Misc

How ICE is being kicked out of Massachusetts

A month ago, in response to a lawsuit with my name on it, the Sheriff of Plymouth County announced that he’d stop working with ICE. I’m thrilled to be a very small part of it. Here’s the story:

Oren Nimni and I had gone to college together. Back then, I knew him as a thoughtful, quirky guy and committed campus anarchist. Years later, we both were cofounders (with Nathan, and others) of Current Affairs magazine. Some time after that, I saw his distinctive face grabbing getting back in touch after running into each other in a Somerville supermarket. We got back in touch.

When he wasn’t adjunct professoring, legal editing, or podcasting, Oren’s day job was with Lawyers for Civil Rights. He had a novel legal idea, and laid it out to me. I’m going by memory, but it went something like this:

  1. Some sheriffs were cooperating with ICE in specific ways, via these 287(g) contracts
  2. This was unconstitutional, because they didn’t have the authority to do so.
  3. But who could challenge it? Normally, you’d have to hope an attorney general, district attorney, etc would take it on.
  4. Luckily, Massachusetts specifically has a law that taxpayers could challenge any *spending* by executives, if certain conditions were met.
  5. The 287(g) agreements were spending.
  6. The conditions were pretty straightforward. You needed 24 taxpayers, no more than 6 per county, to file the suit.

Here’s the relevant statute in full:

If a department, commission, board, officer, employee or agent of the commonwealth is about to expend money or incur obligations purporting to bind the commonwealth for any purpose or object or in any manner other than that for and in which such department, commission, board, officer, employee or agent has the legal and constitutional right and power to expend money or incur obligations, the supreme judicial or superior court may, upon the petition of not less than 24 taxable inhabitants of the commonwealth, not more than 6 of whom shall be from any 1 county, determine the same in equity, and may, before the final determination of the cause, restrain the unlawful exercise or abuse of such right and power.

Massachusetts General Law, Part I, TitleIII, Chapter29, Section63

Oren was ready to file the case. But he needed some of those taxpayers to actually file the petition. That’s where I came in.

I was one of those 24 taxpayers filing suit, and got some more friends to sign on. With our names as plaintiffs, they filed the suit: Cofield et al v. McDonald et al. Every once in a while, a lawyer from Lawyers for Civil Rights would email us an update on how the case was going.

In July, the court ruled that our challenge could proceed.

In September, we won! The agreement was unconstitutional, and soon after the sheriff announced that they’d stop the agreement with ICE.

Last time I checked, only Barnstable County is left — and they’ve been hit with a copycat lawsuit.

We’re going to win this. Thank you Oren, and thank you Lawyers for Civil Rights.

As for Oren — recently, he moved to DC to become Litigation Director for Rights Behind Bars. He’s filing cases fighting for better prison conditions, and attacking qualified immunity. What a guy.

You can see my name right here in the list of plaintiffs on page 12 of the official petition to the court. And is that THE Morton Horwitz there with me? Honestly I am not sure but imagine if it was.

Categories
Misc

The February, March, April, and May 2021 mixtapes

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.

Here is a link to February’s mixtape, here is March’s mixtape, here is April’s mixtape, and here is May’s.

I’m posting a bunch of mixtapes at once! Here goes.

The February 2021 mixtape:

February’s theme: Hebrews.
  • If It Be Your Will by Leonard Cohen
  • Wake up New York by Zusha
  • קטנתי by Yonatan Razel
  • עוד לא אהבתי די by Yehoram Gaon
  • אהבות ליום אחד by Noam Bettan
  • חוזרים הביתה by Shlomo Artzi; Arik Einstein
  • לאן לאן לאן by Shlomo Artzi
  • עוף גוזל by Arik Einstein
  • לבכות לך by Aviv Geffen
  • רוח רוח by Chava Alberstein
  • ארים ראשי by Shay Gabso
  • Mothaland Bounce by Nissim Black
  • Take This Longing by Leonard Cohen

The March 2021 mixtape:

March’s Theme: Great songs by great bands we know and love.
  • Up the Wolves by The Mountain Goats
  • In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
  • Two Weeks by Grizzly Bear
  • Everything Is Moving So Fast by Great Lake Swimmers
  • Commissioning a Symphony In C by Cake
  • Staring at the Sun by TV On The Radio
  • Mykonos by Fleet Foxes
  • Magic Arrow by Timber Timbre
  • I Was Made For Sunny Days by The Weepies; Deb Talan; Steve Tannen
  • Sabotage by Beastie Boys
  • Dance Apocalyptic by Janelle Monáe
  • Waiting Room by Fugazi
  • We’re Going to Be Friends by The White Stripes
  • International Small Arms Traffic Blues by The Mountain Goats
  • Americans by Janelle Monáe
  • I Think I Smell a Rat by The White Stripes

The April 2021 mixtape

April’s theme: Good bands. Nice songs by those bands. A little bit of a trip back a decade or two
  • Tightrope (feat. Big Boi) by Janelle Monáe; Big Boi
  • Heads Will Roll by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • Lovecraft in Brooklyn by The Mountain Goats
  • it’s different for girls by of Montreal
  • I Think I Smell a Rat by The White Stripes
  • When Doves Cry by Prince
  • 2006 Remaster by The CureClose to Me
  • I Ain’t No Joke by Eric B. & Rakim
  • These Few Presidents by WHY?
  • Knife by Grizzly Bear
  • Did You See The Words by Animal Collective
  • So Long, Lonesome by Explosions In The Sky
  • Prelude For Time Feelers by Eluvium
  • Holland, 1945 by Neutral Milk Hotel
  • Your Ex-Lover Is Dead by Stars
  • Everything For Free by K’s Choice
  • I Like That by Janelle Monáe

The May 2021 mixtape

May’s theme: Just some songs you might like to listen to as you work
  • To Ramona by Bob Dylan
  • Lullaby by Leonard Cohen
  • Mrs. Cold by Kings of Convenience
  • Champagne Coast by Blood Orange
  • Röyksopp Forever by Röyksopp
  • Bekhe Ze Jayet by Jawid Sharif
  • Dead Hearts by Stars
  • Myth by Beach House
  • Dayvan Cowboy by Boards of Canada
  • Waking Up by Explosions In The Sky
  • You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere by Bob Dylan

(Thanks again for Spotlistr for making it easy to export spotify playlists.)

Categories
Misc

Digital Campaigning in Covid-times, an example

This one is fun. I was in the running for a job, over a year ago. The job involved serving as a consultant to organizations around the world that do online progressive politics of a certain style (emails, petitions, ladder of engagement, etc). I love these organizations, and I think this would have been on the easier and more wholesome side of my options.

Ultimately, I ended up removing myself from the running. (I had a more interesting gig lined up). But the application process was really interesting! To advance in one round of the process, you were given a toy example of a hypothetical digital-first organization, and how it saw things change because of Covid. (This was around May 2020). Given this information, what advice would I give them?

A lot of people don’t really understand what digital campaigning and organizing is. I figure that sharing what I wrote might help. So here it is:

The challenge:

The prompt, edited down: A European organization experienced rapid membership growth since coronavirus hit, but their engagement levels have been dropping lately. What ideas do you have for retention? How can we help their long-term strategy of building member-focused power? Write your response as a 2-page memo.

My response:

My response, edited for clarity and mild obfuscation:

Hello! My name is Sahar, and I’m here to help you think through your membership retention today.

Below, I’m going to walk you through some hypotheses of what might be going on, and how you might validate them. If this is all obvious to you, I apologize. Feel free to skip it! 

I’ll also include 3 tactical ideas of what you might try. 

Through all this, I’m assuming some similarity with some other organizations: (e.g. “member” means “person on the email list”, a lot of work happens through member-driven petitions and email blasts, etc). Since I don’t have a full view of your operation, I must also assume that you *haven’t* tried out what I’m proposing. I imagine at least part of these simplifying assumptions are wrong, and I apologize in advance.

First, identify the problem:

I have two hypotheses for what’s going on. 

Hypothesis A: “Non-political” people are joining because Corona. Then, they’re getting follow-up for actions that are aimed towards existing membership. These new members didn’t think they were signing up for “politics”. So they’re tuning out.

Hypothesis B: People joined because Corona was a big huge problem. Now, it’s both less novel and more exhausting. People are generally tired of Corona-related actions and less energetic and generous. 

To prepare to check these hypotheses, I’d segment your members to find a cohort of “joined pre coronavirus” and a cohort of “joined during coronavirus” members. The former are those who joined in the short amount of time before the surge of membership, and the latter are those who joined in the last 2 months. 

Once you’ve done that, ask the data some questions. Do pre-Corona members have the same MeRa engagement metrics as post-Corona members? Have engagement levels of new members been steady until the last fortnight? Is this an artifact of how you measure? Does the response to member-initiated petitions look different than the response to the staff-initiated campaigns?

Now that we’ve done that, let’s try to validate each hypothesis. If Hypothesis A (apolitical people joining) were true, we’d see that the “pre coronavirus” and “post coronavirus” cohorts look very different, after normalizing for “time since signed up”, and other demographics (if you have them). Post-coronavirus people would tend sign on for relatively less ideological/political appeals, and “pre coronavirus” members would have relatively flat or increasing engagement rates. To sum it up: it would be the “during coronavirus” members that are driving the decline.

If Hypothesis A were correct, we might try treating new members differently for a while. We might exempt them from new email blasts, perhaps making sure to put them through a new ramp-up flow over time, acclimating them to the mission and values of your organization. We might even handpick the right petitions for them. In general, treat them as a separate population (with A/B testing targeted solely to them), as you gradually reintegrate them back into the main population of members.

If, on the other hand, Hypothesis B (Corona fatigue) were true, we’d see pre-and post-surge members acting at roughly the same rates, on both corona and non-corona related content. We’d see Corona related petitions doing worse or equal to others.

Next, execute new tactics:

I’ll address 3 tactics below that might help (and might help in hypothesis A as well.)

3 Tactics for engagement:

I’ve done a short sweep of a subsample of [your] partners around the world. What are they trying specifically in a physical distancing / Corona environment? Some examples: distributing masks and stickers, holding signs in-person while waiting in lines at stores, phones out the window at appointed times blasting a message, twitter storms, petitions and email blasts, etc. While helpful, nothing seemed to stand out as particularly gripping. 

Here are 3 things I suggest you pay attention to, if you haven’t already:

One: Organizing “Get-to-know you calls” in neighborhoods. 

This isn’t a tactic attached to a demand or list growth, but instead builds longer-term relationships. You could make this as structured as you like: maybe give potential hosts facilitation training and a list of questions, or maybe just allow neighbors to find each other and then talk organically. This will neatly tie-in to the existing mutual aid efforts around them, and buy goodwill and deeper engagement in the future.

Two: Go anti-corporate. 

Firms, generally, are both less experienced with, and more vulnerable to, tactics that we generally use on politicians. Are there obvious corporate villains around? Can we pressure them (through petitions, emails, etc) to, for example, pay sick leave, not bust unions, etc? Members might find it a refreshing change of pace.

Three: Find existing online organized online communities.

As you know, digital campaigning was sometimes called “online organizing” in the past. The term fell out of favor, in part, because there are existing things — forums, facebook groups, subreddits — that are indeed organized online communities. Establishing more of a presence in Swiss-specific online groups of this kind not only can fuel raw growth and reach. It can also give members a constructive, fun thing to do. Imagine a tactic like: “Are you a member of one of these 10 subreddits? If so, apply to be a <your org> ambassador there”. 

These are just some ideas. No need to take them on if you dislike them! But I do urge you to pay attention to the analytics part of this one-pager. Understanding the situation allows you to identify potential ways to fix it. Without some analysis, you’re flying blind. 

Hope this was helpful, and thanks again. 

Sahar Massachi

Categories
Misc

Forrest Gump

It’s been a strange couple weeks for me. A lot of stuff I’ve worked on (mostly in secret) for the last few years is now in the news. It looks like it really was important after all — I wasn’t deluding myself.

First off, of course, the whole Facebook Files / whistleblower thing is about the work that I and my colleagues did at the company.

Relatedly, in Time, there’s a decent primer to the civic team, which I worked on at Facebook for the majority of my time there.

Next up, via Ezra Klein just a few days ago, there’s a profile of David Shor and his polling, which was more or less what I helped build over the 2020 election cycle.

Weirdly, the NYT bestselling book, Black Buck, is heavily based on Mateo’s time at Grovo — the place I worked before Facebook.

I feel a little like a Forrest Gump — near all this fame and excitement, always just slightly off screen.

Wonder what happens next.

I have been, and will be, posting a lot of life updates here. This dynamic is why: seems like enough time has passed that I write about my 2020 election work.

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Misc

The natural phases of recovery from burnout

In January 1, 2020, I was in a bit of a frenzy. The month before, I had quit my job. I explicitly didn’t line up another job after it. Instead, the plan was to reset my relationship with time, and with workism. This was difficult.

I think I did a pretty good job, though. And people have found it useful to hear, over the last year or so. So now I’m sharing it publicly.

In my experience, embracing the identity of “not having or wanting a job right now” comes in waves.

In the first wave, I kept the attitude that powered me at work. Everything was about tasks to be done, checklists to be completed, and general industriousness. In that vein — I renewed my drivers license (hard, because it was lost somewhere in Mexico and also I had moved states in the meantime), got some healthcare balls rolling, and cleared out many lingering email tasks. I started using Roam, audited a couple classes in Harvard, and became a coach for volunteers for Bernie Sanders.

In wave two, I could finally start getting down to the serious business of thumbing my nose at productivity. I wasn’t perfect at it: for one thing, Sarah would often nag me to “stop doing chores and start working in the Skyrim mines”. But I spent weeks mostly playing video games and reading magazines like Jewish Currents in cute cafes.

The idea here was to burn time, extravagantly and flagrantly. Show my body that productivity is not a core value by ostentaniously doing nothing of consequence. Get all the napping and mind-resetting out of the way.

I did end up doing some work-ish things. I was honored to be a coach for victory captains for the Bernie campaign. I audited a class on Milton (my fave) and another on Indian Philosophy. But mostly I toiled in the Skyrim mines.

In wave three, I thought I was ready for projects. I was wrong. I took on an enthusiastic, almost frantic searching for meaning.

I was blogging, running a book club, reading magazines, light coding, community organizing, rock climbing, tabletop roleplaying, learning about coffee, matchmaking, writing to friends, and more. Suddenly, I had too many commitments.

The feeling of “wow I’m so happy and empowered, the world is my oyster, I can do PROJECTS” turned into “oh god I took on too much why am I so stressed this whole adventure was about avoiding burnout”.

In wave four, I cut back on projects substantially. I experimented with adding and removing commitments, so that I could figure out something sustainable. It’s about curiousity and testing. What actually feels fun? What feels like a chore? What do you want your life to look like? (I slipped back into some phase two thinking for a while, which is fine).

By the end, I had begun to remember how to enjoy life more fully. I made time for walks in the outdoors, friends, and projects I actually wanted to do. Things were not great, but much better than they used to be.

(That is, until I decided to throw away all that newfound balance, and dive head-first into the 2020 election. But that’s a story for another day)

Categories
Misc

What I did in 2020

In those early months of January and February, I had just quit my job. I explored my new, non-employed identity. I had quit Facebook for many reasons. One of them was the realization that, after about six months in Somerville, I still didn’t know my neighbors, my neighborhood, or really have any deep friendships. I needed a break.

I had moved to Somerville back in June 2019, but it felt like I only truly moved to the area the first day I was job-free. I had a few months of wintry freedom, then covid hit.

By the end of February, I was increasingly concerned about this novel coronavirus in China. With some trepidation, I visited my cherished former roommates in San Francisco, and spent the entire visit wondering why no one was freaking out as much as I was. People in my informational orbit (except, notably, for Matt Stoller) seemed to be fixated on the Democratic Presidential Primary. I stocked up on food, made panicked calls to my relatives, and tried to convince my friends that no, we weren’t going to be able to have an in-person communal Pesach event, no matter how much they wanted one.

When the public finally acknowledged the virus, I was on the second save of my post-work journey: video games. Hours and hours of Skyrim. Spending hours zoned out playing Slay the Spire. And when I wasn’t doing that, I was trying to write more, again.

I stayed home. I played games. The classes I audited were cancelled. I started writing. I applied to Berkman (a weeks-long endeavor!). I started a book club, restarted my matchmaking hobby. Ran a dungeons and dragons game. Joined another.

For Kavod, I became co-chair of partnerships. Thanks to prompting by Sivan, I set up a virtual pesach for Boston Jews of Color.

I took a lot of stuff at once. Realized I had too many projects on my hands. Put many of them on ice.

By the end of May, I started a job. I hadn’t completed the renewal I was seeking. But something more important came up — the 2020 election was looming.

Thanks to George, I joined Open Labs. This was perhaps the best job I’ve ever had — the only possible contender being the civic team at Facebook.

I became the engineering lead for the team. I worked with amazing people. Among other things, we built the engineering infrastructure for notably cheaper, faster, and more accurate polling and A/B testing for the election. Then we shared the results of that polling and testing generously.

(If you know about Jesse Stinebring‘s and David Shor‘s Blue Rose Research project, it was work adjacent to that)

It was magical. Really competent, generous, talented people. (Too many to tag!) I got to try out my manager/organizer/PM skills. We took the time to build a good team culture, and it paid dividends. One thing we did as a team outing — playing puzzles together with the Association for the Protection of Magical Creatures. Another thing we tried: Jackbox games every friday afternoon.

Ultimately, the election took over my life. I had to jettison most of my other commitments and go back into an intense, all-consuming job. I don’t regret it, but it wasn’t really what my body needed. And hey, I still was able to do some fun projects, like getting people jobs, joining the Louis Brandeis Legacy Fund, writing some posts, and raising money for the Movement Voter Project.

Over the summer I took an online course on anti monopoly run by the Law and Political Economy project. Sarah and I visited Rochester for a few weeks. We came back. For my birthday, Sarah got my friends to all call in amazing voicemails ahead of time. We wandered the town, drinking lots of wonderful coffee and eating fun foods, while I listened to those messages. Thank you, they were wonderful.

In September, I became a Berkman fellow. This was pretty cool! But I ultimately put it way on the back burner till after the election was over. This was a good call, but still a little disappointing: I felt like I had the fellow experience for only one semester, instead of two.

The year ended with me first scrambling to understand and react to post-election-day arguments about the legitimacy of the vote, then retreating into some well-needed quality time with video games and Sarah. I started ramping up my Berkman work. I spent a few days writing hundreds of bullets of notes, trying to work out how I felt about social media and how it works.

It was cold outside. The virus still ran rampant. It had been a strange year. I might not have finally reset my relationship to burnout and stress, but I had helped win an election, I was happy with my boo, and things were good.

(As a reminder, I keep a “then” page that lists what I’ve been up to every year of my adult life. I’ve now finally updated it for 2020)

Categories
Misc

Blessings for a newborn

A friend of mine recently announced that they had a new baby. Delightful!

(In fact, it seems like it’s baby season this last month or two. Maybe a bunch of people were waiting to conceive until after the 2020 election?)

She asked me for a blessing for the child. I like the idea. Here’s what I came up with, with a little assist from Sam Beam:

May your voice be well worth speaking. May your eyes be wide and seeing. May your mind be wise and seeking. May you play on the trail.

May you know how the fire started. May you lose what you must part with. May you never feel the hunger, May you understand yourself.

May your hands be strong and willing. May you know when to speak and to listen. May you be a joy to mention. May you learn from it all.

May you be content with yourself. May you be a joy both to raise and to help. May we benefit from your example. May you have a beautiful relationship with time.

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Misc

A twitter list of Noah Smith’s hidden gems

A little while ago, Noah Smith published a post that listed (and cheerled) a diverse set of different twitter accounts he really enjoyed.

It was pretty convincing, so I tried to follow those accounts. It was annoying — there’s a construct of a twitter list that makes it easy, but he hadn’t made one. I couldn’t find one via searching, either. (Turns out that Twitter Search doesn’t let you search for lists.)

(Side note — once you know to look for them, UX annoyances or bugs are everywhere. From the mightiest, techiest companies to industrially designed physical objects. Honestly, it’s better to be in blissful ignorance about this, so I won’t spend more time here convincing you).

So I made a twitter list for myself and shared it with the world — Noah Smith’s Hidden Gems of Twitter, a Twitter List.

(And, while we’re at it, here’s my favorite personal twitter list — the ~20 people for whom I want to read all their posts)

Categories
Misc

How to fix social media without resorting to widespread censorship

A little while ago, I made a big presentation at Berkman: Governing the Social Media City. In conjunction with the commanding Kathy Pham, I laid out some ideas for how I think about “fixing social media” by way of the metaphor of a city. Importantly, this means putting less weight on content moderation, and thinking a lot more about design.

It’s somewhat a guide to a few of my specific ideas, and also a primer on some of the ways that people in Integrity think about these problems.

Here’s the link. I’d love to know what you think.

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Misc

The January 2021 Mixtape

Every month, I make Sarah a playlist of songs she might particularly want to hear. Here is a link to this month’s mixtape.

I’m behind on my mixtapes. Slowly catching up, though! Here’s January. No real theme this month, just bits, bobs, and good songs.

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

The January 2021 playlist:

  • Superstar by Sonic Youth
  • I Know What Love Isn’t by Jens Lekman
  • Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope
  • Every Party Has A Winner And A Loser by Erlend Øye
  • Congo Man by Ernest Ranglin
  • At Least That’s What You Said by Wilco
  • Almost Happy by K’s Choice
  • True Love Will Find You in the End by Daniel Johnston
  • It’ll All Work Out by Blake Mills
  • Time After Time by Iron & Wine
  • Left Hand Free by alt-J
  • Shuggie by Foxygen
  • Incinerate by Sonic Youth

As always, you can find all the playlists by going here.

Categories
Misc

A meta-proposal for Twitter’s bluesky project

My first-ever submission to SSRN was a success! Recently, I’ve gotten an email every day telling me that A meta-proposal for Twitter’s bluesky project is on the top-ten downloads for a ton of journals.

Officially I’m a co-author in the top 10 downloads in a bunch of SSRN topics

Namely: CompSciRN Subject Matter eJournals, CompSciRN: Other Web Technology (Topic), Computer Science Research Network, InfoSciRN Subject Matter eJournals, InfoSciRN: Information Architecture (Topic), InfoSciRN: Web Design & Development (Sub-Topic), Information & Library Science Research Network, Libraries & Information Technology eJournal and Web Technology eJournal.

This is a little less impressive than it sounds. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Here’s the story:

How did this all happen?

As a Berkman fellow, the main thing one seems to do is go to recurring meetings for a range of working groups. Jad Esber, one of my esteemed colleagues, got the idea and invitation to give a proposal to Twitter on their Bluesky project. He rounded up a bunch of us, and together we spent 5-6 meetings going over parts of what he called a “meta-proposal” — our guide on how to review the other different proposals coming in.

Jad is a wonderful person, and I learned some project management tips just from being part of this process. Getting a fair-sized collection of people to agree on a document, quickly, is difficult! As far as I remember, he did it like so:

  • The first meeting is to scope out different ideas people have about what they want to say.
  • Jad then writes excellent notes and combines ideas into a manageable number of topics.
  • Each meeting after this includes just the subset of the original crew who feel like they have something to contribute.
  • Jad, who has taken good notes throughout these meetings, polishes them up a bit, then turns it into a paper.

It was easy! It was so nice. And I got to work with people I really enjoy, including but not limited to Crystal Lee or Tom Zick

What the paper argues

The paper contains a bunch of ideas and warnings for a hypothetical new, decentralized social network. There are three big pillars: discover & curation, moderation, and business model. It’s quite short, so I recommend you just read all of it — it is barely 5 pages long.

I do care quite a bit about integrity issues (people often call them issues of “moderation”, which is wrong! More on this in a different post later). So I wanted to highlight this a bit.

Sidenote — what is integrity? Shorthand it to “hate speech, harassment, misinformation and other harms”, or “the problems of social media that come from users doing bad things to other users”.

Regarding curation: The most subtle proposal in here is around identifying the “idea neighborhoods” that someone might be hanging out in. (The paper calls them echo chambers). Why? Because “neighborhoods” are an important building block in identifying and fighting targeted harassment. If you know which neighborhood someone normally spends time in, you can be appropriately skeptical of them in times of stress. You can see a basic version of this in action on Reddit: if a certain post in /r/TwoXChromosomes gets a spike in harassing comments, it was pretty easy to block people who recently posted or commented in /r/mensrights.

(This is also fleshed out a bit in the moderation section as well)

On moderation: I’m tempted to block quote the whole thing. It’s all so clear, important, and succinct. And the key ideas to me are in the “friction” section, which is only 3 paragraphs. Summarizing it would take just as long as quoting. Okay, I can’t help myself. Here’s the section on friction (and a little preamble).

The role of moderation isn’t just restricting bad words or racist content. In designing the protocol and reviewing proposals, the conversation around moderation should center around restricting harassment & harm.

In considering the topic, the conversation should be framed under macro norms which are universal to the protocol; meso norms that are shared across certain clients of the protocol; and micro norms that are specific to a specific client.

Friction

It is well documented that our current systems that rely on the virality of user-generated content end up amplifying harmful content – and there is only so much that moderation efforts we tack on can do to mitigate this. In reviewing BlueSky proposals, we must engage with the question of virality and amplification and whether the protocol design avoids this.

Among the beauties and challenges of free flowing online space is the lack of physical boundaries. Traversing “geographies” by jumping from one conversation to another presents no restrictions. However, from a bad actor perspective, this presents an opportunity to scale harassment efforts and disrupt many events at once. Bluesky is an opportunity to “bring in more physics”, designing in friction on the protocol-level as a proactive way to avoid downstream moderation issues. Without getting into the complex issue of identity, increasing the cost of creating a new account, including introducing a monetary cost to start a new account, might be effective.

Enabling users to see which “neighborhood” other users are coming from could help users identify a provocateur and take action themselves. In addition to helping avoid brigading, ways of visibly ‘tagging’ users could help identify “sock-puppet accounts” and make bots easily identifiable. However, visibly tagging users could present the risk of short-circuiting judgments, and so the system should also present opportunities to identify any cross-cutting cleavages – for example by highlighting shared interests between users.

I’d say I couldn’t put it better myself, but, uh, there’s a reason for that. (That is, I feel a lot of ownership of it).

Categories
Misc

A theory of money

Have you heard the parable of the island?

A bloody conqueror invades an island. He forces everyone to mine for iron (the iron is irrelevant. They could be mining for dirt clods for all we care here. The point is that they do work).

At first, his army physically forces everyone into the mines in the morning, and lets them out in the afternoon, confiscating all their iron. That’s really exhausting. For the army, that is. They don’t really care about the islanders.

Then, they switch to taking a fixed amount of iron from people as they leave the mine. It’s much easier than searching them, and has more benefits. No more overseers making sure people are working down there. No more squinting and guessing about people’s ability to product — if someone doesn’t have enough iron, they are caged and beaten until their fellow islander ponies up the iron to free them. Things are now easier (for the army).

This is still very hard, though. How to keep track of who paid up and who didn’t? The army writes out receipts as people unload their iron as they leave the mine. Every week, the army sweeps through the island and makes everyone show their receipts to prove that they’re up to date with their iron duties. The vast majority of soldiers are freed up from guarding the mine entrance.

Parsing through receipts, manning a mine opening, that’s all still too hard. So now the army just has a depot in the middle of the town. Trade your iron for receipts. But the receipts are different. They no longer bother with writing dates or words on the receipts. Receipts are just little plastic tokens. Every week, the army sweeps through and collects 10 tokens from every islander. As long as you have the tokens, they don’t care where you got it from.

Eventually, the army gets even lazier. They sweep through every year instead of every week. They don’t bother manning many “iron for token” booths. They set up one, and let islanders set up smaller booths and do their dirty work for them. As they get lazier, they get softer. They set up a “coconuts for tokens” booth (because occupying an island is hard work, and their supplies are running low), and a “give us a massage for tokens” booth. Life is good.

Those plastic tokens are money. They have value because they’re needed to pay for those yearly sweeps. Those sweeps are taxes. The army is the state. The islanders are us. We’ve just invented money, feudalism, the state, and the transition to capitalism. Ta-dah!

(I didn’t come up with this parable. I am sure I read a version of it before. I can’t find it through casual searching, though, so I’m repeating it from memory for posterity)