Oh hey I got engaged

Sarah proposed! This happened back in April. Oops! I forgot to tell you.

Here’s the livestream video of how it went down. But maybe you’d like more context! If so, read on.

How we got together in the first place:

  • Sarah and I have known each other since the 3rd grade.
  • I think I’ve had a crush on her since the 3rd grade, but I’m not sure. Definitely in high school though.
  • Frustratingly for me, she just kept stubbornly dating someone who wasn’t me.
  • We kept in touch in college. It was nice.
  • Post-college, we went on an epic road trip with some forever friends. Despite some encouraging signs, this was a false start.
  • We kept in touch post-college. It was nice.
  • I lived in Rochester for a bit, and we ended up circling each other romantically for a few weeks. Despite these encouraging signs, it was another false start.
  • We kept in touch. I moved to San Francisco. It was nice.
  • One day, during our regular every-few-months phone calls, I told Sarah something like: “hey, if we’re ever in the same city again, I think we should date”. She said: “absolutely not.”
  • We spent 2 hours going over why she thought us dating wasn’t a great idea. I took many notes. At the end, even though I guess I was rejected, I felt great! This person was calling me out on my bullshit! She knew me so well. I felt close to her and happy.
  • Six months later, we were both visiting our parents in Rochester for our 10-year high school reunion. During that reunion, I was wearing hot leather pants, the bullies and bullied were happily chatting, the lions were laying with the lambs, and it was clear that we had all changed a lot since high school. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that helped change her mind. :-)

Background to the proposal:

  • Sarah and I were still circling each other. We were “seeing” each other, but on different coasts.
  • She visited in February. This was a big deal!
  • We went from “idk are we dating idk” to “we love each other and are in a committed relationship” in the span of five days.
  • A few days later, we went to a really, really, elaborate proposal. I’m talking “hired a friend to project manage it for six months”. I’m talking “70 friends show up out of nowhere to celebrate”. I’m talking “secretly make arrangements with your beloved’s boss to take her on a 3-week tour of the world”.
  • After witnessing all that, Sarah turned to me and said: “never do that for me”.
  • I replied: “absolutely do that for me.”
  • She said: “okay, I guess I’m proposing, then”.
  • Reader, I held her to it.
  • I even would poke her about it years later: “don’t forget the proposal must be extravagant! I want friends there! I want pomp. I want elephants!”

How the proposal actually went down:

There were elephants. Specifically, little cute stuffed ones. But I get ahead of myself. Here’s what happened:

Sarah and I grew up together, so our families both lived in the same town. We were visiting both for Pesach. On the second night, her family hosted. As we started the hunt for the Afikoman, Sarah suggested that I look for it.

I looked around and found … elephants! Everywhere.

But also, after them, I found the Afikoman, next to a book. The book was full of well-wishes from friends and family. And also — Sarah proposed! The book was a replacement for a ring.

Loved it. Here are some photos.


Questions about “Web3” and “Content Moderation”

I moderated a panel at Unfinished Live a couple weeks ago. The panel was not recorded. The day’s topic was “Web3”, and the panel topic was chosen for me: Content Moderation.

Now, I really don’t like the framing of content moderation. (Or Trust and Safety). Oh well.

Here are the questions I led the session description with:

How might the traditional process of moderating content and behavior online look in a truly decentralized Web3 world? A shared protocol might be harder to edit than a central codebase; distributed data might be harder to change. However, new capabilities (like smart contracts) might improve aspects of moderation work. How might the theory and practice of integrity in Web3 compare to the systems we are accustomed to today?

And here are the (hopefully challenging) advanced questions I tried to ask:

  • One argument is that content moderation is really one manifestation of larger questions: how should platforms or protocols be designed? What are the terms of service, and how are they enforced? In short, these are questions of governance. Do you agree? Do you think narrow questions of enforcing terms of service can be separated from these larger questions?
  • As I see it, when it comes to writing and enforcing terms of service, there are two proposed alternatives to platform *dictatorship*: democratization, and decentralization. On the surface, decentralization and democratization seem opposed: a world where “the users vote to ban nazi content” conflicts with a world where “you can choose to see or not see nazi content as you like”. Must they be opposed? How are they complements vs two opposing visions?
  • One thing I keep coming back to in this work is a chart that Mark Zuckerberg (or his ghostwriter) of all people, put out, back in 2018. It’s a pretty simple chart, and it’s an abstract one: as content gets closer to “policy violating”, engagement goes up. That is, people have a natural tendency to gravitate towards bad things — where bad: could be hateful, misinformation, calls to violence, what have you. Colloquially, you can think about this as during the web1 era of forums: flame wars would get a ton of engagement, almost by definition. The corollary to this insight is that the _design_ of the experience matters a ton. You want care put into creating a system where good behavior is incentivized and bad behavior is not. If we’re focused on a model of either decentralized or democratized content moderation, aren’t we distracted from the real power: the design of the protocol or platform?
  • In thinking through governance, it seems like there’s a question of where legitimacy and values might be “anchored”, as it were. On one hand, it seems like we generally want to respect the laws and judgement of democratic countries. On the other, we want to design platforms that are resistant to surveillance, censorship, and control of unfriendly authoritarian countries. It seems like an impossible design question: make something resilient to bad governments, but accountable to good ones. Is this in fact impossible? Is the answer to somehow categorize laws or countries that are “to be respected” vs those “to be resisted?” To only operate in a few countries? To err more fully on the side of “cyber independence by design” or on the side of “we follow all laws in every country”?

In the end, it was a pretty fun panel. I think we drifted away from “content moderation” straight towards governance (which was supposedly a different panel). Governance being “who decides community standards?”. I think that’s because we all agreed that any work enforcing community standards is downstream of the rules as written, and the resourcing to actually do your job. So that was nice.

Made some friends (I hope!) too.


Updated Now page

Did a little housekeeping. I updated my shamefully dormant /now page.

For future reference, here’s what it says (after I updated it):

In 2020, 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.

2021 was the year of founding The Integrity Institute. It’s great! Check it out. (Here’s a lovely piece laying out our launch).

I also 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.

2022 has flown by. Lots of calls, lots of time making Integrity Institute more real. I haven’t left the house too often, and I also spent a lot of energy supporting Sarah as she finished her dissertation and prepared for a new job.

Now, the Institute is still my big main passion. I can’t believe time has flown by so far. I recently moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with Sarah. She’s a law professor at Brooklyn Law now. Fancy!

Oh — and Sarah proposed!

We’re doing all the things that you do when you move in — find a doctor, redecorate, figure out who your friends will be and what your favorite coffeeshop is. It’s hard because we’re so busy and stressed: she’s starting life as a professor, teaching classes for the first time, etc. I’m trying to get this nonprofit further off the ground. (We recently raised One Million Dollars, which is nice).

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

It’s hard to have One Big Project for almost two years: at some point you need to start being less focused and more human. I think I need to live life more. Go outside, spend more time with friends, be more spontaneous. I miss hanging out with people, and generally relaxing. I miss being relaxed.

This is a “now” page, as opposed to a “then” page or “about” page. You can also read about my current projects, my pre-2021 life, or just go to my latest update.


Some books I recommend

When I meet someone out in the world who mentions they have kids around ages 10+, I get excited. I start maneuvering the conversation towards the subject of books. If all works well, we’ll soon be talking about some of my favorite series of books: mostly young adult coming of age fantasy novels, but also some books that are Just Plain Good.

It’s not just kids, though. Some series are my comfort food. I read them over and over again in my life: often as I sleep, as a way to relax. Sometimes I’ll start re-reading a series from the start, and be lost to the world for a week as I just voraciously tear through them.

I’ve hyped them up in person, and via text. You’ll see these recommendations scattered in emails, facebook comments, chat threads.

Now, I’ll try to post them here, so that there’s one more central place.

These are by no means all the “Sahar Massachi loved these as a teen” canon. But it’s a start.

Read the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett

This series by Terry Pratchett is probably my favorite series in all of fiction. TP was the most popular (fantasy? fiction?) author in all of the UK — until he was displaced by JK Rowling.

Discworld is a set of books of social satire pretending to be fantasy pretending to be humor. They have little mini-series and in-jokes between books.

The series went on for so long that the style changed over time. So “early”, “middle”, and “late” books have enough of a different feel that if you only mildly liked a book from one period, you might think another from a different period was great. (Skip the first four, they’re quite different than the rest)

I think that wisdom is pretty hard to find these days. I find these books to be wise — but not in a self-help kind of way at all. Instead, they’re adventure books! Full of memorable characters, fun situations, and so on. The wisdom comes from asides, little sentences or five that go into the author’s theory of humanity.

It never stops being really fun and funny. But there’s also lots of veiled cultural references, meditations on certain themes, and page-turning action.

There’s a book on the nature of belief, religion, the iron law of institutions, and philosophy. It’s also about a god who turned into a turtle and found the one follower who actually still believed in him.

There’s a book on startups, VCs, the power of marketing, .the internet, and corporate power. It’s also about a con man who was sentenced to revitalizing the city post office for his crimes.

There are books on witches (psychology, the power of narrative), policemen (what does it mean to be human, the rule of law, democracy, neo-noir), death, incompetent wizards, etc.

Again, these books are fun and funny without the sort of cheap laughs you’d get from a “humor” book. Kind of like the difference between I don’t know, Parks and Rec vs “Dude Where’s My Car”.

Wholeheartedly recommend them to everyone.

(And if you go deep into the rabbithole, there is a game you can play set in that universe that has been continually developed by volunteers for dozens of years. Plus BBC mini series, old computer games, etc)

Read the Tortall Books by Tamora Pierce

(Tamora Pierce writes novels in two different worlds. The Circle of Magic books and the Tortall Books. Circle of Magic is clearly inferior, in my opinion.)

TP was a pioneering writer of feminist coming of age teen fantasy novels. Not that I knew that when I started reading them. They were just — really fun!

I think it’s best to illustrate just by giving a quick gloss on the series (in order of their writing).

  • Alanna books: a girl wants to be the first female knight in hundreds of years. She pretends to be a boy, becomes a page/squire/knight, etc. Goes on adventures.
  • Wild Magic books: two dozen years later, a girl has a weird kind of magic — not the normal energy flows etc. Instead, she can talk to animals. This turns out to be really important. Also, the land is under invasion from mythic creatures (giants, dragons, griffons, centaurs, and less intelligent and nice beings). Why? What’s going on? Can animals, humans, and magical beings coexist?
  • Protector of the Small — a little while later, a girl wants to be the first openly female person training to be a knight. It’s very hard. She deals with sexism, stands up to bullying, classism and conservativism, etc. Bullying being one expression of many of these bad isms. Great stuff.
  • Tricksters — the daughter of the hero of the first books gets captured by pirates, sold into slavery in the fantasy carribean, and becomes the spymaster for a multicultural revolt against colonial autocracy.
  • Beka Cooper — 500 years ago, a girl is a cop. But her friends are all thieves. And the cops are very corrupt. How do you be a good cop in a corrupt system? Can you change the system? In this adventure series, you can, at least a bit.

While the first series reads a little young, as you go through the books chronologically, the implied age level of the reader increases as well. I recommend starting with the Tricksters series. Only two books, both of them full of intrigue and spying and so on. Plus a revolution!

Tamora Pierce is clearly just a kind person with a passion for justice. I think she helped me become who I am today. Big fan, and the books are just so fun and easy to read.

Read the Valdemar books by Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey is the sort of person who writes 2-3 books a year, and has for decades.

She has a few larger worlds/series, but I’ll focus on the books set in the land of Valdemar.

The books generally come out as trilogies. So you follow one main character through three books that are similarly titled (e.g. “Storm Warning”, “Storm Rising”, “Storm Breaking”). Then the main character from that book might be a supporting or minor character in the next. So you have a sense of a cinematic universe in which all these books happen.

ML also clearly saw herself as a feminist author writing a new kind of book (starting in the … 80s?). Lots of female protagonists. Lots of examples of, interestingly, different *types* of feminism.

Magic’s Pawn, which I read quite young, was pivotal to me. I don’t want to give away all the twists, but I think it’s safe to say that it features a gay male protagonist, it is a compelling book, and it got me on the gay rights train early. I cried reading it, and I reread it every few years.

All the books have well-developed magic systems (important!). Adventure! Ethics! Often — spying and sneaking and so on.

If a country could be a main character of a book, Valdemar would be it. It’s a kingdom where the knights are all chosen by (basically) unicorns-with-horns. Those knights (called Heralds) are commandos, judges, fighters, etc. And they generally have to be good people because otherwise they’ll be disowned by their not-unicorns.

It’s a great setup for lots of adventures. Plus, as time has gone on, the books move geographically far afield and away from that convention.

They’re just … really good! Some sample series:

  • Valdemar doesn’t have “real” magic. This is a problem. Some People have a Destiny planned for the heir to the throne — go learn how to do it. She throws it off, and goes off to do what’s best for the kingdom in a surprising way — living with the fantasy native americans and confronting a world-destroying evil that is gaining strength in the hinterlands.
  • It’s thousands of years ago. There are two super strong wizards duking it out — the evil one and the good one. The main character is a griffon (gryphon) commando who has a lot to learn about love. Plus his best friend, a human therapist-healer-bodyworker-hearthealer (it’s hard to explain).
  • The cataclysm is going to happen soon. The giant empire to the east is invading. The religious fundamentalists to the east are in the midst of a reformation. Can a bunch of unlikely allies avert the apocalypse? Can the commander of the invading army successfully go native and defy the empire?
  • The long origin story of a genius mercenary, and how she ended up using every trick in the book to stop an evil king who mind-controlled his own people to turn them into an unstoppable horde.

These are a comfort food for me. I reread them all the time (along with Tamora Pierce’s books and Discworld books)

Read Sabriel and the sequels

Sabriel is a fun, unique book. Unique, except that the sequels exist (and honestly, Lirael, the sequel, is even better).

In this book — it’s roughly the 1910’s. Hadrian’s wall exists, and it is the border between [basically england], and a land of magic.

Sabriel is from magicland, but she lives at boarding school south of the wall. One day, her dad sends her a message, and she thinks she needs to go north and rescue him. Also, her dad is a reverse necromancer — he puts the dead to rest. She goes north into magicland, and realizes that the zombies and other undead are taking over.

Why? What about her dad? Will she rescue her dad? Will she rescue the kingdom? Who is the mysterious enemy behind all this?

Plus, in this book: lawful magic is cast with runes, chaos magic with words, and necromancy is done with bells. Love it.

Hard to put into words, but I really like this one.

Other books that teenagers might love

If I write a part 2 to this post, I might flesh this out. But here’s a little teaser:

  • Ender’s Game: Of all my favorite books, clearly the most conservative. Adults can’t be trusted. Children are terrible to each other. Overcoming adversity. This is a good book for every child to read, but if it’s the final book they read you’re in trouble. Hard to explain, but it’s fantastic and I highly recommend it. Bonus — Ender’s Shadow is a sort of sequel. Most of the same events, but from the perspective of a minor character in the first book. Really recontextualizes a lot. Read both. Wow.
  • The Westing Game and The View From Saturday and From the Mixed Up Files of Ms Basil E. Frankwiler are for younger kids (5th grade, maybe? 3rd?). Excellent, fun, thought provoking.
  • Redwall is great is you’re 7-9 years old.
  • The “Drizzt Books” and many other books by R.A. Salvatore are fun and worth reading once. There are lot of them. I recommend reading The Crystal Shard, and then Homeland, Exile, Sojourn. They’re good! The Crystal Shard and its sequels are fine, standard fantasy. But Homeland/Exile/Sojourn (especially the first two) stand out to me. Imagine an evil, theocratic, society of beings who could live till 1000 years old, easily. What would it look like? You need some order — it’s a hierarchical society run by a priesthood, not a chaostown. But also it’s not like they frown on murder, for example, per se. The books do a great job exploring that, as well as what it might feel like to be trapped in a society with values very different than yours.

Elon Musk and the giant pile of money

First off, I hate thinking about Elon Musk. I don’t have a position on Tom Cruise, on Beyonce, whomever is the new Justin Bieber these days (Zendaya?). Why should I be obligated to know anything about this other celebrity? I spent years blissfully ignoring his blatant propaganda to nerds I respected, and just letting my friend’s thoughts about Tesla just roll off my back.

And then now this set of stunts around buying twitter. I represent social media workers, including those who would be his employees. All of a sudden, I had to care.

Long story short, a bunch of members got together, wrote an open letter, it was covered in the Washington Post, and then CNN.

That was cool.

But there’s more. It got me riled up enough to write up something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the years — the power of a giant pile of money. I tweeted it out, and posted on fb, and here it is for posterity:

Everything below this line is a copy-paste from this FB post (which is slightly reworked from this twitter thread)

Wrote a little thing about Elon Musk and twitter — it shows us the power of a Giant Pile of Money.

Big piles of money have so much power you don’t even have to *spend* the money to wield it.

Imagine if EM successfully walks away. He’s gotten many twitter employees to quit. Thrashed product roadmaps. Pushed out executives. Wasted (my guess) at least six months.

All this destruction of a company — without even spending any money! The big pile of money is still there, waiting to be used for the next deal.

This is not unusual. Sufficient money has a power of its own, just being sitting there.

An advertiser on a platform, spending money on ads, can *threaten* to pull them if they don’t get their way. They might get exemptions from the terms of service, or water down enforcement.

They get the win — WITHOUT changing how they move their money.

Even better, the *fact* that they are a big advertiser means that they get special favors and consideration: without asking for it, without even knowing about it. The power of a pile of money.

(I know advertisers *spend* money to make more, so the example isn’t perfect. But remember the money they spend gets them even more money back. I think it works)

Or, think about the realm of politics. A billionaire doesn’t like a congressman. He threatens to unleash 15 million dollars of ads if the congressman doesn’t change their stance on issue X.

The congressman folds. The billionaire wins — WITHOUT spending any money.

As a secondary point: From my understanding of the terms of the deal, he’s trying to do something illegal, or at least non-contractual. (I defer to Matt Levine on this)

And yet, here we are, having this conversation.

A white collar person is trying to evade accountability and use tricks to get out of following the law. And we think he might get away with it.

This is not rare. We face an epidemic of white collar crime in this country.

The giant pile of money has power. It sucks in and distorts reality around it. It doesn’t need to be spent, only to be referenced.

The giant pile of money buys silence (“do I _really_ want to piss off this guy?”) for free without effort. The pile of money dominates.

And grows.


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

September 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 for making exporting playlists to text easily.


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.


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.


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?


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?


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.


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?