“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?


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.


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.


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

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!


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

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?


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.


On the Tech Policy Press podcast

I forgot to mention this a while ago: Jeff and I were on a second fancy podcast when we launched. This time — Tech Policy Press with Justin Hendrix.

It was fun! Justin really understands these issues and asks good questions.

Plus, as a bonus, Aviv was brought on for part two. Worlds collide.


I’ll be on a panel in NYU on Dec 15th

Update: It went great! Here’s the recap link to watch it and get a summary

Here’s what the recap said about my part:

As a former Facebook employee, Sahar Massachi stressed how the organizational dynamics inside social media companies influence their products. For example, to increase profit, Facebook optimizes for metrics like growth and engagement, which often tend to fuel harmful content. Although platforms have integrity workers to help mitigate these harms, the focus on engagement often undercuts their efforts. Only by changing the incentives, he said, can we change how social media companies approach harm on their platforms. Massachi co-founded the Integrity Institute to build a community of integrity workers to support the public, policymakers, academics, journalists, and social media companies themselves as they try to solve the problems posed by social media.

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.


  • 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

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.


Updating /now for 2021

Previously on

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.


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.


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.)


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