Friday, January 9, 2015

The Internet of Humans in Spacetime

I've been spending a lot of my waking time on Twitter, on and off. I've found it very helpful as a way to connect with others and express concepts and opinions that I would like to convert into blog posts. It's also an extremely challenging and confusing medium as soon as you start to interact with others, especially angry people. And we’re all prone to get angry about something or other.

It doesn’t help that I’ll wade into controversial topics, like racism or feminism or LGBT activism or poverty. One might think that arguing the liberal side of those topics (racism is bad, feminism is good, activism for human rights is good, we shouldn’t let some people starve on the streets while others have billions of dollars) would be easy, and, honestly, for me it is, because I’m a white guy so people tend to take me seriously and argue with my points, or they leave me alone.

That’s not the experience of a lot of others on Twitter (and everywhere on the Internet where you can post comments with a name attached). There’s been a massive hashtag flamewar on Twitter called #GamerGate that’s been rolling along for months with no end in sight. I try to leave them alone now, but a few months ago I tried to engage with them to see if there was anything to them. They mostly left me alone, but they spend an enormous amount of time in an ongoing campaign against a handful of women whom they collectively despise, and asking for less diversity and less critical analysis of games (preferably none at all) from any kind of sociological perspective.

Long story short, the movement is intertwined with "chan" culture, spawned from the anonymous imageboard 4chan. When GamerGate got too abusive in their harassment, particularly of individual women, they got kicked off of 4chan and moved to a new site, 8chan, which also hosts child porn sexual abuse images and now is some sort of central hub for whatever #GamerGate is today. This BoingBoing article does a far better job of explaining that culture than I could.

It's a new year and I’m eager to dial back my use of Twitter and refocus on longer-form pieces. We all have so much freedom on the Internet, and it's easy to cause offense unintentionally (and Twitter has a number of flaws that make it suboptimal for the “Internet of humans in spacetime” around conversation threading and notifications) and on the other end of the spectrum are those who make it their mission to offend or to harass a targeted group or individuals. I think existing privacy laws should be able to handle coordinated campaigns of death threats and other types of abuse, but in practice they’re often ignored. Big companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Google have an obvious incentive to make sure things don’t get too out of hand there, but anyone can set up their own 8chan, or even hide behind a Tor proxy and closed, invitation-only groups.

There’s a great book from 2007 called The Future of Reputation by Daniel Solove. It covers the balance between privacy, freedom of speech, and the problems the Internet creates (and helps to solve). You can download it for free here.
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