The dark underbelly of social media

My Observer review of Behind the Screen, Sarah T. Roberts’s remarkable exploration of the exploitative world of content ‘moderation’.

The best metaphor for the net is to think of it as a mirror held up to human nature. All human life really is there. There’s no ideology, fetish, behaviour, obsession, perversion, eccentricity or fad that doesn’t find expression somewhere online. And while much of what we see reflected back to us is uplifting, banal, intriguing, harmless or fascinating, some of it is truly awful, for the simple reason that human nature is not only infinitely diverse but also sometimes unspeakably cruel.

In the early days of the internet and, later, the web, this didn’t matter so much. But once cyberspace was captured by a few giant platforms, particularly Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, then it became problematic. The business models of these platforms depended on encouraging people to upload content to them in digital torrents. “Broadcast yourself”, remember, was once the motto of YouTube.

And people did – as they slit the throats of hostages in the deserts of Arabia, raped three-year-old girls, shot an old man in the street, firebombed the villages of ethnic minorities or hanged themselves on camera…

All of which posed a problem for the social media brands, which liked to present themselves as facilitators of creativity, connectivity and good clean fun, an image threatened by the tide of crud that was coming at them. So they started employing people to filter and manage it. They were called “moderators” and for a long time they were kept firmly under wraps, so that nobody knew about them.

That cloak of invisibility began to fray as journalists and scholars started to probe this dark underbelly of social media…

Read on

Incivility and its implications

Very perceptive essay by Umair Haque about the long-term implications of online incivility. Sample:

We once glorified Twitter as a great global town square, a shining agora where everyone could come together to converse. But I’ve never been to a town square where people can shove, push, taunt, bully, shout, harass, threaten, stalk, creep, and mob you…for eavesdropping on a conversation that they weren’t a part of…to alleviate their own existential rage…at their shattered dreams…and you can’t even call a cop. What does that particular social phenomenon sound like to you? Twitter could have been a town square. But now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit. And while there are people who love to dive into mosh pits, they’re probably not the audience you want to try to build a billion dollar publicly listed company that changes the world upon.

The social web became a nasty, brutish place. And that’s because the companies that make it up simply do not not just take abuse seriously…they don’t really consider it at all. Can you remember the last time you heard the CEO of a major tech company talking about…abuse…not ads? Why not? Here’s the harsh truth: they see it as peripheral to their “business models”, a minor nuisance, certainly nothing worth investing in, for theirs is the great endeavor of…selling more ads.

They’re wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Abuse is killing the social web, and hence it isn’t peripheral to internet business models — it’s central.

It is. Of course the reason why the proprietors of social networking services don’t want to tackle it is that doing so would imply that they were responsible for what gets published on their platforms, and that might imply legal liability for it in the longer run.

The sociology of online cruelty

Interesting NYT piece by Nick Bilton, which starts by outlining the way in which the Net has become a machine for amplifying cruelty but finishes on a more nuanced note, suggesting that maybe we should be researching the social dynamics of this kind of mob behaviour.

In the early days of Twitter, I jumped into the fray a few times myself. But since then, having been on the receiving end of several Internet mobs, I think twice before piling on.

Some people I know who were once attacked by a mob now reach out to whomever is the Internet’s piñata of the week, telling them to hang tough, to look the other way and that this, too, shall pass.

And I’ve come to the realization that most people do not join these online mobs with the intention of being mean.

Whether it’s an online army of one or millions, people often believe they are doing the right thing by joining the mob.

“You show your proof of membership in a community by criticizing the most erratically,” said Anil Dash, a tech entrepreneur and blogger who has been on the receiving end of racially charged Twitter mobs. “There’s a social dynamic that says ‘Let me show that I belong.’ And there is a reward structure for being even more inflammatory.”

Mr. Dash noted that online mobs can sometimes serve a public good, as in cases when the powerless are given a voice to hold the ruling class accountable.

But the next time we want to provide justice from behind a keyboard, we should remember that there is a nuanced human being on the other side of that screen.

And while we’re not intending to be mean online, there’s a chance that in our quest for justice, we are performing an even worse injustice.

He ends by quoting Nietzsche: “Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”