Fixing Reddit for Women and Diverse Science Fiction Fans (and everyone else)

Reddit has been broken for a long, long time. The situation only becomes clearer as the site grows and tries half-heartedly to repair itself. The problem may be embedded in the structure of how Reddit works.

What Reddit rather sadly depicts is that the idea of a broad, open, public space for discussion is likely impossible to create. Reddit, and by extension, a lot of the early web, is often thought of as a kind of a prelapsarian state before Facebook, Twitter, and those darn social justice warriors ruined everything.

Trouble is, saying that freedom came first gets things backwards: idealized states of purity from the past always conceal the power relations that enabled them. Reddit’s free speech, enacted, is mainly a home for young, naïve, and mostly white men to talk in the abstract about equality and philosophy without having to confront their biases.

Reddit Will Always Be a Home for Hatred and Harassment

The only other options seem to be Voat, which is basically 4Chan + Reddit, and Raddle, which is the political opposite of Voat.

So there’s no real alternative right now for people who just want to talk about sci-fi. Reddit seems structurally broken and its creators are unable or unwilling to repair it in meaningful ways.

Those problems haven’t gone away.

What Nithyanand came to realize was that Reddit represents an important part of the story about the spread of misinformation across social media platforms. While it may seem that Reddit forums are insular, the site punches above its weight in influence on the internet, said Brian Solis, an analyst focusing on social media at research firm Altimeter. It’s the fifth most popular website in the US, according to analytics firm Alexa, with more than 250 million users.

“It is where a lot of information starts and spreads,” Solis said.

Reddit was a misinformation hotspot in 2016 election, study says

Since the existing Reddit seems irretrievably broken…

…what if we create a new Reddit that works for everyone?

(In case you don’t use Reddit, a “subreddit” is a community created and run by its members on the Reddit website.)

Here are four key issues that Reddit refuses to fix.

1. Blocking doesn’t work properly.

At present, blocking a user doesn’t prevent them from seeing your posts and comments. It only prevents you from seeing theirs. That amounts to a blocking function that “empowers” you to become completely deaf when other people are talking behind your back on Reddit.

In other words, the blocking function is at least 50% useless.

2. Reddit won’t help if you’re being harassed.

If you’ve ever been harassed on Reddit and asked the site moderators for help, you probably experienced this yourself. In one recent case, Reddit’s “help and support” team openly admitted that they prioritise gaining new users rather than helping existing ones. They got rid of their “probation” period for new users where you had to answer a Captcha for a week or so. Combined with an API that allows you to automatically reply to other users’ posts and comments, Reddit “empowers” its users to stalk and harass each other across the entire site.

And as you know, subreddit moderators are often not technically skilled enough, or just are too apathetic, to deal with the issue on a subreddit-by-subreddit basis.

3. There’s no reliable way to discover new subreddits you might like.

Aside from relying on useful sidebar listings like you’ll find on a few pages, there’s no reliable way to find other subreddits you might like. If you contact users directly, Reddit will delete your subreddit and your account for “spamming”. That’s a big part of the reason why there are so few successful new subreddits. The discovery mechanism is pitifully inadequate.

4. The “dudebro” culture.

Have you noticed that everyone on Reddit refers to each other as “dude” or “bro”? That’s a problem.

You see a woman on the street, or in class, or at work. Do you automatically walk up to her and say “hey dude” or “what’s poppin’, bro”? Cutesy answers aside, no, you don’t, any more than a woman would walk up to you and say, “what’s up, sis?”

Reddit doesn’t have a woman problem. It has a dudebro problem. Reddit’s official statistics say otherwise, but in everyday use, there are practically no women here. Or the women are hiding their gender for fear of being harassed, which actual women will often tell you is the case.

The same is true for LGBT people and essentially any ethnicity or culture that isn’t the majority Internet demographic in North America (i.e. white and middle class or above). You don’t notice because diverse voices don’t bother to come here.

In other words, Reddit sucks if you’re not a white, straight, dude (or bro, or dudebro). Compare Reddit to the diversity you find on Twitter, for example. Things are strangely plain-vanilla here on Reddit, and everyone misses out because of it.

So what do you think? Would you join a version of Reddit that sucked less in these four key ways? The code for “old Reddit” (from 2017) is open-source and freely available for anyone. So we can make this real if we decide to go ahead and do it. Add a comment with your thoughts if you want to help, contribute, or sign up. And if you want to take this idea and create your own project, go for it.

Advertisements

How Artists Starve, Part 2: Lessons to Draw From Ongoing Drama

The previous post has become unexpectedly popular. Issues addressed there are ongoing.

As in that post, the privacy of all involved is preserved here. No personally identifying details are included here or anywhere else. AltSciFi protects your privacy, and will continue to do so.

Unfortunate aspects of the situation aside, this is a fascinating example of how social media accelerates and distorts issues that could otherwise have been resolved quickly and simply.

Over the past two days, Twitter has revealed a pattern that’s worth keeping in mind moving forward. Read the previous post first if you haven’t already.

A snowball becomes an avalanche. AltSciFi is a bystander at this point, marveling at how strange all this has become. This is how artists destroy each other. No wonder nothing ever changes as corporations take over our lives. They don’t need to force us to work for them. We’re too busy fighting amongst ourselves to do anything worthwhile at all.

The Vicious Filter Bubble

You’ve probably heard of the “filter bubble” effect, where users of sites like Facebook and Twitter cocoon themselves inside opinions that agree with their existing beliefs.

This also applies to disagreements, but in even more amplified form. Here’s the scenario:

One user with a large social media following (in this case, Artist B) hears a rumour from someone she likes. The rumour — in this case, a wrong one concocted by someone looking to spread gossip — was “someone is stealing your art”. Instead of asking the target of the rumour (in this case, AltSciFi) “is it true?”, Artist B decided to crowdsource for more opinions.

On a social network like Twitter, typical gossip quickly becomes a campaign of cyberbullying, as followers “take sides” to “protect” their friend. Note that AltSciFi doesn’t play this game — we’re not part of the Artist Twitter clique, so the bullying was one-sided from the start. What’s fascinating is how the bullies convinced each other that they were just an unusually massive, loud and assertive group of victims.

Bullies in an Echo Chamber

No one looked further for facts by asking the target of the gossip, because within minutes, an echo chamber emerged. Everyone began entertaining themselves with the juicy tea of the day. That’s the whole purpose of social media for most people: to use others as a form of free entertainment. In this case, artists were doing to each other what Twitter “fans” usually do to artists (i.e. demand entertainment for free), only in a more blatantly malicious way.

The real problem arises when people try to use social media to transact business with each other.

As we see in this ongoing situation, Artist B could have sent email saying “AltSciFi, please take down my work” or in a more cool-headed moment, “I found this site. What’s going on here?” Instead, Twitter was used, leading to a predictable pile-on of the mindless herd seeking rage as entertainment. Even worse, as the bullying intensified, legitimate voices asking AltSciFi for clarification went unheard amid the noise. The purpose of these blog entries is to at least have some way to counter the louder narrative. But of course, gossip-seekers and angry mobs aren’t exactly known for their reading comprehension.

There’s a second dynamic at play which is more important.

The second aspect here is the misuse of language, and its effects.

To Weaponise a Group, Convince Them That They Are Victims

If you follow AltSciFi, you’ve recently read about how easily individuals and groups can be misled into doing the wrong thing when they feel threatened.

What’s the easiest way to create and weaponise a group?

Convince them that they are victims, and demonise the evil “other”.

AltSciFi was targeted by Gamergate a few years ago. The dynamic was identical to what’s happening now. The roving horde showed up and started talking trash for whatever reason, probably something related to their hatred of women in videogames. But the strangest part of it was that they — about fifteen or twenty howling at once — consistently repeated how AltSciFi was impinging on their “freedom of speech”.

They came to bully AltSciFi, yet the gang was genuinely convinced that the target of their bullying was the aggressor.

It was amazing.

Gaslighting, Shaming, and Victim-Blaming

The same situation is happening how. Artist B incited a Twitter mob to harass AltSciFi, all the while whining about being “gaslighted”, “shamed” and “victim-blamed”.

Gaslighting

is an emotional abuse tactic where Person B tells Person A that they’re “crazy” in order to undermine their self-confidence. At no point in time has anyone done that here. It’s bizarre to assume that anyone who disagrees with you automatically thinks you’re crazy.

Shaming

is the weaponising of a crowd to enforce social norms by isolating and applying group pressure against the targeted individual. AltSciFi has never retweeted or mentioned anyone directly during this entire drama.

The only people who know about this situation are those on Artist B’s side, because Artist B brought out the horde. It’s quite likely that most of AltSciFi’s followers don’t know or care about Artist Twitter, just as Artist Twitter doesn’t know about Hacker Twitter (the other half of our audience).

Victim-blaming

requires a victim. Taking the posture of a victim does not make you one, and the misunderstanding in this case could have been resolved before that posture seemed necessary to anyone. But that’s not how things happened here. The mistake made by AltSciFi here could have been resolved in a way that was useful for everyone. How frustrating that years of work have been reduced to a rage-fueled trash fire by people who couldn’t be bothered to send an email before releasing the hounds.

(The whole point of the store site is that it has no inventory — we have to collaborate with artists in order to sell anything. What’s online is a prototype, not a finished store. The whole bit about “stealing art” is a bullshit soundbyte repeated ad nauseam based an a complete lack of anything resembling facts beyond surface assumptions.)

Connect a lie to a person’s values, and anything will become a fact if you repeat it often enough. And so here we are. Gossip becomes viral bullshit, and viral bullshit becomes sanctified fact.

It Ended Before It Began

By the time the conversation began, it was already an argument, like a circle of elementary-school children on the playground goading two kids in the middle to fight each other. The circle prevents Kid A from leaving, as the circle is friendly with Kid B. What happens? It’s not even a fight, fair or otherwise: it’s an episode of violent bullying.

If you’ve ever experienced this in real life, you know this all too well. It’s happening between adults right now, bleeding out from Twitter as you read these words.

So why does this blog post sound so calm and detached?

Mainly because it’s impossible to control other people. There is no way to de-escalate situations like this, even if you apologise for honest mistakes (to an already-suspicious person, there are no “honest mistakes”) and deal with the issue quickly (there is no such thing as “quickly enough”).

For most people, their emotions rule their lives, and it has nothing to do with gender.

The Only Thing to Fear

Humans are primarily emotional animals. The strongest emotion is fear. If you can convince a person to be afraid — then connect them with others who are similarly persuaded — you can weaponise them against nearly any target. Even their own allies. Fellow citizens in their own country. Friends. Neighbors. Random strangers. People of a different sexuality, culture, economic background or ethnicity.

Read the previous paragraph again and ask yourself when this tactic has been used to influence you, because it definitely has been. The question is “were you aware it was happening?”

This is just how humans operate. It’s unfortunate, because once a person has been persuaded emotionally, very little can be done to change their perspective. Thinking ends. Reacting begins. Snowballs naturally roll downhill.

In this specific situation, this drama interrupted other work in progress yesterday, so the completion of that work came first.

Now, Artist B’s complaint has been dealt with, as will anyone else (privately via email, not publicly on Twitter). This is the professional way to deal with situations as they arise. Social media is not the place for professional communication or dispute resolution.

In any case, it’s a fascinating example of how this type of situation unfolds, isn’t it?

Suspicion and Trust

If you study the lives of successful people, you’ll see that this type of problem is inevitable. Either intentionally or inadvertently, others will try to destroy anything new, because it is unknown, and therefore seen with fear and suspicion. You don’t need “evolutionary psychology” to know this is true.

Examples:

– electric car makers versus the oil industry.
– indie music labels versus the majors.
– people who defend the rights of women and minorities, versus those who yearn for a return to a misogynist, sexist and racist past.

With the addition of social media, situations like this one can lead to people using misplaced rage and self-validation to justify acting against their own best interests — jumping to conclusions and weaponising entire groups in pointless tribal warfare.

We’ve seen how this has transformed politics and society since 2016. The ways that social media have changed communication on a smaller scale are equally important, and in this case, troubling.

AltSciFi is designed to help artists, and it is artists who are trying to destroy AltSciFi.
Isn’t it ironic? :)

And yes, sad as well. But this is life. You have to roll with it, preferably with a sense of humour. There’s no other choice. The horde’s next tactic is to howl, “it took too long to fix it! You’re still the devil!”

Well, okay then. That doesn’t change AltSciFi’s purpose, which is to help artists. Your feedback is still welcome if our purposes align.

Choice

So what to do from here? Unfortunately, not much can be done, aside from responding promptly to reasonable suggestions and professional requests, and ignoring the rest.

This blog entry ends with a question: from the beginning of this drama, had you already made up your mind? (Hint: the answer is probably “yes”.) Really, it’s not truly answerable. We all rationalise our decisions immediately after the fact; everyone is 100% right in their own minds. Rightness is feeling, not fact.

These blog entries are not intended to change anyone’s mind. Hopefully, at least you’ll think before joining a social media mob next time. In the worst-case scenario, it could be too late for AltSciFi, but good enough if it helps you as an individual and as an artist.

P.S. The two main thinking-related issues here are called self-confirmation bias and the consistency principle. Look them up and read more if you want, especially if you intend to deal with groups of people, and even if you just want to better understand yourself.

Are You A First Class User or Second Class Loser? Hidden Dangers of Social Media De-anonymization.

Hey friends. I’m going to wax geeky and talk about personal online security for Twitter users for a moment, because it’s important.

The following text is derived from a talk given by Shaula Evans, and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Twitter recently announced that everyone can get a blue verified checkmark if you “just” turn over some personal data. Turning over your personal details to Twitter is a Faustian bargain. (Correction: From what I’m reading today, sounds like the change is that everyone can apply for verification, but may not be accepted.)

Twitter wants your government ID in order to verify your account. THIS IS A BAD IDEA. Verified IDs cause two sets of problems.

Verified ID Problem #1: People naively assume removing anonymity solves trolling. It doesn’t.

Trump/Brexit have emboldened people to to stop hiding their bigotry. “Real name” policies provide the illusion of a solution, but it doesn’t work.

Know what DOES address online harassment?

1. Clear guidelines
2. Commitment to enforce them
3. Timely enforcement (Not twelve hours. Or two years.)

I say that speaking from experience. I build and consult on building healthy, inclusive online communities. It is possible, but it takes will and work. Verified ID’s aren’t a solution. They are window dressing. They are shuffling deck chairs.

Verified ID Problem #2: Verified IDs are dangerous for vulnerable people.

Here is a great write up from geekfeminism‘s wiki on who is harmed by real name policies. Read it.…

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do because you’re not affected? Neither did Twitter. That’s why we need diverse teams.

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do and you ARE someone who can be harmed? Twitter just endangered you.

Twitter has gamified the verification process (turn over your data to access more features like the big kids!) without disclosing risks. People who aren’t tech- or security minded are going to jump in (we can’t all be experts in everything) and GET HURT. This is awful.

The previous two verification problems create a third: a two-tiered user community.

People with enough social privilege to use verification safely become “first class” users with extra benefits and prestige. Vulnerable people become “second class”.

That is disgusting, offensive, and grotesque. That is terrible product design. That is myopic design from non-diverse teams. If you say “a real name policy doesn’t hurt me, I’ll do it”, you are now part of the further marginalization of vulnerable people on Twitter, too. I don’t know if you have a problem with getting special privileges by supporting systems that hurt others, but I do.

Two more points about specific problems with Twitter’s verification process.

1. Twitter wants us all to use profile and/or header photos that reflect “the person, the corporation’s branding, or the company’s branding.”

Let’s talk about what it’s like to use the Internet while perceived as anyone other than a white male. If you have a “female” avatar, you get more abuse. If you are a woman of color, it’s even worse. These are not state secrets. The data is out there. Anyone who works in tech and knows their arse from their elbow knows this stuff.

Twitter has effectively said: “We want credit for fixing abuse. So we’re going to encourage you to take steps to increase your abuse.”

2. Twitter wants to know your birth date.

Twitter then gives you fancy graphics on your birthday in return (gamification!). Know who else wants your birth date? Identity thieves.

Oh yeah, and doxxers. Your birth date is incredibly helpful to people who want to dox you, too.

Who gets doxed? Oddly enough, the list looks an awful lot like the list of people who are harmed by real name policies. You might want to think about that before you plug your birthday into a site that publicizes it. Or before you send a birthday wish a friend on social media.

In summary: Twitter’s new “soft” real names policy will hurt people, create a two-tiered community, and make trolling worse. Hurray!

Recommendations:

1. Don’t get verified.
If you have verified your account rashly and realize it may put you at risk, contact Twitter right away and get it undone, fast.

2. Don’t let your friends get verified.
If you have friends on Twitter who would be made vulnerable by ID verification, make sure they know the risks. Take care of each other.

3. Tell twitter why you are taking this course of action.

I know: it’s really hard to resist the gamified urge to get the coveted blue check, hard to be skeptical, hard to be a rational adult, hard to be objective, hard to perform due diligence, hard to think of others. So much easier to chase the dopamine rush of gratification.

There are bigger things in life than a blue checkmark, I promise you. Resist the urge, take care of yourself and each other, and stay safe.

P.S. We need to call out the tech press on this. The usual suspects are printing fawning regurgitation of Twitter press release, zero critique. Cutting/pasting press releases (or tweets) does not constitute journalism. We need a robust Fourth Estate more than ever. Pull up your socks.

P.P.S. Read about NYMWARS. No one learned. Deficient knowledge transfer in tech is a huge problem. It astounds me that Google went through the whole Nymwars thing going back to 2011 and the industry seems to have learned nothing. We really shouldn’t be working out these issues from scratch on every single platform.