Sunday, October 30, 2011

Join Me

If you're here because you (like me) are a fan of coffee and searched out some coffee-related content, maybe you could head on over to the website of my new book, Babel No More, which comes out in January. It's a book about the science that explains hyperpolyglottism, or the learning and speaking of many languages, as well as the science that explains why hyperpolyglottism shouldn't actually exist. And it's a book about my search for hyperpolyglots, all over the world, in the past, and in the present. Everyone speaks at least one language. And many people (even bilinguals) have undertaken learning additional languages, so they know the time, energy, and brain power that's required to this. This book is about the people for whom this comes so easily, a language barrier is another word for an opportunity to learn more.

Follow me on Twitter here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

the end of anonymity

A couple posts down (very close in textual space, very distant in time), I talked about a shift away from the First Amendment as a workable principle for governing behavior on listservs (especially the WP list) and other online communities. Today I see that a San Diego paper has ended anonymous commenting on its articles, and is arguing that it's not a freedom of speech issue:

This is a forum we're choosing to host and these are the rules we're asking people to abide by.

This isn't the first move in this direction I've witnessed since I made my earlier comments. After the Fort Hood shooting, the Austin American Statesman closed off commenting on all related articles, because of the regular abuse of the posting rules. People just couldn't get it.

The question is, do these go counter to the principles of the self-regulation of the commons that economist Elinor Ostrom just won the Nobel in Economics for? Let's assume that commenting space is a kind of commons -- it's certainly a kind of attention commons. In fact, it looks like Ostrom's design principles for stable local common pool resources would be good principles for managing comment spaces in online publications:

Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external unentitled parties);
Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources are adapted to local conditions;
Collective-choice arrangements allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
There is a scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
Mechanisms of conflict resolution are cheap and of easy access;
The self-determination of the community is recognized by higher-level authorities;
In the case of larger common-pool resources: organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

Administration by First Amendment has only ended up polluting the commons. As the editors of the Voice of San Diego wrote,

Unfortunately, many of the conversations that take place underneath the articles on news websites devolve into name-calling, racist or sexist remarks, and other vulgarities. That's in no small part because of the veil provided by anonymity and a lack of moderating by news organizations.

Discussion of this issue too often devolves into talk about Supreme Court protection for anonymous speech and the necessity of anonymous speech for a democracy. I have a seed of an idea I want to think about more, but the discussion should actually be about how to protect the commons from 1) abusers and 2) private control. Are newspapers that impose standards on comments areas invoking their private control in ways that could be self-serving? Or are they actually acting in ways that are consistent with Ostrom's principles and can be sustained over time?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hyperlocal media

Rumors of Grounds was a -- is a -- was a -- experiment in hyperlocal journalism. To see a list of other hyperlocal projects that recently won seed funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, go here. One of the winning projects is from Austin:

The Austin Bulldog - A longtime Austin journalist, founder of a monthly magazine and political newsletter, will create a daily-updated Web site for public-interest and investigative reporting, using both professional journalists and input from citizens. The site will also synthesize outside news stories in addition to posting original reporting and commentary. Readers will be encouraged to submit tips and their own commentary.

I wonder what the web site is going to call itself; go to, and you get bulldogs.

Anyone have any rumors about the Austin Bulldog, the media outlet?

UPDATE: Oh, here it is: You gotta optimize your site for search, y'all.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hector is Gone

My interview with Mark Boyden will be posted soon, but one thing he told me is that Hector unsubscribed from the list (though he might have resubscribed under a different name).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

More Thoughts

These are some additional thoughts after my post yesterday, which I drafted as a response to a note to the listserv and just mailed privately. When I stand back, the vigor of my interest in this situation makes me wonder if I'm losing the ability to discern tempests in teapots from actual storms. On the other hand, I'm genuinely interested in the issue of community stewardship and curious about the forms of leadership that will have to emerge in a new era of local and hyperlocal society, if I've discerned correctly the real storm a-brewin'.

1. Let's call the traditional libertarian solution to online spats the "suck it up and delete" model. Among its other faults, this model dismisses the substance of people's grievances, and automatically judges any criticism as intolerance or an attempt at censorship. In the case of Hector and the Spammers, we see how the "suck it up and delete" model -- as well as a lack of transparency on the part of the moderator -- put people in the position where they had to act as vigilantes. I don't think vigilantism is desirable. I'm not saying that one should always opt out of the system for adjudicating grievances. I'm saying, this system is way too short, and people run out of options way too fast, for it to be satisfying. Or sustainable. When people become vigilantes, it's time to examine the system.

2. We should not insulate ourselves in our communities, either face to face or online/virtual, and we should absolutely not pretend that there aren't differences, either political and personal. And I agree that we are enriched by different opinions and voices, and I acknowledge that dissent is an American tradition worth preserving at all costs.

That said, there's a richer array of community-based, collaborative, and shared solutions to trolls and provocateurs than what the "suck it up and delete" approach offers. These balance principles with actual practice, and I think are more defensible and sustainable.

Here's an example: Create an off-list blog where moderators quarantine questionable posts (not posters), which will not be released until a certain reasonable threshold of list members vote to remove it. This gives you 1) universal access to questionable posts and 2) community involvement in maintaining certain standards while you 3) preserve respect for the First Amendment, the value of dissent and diversity, and the importance of public discourse and 4) retain the symbolic value of posting to the entire list as achievable and potentially available to everyone. Those are the public values you want to preserve. Additionally, the process would be entirely transparent: you always see the decisions that your moderator is making, in real time.

On the individual/private side, this solution means that 1) any individual doesn't end up with a polluted inbox (by an admittedly human definition of "pollution," but one that is dynamic, transparently created, and under discussion) and 2) continues to have access to diversity opinions, because she can openly read the quarantine. If any individual believes that the quarantined post deserves the symbolic privilege of being posted, then she can vote for its release and lobby friends and family to vote for it as well. In this way, you create a social feedback system in which subjective decisions are checked broadly against collective values, and in which the decisions at all levels are visible to everyone in the decision-making chain. It also creates two layers of moderation. At the end of the day, the real moderators would be the online community itself.

There's value for the poster, too: 1) it means that posts, not posters, are flagged for consideration; 2) it means that a poster can continue to argue for the legitimacy of one's ideas, and give the community access to those arguments; and 3) it means that one can learn what is broadly permissible and what isn't in the spectrum of human discourse.

Most of this could be automatized; the only human decision would be by the moderator, who would be putting items in the quarantine blog.

Another example: Create a panel of moderators who rotate responsibilities on a regular basis. Or create a blog for the moderator to discuss moderation decisions/situations, with comments enabled for input/discussion.

3. If you're interested in a grand philosophical flourish of an ending, read on; otherwise skip.

I'm not a legal scholar, but I am invoking my American right to propound on legal and cultural matters with an amateur's enthusiasm that shouldn't be mistaken for as a claim to authority:

I think it's erroneous to immediately and automatically equate online community stewardship with censorship, just as it's a logical fallacy to say that we must meet the challenge of tolerance in our neighborhood listservs because someday we'll have to stomach Nazi parades in the streets. There are very fine tissues of experience, tradition, and culture between the two poles of tolerance and censorship, and discussing what is there and, importantly, how to enact and live it shouldn't just be task for lawyers and the legal-minded. There's a culture of practice which -- sometimes -- overlaps with the culture of law. (Even the culture of "law" doesn't always overlap with the law.) We all live between these two cultures. Some of us bridge the distance between culture and law by using values that are spiritual, religious, or scriptural. Some of us have other cultural values to bear. I don't know what sort of term to use for how I do it, except to say that I rely on my humanistic training and what little I know about the principles of user-centered design. We may never create the perfect utopia, but we can at least accept that we are the creators of the systems we inhabit, not their servants, and the best system is the one that serves the most creators, as inclusively and sustainably as possible.

Now back to your regular programming.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Trolls on Top

The faux-ster, Hector, who once aimed his hectoring at The Nomad, has now brought down Mark Boyden, moderator of the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association listserv. Today Mark tendered his resignation from the position, which he's held since 2002.

I had meant to write about this remarkable turn of events earlier, but I'll recap here: Hector recently goaded a couple female WPNA readers into spamming him in retaliation for his sarcastic remarks to the listserv. Then they admitted, to the list, that they'd spammed him, and they forwarded a private email from Hector to the public forum - thereby disseminating an obscenity that Hector had used. The upshot: bad etiquette was compounded by stupidity and, against the odds, succeeded at making Hector blameless, perhaps for the first time.

And Mark is taking the hit. As he wrote in his letter, "I have not been able to help good people not succumb to baiting and help them to not violate the guidelines themselves by promoting and engaging in abusive behavior themselves -- actions that have helped in other situations and on other lists. In short, I have failed as your moderator on this one list."

I like Mark, who is a selfless, principled person who cares for the neighborhood and believes in public service. As I wrote to him in a private email earlier this year:
I don't envy the decisions you have to make as a moderator, on behalf of neighborhood comity, and I appreciate the time you spend as an unpaid volunteer keeping WP patched together virtually. Your notes of encouragement are inspiring, as well. I like hearing you on the radio, too.
However, I agree that his time as an effective moderator is over, and I'm not necessarily sad to see him go (though who knows who WP will get as a replacement). It's not that he kept good people from doing bad things. His first and biggest error was defending Hector's right to free speech, even as the rumors rose that "Hector" is a pseudonym. Though Mark moderated Hector's comments, Hector was able to write things in a way that made them acceptable according to the letter of the law but, by violating the spirit, polluted the listserv. It seems clear that any policy that allows people to follow the letter of the law but violate its spirit needs some revision.

What is that policy?

Mark is an Internet veteran, back from the days where online forums were considered public spaces that could be governed through the First Amendment: anyone could say anything they wanted, as long as it wasn't obscene, violent, or discriminatory. Those veterans were libertarians, vocal and fierce and understandably so: the Internet was the last wild open space, and they wanted to protect its wildness and openness.

Since then there's been a shift. We've become more communitarian and less libertarian about our Internet communities. Friendster, Facebook, Myspace are all clear sorts of communities, but so are web forums, email listservs, comment threads in newspapers and articles: in one way or another, they're hyperlocal virtual minisocieties that are shaped by rules that may or may not be mirrored in a face-to-face community and that may or may not be shared by the society at large.

Some might say this is the result of the commercialization of the Web: the wild open Web became real estate. It may, as Mark writes in his note, result from how increasingly prone Americans are to "devilize" those with different ideas.

Whatever the cause, these communities still have to be governed, and though the First Amendment principles are noble, they're not effective in these social spaces if they're applied too mechanistically. It's assumed that once a system is established, its workings must never be interrupted. In fact, humans intervene in the system all the time, and the principles are more often situationally applied. Invoking the First Amendment allows a moderator to act according to what's been called "procedural objectivity," which will be familiar to anyone who's dealt with a bureaucracy. "Those are the rules, gotta follow the rules," the bureaucrat says, which directs your ire not at him but at the system. In actual fact, the rules aren't universally, objectively invoked, and moderators make subjective decisions all the time. So do bureaucrats.

Free speech and property rights may be crucial for protecting democracy, but they're not very good principles for stewarding community. While these online communities are common spaces, they should still be shaped and curated -- the community can decide what sort of ethos and atmosphere it wants to live in, and what sort of values they want to encourage and discourage. The First Amendment is a blunt tool. In the Internet veteran's view, any attempt to shape or curate amounts to censorship, but it's possible to engineer interactions and spaces for interaction such that choice and freedom are retained while shaping the choices that someone makes. This is called paternalistic libertarianism and was laid out in the recent book, Nudge.

Mark, like many moderators, used to advocate that people respond to WP assholes by deleting or filtering emails from their inbox. But I've never liked this view. For one thing, my inbox is an extension of my private space, and I shouldn't have to tolerate invasions or pollutions. Now, the conception of inbox = private space may be faulty, but it's the default conception. In those terms, I should be able to keep assholes out of my house, which shouldn't be their last free haven.

For another thing, online communities should be able to work like real world communities do, where people who are obnoxious can be shunned. In dog parks, aggressive dogs and their owners can be shamed. In these spaces, even in public spaces, you can rid a space of trolls, or marginalize them so much that they either stop what they're doing or go elsewhere. This can be done peaceably and nonviolently. It's done all the time.

Among its many attributes, a good community has a transparent, shared and effective mechanism for neutralizing its trolls. My immediate reaction is that Mark could have neutralized the Hector troll but didn't, and that it's appropriate for him to step down. There's probably more to this story, which I'll pursue as time permits, but for right now, this feels right.

If I were moderator, these are some tools I'd use to neutralize trolls:
1. Block the message, not the person. A certain number of complaints from users should be enough to flag a troll's posts, so that that person gets moderated; they may be able to earn the right to post again unmoderated.

2. Create a volunteer editorial corps to divide the moderation duties.

3. Encourage face to face meetings between trolls and their targets, perhaps even requiring those meetings, once a disagreement has broken out.

4. Create a face-to-face meeting as a requirement for joining the listserv. Avatars like Hector can't be granted the same rights as real people, because only real people have a right of free speech. That's the last problem with the First Amendment: its defense can blind you to other problems.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Coffee Psalm 1:1-9

1:1 And the Lord COFFEE said unto them:
Long have thou waited, coffee hounds,
thou undercaffeinated wretches, my people;

1:2 Long have thou watched other neighborhoods elevated above thee,
proud that they have a coffee shop to walk to
and eat a vegan empanada if they want.

1:3 Now, thy patience has been rewarded;
thy faith has been rewarded;
and thy desires have been bestowed with treasures
because thou hast both a bar and a coffee shop.

1:4 Arise, thou coffee hounds, from thy misery, and cast off thy shackles;
Lo, the Corona Cafe opens,
On Monday January 26th,
and the first coffee will be poured at 7 am,
so thou must go to the coffee shop, the land of milk and honey,
and afterwards if thou desirest thou can get a tattoo
or get thy nails done.

1:5 And the coffee is hot and strong
and peeleth the sleep from thy eyes;
and the espresso is a tonic to the soul,
and affordable.

1:6 And the Lord COFFEE said:
Do not take the coffee shop for granted,
for it exists by thy goodness and for thy pleasure;
and speak no false words against it, such as
searching police records for crimes that occurred
before the shop had opened;
and do not hide behind false identities
or poison the email inboxes of thy neighbors.

1:7 And remember that the hope of Mueller
is a false hope;
and keep no false hopes before thee;

1:8 And lo, the fast food restaurants, the check-cashing joints,
the car washes: these will flee from Cameron Road,
and trees and gardens will overgrow the asphalt and replace it
with a minimum of city construction crews digging it up.

1:9 Other neighborhoods will wail and gnash their teeth
at the patheticness of their vegan empanadas,
Thy property values will increaseth;
Thy flocks multiply beyond measure;
And thou willest live with the clarity bestowest by COFFEE.