Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Internet Frankenstein – Digital Prometheus

Frankenstein is still with us. It is the Internet. A creature assembled from bits and pieces of hundreds of other things – some alive, some dead, some beautiful, some criminal, some incomprehensible  – all stitched together and “scientifically” endowed with life. The result for Mary Shelley, as it is for us, is an over-sized, somewhat dangerous, hideous yet beautiful creature.

And with the monster loose, the town’s people are panicking. The politicians, listening to the loudest and least informed town folk, demand that the monster be destroyed. People hate it, people fear it. Pitchforks are sharpened, torches are lit  - the monster must be controlled or destroyed, the Internet must be legislated into mediocrity.  

The monster, for its part, is largely misunderstood. Nothing like it has ever lived before. It is viewed with awe and suspicion. It is always in danger. It is always striving to find its true nature.

Just as the monster from the book forces us to examine our humanity, so the Internet forces us to confront our darker side. Don’t rush to kill the monster.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Aging is Inevitable, Maturing is Optional.

Mid July 2015  - Twitter and Reddit separately  announced major changes which signal an almost unavoidable maturing. It happens to all of us. We get a job, get a car, get an apartment, get a houseplant, get a goldfish, get a dog/cat and figure we can handle a house and a family. Each step in that process comes with additional burdens. Turns out the Internet industry is not so different. Marketing gurus will tell you it is all product cycle related, but anyone who has been in the online business long enough will tell you it is more than that.

Historically, platforms start with a product idealistic, free-speech, community-will-self-regulate and morality-will-win-out approach.  In time community, legal, moral or stockholder forces become significant and Internet companies discover the need to take a direct role in the safety of their users and the nature of the online environment they create.

This cycle has been repeated by every successful Internet platform. It is not a conspiracy. It is an example what truly happens at the intersection of the First Amendment, democracy, free enterprise and technology.  Common sense and good judgement does prevail.

In 2008, I sat in a room at Stanford University Law’s Center for Internet and Society with most of the significant companies of the day. Stanford, aided by Chris Wolf and other interested influencers helped the ADL convene a meeting to discuss hate on the Internet with an assembled industry group, not individual companies – a first-of-its-kind and somewhat prickly gathering.  

All the companies present that day have worked to oppose hate online.  While many young companies are starting out with informed and innovative anti-hate solutions, some older companies steadfastly refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for what transpires on their services. 

Responsibility is an indicator of maturity.  

Maturity is not always a function of age.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Hitting Big Targets

There is no denying the staggering magnitude and impact of hate on the Internet. But the Internet is not inherently hateful. Software and applications are not inherently hateful. Companies are not inherently hateful. So why, do anti-hate champions beat-up the companies, and then only the largest ones?

Let’s be honest - hate against companies and platforms comes from Internet users, a comparatively small percentage of users. They are usually a group of haters with too much time on their hands and a twisted thirst for attention.

It’s almost understandable.  The policy decisions of any one of the major platforms can inconvenience and frustrate countless people. A change on a small start-up goes unnoticed. Equally, offensive content on a major website is not more vicious than hate on a lesser site, but can be seen by millions. As a result, while Facebook, Twitter and Google are pilloried by haters others like Reddit, Veterans News Network, countless blogs and even major hosting companies get a free pass.

Critics are quick to point out the legal decision in Europe against Yahoo, Google, etc as validation of their perception. Those same critics conveniently neglect to research or mention the numerous and continuous ToS changes voluntarily made by these companies.

There are the conspiracy crazies who cry that any content policy is an effort by some group or another to take over the world.

Big targets are easy. It’s easy to be jealous of success or leery of big corporations.  Big, diversified companies also make more mistakes than small focused companies. Big companies tend to be unfazed by repeated complaints that are unfounded or based on rumors Nothing gets a complainer more irate than ineffectuality or indifference.

It is much harder to think about the problems of the Internet as a whole, to try to formulate workable solutions, advocate for change and champion common sense. 

Finally, the Internet lets us all believe we are important. Supposedly, Internet companies listens to important people.  So when people are not heard, they would rather believe the fault is with the companies, rather than with themselves. 

When we, as Internet users, are informed enough, knowledgeable enough, maybe we will get big enough to include ourselves as targets.