Would if this were true?
Would if this were true?

The Facebook newsfeed is the subject of a lot of criticism, and rightly so. Not only does it impose an echo chamber on your digitally-mediated existence, the company constantly tries to convince users that it is user behavior –not their secret algorithm—that creates our personalized spin zones. But then there are moments when, for one reason or another, someone comes across your newsfeed that says something super racist or misogynistic and you have to decide to respond or not. If you do, and maybe get into a little back-and-forth, Facebook does a weird thing: that person starts showing up in your newsfeed a lot more.

This happened to me recently and it has me thinking about the role of the Facebook newsfeed in inter-personal instantiations of systematic oppression. Facebook’s newsfeed, specially formulated to increase engagement by presenting the user with content that they have engaged with in the past, is at once encouraging of white allyship against oppression and inflicting a kind of violence on women and people of color. The same algorithmic action can produce both consequences depending on the user.

For the white and cis-male user the constant reminder that you have some social connection to a racist person might encourage (or at least afford the opportunity that) you take that person to task. After all, white allyship is something you do, not a title that you put in your Twitter bio. There are, of course, lots of other (and better) ways to be an ally but offering some loving criticism to acquaintances and loved ones can make positive change over time. It is almost, for a moment, as if Facebook has some sort of anti-racist feature: something that puts white men in the position to do the heavy lifting for once and confront intersecting forms of oppression instead of leaving it up to the oppressed to also do the educating.

The same algorithmic tendency to continually show those you have interacted with, as if all intense bouts of interaction are signs of a desire for more interaction, can also be an instigator and propagator of those same sorts of oppression. An argument can turn into a constant invitation for harassment because, just as you see more of your racist acquaintance, so too do they see you. This could lead to more baiting for arguments and more harassment. But even if this does not happen, the incessant racist memes that now show up in your timeline are themselves psychically exhausting. This algorithmic triggering –the automated and incessant display of disturbing content–  is especially insidious because it is inflicted on users who stood up to hateful content in the first place.

This agnosticism towards content in favor of “engagement” for its own sake is remarkably flat-footed given all the credit we give Facebook for being able to divine intimate details and compose them into a frightening-as-it-is-obscured “graph” of our performed self. If we wanted to keep the former instance (encouraging ally behavior) but reduce the possibility of the latter (algorithmic triggering) what might we request? How can something like Facebook be sensitive to issues of race, class, and gender?

One option might also use some sort of image-recognition technology that gives the user the option to unhide a hateful image rather than see it by default.  If Facebook can detect my face it can certainly detect the rebel flag or even words printed onto image macros. Yik Yak, for example, does not allow photos of human faces and implements that rule through face detection technology. If your photo has a face in it, the app doesn’t let you post it. If a social media company can effectively weather free speech extremists’ outrage, they might be able to impose some mild palliatives to potentially upsetting content.

The problem with these interventions is that it requires that Facebook collect and act on even more information. It asks that Facebook redouble their efforts to collect and analyze data that determines race and ethnicity. It asks them to study photos and proactively show and hide them. It also falling into some of the issues I’ve raised in the past about trying to write broad laws to eliminate very specific kinds of behavior. That seems to be the wrong direction.

The Occam’s razor solution is to have Facebook adopt some sort of anti-racist and/or anti-sexist policy where it pits those people who have demonstrated anti-racist tendencies, against those with more retrograde viewpoints. The algorithm could be tweaked so that white people who have espoused anti-racist sentiments in the past are paired with their “friends” that think the confederate flag is about heritage or whatever. Men who have shared content with a feminist perspective could be paired with men who wear fedoras. All the while controlling and modulating who sees whom so that the burden of teaching and consciousness-raising isn’t unevenly distributed to those that bear the brunt of hate.

This actively imposed context collapse is admittedly improbable –I know there’s no chance that Facebook would decide to do this—but thinking through the implementation of such a policy is a good thought experiment. It highlights the embedded politics of Facebook—a platform that would rather have us be happy and sharing than critical and counterposed. Engagement with brands not only requires active contributions to the site, but positive feelings that can be usurped for the benefit of brands. Deeper still, social media as an industry is deeply committed to the “view from nowhere” where hosts to conversation are only allowed to intervene in the most egregious of circumstances, almost always as a reaction to a user complaint, and never as part of a larger political orientation.

Even the boardroom feminism of their own Sheryl Sandberg is largely absent. As far anyone can tell, there is nothing in the Facebook algorithm that encourages women to “lean in” in Facebook-hosted conversations. Such a technological intervention –and we could have fun thinking about how to design such a thing– could have done just as much, if not more, than the selling of a book and a few TED talks. For example, imagine if Facebook suddenly put the posts and comments of self-identified women at the top and buried men’s. Maybe for just a few days.

Perhaps we should simply cherish and make the most of the moments when the algorithms in our lives start inadvertently working towards the betterment of society. I’m going to keep calling out that racist person on Facebook and while that certainly doesn’t qualify me for a reward or really even a pat on the back, it is (for me) something that doesn’t take a lot of time or effort and might possibly make the world (or that one person) marginally better.

I do not think anyone, at the present moment, is suited to offer a viable proposal for leveraging the Facebook algorithm to promote allyship or even reduce what I’ve been calling algorithmic triggering. Those with the relevant backgrounds, either through formal education or past experience, are missing from the board rooms where the salient decisions are being made. Conversely, those in the board rooms that actually know how the algorithm works, what it is capable of, and are poised to monetarily gain (and lose) from Facebook’s ability to attract advertisers are not necessarily the best people to make these sorts of political design choices.  Perhaps the best way to think of algorithmic triggering is the automation of “if it bleeds it leads” editorial choices. The decision to show violent and disturbing video (of police officers murdering black people for example) can be motivated by good intentions but can lead to an impossibly cruel media landscape. Obviously we should all be fighting to end the events that are the subject of this disturbing media but for now we would do well to demand that the gatekeepers of (social) media take our collective mental health into consideration. What that looks like, is yet to be seen.

David is on twitter and tumblr.

Photo taken at the Napoli Pride Parade in 2010
Photo taken at the Napoli Pride Parade in 2010

Content Note: This posts discusses various forms of transmisogyny and TERFs

On Tuesday, Lisa Wade posted a piece to the Sociological Images blog, asking some important questions about drag- Is it misogynistic? Should it be allowed in LGBT safe spaces? How can pride organizers enforce drag-free pride events, if such an idea is useful? The good news is that many of these questions are already being asked in some circles. The bad news, is that outside of these circles –where specifics are unknown and the cis experience takes centre stage– such questions can lead to some harmful conclusions.

First some basics. Wade contends that a recent Glasgow Free Pride event “’banned’ drag queens from the event, citing concerns that men dressing up like women is offensive to trans women.” The event didn’t ban drag queens, but rather decided not to have any drag acts perform on their stage, but even this decision has now been reversed. In any case, the initial decision to go without drag performances was not made because of offence caused, as Wade says, but rather because the Trans/Nonbinary Caucus of the event felt that it would “make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable”. Wade’s misunderstandings seem to come from having used the Daily Beast article on the matter as a source rather than the actual press release from free pride.

The title of Wade’s essay, and the repeated references to “girlface” in the essay itself, not only misunderstood the critiques levelled at drag, but also conflated blackface and drag. This misconception is appropriative of black struggle- it stems from conflation of the two separate histories, one of which was a major tool in the subjugation of black people across America and another which grew as part of queer (then, gay) liberation in a diverse, working class environment, led by women of colour. Comparing the two of them is highly disingenuous.

It is an argument that is about as novel as it is accepting of trans people’s existence. Sheila Jeffries, among many other TERFs, is infamous for using this line of argument to capitalize on the widespread condemnation of blackface in her efforts to attack trans women. Wade is, whether she intends to or not, using this dog whistle in her essay.

Getting a few facts wrong (Which is understandable if you are not part of these conversations. The Daily Beast got it wrong too and this is why allies are usually asked to take a seat in these debates.) and using terminology that is usually reserved for deeply transphobic arguments are somewhat superficial problems that lay on the surface of a much bigger problem: the centering of cis feelings on trans issues. Wade seems to think that the biggest problem, with the Glasgow Free Pride decision is that drag parodies femininity and womanhood.

While this is true in the general sense, drag is understood in the trans community to be oppressive because of the central conceit of the parody: that the performer, while affecting womanhood, is “actually a man.”

It’s about the bulge in the dress, the errant chest hair and the deep voice from the sculpted body. The fact that they’re “always PMSing” is a joke about how they don’t have uteruses. Their stage names, often punning on genitals (“Conchita Wurst”), act to center not their femininity, but the “failure” to produce a cis femininity. This was the drag that the gay media was insisting be reinstated, and that Glasgow Free Pride allowed on their stage again when they reversed their decision.

Drag is not monolithic –both historically and sociologically, different drags have and do exist– which is why Glasgow Free Pride specifically critiques “cis drag” (drag performed by cis people) as making people uncomfortable.

Many of the drag queens of color who led S.T.A.R. and Stonewall were not people who played a woman on stage or in a bar for a few hours a week, but people who lived their lives as women, and their drag is fundamentally different from that of people who perform in televised competition today.

Maybe these drags belong on a pride. Maybe there are decolonised drags which would be welcome. But contemporary western cis drag isn’t about femininity, it’s about the drag queen’s failures to produce an impression of cis womanhood, the upshot of which, also produces a caricature of trans womanhood, seen by society as a flawed womanhood.

Given this, it is possible to see drag as an attack on transwomanhood first and foremost, and cis women more as collateral damage in a long controversy within LGBTQIA+ communities. Glasgow Free Pride understood this, and this is why the call came from their trans caucus, not their women’s caucus.

Writing a post which centers the debate on cis women while spending a minimal time on trans women derails a conversation that should be about the transmisogyny of contemporary drag. It is an issue which is actively causing damage by perpetuating stereotypes and, yes, making pride parades unwelcoming for trans women and other maab trans people.

Wade should rest assured that the “conversation” she calls for is, actually, happening. It happens in trans communities all the time. It bubbled over into the mainstream for a few days, and trans people lost a safe space in a radical pride alternative in the process. What she’s actually asking is that the conversation become permanently legible to cis women by focusing on the minor issues that effect them, rather than the transmisogyny of drag.

T.Walpole is on twitter. More info at drcabl.es/awesome/

Photo taken by Dheera Venkatraman in Myanmar.
Photo taken by Dheera Venkatraman in Myanmar.

For a little over a decade, those researchers and visionaries originally involved in establishing the infrastructure for the World Wide Web have set their sights higher.  While hyperlinking Web pages has been pivotal to creating a Web of documents, the more recent goals to establish a Semantic Web involve hyperlinking data, or individual elements within a Web page.  In attaching unique identifiers (in the form of Uniform Resource Identifiers or URIs) and metadata to data points (rather than to just the documents where those data points appear) machines are able to interpret, not just what the browser should display, but also what the page is about.  The hope is that, in providing machines with the capacity to interpret what data is about, it will be possible to drastically improve Web search and to allow researchers to perform automated reasoning on the massive amounts of data contributed to the Web.  There are numerous examples where this infrastructure is already having impact (albeit largely behind-the-scenes).  For instance, the New York Times has already “semantified” all of its data and created a Semantic API where researchers can query its database.  Facebook’s Graph API, which employs Semantic Web infrastructure to structure user profile data, has been the foundation for several studies attempting to make sense of human behavior and interactions through the platform’s “big data.”

Inherent in the project of structuring meaning are philosophical questions about sameness and difference. How do we define and formalize identity – when one thing is exactly the same as the other?  Semantic Web engineers are well-attuned to these questions; in fact, many have degrees in Philosophy.  Yet, questions about sameness are difference are not just philosophical; they are also deeply political.  There are social repercussions to formally marking two things as the same or two things as different.  We need to be attuned to how the digital infrastructure built for the Semantic Web reflects and projects political commitments – how it shapes a politics of representation. This has serious implications for how identity can be organized, and how we (and machines) understand what the world is about as we access Web knowledge bases for information.

It is notable that establishing the infrastructure needed to meet the vision of a Semantic Web involves engineering a shared language between a content creator and a machine. What happens when language is literally engineered – when digital infrastructure deliberately structures the meaning of content on the Web?

There are several layers to the infrastructure of the Semantic Web; the most important layers are arguably schemas, semantics, and ontologies. ”  Schemas provide a range of properties for describing data.  For instance, a schema may provide properties such as ‘restaurant telephone number’, ‘event start date’, or ‘gender’, which can be referenced to describe a piece of data. Semantics establish the structure for how these properties and their values can be attached to data points.  Semantic data is most commonly structured in “triples” of subject, predicate, object; the data point (subject) is linked to a schema property (predicate), and a value is attached to this property (object).


Finally, ontologies formalize how researchers mark the relationships, hierarchies, and differences between pieces of data; they offer a formal way for representing knowledge. For example, an ontology may be applied to show that Miley Cyrus is a child of Billy Rae Cyrus, or a carnivore is a subcategory of an animal.  Schemas, semantics, and ontologies all become machine-readable through different coding languages and standards.

As you can imagine, building these languages and establishing these standards is quite a contentious endeavor; it involves delineating the boundaries of meaning around just about anything in the world.  Tedious discussions arise as Web engineers engaged in establishing this infrastructure, in collaboration with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), attempt to formalize the way data should be described and ontologically represented.

Consider, for instance, “OWL:sameas”, a property in OWL (an ontology coding language) that was established to codify when two pieces of data on the Web (with two different URIs) refer to the same thing, or have the same identity.  The W3C documentation outlining this property offers the following example, showing how OWL:sameas would describe a reference to William Jefferson Clinton to be the same as a reference to Bill Clinton:

<rdf:Description rdf:about=”#William_Jefferson_Clinton”>

<owl:sameAs rdf:resource=”#BillClinton”/>


As more and more webmasters take advantage of Semantic Web infrastructure to describe their data, many Web researchers and engineers have lamented how OWL:sameas is being used and (ab)used.  What happens when ‘morning star’ and ‘evening star’ are both described as being the “same as” ‘Venus’?  Should the automated reasoners that attempt to make inferences from this data then assume that they are the “same as” each other?  Is the time of day that Venus is seen (or “sensed” in the words of Gottlub Frege, a logician and philosopher inspiring much work in Web ontologies) a difference that makes a difference? ref-sent Notably, formalized logic breaks down when OWL:sameas is applied more loosely; automated reasoners produce tangled results.  The stickiness of difference keeps getting in the way of clean ontological depictions of the world.

The controversial politics of representation becomes apparent as soon as OWL:sameas is applied to contested data points.  Take, for example, DBpedia, a crowd-sourced project aiming to semantify data that has been contributed to Wikipedia. As of July 2015, DBpedia still has no entry for Caitlyn Jenner.  But it does have an entry for Bruce Jenner.  Scroll through the metadata at this URI to the OWL:sameas property, and you will find several URIs – all of which link to Web pages on Caitlyn Jenner.  Other examples illustrate international naming politics.  DBpedia has no entry for Myanmar, but it does have an entry for Burma.  Scroll to the OWL:sameas property, and you will find that the US-based and UK-based URIs marked as being the “same as” this entry all refer to Burma, while those based elsewhere in the world refer to Myanmar – the name change the US and UK refused to recognize due to the reported human rights abuses that led to 1989 regime change.

map_burmaShould automated reasoners assume that a reference to Bruce Jenner is the “same as” a reference to Caitlyn Jenner, or that a reference to Burma is the “same as” a reference to Myanmar – that the two have the same “identity”?  And more importantly, who gets to decide?  What happens when this sameness organizes how we see data on the Web?  Or when it becomes the basis of research conducted on the Web?

Attempts to iron out these differences, or even to nail down when and how differences make a difference, discount the importance of permitting difference to remain sticky – of allowing data to sit comfortably and uncomfortably in a conflicting ontological space of sameness and difference.   In this sense, there are not just technical and philosophical difficulties to semantifying the Web; there are also political difficulties – considerations that are often ignored as Web researchers attempt to engineer vocabularies and ontologies that capture a consistent depiction of the world.   This can be thought of in terms of what postcolonial and feminist theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as “worlding the world.”  “Worlding” refers to the way colonizers inscribe new worlds – worlds they assume were previously uninscribed. It is with this “worlding” that certain forms of meaning become salient – that the “Third World” comes to be recognized as the “Third World” and that the countries that constitute it are homogenized to sameness.  We need heightened awareness of how the worlding of the Web – the engineering of semantic infrastructure – shapes what we know and can know – what can be made meaningful in a world full of sticky differences.

Lindsay Poirier is a PhD Student in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  She occasionally Tweets at @lindsaypoirier. http://lindsaypoirier.com/


Reddit’s co-founder Steve Huffman, who is currently taking over CEO responsibilities in the wake of Ellen Pao’s resignation, has started doing these Fireside AMAs where he makes some sort of edict and all of the reddit users react and ask clarifying questions. Just today he made an interesting statement about the future of “free speech” in general and certain controversial subreddits in particular. The full statement is here but I want to focus on this specific line where he describes how people were banned in the beginning of reddit versus the later years when the site became popular:

Occasionally, someone would start spewing hate, and I would ban them. The community rarely questioned me. When they did, they accepted my reasoning: “because I don’t want that content on our site.”

As we grew, I became increasingly uncomfortable projecting my worldview on others. More practically, I didn’t have time to pass judgement on everything, so I decided to judge nothing.

This all comes at the heels of some interesting revelations by former, former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong saying that Ellen Pao was actually the person in the board room championing free speech and it was Huffman, fellow co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and others that really wanted to clamp down on the hate speech. So that’s just a big side dish of delicious schadenfreude that’s fun to nibble on

But those quotes bring up some questions that are absolutely crucial to something Britney Summit-Gil posted here a few days ago, namely that reddit finds itself in a paradox where revolting against the administration forces users to recognize that “Reddit is less like a community and more like a factory,” and that the free speech they rally around is an anathema to their other great love: the free market. What structures this contradiction, what sets everyone up at cross-purposes, also has a lot to do with Huffman’s reticence to ban people as the site grew. After all, why would Huffman feel “increasingly uncomfortable” making unilateral banning decisions as the site grew, and why was his default position then be “to judge nothing”? Why does it, all of a sudden, become unfair or inappropriate to craft a community or even a product with the kind of decisiveness that comes with “I just don’t like it”?

The answer to all of this comes out of two philosophic ideas: One is the Enlightenment model of reason that we still use to undergird our concepts of legitimacy and rhetorical persuasiveness. That big decisions that effect lots of people should be argued out and have practical and utilitarian reasons and not be based on the whims of an individual. That’s what kings did and that sort of authority is arbitrary even if the results seem desirable. The second is relatively more recent but still fundamental to the point of vanishing: the idea of the modern society as being governed by bureaucracies that have written rules that are followed by everyone. The rule of law, not of individuals. Bureaucracies are nice when they work because if you look at the written down rules, you have a fairly good idea of how to behave and what to expect from others. It’s a very enticing prospect that is rarely fully experienced.

Huffman doesn’t say as much but this is essentially how we went from fairly common-sense decisions about good governance to free speech fanaticism: not choosing to ban is the absence of arbitrary authority. When you have a site that lets you vote on things it feels like a decision to stop imposing order from the top is making room for democratic order from below. But this is closer to the kind of majoritarian tyranny that even the architects of the American constitution were worried about. Voting in the 1700s was something that only aristocrats were qualified to do. Leave it to rabble and you would have chaos. That’s why they built a bicameral legislature that originally featured a senate with members appointed by state governments.

It should also be said that one of the oldest laws in the United States is that Congress can’t make laws that specifically target a single individual or organization. That’s why those efforts to defund Planned Parenthood in 2011 were immediately dismissed as unconstitutional. Laws have to apply to everyone equally.

And so what Huffman is presently faced with is a problem of liberal (lowercase L) and modern state governance. How do you write broad laws that classify r/coontown without just saying “I ban r/coontown”?  Unfortunately, this is also the biggest fuel line to the flames of fear that banning even detestable subreddits are a threat to free speech in general. This is, fundamentally, why it even makes sense to argue that banning an outwardly and explicitly racist subreddit can threaten the integrity of other subreddits either in the present or sometime in the future. Laws apply to everyone equally.

So if Reddit wants to get itself out of this paradox, I say dispense with liberalism all-together. At the very least come up with some sort of aspirational progressive vision of what kind of community you want to have and persuade others that they should work to achieve it. This sort of move is the biggest departure that anarchist political theory takes from mainstream liberalism: that communities can agree on the features of a future utopia and govern in the present as if you are already free to live that future utopia. Organizing humans with blanket laws forces you to explain the obvious, namely that hateful people suck and should be persuaded to act otherwise if they wish to remain part of a community that is meaningful to them.

Right now Huffman and the rest of the reddit administration have come up with some strange and inelegant ways of dealing with the present problem. They make all these dubious distinctions between action and speech; between inciting harm and just abstracting wishing it on people; and lots of blanket “I know it when I see it” sorts of decency rules. Under liberalism redditors would be right to demand very specific descriptions of the “I know it when I see it” kinds of moments. But if prominent members were to just be upfront in stating what sort of community they would like to see and then acting as if it already existed, discontents would have to persuade admins that they were acting against their own interests and propose a more compelling way to achieve the stated utopia. If they don’t like the utopia at all, then those people can leave for Voat and new users who like that utopia might come to replace them. At the very least, reddit were to take this approach, users might actually start answering the question that is at the heart of the matter but is rarely stated in explicit terms: who gets to be a part of the community?

David is on Twitter and Tumblr

We'll never get tired of putting different words on the enter button.
We’ll never get tired of putting different words on the enter button.

In May of 1999 two people filed a lawsuit against AOL. They were volunteers in the company’s Community Leaders program which encompassed everything from chatroom moderation to teaching online classes. You had to apply to be a Community Leader and once you were selected you had a minimum amount of hours you needed to work every week, a time card to keep track of those hours, and reports that needed to be filed with administration. It had all the hallmarks of a real job which is precisely what those two people claimed in their lawsuit. Their argument was that their role constituted an “employee relationship” but I think it is more accurate to say they were creating value for a company that didn’t even feel the need to provide some kind of subsistence wage.

This story has been told countless times as a jumping off point for arguments that labor has left the factory or that even those companies like Amazon or Uber that have been leaders in the contractor / sharing / worse-than-capitalism economy are not paying enough. Some are even calling for “platform cooperativism” which sounds super cool. But there is another, very big, reason why social media companies (in particular) should be paying their moderators and other community leaders: it helps with diversity.

A similar realization came to the fore during the Progressive Era in the United States. In an effort to weed out corruption and machine-style politics at the municipal level many reformers adopted non-partisan elections (no parties), strong city councils, and very weak mayors. Some towns got rid of them all-together and instead hired a professional city manager. The idea was as simple as it was radical: towns and cities should be scientifically managed not politically organized.

That process of reform was flawed and incomplete but it hit upon a fundamental barrier to community leadership: the unequal distribution of free time. City managers were and still are full-time employees with benefits and a healthy salary. Anyone with the right credentials can be hired to be a city manager. City councils on the other hand, especially in smaller cities and towns, are part-time positions. Whereas the independently wealthy and retired can take a time-consuming job with little-to-no pay, workers and even middle-class folks cannot reasonably run for, let alone do all the work of a political leader. That is, of course, unless they took lots and lots of bribes.

The inability for anyone but the well-off and morally corrupt (lots of overlap in that venn diagram) to run for city councils has actually led to a raise in the wages of council members and even the inclusion of health insurance. This quote from the LA Times sums up the situation nicely:

Some experts said the move to provide healthcare benefits occurred as city councils became less a bastion of white men, many of whom owned local businesses or were executives in local companies. With diversity came a need for better compensation to make public service possible, said David Mora, an analyst with the International City/County Management Assn.

“A health insurance benefit was something that would make it a bit more manageable for the incumbent, so that more people might be able to run for office,” Mora said. “It’s generally accepted practice.”

The responsibilities of a Reddit moderator or Facebook group administrator, like a city council position, can run the gamut from a few hours a month to a full time job. Some people will do these jobs no matter what the personal cost because it means a lot to them and they are willing to absorb substantial opportunity costs. For a vast majority of people however, this is simply not the case. Lots of passionate people can’t take leadership roles in online communities because they cannot afford to give away their labor. That is a good a reason as any to pay people even a few dollars an hour to check for spam and ban some trolls.

Of course, if we were to calculate out the value of all that volunteer labor that makes many of our social media platforms possible, and give that money directly to workers, even accounting for server costs, we’d arrive at some pretty lavish salaries. Consider for example, this back-of-the-envelop math on reddit moderators:

Reddit’s estimated value is about $500 million. Let’s say the stingy corporate types are only willing to spend a quarter of that value on the labor that makes reddit even remotely possible. There are 10,114 active subreddits as of today and while I can’t seem to find the estimated number of active mods, let’s just go with 30,000. Some big subreddits have over 15 mods and most have one or two. There are some complicated arguments over which mods should get paid but let’s just simplify the whole thing and pay each one a flat rate. $125 million (a quarter of reddit’s value) divided by 30,000 is $4,166.

No one can live on $4k a year but consider how conservative we were with the amount going to salaries and how liberal we were with who gets them: sure each moderator of r/pics is going to get far less than what they are owed but collectively that team of 23 will get over $95,000. Perhaps that team could split that money up in some sort of progressive way where a successful and retired photographer can forgo their salary and pass it on to a young upstart. Meanwhile the moderators of small and obscure subreddits like r/Troy (local news for my city of 50,000 people) with only 514 readers would get a relatively sizeable amount of money for a small amount of work.

Just as reformers of the turn of the 20th century realized that paying officials actually reduced corruption, we might do well to start turning volunteers into part-time employees if for no other reason than to encourage a more diverse pool of community leaders. We should be paying them anyway, given that they generate so much value, but even if you are not convinced by the Marxist value-creation argument you can at least get behind improving communities.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr


A few years ago (I don’t really remember when) someone on this blog (don’t remember who) [edit: it was nathan] lamented the fact that the increased visibility of our childhood indiscretions, thanks in no small part to Facebook, had never resulted in a change in how we forgive one-another for our past-selves. That instead of saying, “eh I was a kid once too” we continue to roll our eyes, clutch our pearls, and even deny each other jobs based on the contents of timelines, profiles, and posts. Today I’m starting to feel like such forgiveness might have to begin with ourselves because –as many of us might be experiencing at this moment—I have started a free trial of Apple Music and I am confronted with my old iTunes music purchases. I need to forgive myself for the purchase of A Bigger Bang when it came out in 2006. This is hard.

Apple doesn’t make it easy. There’s all this album art staring at you under the words “My Music.” It’s all there, in alphabetical order as if my decision to spend actual US currency on Madeleine Peyroux is the same kind of decision to let iTunes think I had “purchased” a Dead Prez CD and ripped its contents to the massive 80 gig hard drive that once inhabited my Macbook G4. Then there are all of these personal one-hit wonders that, for the life of me, I cannot remember from the album art (probably because it didn’t have any) but now stare at me like old friends who don’t look anything like they did in high school but their voice is unmistakable. Oh! You’re THAT track. Wow Magenta Lane’s Wild Gardens, I totally forgot about you.

Why do I have not one but two MC Hammer albums?

Remember that time Stephen Colbert had the Swedish-language hip-hop swing fusion band Movits! on his show and it was better than something like that has any business sounding? I’m not saying my decision to use half of the value of my fifth night of Hanukah iTunes gift card on that album was a good decision, but I suppose that’s just how we learn.

So now I’m wondering if the fact that I was one of those people that first heard Modest Mouse via Good News For People Who Love Bad News is the reason I fell so hard and completely into hating hipsters in the early 00s. I dunno, Building Nothing out of Something is an excellent album but, nine times out of ten, I’ll still choose to listen to Dashboard when I’m driving. I don’t know what that says about me.

Oof, Major Lazer is bad writing music.

Was anyone ever into Birdmonster in 2007? Pitchfork’s William Bowers in August of 2006 says that there were some “bloggers” that really liked them but he only gave No Midnight a 5.6. I remember them (sorta) as one of those British pop punk bands that had a moment in that time. The Fratellis, The Futureheads, Kubichek! All sound virtually interchangeable, now (and probably then).

If Spotify is the gabby friend that likes to tell all of your other friends that you listen to bad psytrance at the gym, iTunes is the parent that recommends The White Stripes “deep cuts” because remember all The White Stripes you listened to, don’t you like The White Stripes I thought you really liked them. The former is a performance, but the latter is a kind of meditation. Neither is more or less authentically “you” but both do sort of belie a misunderstanding on the part of designers and engineers, about what we do with our music and why.

The impulse to recommend is always already context collapsed. Recommendations come from paying attention to you and only you, regardless of context or co-present audience. No platform has yet mastered the when, how, or with whom of music listening and so we end up forced to explain Squarepusher to our aunt who we’re driving home from the airport as it comes up on your finely tuned driving Spotify radio station. That’s a good thing. Those moments should never be smoothed over by wearables that will report the audience to some onboard car computer designed to play the “perfect” Bruce Springsteen track off of Nebraska that everyone will tolerate.

We tend to think of them as sooth sayers, but algorithms meant to suggest “more that we love” are also products of what Carl DiSalvo calls adversarial design. Adversarial relationships are characterized by disagreement, but never in the Hegelian one-must-be-destroyed-to-realize-the-other sort of way. Adversarial relationships produce productive tensions that do useful political work through the juxtaposition and shifting relationships of individual actors. We come to understand how we relate to other people and the material world around us in moments where things don’t fit quite right. When that one Billy Joel track you like comes on when you’re with someone you are trying to impress, when a particularly raunchy song comes on during a dinner party. These are moments where we learn a lot and they might not be comfortable but that doesn’t make them unimportant.

Maybe then, the increased mutual understanding, the forgiveness that we were expecting to arrive with the ubiquity of the timeline, is still in the works. Maybe we will still get that, but it will take a lot more uncomfortable moments. In that time, unfortunately, social inequities will make the adversarial moments designed by and through algorithmically-induced context collapse more consequential for some and not for others. Gregarious algorithms can and have gotten people into serious trouble, I only have to worry about defending my purchase of that one Citizen Cope album from 2004.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr.

Scene from Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard
Scene from Die Hard 4: Live Free or Die Hard

David Graeber has republished his popular essay Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit in his new book Utopia of Rules with some small changes that go toward supporting the book’s over-all argument that the hallmark of American neoliberalism is not dynamism and a freeing up of individuals to peruse “creative class” jobs but rather a bureaucratization of every aspect of life. This total bureaucratization (almost literally) papers over the structural violence that supports capitalism. Of Flying Cars specifically argues that the utter failure to deliver on the implicit promises of Jetsons-level automation by the 21st century is not necessarily a matter of market forces (no one actually wants a flying car!) or technical impossibility (Moore’s law hasn’t delivered thinking computers yet!) but is in fact a product of both squashing the imagination through bureaucratic devices, and the immense devaluing of labor and elimination of corporate profit taxation that leads to paltry civilian research and development. In essence, capitalism in its present form, is anathema to the future it once promised.

Graeber states in the beginning of the essay that he is puzzled by the near silence from those people who saw the moon landing on their televisions but today do not, themselves, live on the moon (or can easily teleport there, or take a drug that might extend their life to the time that both of those things are available). “Instead,” he writes, “just about all the authoritative voices—both on the Left and Right—began their reflections from the assumption that a world of technological wonders had, in fact, arrived.”

Graeber relatively quickly drops the issue of how our collective expectations of the future could be so quickly and completely re-aligned (his answer is postmodernism) and goes on to explain why such an alignment has become necessary (capitalism’s secret love of bureaucracy) but I want to dwell on the “how” question a little bit longer by offering up a corollary to Of Flying Cars. The argument that follows is also a reprinting of my own work, an article published in a 2012 issue of the International Journal of Engineering Social Justice in Peace, co-authored with Arizona State University’s Joseph R. Herkert. I want to argue that our expectations for the future are purposefully managed through a circulation of imagined threats to capitalism, the popularizing of narratives that flesh out that threat, and the re-articulation of those imagined threats as real ones that must be met with massive government funding. I will demonstrate this process using a beloved and uniquely American franchise: Die Hard.

The original article, available in full here, argued that the top-down technocratic perspective exemplified by Robert Moses’ demolishing of vast swaths of New York City are still alive and well today, but are repackaged in Silicon Valley platitudes of disruption and hacking that circulate in popular media so as to 1) provide the technocrat’s view of the world as an inevitable future, 2) drum up support for a clearly unethical approach to technological development by establishing narratives that reaffirm the need for the technocratic view, and 3) establish popular touchstones that make small areas of research that benefit an elite few appear to be global needs on the scale of clean water or sanitation.

We argued that in past iterations of this process, companies like GM and Ford offered positive views of the future through (among other marketing campaigns) their exhibits at the 1939 and 1964 world’s fairs that gave out pins to visitors that read “I have seen the future!” Today’s expectation management is different in that rather than plainly state “this is the future we will create” our media describes future development as merely a response to seemingly uncontrollable events such as terrorism or resource scarcity. This is where my previously published work on Die Hard comes in.

The Die Hard franchise is notable, among other reasons, for the variety of its source material. The first two movies were based on paperback action novels published in the mid to late 1980s. The third installment, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, was adapted from an orphaned screenplay titled Simon Says. The fourth movie, Live Free or Die Hard, however, is a radical departure from the prior three. Live Free is based on a WIRED Magazine article, “A Farewell to Arms,” in which John Carlin describes the U.S. military’s preparations for “I-war”. Carlin quotes the Chinese military newspaper, Jiefangju Bao, for a summary of I-war. It reads, in part:

After the Gulf War, when everyone was looking forward to eternal peace, a new military revolution emerged. This revolution is essentially a transformation from the mechanized warfare of the industrial age to the information warfare of the information age. Information warfare is a war of decisions and control, a war of knowledge, and a war of intellect. The aim of information warfare will be gradually changed from “preserving oneself and wiping out the enemy” to “preserving oneself and controlling the opponent.”

Live Free is about control: the control of people, resources, institutions, and (most importantly) infrastructure. The plot revolves around a spurned government cyber-security official named Thomas Gabriel, who carries out the mythical “fire sale” cyber security breach. The “fire sale” is named as such because, just like the eponymous inventory clearance event, “everything must go.” Mass media, financial systems, and infrastructure are all compromised and brought under the control of Gabriel’s small army of hackers and mercenaries. They are only able to accomplish such a feat by anonymously soliciting outside hackers to write viruses under the auspices of a corporate computer security firm. Once the viruses have been written, Gabriel orders all of the hackers killed. John McClane (played by Bruce Willis) saves one of the hackers, Matthew Farrell (played by Justin Long), just as the assassin team arrives at his apartment. The rest of the movie follows Farrell and McClane as they attempt to thwart the massive attack on America’s computer-run infrastructure.

The two characters’ perspectives on technology are representative of mass media’s imposed narratives on the “generation gap” between so-called millennials and baby boomers. Technology, as it appears to Farrell (the millennial), improves individuals’ lives; society is an afterthought. McClane (the boomer) has come to recognize that there is no technological white knight that will end hunger or disease. His technological optimism-turned pragmatic idealism is representative of his fellow baby boomers who, just as they are reaching retirement, find the social safety net in tatters. Institutions are corrupt and inept, and technology is just as alienating as it is tragically flawed. This tension is perfectly demonstrated in two scenes.

In the first scene, McClane is escorting Farrell to a police precinct just as the “Fire Sale” begins. Gabriel calls McClane and offers him a tradeoff similar to actual U.S. fiscal policy: by sacrificing the millennial, McClane’s debt will be eliminated and his own millennial children will be “set for life.” Gabriel makes this offer only after emptying McClane’s retirement fund as a demonstration of his power. McClane declines the offer and (by way of machine-gun-equipped black helicopter) is immediately denied by Gabriel the relative safety of his cop-filled SUV. This makes for an interesting comparison to the 90s era installment With a Vengeance, wherein an equally decade-appropriate offer is made to McLane: a dump truck full of inflation-resistant gold bullion stolen from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

The second scene comes just as the full effects of the Fire Sale have become clear. Farrell, recognizing his own latent desire for wanton destruction of “the system,” prompts a frank discussion of what is at stake:

Farrell: This is virtual terrorism.

McClane: What?

Farrell: You know, first time I heard about the concept of a fire sale . . . I actually thought it would be cool if anyone ever did it. Just hit the reset button and melt the system just for fun.

McClane: Hey, it’s not a system; it’s a country. You’re talking about people, all right? A whole country full of people. Sitting at home alone scared to death in their houses, all right? So if you’re done with your little nostalgic moment and think a little bit and help me catch these guys, just help me. Just put yourself in their shoes.

This exchange between McClane and Farrell mirrors the Faustian bargain demanded by technocrats and bureaucrats: if you take any interest in technological development that does not conform to the grand narrative of progress (such as hitting the “reset button”), you are co-signing your fellow Americans to a short life of Hobbesian terror. The young radical and the skeptical citizen alike pose a danger to everyone’s collective livelihood simply by making rhetorical room for alternative conceptions of progress. Meanwhile, the “old national faith in the advancement of technology as a basis for social progress,” to quote Leo Marx, not only keeps McClane (and the sympathetic audience) loyal to this sociotechnical regime, but it translates a system of pipes and cables into a nation.

Graeber's new book Utopia of Rules, published by Melville House
Graeber’s new book Utopia of Rules, published by Melville House

Graeber concludes his Of Flying Cars chapter by observing that:

…ultimately, claims for the present-day inevitability of capitalism have to be based on some kind of technological determinism. And for that very reason, if the ultimate aim of neoliberal capitalism is to create a world where no one believes any other economic system could really work, then it needs to suppress not just any idea of an inevitable redemptive future, but really any radically different technological future at all.

What I have provided is a very specific mode by which our expectations of possible technological futures are managed through popular culture. There is a pervasive notion, exemplified by the scenes in Live Free or Die Hard that I just described, that any rebellion against these expectations are immature desires that could lead to collateral damage.  But how, specifically, does this sort of culture work influence actually existing research and development?

The article Herkert and I wrote was part of an issue dedicated to critiquing the National Academy of Engineer’s Grand Challenges For Engineering, a document meant to set the tone for future investment in applied science and technology research and development. It lists several major areas of future research that grant writing institutions should fund if society is to meet some of its biggest 21st century challenges. For the most part it is a fairly stern and dry document until you reach the section titled “secure cyberspace” which reads in part:

Electronic computing and communication pose some of the most complex challenges engineering has ever faced. They range from protecting the confidentiality and integrity of transmitted information and deterring identity theft to preventing the scenario recently dramatized in the Bruce Willis movie “Live Free or Die Hard,” in which hackers take down the transportation system, then communications, and finally the power grid.

Rarely is the cycle of imagined threats, popularized threats, and constructed futures so blatant but I’m sure there are hundreds more examples lurking out there. This sort of dynamic makes it difficult to remember that our expectations of what the future will look like, and what sort of planetary social order will provide that future, are of our choosing. It also means that pop culture, as many before me have argued, is far from trivial. It is, perhaps, our best hope for steering the future course of technological development.



David is on Twitter and Tumblr.

Note on authorship: The section between the two horizontal lines are a slightly altered reprint of a section of Herkert, Joseph R, and David A Banks. “I Have Seen the Future!: Ethics, Progress, and the Grand Challenges for Engineering.” International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace 1, no. 2 (2012): 109–22. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License that allows others to share the work with an acknowledgement of the work’s authorship and initial publication in this journal. Full text available here: http://library.queensu.ca/ojs/index.php/IJESJP/article/view/4306

A 1916 American Mug Shot
A 1916 American Mug Shot

Visual technologies continue to play an increasingly key role in strategies for monitoring and surveillance in modern capitalist societies in crime prevention and detection, and the apprehension, recording, documenting and classification of criminals and criminal activities. Still and moving ‘visual evidence’ is stored in state archives, used in courtrooms as evidence, and disseminated across almost every major media platform: from the printed press to the World Wide Web.

The relationship between visual technologies and the criminal justice system can be traced back to the emergence of photography and the invention of the camera as a tool for documenting ‘reality’ in the nineteenth century. The camera was widely believed, even more so than today, to be able to objectively and truthfully record social reality. A photograph was perceived to be like a window on the world – a mechanically produced, impartial and literal representation of the real world.

Unlike oil painting and other forms of art, the camera required minimum human intervention and was therefore deemed to be free from the vagaries of human interpretation.  Prior to the invention of photography and the wider availability of cameras, the criminal justice system relied heavily upon eye-witness accounts and written descriptions largely based on memory for the detection, identification, apprehension and sentencing of criminals.

The mid-nineteenth century was an era that was profoundly preoccupied with classification and order as evidenced by the application of the scientific method to occupations that were once considered more of an art than anything else. “The drive to produce taxonomies of race, social deviance and insanity so as to identify distinguishing ‘characteristics’ and thus predictable and recognisable social types was greatly aided by photographic technology.”1  The widely held-belief of the truth value (or factual nature) of the photographic image quickly slotted into the social and political regulatory systems of the time with newly emerging state bureaucratic and administrative networks of surveillance, power and authority. Photographic technology aided in the positivist reorganisation of knowledge 2.

The ascendant theories of criminology in the nineteenth century posited that an individual was born criminal and that criminal tendencies could be identified by physical indicators.  This logic was underpinned by the use of criminal portraits which served the dual purpose of both the identification of criminals and to further support dominant theories about crime and criminality.

One such photographic taxonomy was produced by the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso who drew ink portraits depicting ‘criminal types’. Lombroso’s work is an exemplary case of the rise of positivist criminology in the nineteenth century. He argued that criminals possessed more ‘atavistic’ features and shared more characteristics with our evolutionary ancestors than more law-abiding citizens3.  On the basis of post-mortem examinations of dead convicts and the extensive measurement and documentation of the distinguishing features of prison inmates, Lombroso proffered a form of explanation that attempted to establish a causal link between the physiological features of individuals in prisons and the types of crimes they were said to have committed. Such knowledge, Lombroso claimed, could offer a means of predicting criminality in the general populace.

Lombroso’s approach also combined phrenology (the study of the contours of the head) and the identification of anatomical stigmata (physiological features deemed to be ‘abnormal’) which came together in a general theory of biological determinism wherein physiological differences were assumed to be strong indicators of criminality or the propensity for deviant / criminal behaviour.

Images from Cesare Lombroso’s ‘L'Uomo Delinquente’ published in 1876
Images from Cesare Lombroso’s ‘L’Uomo Delinquente’ published in 1876

Not long after the publication of Lombroso’s work, French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon employed photography as a means for classifying and recording criminals combining visual documentation with the precise measurement of distinguishing bodily characteristics (distance between the eyes, length and width of the nose and so on) whilst Francis Galton developed (a then quite innovative) technique of exposing multiple portrait negatives which were then combined to form a single image highlighting shared characteristics displaying the inherent similarities between supposed criminal types.  It is this sort of work, identifying composite criminal types and not just individuals, which forged the link between photography and the criminal justice system. Before long there were entire established professional disciplines (e.g. physiognomy and physical anthropology) that aimed to demonstrate the ways in which particular physical attributes indicated the propensity for criminality4.

© Wellcome Collection
© Wellcome Collection

As the nineteenth century progressed, official institutions of various kinds realised the value of the photograph for all kinds of purposes of classification and identification.  Photography became increasingly deployed across a range of human, physical and biomedical sciences producing a unique fusion of knowledge, information and visualisation which assisted various state authorities in the power they exercised over citizens, making photography complicit in these new networks of administrative and bureaucratic power5.  Initially, the uses of photography by the police varied considerably in terms of framing, composition and distance but through the work of Bertillon and Galton (amongst others) photographic practices quickly became refined and standardised.

By the twentieth century, the insights of Lombroso (and others working within these fields) were largely discredited on the grounds that far from offering objective evidence much of this work did nothing more than put a veneer of science on structural oppression. Many of the claims made about abnormality, pathology, deviance and criminality were deeply racist, classist and sexist in their implications6.  Today, the work of Lombroso (and his contemporaries) now looks profoundly ethnocentric and androcentric, but an enduring and perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work is its visual legacy in the familiar and ubiquitous ‘mug-shot’ which is still widely used to this day.

In the twenty-first century, there is much talk about the death of photography or the notion that with digitalization we are now living in the post-photographic age. This argument does not seem to hold water, given that the relationship between the photographic image and the criminal justice system remains remarkably strong. The association between photography and criminal identification and apprehension firmly established in the nineteenth century is still alive and well today7.

But while the criminal portrait (or mug-shot) still occupies a prominent place in modern policing, these images no longer solely reside in the official domain of the archives of state authorities.  As a form of visual evidence, the criminal portrait has not changed much over the years but digital networks have radically altered the means of their dissemination and circulation.  This has prompted some critics to speculate these images have to some extent transcended their forensic roots.

Take, for example, the posting of the police mug-shot of criminal Jeremy Meeks on Stockton Police Force Facebook page resulted in his image going viral and concluding with the offer of a quite lucrative modelling contract. What is interesting about the Jeremy Meeks mug-shot story is that once his photograph was displayed outside of the authoritative domain of the police archive and publicly circulated across different social media platforms and networks it accrued different sets of meanings (sexy, hot, good-looking) along the way despite the attempt to officially encode (or fix) the meaning (criminal, dangerous, wanted by the police) of the photograph.

Jeremy Meeks’ Mug-shot

As David Banks’ article on Sousveillance reminds us, in an era where increasingly sophisticated digital and mobile tools and platforms have opened up the field of human communications in ways unimaginable 150 years ago, the boundaries between those with the power to observe and those who are the observed are increasingly subject to contestation and struggle. Power is never absolute or total and there will always be micro-pockets of resistance, counter-struggles and challenges to that power. The disempowered may become empowered in unintended or unanticipated ways.

According to the media scholar John Fiske8, in socially divided capitalist societies, dominant social groups use various forms of control to maintain their power which is reinforced and reproduced through the legal, political, educational and cultural systems. But this power can never be total, absolute, or complete – it is an on-going struggle between what Fiske terms the power-bloc and “the people”.  Semiotic resistance (the interpretive power of “the people” to subvert, challenge, evade or resist dominant meanings and values which support the power-bloc) arises out of semiotic productivity – the interpretive ability to produce different or new meanings from the discourses, texts, resources and commodities produced by those in power. Rather than dismiss these instances of semiotic resistance as irrelevant, Fiske sees them as important (albeit minor) victories of the subordinate against a system that constantly seeks to socially divide, dominate, monitor and exert forms of control over them.

Fiske’s theory was formulated in the late 1980s and so pre-dates the emergence of web 2.0 and social media but his model of culture (and popular culture) does have a resonance with the ways in which social media tools and platforms further open up the terrain of culture for struggles over meaning, semiotic productivity and popular resistance. Imposing official (or dominant) meanings is now much more difficult because there are so many opportunities for contestation.  It would be naïve to cite the Jeremy Meeks example as some kind of paradigm changing moment or as the empowerment of the masses but it does offer an insight into the ways in which the potential for popular resistance is always possible and can surface in the most unlikely of places.

Liam French is a lecturer in the Journalism and Media Department at the University of St. Mark & St. John.

References & Further Reading

1 Jermyn, D. (2007) Crime Watching: Investigating Real Crime TV. New York, I.B. Tauris

2 McQuire, S. (1998) Visions of Modernity. London, Sage Publications.

3 Smith, M.J. (2003) Social Science in Question. London, Sage Publications.

4 Jermyn, D. (2007) Crime Watching: Investigating Real Crime TV. New York, I.B. Tauris

5 Tagg, J. (1988) The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. New York.  Palgrave MacMillan.

6 Klein, D. (1996) The Etiology of Female Crime, in Muncie, J., McLaughlin, E. & Langan, M. (eds) Criminological perspectives: a Reader. London, Sage Publications.

7 Jermyn, D. (2007) Crime Watching: Investigating Real Crime TV. New York, I.B. Tauris

8 Fiske, J. (1989) Reading the Popular.  London & New York. Routledge.   See also Television Culture (1987) and Understanding Popular Culture (1989) by the same author.



Cesare Lombroso (1876) L’Uomo Delinquente:     http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/exhibitions/Babies/pictures/big/8600.c.97_tableVI.jpg   (accessed 6th June 2015)

Plymouth Crime Gang Broken by Undercover Police Operation. Plymouth Herald 25th March 2014:   http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/Plymouth-crime-gang-broken-undercover-police/story-20846710-detail/story.html   (accessed 5th June 2015)

The Hands of Justice: Fascinating Nineteenth Century Mug-shots Show Criminals Displaying Their Fingers for the Camera to Reveal Tattoos or Even Missing Digits:   http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2967021/Whodunnit-shattered-skulls-real-life-game-Guess-new-exhibition-lifts-lid-morbid-fascination-forensics.html    (accessed 5th June 2015)

Ellen Pao, CEO of Reddit. image credit: Christopher Michel
Ellen Pao, CEO of Reddit. image credit: Christopher Michel

An unfortunately predictable thing happened on Reddit last week. Reddit’s corporate administrators announced that they would be shutting down “five subreddits that break our reddit rules based on their harassment of individuals.” These were fairly small subreddits, except for r/fatpeoplehate which had 150,000 subscribers at time of banning. The primary mission of r/fatpeoplehate was to find pictures of fat people, make fun of them in the comments and –if at all possible—find these people and harass them for being fat. [If you’re unfamiliar with the structure and vocabulary of Reddit I’ve provided a primer at the bottom of this page.]

The administrators were careful to point that they were “banning behavior, not ideas.” That is, while they know that there are dozens of subreddits devoted to white supremacy, tactics for violent raping women, and doxxing young women for espousing feminist beliefs on Tumblr, (yes, all of those exist and they are a lot bigger than you or I want to believe) those communities should rest assured that they will be safe so long as moderators make overtures to discouraging collective behavior that goes beyond reaffirming each other’s dangerous and hateful thoughts.

One could be forgiven for thinking that banning such disgusting behavior from a small minority of people would be met with some “that makes sense” head nods and any sort of outrage would be directed at the failure to ban more subreddits, not less. What in fact happened was quite the opposite: within the day there were dozens of new subreddits playing host to the kind of content and behavior that characterized r/fatpeoplehate. What’s more disturbing though, is that the content from these new subreddits were making it to the frontpage with thousands of votes. There were also countless posts calling for Reddit’s CEO Ellen Pao to do everything from resign to defile herself. As of writing, a full four days after the announcement, there’s an “Ellen Pao Must Resign” subreddit with over seven thousand subscribers that are still able to get links to the front page.

What happened here? How and why would the banning of such a despicable and small community cause such outrage? The answer comes in three parts: 1) the site’s features obscure more than they reveal about the social relationships that undergird the site, 2) the destructive and contradictory politics of extreme “free speech” rhetoric fan the flames of hate and 3) voting systems, as I have argued twice before (1 and 2), tend to reassert hegemonic discourse.

1) Social Relationships

Subreddits are administered by volunteer moderators that have wide-ranging discretion over the behavior of the community and set the tone for acceptable behavior. Their presence on the site however, is somewhat limited to their own submissions and comments, and a small box on the right-hand side that announces their handle. If a moderator is also a charismatic leader, or even just an influential voice, there are no indicators of their outsized influence on the group. From the outside, without spending a lot of time reading the comments, a subreddit that does a lot of infighting looks exactly the same as one that shares a very particular viewpoint.

Also, if subreddits work anything like other groupings of humans (and there’s no reason to assume otherwise), then smaller subreddits will act more like small towns than bigger subreddits that act like cities. Small towns might have squabbles, cliques, or even total schisms but there’s something that holds them together. Cities on the other hand, have a lot of people just passing through and while there can be devotees, everyone might not have the kind of loyalty that smaller places garner. Therefore, when small, tight-knit communities are threatened, they can act quickly and decisively with a unified front.

2) Extreme Free Speech

It is really important, speaking in the most general terms possible, that people get to express themselves in a way that they feel heard and their arguments considered. This is an ethical position that is shared, in varying shades and colors, by just about every political thinker since the Enlightenment. What makes Redditors’ free speech politics so destructive is their belief that “freedom” is synonymous with “no consequences” and that “community standards” are tantamount to “censorship.” This gets even more ridiculous when they invoke the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution which only states that the government –and not your preferred social media company––is prohibited from retaliating against political speech acts.

Notice here that I say extreme and not radical. Radical free speech would interrogate the very root of what freedom and speech acts mean and how they behave. This might require some critical thought about consequences, a study of the history of who typically gets to speak, and a thoughtful analysis of how one person’s freedom from abuse or harassment balances with others’ freedom to say and do certain things. Extremism doesn’t interrogate anything. Instead, it seeks to take things as they are to their most illogical conclusion. The sort of free speech extremism espoused on Reddit in the days after the announcement of the banned subreddits, posits that even the most reprehensible speech must be left alone because to silence even the worst among us is the beginning of a slippery slope towards… well, that’s sort of vague. Sometimes it’s the calcification and slow death of Reddit, sometimes it’s a more general indicator of fascism.

The irony here is that free speech extremism opens the door for fascism. It demands that hate, whether it is directed at fat people or anyone else, is somehow part of a spectrum that also contains more agreeable ideas: one of many things to be considered on their own merits. Lots of people upvoting derogatory posts about fat people may fancy themselves a one-man-ACLU: they don’t agree with the posts, but they’ll defend the right to post it. It is the kind of logic that could only come from someone with no skin in the game: people with enough privilege that decisions about what sort of speech should be tolerated are thought experiments and not matters of literal life and death.

3) Voting Systems

I would understand if voting seems somehow antithetical to extremism. We typically think of voting as a democratic mechanism that helps us arrive at commonalities, not divisive extremes. Generally this is the case. As I argued back in 2013:

Voting-oriented sites are often billed as exercises in crowdsourcing: Thousands of Reddit users take the place of Buzzfeed editors, and the hundreds of Quora users answering a question about the relative merits of Android over iOS replace the technology reviewer. But voting doesn’t foster virality so much as it encourages Redditors to play on well-worn tropes and memes to ensure a better chance at making the front page. The never-ending elections and karma hunts incentivize Redditors to try to craft perfect social media content just as canned and constrained as typical politicians. Users have begun to notice this uniformity in the sites’ comments, link titles, and even the content itself but there isn’t much that can be done. While using common phrases (Reddit’s are compiled here) are one of the more basic methods of forming and performing in group status, the karma-driven voting system asks the Redditor to wield cat GIFs and Xbox stories as a presidential speech writer might wield God and family.

This sounds like an argument for commonality, not extremity until one remembers that norms need not be neutral or all-inclusive. Reddit’s ability to deliver fat shaming is akin to a Texas legislature banning abortion providers. Voting can be a highly efficient delivery mechanism for violence, especially against marginal populations. Without mechanisms and features to actively and continually fight structural oppression, the same old violence will reassert itself. Just as a relative few people espouse explicitly white supremacist views in a country that benefits from and implicitly forgives structural white supremacy, so too can the banning of a relatively tiny hateful subreddit spur a massive backlash from a once-silent majority.

Voting mechanisms are particularly good at supporting this sort of social dynamic because it is so easy to register your support (no one asks you to defend your position) and the entire enterprise is meant to anoint definitive winners and losers. In that way, Reddit not only asks its users to be extremist, they are also zealots in the way Joel Olsen uses the term [paywall]. Zealotry is a kind of political tactic that draws clear lines of winners and losers, friends and enemies. Moderate positions are intentionally and forcibly removed as an option. Such tactics, according to Olsen, have been incredibly effective across the political spectrum, having been indispensable organizing tactics for both slavery and abortion abolitionists.

Voting doesn’t deliver the best, most important, or even the most popular content. Instead, voting asks that we adhere closely to established community norms, whether that be extremist free speech, hateful bigotry, or both. What we are seeing on Reddit is the same social phenomenon that drives the sort of community harassment that the smartphone-based social network Yik Yak is constantly fighting. When I wrote about Yik Yak back in April I warned, “Implementing a voting system as an information filter signals that group cohesion is prioritized over most other outcomes, including justice or equality for all members.” Voting, whether it is on content or candidates, asks us to double down on abstracted convictions so that we may achieve specific things later on.

When you live in a society that hates fat people it shouldn’t be surprising that one’s right to continue harassing and degrading them be used as cannon fodder for an extremist free speech crusade. Ellen Pao is also currently embroiled in a fight with her previous employer over fair hiring practices, making this an easy proxy war for the Mens’ Rights crowd as well. All this shows just how much work social network administrators have cut out for themselves. Unfortunately we have yet to find a mix of features and standards that help in actively discouraging structural oppression and not just individual bad behavior. Once we figure that out, we all might have the luxury of being surprised when something like this happens again.

David is on Twitter, Tumblr, and yeah actually- even Reddit.

Reddit primer

The main features of the site are minimal, almost elegant: a user submits links or short pieces of text and other users vote that submission up or down based on “importance.” Discussions are hosted on a fairly standard commenting system. The site is organized into “subreddits” which can be anything from vague categories’ like “pictures” all the way down to the more obscure “Where did the soda go?” which asks users to submit out-of-context gifs of infomercials. Subreddits are usually referred to by the unique portion of their URL. For example Where did the soda go? is r/wheredidthesodago. Users subscribe to subreddits which populate their custom frontpage. Individual profiles are sparse and contain not much more than a username, a history of things you’ve submitted and said in the comments, and a “karma” number that represents the net up and down votes you’ve received across the entire site.  If all of that didn’t sit right you can check out the Reddit’s about page.


Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that all banned subreddits were under 5,000 subscribers.

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Yesterday Apple announced something many of us were expecting: a streaming service to rival Spotify and possibly expand/destroy the services provided by recently acquired Beats Music. At first glance the recently announced service seems to be not much more than an also-ran for streaming: Apple Music lets you stream the iTunes catalog, make playlists, and provide a radio service for a reasonable monthly subscription. Unlike other services however, Apple is claiming to keep some of the human-curated playlists that gave Robin James’ 80 gig iPod classic a run for its money.

At the center of this “we’re not just Spotify” pitch are not only ad-free stations with real DJs playing music available to a global audience, but a kind of global radio brand that is something much more than Spotify’s pre-made playlists. The inaugural station “Beats 1” will be available in 100 countries when the service launches at the end of this month and even though, at time of writing, most of the world has known about this service for all of half an hour there’s still a lot gleam from the introductory demo. Apple is interested in not only shedding its U2 Dad Rock Albatross (someone photoshop a literal visual representation of that please), it wants to do so by establishing itself as the arbiter of global pop.

Cultural literacy, a term coined by E.D. Hirsch, refers to a sort of comfort with a group or community. Apple is both putting on a display of its own “cultural literacy” by eschewing U2 in favor of artists like Drake and The Weekend, and setting itself up to be a platform for popular music curation. Of course Apple has played a huge part in music since the first iPod but now they will be paying actual human beings to select music that can be heard in 100 countries 24/7.

Internationally synchronized pop music is nothing new, but a single company broadcasting a single playlist of “what is hot right now” is certainly a categorically bigger beast. In some ways it is completely predictable. The DJs that select the music for Beats 1 are in three global cities: LA, New York, and London. Saskia Sassen has convincingly argued [PDF], these cities have much more in common with each other than the countries that surround them. Apple is further solidifying the Global City phenomenon by broadcasting one single common cultural artifact to anyone with a smartphone (Apple Music and Beats 1 will be available on Android as well). Similar efforts with different technologies, like satellite radio, have failed miserably at doing this but perhaps they hewed too closely to traditional radio rather than iTunes playlists.

Practically, I doubt Beats 1, even if it is listened to by millions of people every day for years to come, will have a profound homogenizing effect on the music listening habits of most people. The Internet has made it easy to share a common cultural literacy even without a common language (cat videos) for decades. What’s different is the overtures to professional curation and selection. By definition Beats 1 isn’t creating viral hits, its making old school triple platinum music superstars. This time though, platinum status is instantly global. The music played on Beats 1 has to be appeal to (literally!) billions of potential listeners. The very existence of Beats 1 as a viable business model necessitates the idea that a single song can resonate with that many people. This is made possible through the mutual shaping of global distribution platforms and the shared cultural literacies of people in global cities.

It makes sense then, that in a minute-long product video for Beats 1 the audience is presented with a wide range of human forms and actions spanning what looks to be nearly every continent. It is the kind of multicultural diversity that springs up in university promotional materials: carefully curated but in the service of a sort of orientalism: a single Pharrell track is somehow universally applicable to lives in (what might be) an LA loft, a Pakistani suburb, and a Malay river. This display of vastly different people is not as an invitation for inclusion into any decision-making role, it is a statement on the reach of a single cultural milieu.

We know that this video is about dominance, rather than inclusivity because about halfway through this video we see several young people of color dancing in the middle of what looks like a New York City subway car. It is an energizing and fun scene that only lasts for a moment but is enough to conjure up any pre-existing memories of big city busking. Using public transit as a stage is both the lowest barrier to entry into grabbing a sizeable audience, and the best way to get arrested for practicing an artful craft. The fact that Apple would take that image and wrap it up in their product is the semiotic equivalent of gentrification: packaging up something unique, colorful, and exciting so that it is easily consumable in standardized units for a purchasing public.

Lots of well-known authors including David Harvey and Jane Jacobs have made a similar point about traditional gentrification: that well-financed firms can reverse-engineer the intangible things that make a place desirable –the weirdness of Austin, the painstakingly refined cuisine of New York boroughs– and change it ever-so-slightly so that it is inviting to anyone willing to pay for it. You standardize the form and sand down the rough edges so that Brooklyn becomes a recognizable flavor and Austin a desirable interior design aesthetic. Each vignette in the product video is available to well-heeled consumers the same way the edge of a gentrified neighborhood is: something pretty to look at but not worthy of spending any real time interacting with.

Of course this process mines the marginal for its most valuable parts and leaves the original inventors and innovators high and dry. New York City buskers face some of the harshest law enforcement in recent memory and yet Apple is still able to successfully leverage their image in their efforts to remake their music brand. These buskers are dancing to a relatively safe artist that is not Bono but still one of the handful that could be recognized by an audience as big as Beats 1’s could be. These are all places and times that are literally muted in favor of a track that appeals to the widest possible audience capital can deliver. If the progress of urban gentrification is any kind of bellwether to this business model I’m sure there’ll be lots of subscribers.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr.