Parameters of Social Interaction

What does equality look like? How do we know if we are getting there?

This is the question I asked to open my talk at SHA 2017. It is also the question carried with me as I walked into CtK.Campfire. Both aimed to look at how to mitigate the polarization of human interaction in a digital age. The talk looked at the infrastructure of human interaction, and the retreat embodied some of the best ideals towards action. I’ve written two blog posts – one about each event – but they occurred temporally and intellectually adjacent. You can find the post about CtK.Campfire here.

The talk at SHA2017 (the Dutch hacker camp) was called “Weaponized Social.” WeapSoc is a project in which Meredith and I invested heavily through 2014 and 2015. She has gone on to write for Status451 on an extension of the topic area. I’ve continued to frame bits of my work in this context but have generally not kept up. It’s some of the most intellectually stimulating and emotionally draining work I’ve ever done, and that includes disaster response in the field.

A background assumption for this talk is that the effects of violence become less and less apparent to an observer of a single instance as we push the edges of “acceptable behavior” into being more aligned with human rights.

Violence is defined by the World Health Organization as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation”, although the group acknowledges that the inclusion of “the use of power” in its definition expands on the conventional understanding of the word.

Example: seeing one person hit a non-consenting person is (pretty) easily defined as violence. Seeing one person say “your a dumb bitch” online to another non-consenting person isn’t as easily defined as violence (it’s often instead categorized as “conflict“). We have to zoom out to see that the receiver isn’t able to be online any longer due to thousands of similar messages in order to see it as the violence (in the form of depravation to opportunity or psychological harm) it is. Here’s just one example:

I don’t want to limit what this person says, but I also have a right not to experience him saying it, if it detracts from my ability to be online. As the quote says, “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” How can we bridge this sort of contention at scale?

To zoom out like this, and to take action at a systemic level, we luckily have Lessig’s four forces for social change. As the infosec crew which was the audience at SHA is largely skeptical of law (excepting the EFF), of social norms (“don’t tell me how to act”), and that I’m skeptical of markets being able to solve problems of inequality, we are left with architecture/code.

In the talk, I asked this question:

“Do we want to take a scientific approach to equality, where we tweak our infrastructure in explicit ways to see if it changes how people are interacting?”

We, as the creators and maintainers of online spaces have a responsibility to strive towards equality in the ways available to us. How can we do this without surveillance and control of speech? We change the architecture of the spaces. The crew of Weaponized Social (namely, TQ at the SF event in May 2015) started to lay out what the different parameters of social interaction are. Such as, how many people can one account be connected to, how far a message can travel (through timeouts or limits to re-broadcasts), of if an element of serendipity is introduced. These are toggles which can be changed, sliders which can be moved.

If we change these things, we can see how/if architecture changes the way we interact. The social sciences point to us being deeply (tho not solely) affected by our environments. By changing the architecture of online spaces, we could see how it changes how we interact. Who feels safe to speak by taking part in the act of speaking. We can then make better choices about our individual instances and realities based on those results. We now have one more set of tools by which to examine if we are progressing towards equality, without impinging on the individual right to speak. I hope you make use of these tools.

The Social Disaster Cycle

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

This blog entry written with substantial input and support from Meredith L. Patterson.

Aspiration has taken on Weaponized Social as an extension of our commitment to solidarity with our community and to equality in our interactions with and through technology.

Better Tools for a Better World

Our work to support more people in their existing efforts by making use of technology has a peripheral effect of bringing historically marginalized populations into online space. And as the ever-larger online community welcomes new people, we have not only an opportunity, but also an obligation, to do so with more intent and understanding than society has tended towards in the past. When we speak of online intimidation or harassment, regardless of the perpetrator or recipient, culturally we struggle with issues of accountability, enforcement, and identity.

It’s a Disaster

We’ve had a few events (NYCNairobi, and San Francisco). From these, and ongoing conversations on the mailing listthe wiki has been expanded and cleaned up. It now includes clearer indicators of how to make use of it, as well as a restructuring into the same framework as the disaster cycle. The disaster cycle falls into preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. More details on these, along with the added aspect of being an extreme event, can be found on the wiki, with projects and resources listed below each aspect of the cycle. Event notes and project specs continue to also be hosted on the wiki. What are not found on the wiki are academic resources (which can be found in this literature review compiled by friends), nor organizations and initiatives (which Tactical Tech recently curated here).

This approach was taken because many conversations in this space are derailed when discussion of intentions and tactics are conflated. For instance, #hoodsoff revealed the identity of those both in positions of political power AND who were members of the KKK using the same tactics which those same activists might find untenable in regards to doxxing of visible feminine gamers. Or that the tactics used against Brianna Wu and Chris von Csefalvay match at a pattern level that goes beyond that specific instance of escalation. This is where Weaponized Social seeks to explore and intervene, because human rights apply to everyone, including ourselves and whoever we might perceive to be our enemies. “Lead by obeying,” as the Zapatistas say.

Who Watches those Watching the Watchmen?

On the same note of rules applying to everyone equally, including the rulers, and of making the conversation clearer, the Weaponized Social crew has also been ruminating a fair amount recently on how accountability and enforcement factors into all this. When people treat each other in unethical ways, our current social systems indicate bringing the law (and associated enforcement) to bear on those breaking the rules. But we are currently facing a long-overdue distrust in enforcement, especially in police. So just as we’re running into the network effects of negative human interaction, we also have no successful foundation to build upon to mitigate through enforcement. The conversation is therefore further confused by asking who should be holding whom accountable, how do we know that’s being done fairly, and how does enforcement happen? Some are turning to community, some to law, some to software platforms, some to police, etc. Each of these may become a viable option. It’s more likely to be a combination therein, and it’s important to think about the historical patterns of enforcement as well as the repercussions of unchecked social errors.

What’s Missing?

The glaring hole which was surfaced by restructuring projects and pieces into this framework is a complete lack of recovery (it’s also totally possible that I’m just not aware of it. If you know of any, please send them our way!). Preparedness and response are necessary and worthwhile aspects to cover, but we offer no long term support or recompense to those who have been affected by the weaponization of social so as to make them whole again. Even legal and policy interventions seem to linger in only half of the cycle, when arguably institutions are responsible for longer term stability (leaving the network to adaptation). This is heartbreakingly familiar, as it’s the same in response to offline disasters.

Additionally, as the conversation expands and deepens, more individuals and organizations are beginning to see their responsibility in encouraging healthy interactions. A few requests have now come in for guidelines in making tools and platforms which take into account these issues. We’ve started to describe the various vectors of online communication which might be fiddled with, and we welcome your feedback!

What I’m excited about is how much of the Weaponized Social crew (most notably, Meredith and TQ) has focused on the mitigation aspect of the disaster cycle. How can we change the very way we do things, to become more pro-social for everyone? We welcome your perusal and contributions to any of the projects on the WeapSoc wiki, but these are the ones I’m most excited about.

What’s Next?

What’s up next is a discussion with Meredith et al to historically, theoretically, epicyclically, technically explore the weaponization of social interaction, such that we can arrive at better interventions. To start, we might discuss the history of liberal social justice and identity politics social justice, cognitive biases, and network effects. You can tune in December 18th at 11a PT / 2p ET by registering here.

We’re also starting to explore a code sprint on some of these tools. If you’d like to get involved, please let us know!

Forays in creating a healthier online ecosystem

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

Weaponized Social is an emerging program that seeks to support a healthier online ecosystem. Since our last gathering in New York, we’ve been to Nairobi on May 2nd, hosted WeapSoc SF in our office home in San Francisco, and facilitated a highly relevant event, the International Workshop on Misogyny and the Internet in MY home base of Cambridge, MA. We’ve continued to build out the Weaponized Social Wiki with notes from conversations, projects, and possibilities.

Weaponized Social in Nairobi

In Nairobi at AkiraChix, we further refined the checklist for making safe space and started two projects: FaceOff and Trolling the Trolls. FaceOff provides space for highly visible people to interact in a nuanced way, posting back to short-form spaces, so as to ask their constituents to be better balanced. This is a response to the very real occurrences of politicians calling their online followers to take action (sometimes violent) in offline space. Trolling the Trolls seeks to use language patterns from sock puppet accounts to find those accounts sooner, and respond to them before they have a negative impact on the speech of marginalized individuals online. Yvonne, who suggested this, also introduced me to ZeroTrollerance which was then represented by Peng! Collective.

San Francisco’s attendees on May 16th and 17th at the SF Nonprofit Tech Center were highly influenced by the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which explores the two systems we have for thinking: one which is based on intuition (and assumption) and on which we most often depend, and one which is based in logic and analysis which comes with a cost to use.

Often, when in difficult exchanges online, we default into the intuitive to protect ourselves. This prevents us from reaching any different understanding of an encounter than what we came to it with. To cope with this, we devised the Introspection Bot, to help you break from whatever mental rut you’re in and consider the wider picture. We also developed the idea of redirecting dog piles of outrage into actual long-term efforts to address systemic problems. We performed some heavy lifting around dissecting what aspects of sociality go into platforms, including privacy control and friend count, which we offered to the Center for Civic Media’s Uncomfortable Networks.

One major difference in perspective between these two events was that freedom of expression is so enthusiastically valued in both the American and internet freedom circles I run in, but in Kenya, just as in other places, concern over hate speech inciting violence is very real. This tension is difficult to navigate both in everyday life and in the microcosm of a session. This is one reason why I was so thrilled when Aspiration was asked to facilitate the Berkman Center’s International Workshop on Internet and Society (IWoMI). Here, there was an international crowd committed to understanding and preventing misogyny (a bit more specific than Weaponized Social events, but focus can be a good thing!) online and off.

We made explicit space for, though still struggled to ingrain, non-Western perspectives in our conversations, including with one conversation about reporting abuse on platforms. A number of memorable things took place:

I continue to be honored and thrilled at the vast amount of brain power and heart the powerhouses of human beings involved in this movement are extending to solve these problems. To have such an international, intergenerational, and human-rights-supportive group set on making the internet a healthy place gives me hope we might even make it happen.

Reporting Back from Weaponized Social in NYC

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

A group of fifteen participants gathered in New York City on February 13 and 14 to discuss the idea of Weaponized Social: the notion that social harms resulting from digital interactions can become dangerously amplified online by the network effect. We discussed what might be done to rethink the ‘social scripts’ that trigger conflict, and how to mediate conflicts as they arise in digital spaces (visit this post to learn more about “social scripts”).

At the event, we recognized that while online interactions can enact harmful consequences, this is a tractable problem; we are in a position to make changes to social scripts in our parts of the world and corners of the web. We understood that many of the things we love most about the internet (e.g., the ability to ambiently connect with long-time friends, to interact (and fall in love with!) strangers, and to vocalize your causes) are also what can make it seem like a dangerous place, where we may be susceptible to harassment or having private information leaked by known or unknown entities.

Weaponized Social NYC

We took the first half of day one to co-create an agenda and to participate in an idea spectrogram in order to challenge assumptions of agreement and convey the diversity of world views in the room. We then dedicated the second half of the day to the common threads across the various issues we were working in. One such shared belief was that rather than creating one-size-fits-all content (e.g., a single deescalation guidebook), we should instead embrace many versions of the same idea being present, for various levels of knowledge, language, and learning styles (think of things like “Drawing for Scientists“).

We also considered how the ways people connect to one another influences their interactions. Calling this session “structures,” it included graph and network visualizations coming into beautifully-illustrated play. We then explored ways of forming and maintaining healthy communities, creating general guidelines to create safe space within defined communities, and to recover if a community has become unsafe.

On the second day, we discussed the more tangible aspects of online scripts, such as:

  • nonviolent communication
  • historical trolling (i.e., trolling pre-online harassment)
  • recovering from unintentional mistakes (yours or someone else’s)
  • nonverbal communication online
  • constructing bridges between disagreeing people
  • solidarity in nebulous groups (what is it to have someone’s back when you’re not technically in a community together? What about if it is an open chat room anyone can join?)

Throughout these discussions, we recognized that echo chambers are to be avoided, but that safe space is also needed for reconciliation, adaptation, and learning. Assuming that a perfectly safe space is also one in which freedom to act is incredibly constrained, we now advocate creating “safe foyers” rather than blanket “safe spaces” (i.e., “Please step over here with me so we can figure out where things went wrong”).

In this model, the safe foyer being unsuccessful would mean bringing in more community members to escalate conflict resolution. We are painfully aware that many abusive people will use back room conversations to quietly continue antisocial behavior, while still seeing that back room conversations are a valuable channel of support for conflict resolution, and we look forward to further examining this tension.

There were many common threads and themes here as well. Such as:

  • Intended audience matters (see also: “Context Collapse“.)
  • Translators between world views are a valuable and necessary (and should be celebrated and rotated in order to prevent fatigue and burn-out)
  • Both historical trolling and non violent communication strive for exploration and emotional maturity for all parties involved (albeit by incredibly different methods)

In each of these, we aimed to include and support neurodiversity, such as those with autism spectrum disorders or with scrupulosity.

The question we will continue to carry forward is: How do we inspire change and self-reflection in our selves and the communities we engage with? To this end, we have a few projects started:

  • Guide for supporting activists
  • Guide in how to ask for critique in a way you can best hear it
  • Self-awareness checklist
  • Guide to wielding the privilege sword
  • Checklist for making safe space (and path-correction when things are going poorly)
  • Guide to expressing nonverbal cues in text-based space
  • Guide to using nonviolent communication among people who use differing empathic styles

These conversations required trust and comfortable space, and we were honored to be housed by the newly opened Civic Hall in NYC’s Flat Iron District. We thank Micah Sifry, a long-time Aspiration friend, who offered this newly established community space around civic tech for the Weaponized Social event. We couldn’t dream of a more appropriate space. Please do welcome them to the geographic and interest neighborhoods when you have a chance.

As we continue moving forward on these projects, we hope you’ll contact us and let us know if you’d be interested in participating in (or hosting!) a future event by contacting

Weaponized Social: Rethinking Online Scripts

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

In the Aspiration ethos, using tools comes second to cultivating and understanding the ecosystem where the tool would live and grow. In practice, this means creating organizational processes, positive feedback loops, conventions, etc., so that when technology is implemented, it is overlayed on existing modes of healthy and sustainable interaction. This year, we began exploring one of the broader and more nebulous ecosystems as it relates to the technology of the internet: the ‘social scripts’ that mediate online interactions.

In February in New York City, participants at the first Weaponized Social collaborated to rethink the scripts that mediate behavior and interactions online. A social script is a way of interacting which is learned and internalized. It is similar to a software script (e.g., “if X, then Y”), but it takes place in the brain and is externalized in social situations. For example, when you walk into a restaurant, a social script is enacted:

  1. A host leads you to your seat and asks what you’d like to drink.
  2. The server brings your drink order, and asks if you’re ready to order food.
  3. You say, “No, not yet.”
  4. You are given more time to explore the menu.

…and so on and so on. If the server firsts asks for a dessert order or if you want to refinance your home, confusion follows as a result of going off-script. One is not born with innate knowledge of ‘how to go to a restaruant’. The script is learned. Although persistent, social scripts are transient and always evolving.

However, social scripts for online courtesy and critique have not kept apace with the rapid evolution of online technology over the past twenty years. The harms of scripts that played out in small groups offline have become dangerously amplified via the network effect. The potential to cascade and amplify makes the harms of scripts more potent. In extreme cases, a social interaction can become weaponized, triggering a negative script that brings life-threatening consequences (think social media comments escalating to harassing death threats and forcing someone to leave their home).

Weaponized Social seeks to explore ways to diminish harmful social scripts through workshops, dialogue, and the creation of actionable and shareable content. On the other side of the coin, we have the opportunity to enforce positive social scripts. It is possible to amplify the healthy, joyful, and serendipitous aspects of online connections.

How to get involved:

Special thanks to Meredith (@maradydd) Sam (@metasj), and the Berkman Center (@berkmancenter) for help in parsing all these ideas.

AkiraChix and Weaponized Social

I went to AkiraChix: Women in Technology Conference in Nairobi, Kenya this past Saturday. It was pretty outstanding. A couple hundred people in attendance, including a few men, and an incredible variety of relationships to tech (women who run the business side of tech orgs, sysadmins, bloggers, PHP devs, those in technical classes, etc).
Here are some things that stood out to me, in no particular order:
  • Cross-generational mentoring: There were students from 2 (3? 4?) high schools in attendance. AkiraChix has ongoing talks and workshops at these high schools, and the young women were definitely a highlight of the conference. Some jumped to interact/speak up, some needed/wanted encouragement to speak up, but each had astute and empathetic contributions to the conversations and workshops. Those who have been in tech for 20+ years in Kenya and the rest of the world had a reigniting of passion, and the interactions seemed great all around. I’ve been inspired to make more of an effort in integrating youth in future events I participate with.
  • Celebration of achievements / ritualized phases: AkiraChix has a bunch of photos of graduations from classes/bootcamps the group has held, and were hosting a competition for tech for women’s empowerment, etc. I often get so lost in process I forget to celebrate the milestones that have been accomplished — this was a good reminder that these moments of pausing and celebration are important.
  • Integration with educational systems: The students in attendance felt comfortable in their skills as well as with the other attendees in no small part because of the consistent interaction between high schools and AC. AC has created curriculum for (I think) both their own workshops as well as for general use in schools.
  • Self-care: Every. Single. Volunteer and Speaker consistently asked each other “how are you doing? Have you eaten? Do you need some tea or water?” It was difficult to not take care of one’s self, and it was infectious to offer care to others around you after this had been instilled. A++, 1 million points.
  • Focus on interactivity: The day was led by a keynote from Juliana Rotich, about the new AC tagline, “she builds, she serves, she leads” which was powerful and inspiring. This was followed by a panel with lots of time for Q+A, 3 rounds of breakout sessions, and a wrap-up panel (again, with lots of Q+A). The interactivity made sure everyone had a chance to speak, as well as breaking down more traditional (and hierarchical) “I speak, you listen” modes. I find this important to systemic change.
My experience, and a few sticking points:

Despite traveling globally pretty consistently for the past 4 years, I’m still very much aware of having been raised in the whitebread American Midwest, and feel that my experience of being aware of, but not the target of, power inequalities in race might be similar to those of feminist men. Intersectionality is something I studied… 10? years ago (oh man), but not something I’ve been deeply committed to understanding until these moments of enforced empathy. Sorry for being so late to the game, everyone.
I am not scared of being shouted at for saying something wrong. I’m terrified of no one talking to me about it if I do. That makes my bringing up sticking point in this context difficult – being still somewhat fresh to post-colonialism, there is definite deference to the light-skinned in Tanzania (and I think a lesser but still present tendency in Kenya), i.e. my Tanzanian friends get frisked before entering buildings, whereas I don’t. Differing with people in at the conference was delicate business I tended to avoid in deference to this. Was this power dynamic not present because I was in a space AkiraChix had created, and invited me into? Was it something to pay even more attention to, as one of three mzungus there? Is my assumption of this power dynamic reinforcing that power dynamic? Have I used the term “they” somewhere in this entry because it would be ok in other contexts and I missed the othering it causes in this one? HOLY SHIT THE ANXIETY. Regardless, here are the things I still found sticky, and I hope everyone feels comfortable telling me if I’m wrong, or even simply presenting it in a terrible way:
  • Rhetoric of Lean In: The idea of “just try harder, stand up, etc” is incredibly disconcerting to me. This is a tension between activism (things are going to suck, you’re going to get hurt, but it’s worth it for societal gain) and basic human dignity (you shouldn’t have to “lean in” at the office, as a woman. You shouldn’t have to, anywhere). This happens in the weird time between legal equality and normalized equality. But is Lean In different, in this cultural context? I heard many women speaking of men whose verbal representation had changed after street harassment exposure, and of fighting to have their voices heard, and it now being understood as culturally normative in some spaces. In short, because this idea doesn’t work for my circles, does it mean I need to bring it up here, and what does my bringing it up mean in larger contexts?
  • Tension of timeliness and inclusion: The “successful/productive” technologist is also perceived as a timely one, a value instilled by the Global North, which is in tension with those with less time or access to transportation, who spend longer in traffic and are subsequently 30 minutes or two hours late to any endeavor. This was hard for me because of my own temporal anxieties. There has been a shift in Kenya in the year I’ve been gone, across the groups I’ve spent time with, with more value now placed on timeliness. I don’t know what this means, and I don’t have the language to speak about it.
Finally (have you made it this far? holy wow), I had the honor of being invited to sit on the closing panel of “Securing Women’s Spaces Online.” The video will be up eventually, but the prezi follows. I encouraged the re-writing of social scripts/memes to not include attack nor rockstar martyrdom (common in hacker circles, and a script I’m concerned about being transmitted), and to remember that homophiliy is easy but serendipity is why the internet seemed/seems so wonderful.