Where the Internet went Wrong

The Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society had its 25 year reunion this past week. I spent two years with BKC, one as an affiliate and one as a fellow. Between that and being at the Center for Civic Media, I had some of the most stimulating years of my life to date. My understanding of the world and my place in it transformed to something more nuanced but also more powerful. And while I’ve lost touch with some of the folks, many of us still talk.

At the reunion, things were generally framed as past, present, future; with the breakout groups and lunch convenings I loved in my time there. The main thread that came out through most of the conversations, was “what did we get wrong?” Or perhaps in our more gracious moments, “what have we learned?” In that context, there were a few recurring themes in the circles I ran in for the 2 days of the conference:

  • Defending free speech and exclusion of regulating speech didn’t land us where we expected
  • Lack of intersectionality and limiting who has a seat at the table has constrained what we can learn and do
  • Influence in law and regulation not transferring sufficiently to market forces left us with blind spots.
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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 weaponizedsocial@aspirationtech.org

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.

Teachable Moments (español)


Mariel (@faeriedevilish) provided this translation, for which we are immensely grateful.

Un panel en la conferencia de Medios Cívicos de MIT y Knight trató sobre la segunda oportunidad de la open web (red abierta), y los problemas a los que nos enfrentamos con el crecimiento de este movimiento. Los panelistas fueron Mark Surman, Director Ejecutivo de la Fundación Mozilla, y Seamus Kraft, Director Ejecutivo de la OpenGov Foundation. Mark comenzó con la historia de la open web, cómo nació Mozilla en 1997 y dónde ve el movimiento hoy. Luego la conversación se dirigió a Seamus, quien hizo su primer login hace 17 años cuando Mozilla fue fundado.

Seamus entró a Internet al final de los noventa por dos razones principales. No como activista, o como desarrollador, sino como un adolescente joven interesado en intercambiar grabaciones en vivo de conciertos de Grateful Dead y Phish… y en conocer y chatear con su género preferido en el Mensajero Instantáneo de AOL. Nos saltamos al día de hoy: Seamus comenzó a luchar por la open web en 2011 cuando, como trabajador (conservador) del Congreso, vio la amenaza de SOPA y PIPA, entonces leyes inminentes, en contra de la Internet que él había aprendido a amar durante varios años. Él es alguien enamorado con lo que Internet le ha permitido hacer, intercambiando música y conocimiento, y conectándose con otros… y ha dedicado su vida a protegerla. Una historia bella – en general, necesitamos más activistas, y, entre más diversos seamos en nuestros orígenes, tendremos más vectores para comprender las problemáticas. Así que fue genial que llegara a hablar de este ideal compartido a una conferencia que es diversa en algunas maneras pero no en otras. Esto me encanta – nuestras ideas adquieren una mayor dimensión cuando se sostienen bajo objetos y fuentes distintos a los que estamos acostumbrados a ver.

Pero la historia del descubrimiento que Seamus hizo de la web no fue contada así. La frase “conectarse para conseguir chicas” se repitió varias veces en en panel. La indignación empezó a hervir en conversaciones paralelas, y luego se convirtió en enojo. Cuando Seamus bajó del escenario, él vio la tormenta en Twitter, entró en shock y terror ante la interpretación, y pasó el resto del día reconociendo su error y ofreciendo disculpas personalmente en Twitter… desde lejos de la conferencia. Yo habría hecho lo mismo. Estoy sorprendida y honrada de que regresó al día siguiente, y más aún de que está dispuesto a escribir esto conmigo.

Seamus dice:

“Cuando me senté fuera de la conferencia a leer cada tuit y comentario, caí en cuenta de cómo mi lenguaje no incluyente había hecho sentir mal a personas, fue como sentir un golpe en el estómago… dado por mí mismo. Fue brutal, abrasador y vergonzoso a la vez. ¿Cómo pude haber sido tan ciego con mi lenguaje? ¿Me había convertido en el chico tecnólogo idiota? Debí haber sabido desde antes, y usar el lenguaje que celebramos como activistas de la open web, en vez del que encontramos en los rincones más oscuros de la Internet. Al leer el hashtag de la conferencia y los tuits dirigidos a mí, sentí que había insultado de manera irreparable a todas las personas que ahí estaban, a todos quienes veían el webcast y a todas las personas que luchan por el Internet abierto.”

“Al contar la historia de cómo me conecté como adolescente, me permití usar el lenguaje de un adolescente. Y al tratar de compartir mi pasión por el creciente movimiento open web, logré precisamente lo contrario. Regresar a la conferencia al día siguiente fue una de las cosas más difíciles que he hecho, pero también estoy agradecido por todas las personas amables e increíbles que dejaron a un lado su enojo justificado, se sentaron conmigo, y literalmente me ayudaron a convertirme en una persona más fuerte, más consciente y –espero– lingüísticamente más incluyente. Me dieron otra oportunidad, una lección de oportunidad y unos abrazos muy necesarios que nunca, nunca voy a olvidar.”

Ahora Willow, en un ejercicio de empatía: 

Me recuerda una vez que estuve en Nueva Orleans, tratando de decir que no era una experta – que la gente que vive en la zona es experta en su propia experiencia. Dije: “Claramente, no soy de aquí. Véanme”, como tratando de decir que vieran qué tan quemada por el sol estaba, pues no paso mucho tiempo afuera, y no sé cuidarme cuando lo hago. Pero imaginen cómo fue percibido, y cómo supe inmediatamente que fue percibido. Me mortificó. Lo mejor que se me ocurrió en ese momento fue enrojecerme más y decir: “Bueno, eso sonó mal”.

Pero nadie me dijo nada. No hubo discusión. Y creo que eso es peor. Lo que tenemos en este momento de la conferencia de Medios Cívicos es una oportunidad para aprender y enseñar.

Estoy más inconforme con la reacción de mi comunidad al hecho que con los comentarios de Seamus. Los comentarios fueron inconscientes y torpes, sí. Está bien (y es necesario, diría yo) poner en evidencia esas cosas. Honestamente, creo que si hubiera estado hablando directamente con el público (no en un panel), habría visto esa respuesta inmediatamente. Me molesta que el otro panelista y el moderador no hablaron del tema con tacto cuando sucedió. De hecho, podrían haberlo condonado, o incluso amplificado. Me molesta que una comunidad que se considera abierta llegó al frenesí con comentarios de cierto tipo – y de haber sido culpable de ellos yo también.

Uhhh. Alguien que trabaja en gobierno abierto para “conseguir chicas”. CLARO que suena como algo en lo que estaría cómoda participando. #civicmedia

Es un gran momento para aprender – y no sólo para Seamus. Ésta es la pregunta: Si alguien con buenas intenciones usa lenguaje que causa una reacción de una comunidad cuyas normas aún no se han diseminado, ¿Cómo puede informársele de tal manera que asuma su buena fe y alianza? No sé de ninguna disciplina o acercamiento (incluyendo el feminismo) donde piense que “no regreses hasta que estés a nuestro nivel” es una respuesta apropiada para personas que lo intentan aunque caigan. Especialmente, dadas las intersecciones, y que los valores feministas llegan a nuevos terrenos (¡yuju!) y las personas en ellos no comprenden esos matices aún. ¿Cómo podrían hacerlo?

Me recuerda cómo entrené ballet y gimnasia durante casi una década, y aun así tenía un equilibrio pésimo. No tenía músculos estabilizadores porque, si un movimiento no era perfecto, tenía que rendirme. Con el parkour, practiqué para lograr quedarme sobre una superficie sin importar los movimientos de brazos que fueran necesarios. Las imperfecciones de mantenerse en pie eran más importantes que la perfección de la forma. Y la cosa es que, con este entrenamiento, gané suficiente control muscular para empezar a lograr todo de manera casi perfecta.

Ser un aliadx es DIFÍCIL. Para mí, lo más importante no es nunca equivocarse… lo cual me parece imposible. Incluso los lingüísticamente más precisos cambian de contextos (de manera intencional o a través de colapso de contextos). Lo importante es regresar a una conversación después de un mal paso. Y depende de mí, la persona con quien se alió alguien, asegurar que es seguro tener esas conversaciones después de un error cuando pienso que serán útiles (y tengo los recursos para tenerlas, etc etc). No estoy sugiriendo ni remotamente que no hay que enojarse por algo que es horrible, pues el enojo es por supuesto una emoción humana con mérito, etc. Pero después del enojo… ¿Entonces qué?

Si el punto es la comprensión, y el respeto y la igualdad que vienen de esa comprensión, eso significa que aprendizaje. Y aunque hay excelentes recursos sobre feminismo, igualdad, comportamiento, etc, asumo que todos sabemos que hay una diferencia entre leer un libro sobre cómo hacer algo y hacerlo. Aunque no se trata necesariamente de que nosotras (las mujeres) le enseñemos a los hombres qué pasa, la gente tiene que aprender en algún lado. Si los hombres quieren aprender, y nosotras (las de tipo femenino) no enseñamos, ellos van a aprender de otros hombres. Lo cual está genial, pero quiero estar abierta a preguntas y revisiones (“¿Lo estamos haciendo bien?”) porque sabemos que la cámara al vacío no ha funcionado bien hasta ahora. Y este tipo de intercambios conllevan errores. Y tenemos que saber cómo lidiar con ellos de tal manera que se promueva el crecimiento de la otra persona en el proceso. De eso se trata el aprendizaje. Es mi elección si quiero formar parte de esas conversaciones, pero aquí defiendo que vale la pena y es una responsabilidad hacerlo (aunque no una obligación).

¿Entonces cómo lo hacemos? ¿Cómo podemos decir estas cosas de manera que no puedan ser ignoradas y que se pueda retomar rápidamente (o mostrar que no lo será)? ¿Cómo te gusta que se muestre tus errores sociales? En mi caso, me gustaría que la gente me dijera “¡HEY! ¿En serio?” en el momento, asumiendo buena fe. Yo dejaría todo a un lado para tener esa conversación, o guardarla para más adelante, dependiendo en el nivel de urgencia y transgresión.

Seamus dice:

“En retrospectiva, me habría encantado que se pusiera en evidencia el lenguaje del panel mientras estábamos en el escenario; y, como consecuencia, la oportunidad de tener esa conversación y ajustar en tiempo real. Un “Disculpa, ¿Pero podrías ampliar sobre tu último comentario? Suena un poco sexista” me habría hecho rectificar instantáneamente, así como lo habría hecho la habilidad de poder ver la acción en el hashtag de la conferencia mientras estábamos en frente. 

No sé exactamente cómo podemos traducir a la vida real la respuesta lingüística inmediata que se vuelve posible con la open web y las redes sociales. Pero creo que sí es posible. Para mí, la definición de “aliadx” debería incluir la confianza en nuestra comunidad para poner en evidencia el lenguaje no incluyente desde el público, asegurarse de que la gente en el escenario de verdad escucha y entiende, y ayudar a la persona que se equivoca –como yo lo hice– a rectificar sus palabras erróneas y fortalecerse a partir de una experiencia que puede ser dolorosa de una manera positiva para todas las personas involucradas.”

Teachable Moments in #CivicMedia


A panel at the MIT-Knight Civic Media conference was about the Open Web’s Second Chance, and the problems we are facing with growing the open web movement.  The panelists were Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation and Seamus Kraft, Executive Director of The OpenGov Foundation.  Mark kicked things off with the story of the open web, how Mozilla was born in 1997 and where he sees the movement today.  Then the conversation turned to Seamus, who was first logging online 17 years ago when Mozilla was founded.

Seamus first went on the Internet in the late ’90’s for two main reasons.  Not as an activist, or as a software developer, but as a young teenage boy both hoping to trade live Grateful Dead and Phish concert recordings…and looking to meet and chat up his preferred gender on AOL Instant Messenger.  Fast forward to today: Seamus became a fighter for the open web in 2011 when he, as a conservative Congressional staffer, saw the impending SOPA and PIPA laws threatening the everyday Internet he had grown to love over the intervening years.  He is someone who dearly loves what the Internet has enabled him to do, exchanging music and knowledge, and connecting with others…and he has dedicated his life to protecting it.  A beautiful story – we need more activists generally, and the more diverse we are in our origins the more vectors we can understand these issues along. So it was pretty rad that he showed up to a conference that is diverse in some ways but not in others to talk about this shared ideal. I love this – it gives us more dimensionality to our ideas when they hold up under different objectives and sources as well as the ones we’re more used to. 

But Seamus’ story of discovering the web wasn’t told that way.  The phrase “going online to get girls” kept cropping up during the panel discussion. Indignation bubbled up on the back channel, and then turned into outrage. When Seamus left the stage, he saw the Twitter Storm, was shocked and aghast at the interpretation, and spent the rest of the day owning up to his mistake and personally apologizing on Twitter…all far away from the conference. I would have done the same. I am amazed and honored that he returned the next day, and even more so that he’s willing to write this with me.

Seamus here:

“As I sat outside the conference, reading every single Tweet and comment, and soaking in how my non-inclusive language made people feel, it was like getting punched in the stomach…by myself.  It was brutal, searing and embarrassing, all at once.  How could I be so blind with my language?  Had I actually become the Idiot Tech Guy?  I should have known better, and used the language we celebrate as open web activists, instead of what you’ll too often find in the darker corners of the Internet.  Reading the civic media hashtag and all the tweets directed at me, I felt like I had irreparably insulted everyone in the room, everyone watching the webcast and everyone fighting for the open Internet.”

“In telling the story of how I logged on as a young teenage boy, I had allowed myself to use the language of a young teenage boy.  And in trying to share my passion for growing the open web movement, I had accomplished precisely the opposite.  Showing up the next day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I am so thankful for the kind and amazing people who put aside their justifiable anger, sat down with me on the conference sidelines, and literally helped me become a stronger, more aware and – I pray – more linguistically inclusive person moving forward.  You gave me another chance, a lesson in humility, and some sorely needed hugs that I will never, ever forget.”

Now Willow here, with an exercise in empathy:

I’m reminded of being in New Orleans, and trying to make a point about NOT being an expert – the people who live in the area are experts in their own experience. I said “I’m clearly not from around here, look at me.” As in look at how sunburned I am, I don’t spend time outside or know how to take care of myself when I do. But guess how it was perceived, and how I immediately knew it must have been perceived. I was mortified. The best I could think to do in that moment was turn even redder and say “well, that came out wrong.”  

But no one called me out. There was no discussion. And that, I think, sucks even more. What we have in this moment from the Civic Media conference is a chance to learn and teach.

I was more upset about how my community reacted to this than I am at Seamus’ comments. The comments were unwitting, and bumbling, yes. It’s good (I would argue necessary) to call those things out. I honestly feel that if he’d been speaking directly to the audience (not on a panel) he would have seen that immediate feedback from the audience. I’m upset the other panelist and the moderator didn’t call him out on it, gracefully, in the moment. In fact, they may have cued, or at least amplified, it. And I am upset that a community that considers itself open worked itself into a frenzy over such comments — and that I was a part of that.

Uhhh. Someone working on open gov to “get girls.” TOTALLY sounds like something I’d be comfortable participating in. #civicmedia

— Willow Brugh (@willowbl00) June 23, 2014

This is an amazing moment to learn – and certainly not just for Seamus. Here’s the question: If someone well-meaning uses language that triggers response from a community whose norms are not yet widespread, how can we inform them in a way that assumes their good faith and alliance? I don’t know of any discipline or approach (including feminism) where I think “don’t come back until you can meet us at our level” is an appropriate response to people who are trying but might stumble. Especially given intersectionality, and that as feminist values start showing up in new arenas (yay!) the people already there don’t understand those nuances yet. How could they?

I’m reminded of how I trained ballet and gymnastics for the better part of a decade and yet had terrible balance. I had no stabilizing muscles because if a movement wasn’t perfect, I was supposed to bail. With parkour, I practiced to fight to stay on a ledge, by whatever wiggling and arm-waving necessary. The imperfections of maintaining footing trumped perfection of form. The thing was, in doing this, I gained enough minor muscle control to start landing things near-perfectly.

Being an ally is HARD. To me, the important thing is not never messing…which I see as impossible. Even the most linguistically precise shift contexts (intentionally or through context collapse). The important thing is returning to a conversation after a misstep. And it’s on me, as the one being allied with, to make it safe to have those post messup-talks when I think they’ll be useful (and I have the bandwidth, and etc etc). I’m not remotely suggesting not to get mad about something that is horrible, as anger is of course merited a human emotion etc etc. But after anger… then what?

If the point is the understanding, and the respect and equality that comes of that understanding, that means learning. And while there are some great resources out there on feminism, equality, behavior, etc, I assume we all know that there’s a difference between reading a book on how to do something and doing it. While it’s not necessarily on us (women) to teach men what’s going on, people are going to have to learn somewhere. If it’s up to men to learn, and we’re (feminine types) not the ones teaching, it’s probably going to be other men. Which is awesome, but I want to be open to questions and check-ins – “are we doing this right?” because we know the vacuum chamber hasn’t exactly worked out well so far. And this sort of exchange means there will be faux-pas. And we need to know how to handle those in a way that encourages the growth of the other person in the process. That is what learning is, after all. It is my prerogative if I want to be a part of those conversations, but I am advocating here that it is worth it and a responsibility, but not an obligation.

So how do we do this? How do we call out information in a way that it cannot be ignored which can be quickly addressed or shown that it won’t be? How do you like to have your social faux-pas pointed out? For me, I’d like people to say “HEY! Seriously?” in the moment, assuming good faith, and I’ll either drop everything for that conversation, or sidebar it for later, depending on level of urgency and transgression.

Seamus here:

“Looking back, I would have loved to have had the panel’s language called out while we were still on stage; and as a result, the opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation and adjust was was being said in real time.  An ‘Excuse me, but could you elaborate on that last comment?  It comes across as rather sexist.’ would have instantly set me straight, as would the ability to have seen the action on the conference hashtag while we were in front of the room.  

“I’m not sure exactly how we can translate into real life the instant linguistic feedback loops made possible by the open web and social media.  But I do believe it’s possible.  To me, the definition of ‘ally’ should include having the confidence within our community to call out non-inclusive language from the audience, ensure those on stage truly listen and understand, and help the person who stepped in it – like I did – right their wrong words and grow stronger from what can be a positively painful experience for everyone involved.”

link to an amazing, similar article from a different space. Thanks, Sasha!