Why user-generated content (mine at least) seems to be near a precipice

Recently, Facebook announced it would make various changes to its newsfeed algorithms and policies to encourage people to interact personally more online and engage less in passive news posting and -gathering behavior. We can debate exactly what they want to accomplish and whether this policy change will reduce fake news (there are signs from overseas it might not, and other criticisms), but it is right to stop and wonder how we balance broadcasting our thoughts to others online (or in other vanity efforts like self-published books or vlogs) with real interactions.

Recently, a good friend on Facebook (whom I do see personally and whose professional career has him dealing with some of the national security questions I pose on this blog – and I don’t know any specifics) wrote an in-line post critical of the gratuitous nature of free content on the Internet.  We expect our writers to work for free, he essentially said.  We can’t expect that of plumbers or electricians or people with “real jobs”.  Oh, I can recall debates back in the 1980s as to whether (then mainframe) “data processing” gave us “real jobs”.

My friend’s post begs the question, what is a “writer” anyway?  Is he/she someone who writes what others want so that it will sell (like Joan Didion or Armistead Maupin, both the subjects of indie film biographies last year)?  Or can someone who wants to write a personal manifesto and achieve fame with it a real writer?  Manifestos, however “from on high” they seem, remember, have a bad rap;  a few authors of these screeds have then done some very bad things (like with guns).

So that comes to my own content, which appears to be “free” in the most anti-competitively abusive sense.  I think of Reid Ewing’s 2012 short film “It’s Free” set in a public library (to be followed by “Free Fish”).  Most of my online content appears in four WordPress blogs (set up in 2014 and then 2016) or one of sixteen “Blogger” blogs (starting in 2006).  But there is also a lot of older legacy content on “doaskdotell.com”, all flat html, and this includes all the text of my books.  And, yes, “it’s free”. Like attending my first gay talk group in February 1973.

It’s true that I have Google Adsense on Blogger, but right now my WordPress blogs and flat sites have no advertising, no pop-ups,, no donation jars, no “calls to action”, and no email lists  (The WordPress does invite the user to share on Facebook, Twitter. Or Google-Plus when brought up, with comments, as an individual post).  I don’t run “other people’s” donation (or political candicacy) campaigns on my sites, and I don’t pimp causes from a partisan stance. To a lot of people, it seems, that means I won’t “play ball” with them.

Yet, I’m a fan of Australian blogging guru Ramsay Taplan’s “Blogtyrant” world, and most of his recommendations do apply to small, niche businesses that want to reach consumers, sometimes even some “real” authors (like what Author’s Guild means) and musicians (who sell on Bandcamp as well as Amazon).  Aggression with mailing lists and promotions pays if you have legitimate customers whose needs you can really meet. Otherwise it would fall into spam.

So that brings me to the question, how can I sustain this?  The transparent answer is that I have other money, so it hasn’t had to pay its own way. A lot of it was saved when I was working, because I was able to avoid debt.  (Not having kids means no big mortgage is necessary.)  Some of it is inherited (and that gets into the issue of my own and mom’s trusts, out of scope here).  And I got lucky in 2008.  I probably benefited from it. (Seeing it coming, and some conservative values, helps.)  So call me a rentier, an abusive capitalist, ripe for expropriation by Antifa if you like.

It’s useful for me to go back and recall how I got into self-publishing, long before the Internet became available to newbies.  I probably got my first little article published in 1974, where I argued for gay rights from a libertarian perspective, a “mind your own business” plea to the world.

In the 1980s, I did network with the medical and public health community, the Dallas Gay Alliance, and right wing elements, all by mailed letters, trying to get some sort of political compromise, during a time when Texas (in early 1983) considered passing a very draconian anti-gay law.  I was quite concerned about the shallowness of arguments sometimes put out by traditional “activists” seeming to expect to be viewed as victims merely by belonging to a “class”.  I was particularly attentive to the clinical information as it unfolded.  There was a period when the conventional way of resisting was “don’t take the test” once an HIV test was available.  I did volunteer as a “baby buddy” at the Oak Lawn Counseling Center during that time.

In the 1990s the issue of gays in the military came onto center stage.  The components of the debate at the time (such as “privacy” in the barracks, as well as “unit cohesion”, not quite the same thing) cut across many other issues in an unusual way. I began getting published in some LGBT and libertarian journals (list).  I wanted to get the arguments right at an individual level, without appeals to morally dubious claims of group oppression. Because of my own situation and personal history, I entered the debate, and in August 1994 I decided firmly, while on vacation in Colorado, to write my first DADT book, which I finally issued in July 1997.  Partly to avoid a public conflict of interest which I have explained elsewhere (as in the DADT III book), I took a convoluted corporate transfer to Minneapolis at about the same time. I actually did sell copies of the book reasonably well for the first 18 months or so, but by the middle of 1998 I had discovered I could draw a lot more attention to my work by simply placing the book text online and letting the search engines find it, which they did.  (I paid nothing to do this, other than the nominal fees for a domain – the guy operating the service was a personal friend through work – and I did not need to code metatags or secure SEO to get it found.  It seemed use of free content online for self-promotion was rather novel at the time;  during the dot-com boom, not that many people really did it this way.)   The search engines proved to be effective.  On a few occasions, when I made a controversial addition to material on the site, I got email feed back the next day.  My use of the “It’s free” technique seemed very effective but came under threat from the 1998 “Child Online Protection Act” for which I would become a sub-litigant under the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s sponsorship.

Over time, my commentary would cross over many other issues, particularly with regard to libertarianism for most social and economic issues, and expand out after 9/11 into how you protect personal liberty in a world with external threats, sometimes borne out of populist “politics of resentment” as well as religious fundamentalism (by no means limited to radical Islam) and possibly resurgence of communism (North Korea now). After 9/11, one or the proponents of Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue”, Charles Moskos, argued publicly for resuming the military draft (to include women), and dropping the military ban altogether.  That fit into my arguments perfectly.  As personal and job circumstances changed over the years (DADT III again) I kept my material online, and my staying out there so long played a significant repeal in the eventual repeal of DADT in 2011 with Obama in office.

I have contemplated ideas like “opposing viewpoints” automation (book series), which sites like Kialo and Better Angels take on, and I well look into these. Hubpages could provide another opportunity.

Over the years, there have been various threats to the sustainability of the way I work.  These include the undoing of network neutrality and the weakening of Section 230 (the Backpage controversy) as well as various efforts by established media to tighten copyright and trademark laws, not only to combat real piracy (a legitimate concern) but to undermine competition from people (like me) who could compete with them with much lower costs by staying outside the union and guild world.  Another issue, less important in the US than in Europe, is the supposed “right to be forgotten”, which my own use of search engines confounds. As this gets back to libertarian issues (right to work) and to the SOPA debate in 2011.  A critical concept behind all of this is that social media companies and hosting companies not share undo downstream responsibility or liability exposurefor the actions of their users, otherwise they could not let us create user-created content without gatekeepers.

Another possibly grave threat could be personal targeting from (foreign) enemies, or causing others (family members) associated with a speaker like me to be targeted.  I actually was concerned about this while my mother was alive.  This has not happened to me as I don’t seem to be as visible a target as, say, Milo Yiannopoulos (or Pam Geller or Mary Norris), even though I share and communicate some similar beliefs.  But, if you think about this with a Tom Clancy-type novelist’s mind, you can imagine this as another way an enemy could subvert American democracy.  That’s the Sony hack issue at the end of 2014 from North Korea.  Instead, Russia, in particular, noticed that speakers like me tended to be noticed by the “choir” (other academics and policy makers) but not by the “average joe’s”, whose everyday needs we seemed oblivious to.  So the Russians pumped Facebook and Twitter with fake news which gullible people would believe and such a way that Asperger-like people like me (not quite the same as schizoid), trying to influence policy with passive search engine strategy, wouldn’t even notice or care.  For them it worked, and Trump won.

I think a fair criticism of me would be that I don’t actually have anything to sell to customers that meet their needs, so no “Blogtyrant” strategy of playing ball could work. Do I have content that people would “want” and would pay for?  Well, that’s the novel (and to some extent the fiction in DADT-III, which could make a nice two-part indie film), and the music.  In fact, I have worked on my own composed music (finishing what I had started in high school and the early college years, at about the time of the William and Mary expulsion) and, because it is post-romantic, it may actually be capable of “crowd pleasing” in a way that a lot of the manipulative music from established young composers today (under 40) does not.

I do need to “stay on point” with my own work, so it is very difficult for me to respond to pleas from other parties to join their efforts, in activism and resistance.  It is also difficult to give away time in “service” unless I find niche-like service opportunities that are closer to my own skill set.   A good example could be directing chess tournaments which invite underprivileged youth, or arranging concerts for other musicians.

I do get concerned over two big questions.  One is that the permissive environment that has allowed so much user-generated content to reach readers and consumers may not be sustainable for a combination of reasons:  rampant user abuse, security, and the ability of companies to make money legitimately without fake news, bots, intrusive ads, and all kinds of questionable technique.  I don’t know if, for example, Google and WordPress would find it profitable to keep their free platforms forever.  And I can imagine ways it could become much harder in the future to get reasonable hosting than it has been until today.  The recent incidents where alt-right sites (at least one) were banned by most hosts over their content is part of my concern.  You can have a specific objection to, say, neo-Nazism, but then it’s a slippery slope:  radical Islam, communism (Stalinism or gulag-ism, which is where Antifa could find itself headed), all kinds of other complaints based on “intersectionality” or “populism” threaten the whole expectation of legitimacy of free speech.  You could, for example, require that every website, by certain accounting rules, show that it pays its own freight (although that would seem to invite porn back, wouldn’t it).   It’s hard to “pay your own way” without admitting to group preferences and “partisanship”, and showing social “loyalty” and even “community engagement”.  All of this is in tension with my insistence on looking at human rights as an individual’s property, regardless of any membership in a group that claims some sort of systematic oppression (and eventual intersectionality).  But there is no constitutional principle that guarantees that anyone has the right to distribute his own personalized speech without the cooperation of others.

This brings me back to the whole idea of social contract between the individual and his society.  You can call it “rightsizing”, but that’s a dangerous idea that leads to authoritarianism, either on the far right (or alt-right) or far left.  (Yup, a smaller country like Singapore can get away with this, and China is trying to come up with some way to grade people’s social compatibility by 2020!)  Yet, on a personal level, there’s something wrong when we think of others as “unworthy” of becoming prioritized to enter our lives because they aren’t “good enough” and didn’t “make it”.  That used to be hidden more, but there is an implicit understanding that if too many of us think that way, we invite especially right-wing totalitarianism in the door (consider Logan Paul’s movie “Thinning” as a warning).  That may be one reason why I do see so much “pimping” of “other people’s causes” with appeals for “calls to action” all the time.  On one level, I resist getting involved with all these public “knocks on the door” but I probably can’t avoid them forever.  As Martin Fowler wrote in his 2014 book, everyone belongs “somewhere” in some group, and has to bond with people who are imperfect, far less than teen Clark Kent’s.  Everyone’s karma, and whatever fragmentary after life follows (and I think there is one, however fleeting and combinatorial) is greatly affected by what they depended on – and that means groups.  I resist “joining” resistances (and marching and shouting in demonstrations for specific groups), but I know that eventually there comes a point where it is probably impossible to survive without doing so, even without coming in your shorts.

There is a political point here.  If legal or practical considerations made it impossible for businesses to allow me my own platforms, changing what has has been the case since late 1996, I would be forced to work through groups, and advocate for or personally assist people who individually I did not approve of apart from the group.  But this could be better for a lot of people and could address some of the underlying causes of inequality.  This all relates to the “implicit content” problem with free speech, or the “skin in the game argument”.

Perhaps what I am seeing is something like an attack on introversion, a demand that every endeavor somehow relate to other people’s needs. Yet, as “The Good Doctor” shows us, every introverted people sometimes meet real needs, and save us.

Earlier legacy piece on the “free content” idea.

(Published: Sunday, January 14, 2018 at 6:30 PM EST)

House Judiciary Committee holds major hearing on Section 230 modifications due to sex-trafficking and Backpage

On Tuesday, October 3, 2017 the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte, held a two-hour hearing on a House bill HR 1865, Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017.   The Senate has a similar bill, SESTA, Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, S1693 .  Ann Wagner (R-MO) had a press release in April 2017, with this commentary. Govtrack also offers this provocative editorial.

Electronic Frontier Foundation has a blog posting by Elliot Harmon, Sophia Cope, and India McKinney. The actual session starts at about 23 minutes in.

The hearings were chaired by Steve Chabot, R-OH. Jackson Lee (D-TX) gave a long statement.

There were four speakers.  All of them recognized that Section 230 had been essential for the growth of user-generated content by relieving service providers of much potential downstream liability that would require prescreening of content before it could be published.

Chris Cox, a former SEC Chairman during Reagan, explained how Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act after a decision (Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy) held that a service provider who tried to do any “good Samaritan” editing of user content became a publisher of the content and liable for all user content from the facility, forcing pre-screening everything. Cox explained that the law should encourage sample monitoring for content that is grossly illegal, without penalizing for content that cannot be caught when providers act in good faith.

Cox would also later explain that right now there is no “knowing” standard for most illegal content (except probably child pornography). A website operator loses section 230 protection only when it participates in creating or curating illegal content.

USA Naval Academy Cybersecurity Professor Jeff Kosseff spoke, relaying similar concerns.   He said that with the House bill as proposed now, he would advise clients not to take the risk of inviting user-generated content at all.

Catholic University Columbus School of Law professor Mary Leary testified that the sex trafficking problem had become an emergency, extending beyond very reasonable parallel concerns about promoting terrorism or providing murder for hire.   Leary works with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Also testifying was Engine executive Evan Engstrom, urging Congress be very cautious.

There was mention of the long running Roommates.com case, where the site was sued for allowing users to post requests discriminating in what sounds like a personal choice of roommates.

There was a suggestion that Sex Trafficking should be handled just like child pornography, where there is a knowing standard.

There was incidental mention of the Las Vegas shootings, with talk of stricture laws on gun add-ons to make them into machine guns.  There was also a suggested that any undocumented victims would not be pursued by USCIS.

HR

(Posted: Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017 at 1:45 PM EDT)

Cloudflare’s action against neo-Nazi site complicates debate about service provider responsibilities and capabilities

The responsibility and capability of large private companies to decide what stays on the Internet or can be accessed by ordinary users seems to be coming into focus as a real controversy.

Just recently (Aug. 4), I’ve discussed how recent well-motivated bills in Congress aimed at inhibiting sex trafficking (usually of underage girls) could jeopardize much of the downstream liability exclusion (Section 230) that allow user-generated content to be posted on the Web (and that allow individuals to express themselves on their own through social media, blogs, and their own share-hosted websites) without expensive and bureaucratic third-party gatekeepers. This is tied with an undertone, not often argued openly, of controversy over whether “amateur” web content needs to be able to pay its own way . That latter-day proposition becomes dubious at the outset when you consider the observation made recently on CNN’s series “The 90s” that the first businesses to make money with web sites were pornography, which even was the first content source to set up credit card use and merchant accounts online.

But judging from the quick reaction of offense in the tech community to the extreme right wing march in Charlottesville, leading to a tragic death of a peaceful counter protester at the hands of a right-wing domestic terrorist who showed up. Companies do know a lot about what is getting posted. Matthew Prince of Cloudflare wrote a disturbing op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, about his second thoughts after pulling the plug on Daily Stormer. Prince, while admitting that no service provider can possibly screen every user-generated item on its site, implies that providers do have a great deal of knowledge of what is going on and can censor offensive content (like racism) if they think they have to, Prince also makes the hyperbolic and alarming statement that almost any site with even mildly controversial content will eventually get hacked (or perhaps draw a SLAPP suit). Yet Prince’s own article would qualify the WSJ as such a site.

Prince argues that there needs to be some sort of international “due process” body regarding kicking sites or content off; it’s easy to imagine how a group like Electronic Frontier Foundation will react. In fact, I see that Jeremy Malcolm, Cindy Cohn and Danny O’Brien have a thorough discussion of the private “due process” issue and all its possible components here. Particularly important is that people understand the domain name system as standing apart from content hosting. EFF also points out that relaxing net neutrality rules could allow telecom companies to refuse connection to content that they see as politically subservice.

Indeed, there are many ways for content to be objectionable. Donald Trump, in a teleprompted speech to veterans from Reno today, mentioned the need to stop terror recruiting on the Internet . (Is this just ISIS, or would it include neo-Nazi’s and “anarchists”). Twitter’s controversy over this is well known, and we should not forget that most of this process happens off-shore with encrypted messaging apps, not just websites and social media. Other problems include cyberbullying (including revenge porn), fake news (and the way social media platforms can manipulate it – again a sign that providers do know what they are doing sometimes) and also possibly asymmetrically triggering foreign national security threats (hint: the Sony Pictures hack, as well as attracting steganography). “Free speech” may indeed become a very subjective concept.

(Posted: Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017 at 7 PM EDT)

What if individual blogs and social media accounts had to pay their own way (to the speaker, not the providing company)?

This Monday morning (like the 60s song), I waited in line at the US Post Office to buy stamps behind people with much more complicated transactions. I asked the manager why the machines were no longer around, and she said that the particular branch doesn’t make enough revenue.  I squawked about customer service.  (Yes, it’s faster at UPS or FedEx, totally private companies.) When I finally bought my stamps on a debit card, it did not have the security chip.  Was that because that branch didn’t do enough business?

Now I turn to the seemingly unrelated topic of user-generated content on the Web, especially those belonging to individuals, ranging from sites (usually embedding blogs), to free-standing free blogs (Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, etc), to  “true social media” to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,  and similar (Myspace?)

Niche blogs, as I noted in the previous post, will go right off the hook here.  Generally they support small businesses selling very specific products (which may be authored books or music) or services to customers wanting to pay for them.  I know, porn can be profitable and can skew the remaining discussion.

My content, however, presents a more troubling scenario.  It doesn’t pay for itself.  Yes, I have the money to afford it.  Some of it is inherited, which raises its own moral questions for another day. But even before my “retirement” in 2001, I had saved pretty well and had a decent nest egg from my own career. My first book (1997), however self-published, was easily paid for by gains in Bill Clinton’s stock market with profits of real companies.  Why should there be anything wrong with this? Isn’t that just supporting free speech with the normal mechanics of democratic capitalism?

Yes, I get pestered as to why I don’t go on tours trying to sell books, or run by own retail businesses.  Or why I don’t play ball and try to make the advertising opportunities profitable on their own.

No, I seem to be a Professional Spectator (the bane of the Netflix film “Rebirth”).  Call me a low-level provocateur, a more socially acceptable Milo.   I commit the sin of “criticizing” the proposals of others to solve social justice and national security problems without having to put my own skin in the game.  So you can see how some people could see me as messing with them, trying to deny them the safety net they might otherwise have (or maybe even indirect claims on my own estate).

What I’m trying to do is account for everything that can affect any political debate than can affect “me”.  So I have a repository of playing “devil’s advocate”.  I want to make sure that policy makers really do consider everything.  And there is plenty of evidence that my “free content” has often reached “people who matter”, even though I seem to be “preaching to the choir”, especially given the way today’s news get aggregated by social media according to the visitor’s previously tracked behaviors.

I am very concerned about the future of user-generated content, as I have written several times before on this blog (especially with my post on citizen journalism on Nov. 7, the day before the Election). While some of us feel personally proud of our own knowledge dissemination, the majority of users seem relatively frivolous at best, vulnerable to manipulation by outside powers (the fake news problem), or, at worst, hostile or criminal, engaging in cyberbulling or revenge porn, sex-trafficking or stalking, or criminal hacking (big with overseas users from some parts of the world), or recruiting for terrorism and radicalism.  The degree or volume of “mal-use” has become shocking on the past few years, especially since Syria fell apart (and maybe we can blame Obama if we want to).  As I’ve noted before, both Trump and Hillary Clinton had hinted at wanting some sort of Internet kill switch to stop gratuitous activity on the Web if justified by asymmetric warfare threats (statements back in December 2015).  Both seemed naïve about how much of the recruiting takes place on the Dark Web or under high encryption, a long way from ordinary social media.

The biggest legislative threat may be the gutting of Section 230, for which there is already some legislation floating in Congress related to the Backpage scandal.  We’d need to know how service providers operate profitably in Europe where downstream liability protections are weaker than in the U.S.  But the basic premise remains:  a social media company, or even a web hosting company, cannot continue to offer its service (even if paid for by user subscription) if it is required to pre-screen every post before it goes public.

I can think of another threat, at least on paper, related to my USPS analogy.  (Yes, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Body Heat”: I’ve seen the classic films).  Imagine if every user had to make his or her own content pay for itself.  In the POD book world, that would mean that books that don’t sell get taken down and off Amazon and BN.  In the blogging world, the content would have to show it was connected to products or services that earn their own way by normal accounting.  OK, this is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”.  I hope so.

The way this would happen would be (ironically) the extension of Obamacare to Internet liability activity. No one would be able to justify the insurance if the activity did not make money on its own.  Schemes like his were attempted in 2001 (with the National Writers Union) and later 2008 but don’t seem to have been particularly successful (obviously, anti-selection and the subjectivity of the underwriting is a problem;  combining this with umbrella policies reflects a superficial idea of the problem).

The ”moral” justification, or legal one in First Amendment terms, starts with recognizing that a speaker may have the right to say what she wants (outside of “fire in a crowded theater” stuff) to people who are available because of her own direct contacts in “normal life” (the narrowest legal concept of “publication” in my previous post here).  She has the right to assembly and petition.  She has the right to participate in organizing into larger groups that can speak for her.  These can include political PACS on the one hand or media companies with the scale to be profitable (freedom of the press).  Religious speech (or “the church” or synagogue or mosque, etc) may have more protection.  But what’s not so clear (especially now with a conservative majority again in the Supreme Court) is that global ungated self-distribution, which has become within the reach of the average person since the mid 1990s through the Internet and WWW, is by itself a “Fundamental Right”.  Previously, people could normally be published only by third parties who believed they could sell, satisfy consumers and actually make money, whatever the objective cultural value of the content. There was a small, clumsy, expensive subsidy publishing industry which did not have a good reputation.

Of course, there are counter-arguments.  Some of the language in the COPA opinion in 2007 (and perhaps the Supreme Court rulings in 2002 and 2004), as well as the way the Supreme Court handled the original Communications Decency Act in 1997 (I went to the oral arguments), might be construed as supporting a “right to distribute” as embedded indirectly into the First Amendment.  Again, the law sometimes doesn’t like to conflate “manufacture” with “distribution”;  look at how this could play out if applied to the network neutrality debate (not the way we want).

You would wind up with a world where only “established” businesses and organizations would be able to generate their own speech (that would still include authors who actually make money on their books)  Everyone else would have to belong to and remain loyal to and in solidarity with organizations claiming to give them a voice.  Intellectual honesty would disappear.  (Think how Trump played to his base, but think again how the Left often does the same thing.)   Some non-profit or activist groups would love it, because they would be able to control the message.  Solidarity would become an essential virtue again, in a world where no one was allowed to claim credit for much all by himself.  People would have to accept other people’s goals and make personal compromises that in an individualistic world would seem to undermine personal integrity.  All of this seems to aim toward a controlled world of personal “right-sizing” favored by states like Russia and particularly China (and authoritarian leaders like Putin and Xi Jingping), where discipline of individual expression is seen as essential to a populist version of stability and protection of “the people” from marginalization by “the elites” and “know-it-alls”.

And. of course, it sounds like such a policy, if ever enacted by Congress, would destroy social media companies and maybe even hosting companies if ever enacted – including all their asset values.  So I hope it just can’t happen (despite the December 2015 threats).  The British Prime Minister Theresa May sounds to be on a real warpath.  She wants the whole world to control itself to recognize the grievous security problems especially in Britain and Europe.  Ironically, this makes Donald Trump’s “America First”, even his Paris accord pullout, sound a little reassuring.

One can imagine other ideas. For example, an Internet “driver’s license”.  You could apply this thinking style to the world a century ago when who should have a personal car and be allowed to drive could construct a similar controversy.

One aspect of the “asymmetry” of the modern world is indeed very hard to manage, especially given the axiomatic nihilism of one particular enemy.  That is to say, it is nearly impossible to decide whether some speech could be read as an indirect threat to be taken down (which is a problem Theresa May will run into right away).  This gets back to the “implicit content” problem or what I call my “West Potomac High School Problem of 2005”.  I could be seen as the Milo Yiannopoulos Problem, too;  is his speech simply designed to goad people into overreaction because the speaker knows “weaker” people will react violently? In an asymmetric world, anyone is a combatant, and the normal idea of well-separate personal responsibility starts to disintegrate.

All of this is quite troubling to me.  I pride myself in finding the flaws or weaknesses of almost any proposed policy and of rehearsing the mistakes of the past (especially as shown by my own narratives).  But often allies of mine – conventional activists – don’t want all the library-archived but forgotten facts mentioned again or reviewed because showing past “dirty laundry” will simply give the “other side” ammunition to continue “oppressing” weaker members of their constituent groups.  (A good example of this would be the “chain letter” argument regarding gay men and HIV, a weapon of the religious right in the 1980s but largely forgotten now;  another example might be bringing up the possibility of conscription.)

I have another personal side of this.  It’s true, I’m not willing to become someone else’s mouthpiece, but I also don’t seem to find much “meaning” just in meeting the real needs of someone that claims to be oppressed or “powerless”.  I have a real problem with trying to sell (or “pimp”) victimhood or even trying to remedy it personally, unless I caused it – but we’re finding that what we are as a community means a lot more than what I used to experience.

(Posted: Monday, June 5, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT)

 

Do security companies overstate privacy risks on social media, maybe for political motives?

Every time I go into Twitter or Facebook on my new laptop, I get a lecture from Trend Micro on my lenient privacy settings.

Particularly I get warned that the Public can see my Facebook posts and Twitter messages, that others can tag me in photos, and that others can see personal information.  On the last point, only “business address and phone” information ever gets posted online, anywhere.  In fact, I normally don’t have circles of security clearances among who can see what information about me online.  It’s all or nothing.

Some of my curiosity about this was motivated by the video in the previous post, where the speaker (a television station reporter)  said that allowing anyone but approved “Friends” (Faceook) or approved “followers” (Twitter) would create gratuitous security risks that insurance companies would find unacceptable behavior on the part of consumers.

Facebook has different concepts, like Friends, Pages, and Groups.  Many people have Pages with followers.  They cannot be made private (you can block comments from specific people).  You can make a Group by invitation only, which is closer to the concept Trend seems to be encouraging.  The conventional wisdom has been that you allow only Friends to see your posts on your Friends page.  But Facebook allows up to 5000 friends.  It is common for people to have over a thousand.  Many, perhaps most, Facebook users don’t carefully screen who gets approved as a friend.  I do allow friends from overseas (including Arabic names).  I generally disapprove of minors only.  (Posts made by others on your timeline in public mode can normally be seen by “friends of friends”).

Some people, after being friends, do behave in an unwelcome way.  Some send greetings or messages and expect to be answered back.  A couple have made pleas for “personal” help with matters I can do nothing about (at least lawfully).  One female kept making silly posts on my Timeline claiming to tag me in sexual pictures when the individual was not me.  I did unfriend her and the posts stopped.

I also had one occasion where someone created a fake copy of my account with no posts.  A legitimate friend (the person who copyedited my books) caught it and reported it to Facebook and the entry was removed before I knew about it.

Tagging has crept up as a problem, for users who allow it.  I’ve noticed that some people are more sensitive about being photographed in bars or discos than they used to be, say, before 2010.  A few social establishments have started prohibiting photography inside their facilities.

In Twitter, it is possible to set up your account so that all followers have to be approved.  Relatively few users do this, but they will block followers who seem stalky or who don’t follow supposed etiquette (by replying to too many tweets when not being co-followed), although etiquette standards are changing again rapidly.

As a practical matter, limiting visibility of posts to “Friends” or approved followers probably doesn’t increase security very much, because it is so easy to be approved and because, to be successful and have an outreach, people need friends and followers.  Indeed, it wouldn’t stop “catfishing” (as in Nev Schulman’s 2010 film “Catflish” for Rogue pictures, as with a recent incident from a fake female catfisher in Manitoba).

On Facebook, I notice that some Friends (even with privacy set to “Friends only”) will “check in” with that red dot that lets others track their movements;  I don’t think this is a good idea myself.  But part of this is that I don’t want anyone to “take me for granted”, beyond security.  Likewise, I don’t announce (even to Friends) what events I will attend, even if I report on the events after the fact on blogs.  Maybe that isn’t playing ball.  I think back to the days of my upbringing in the 50s;  my parents probably “shared” their lives with about ten other families, as with Thanksgiving and Christmas gift sharing that I remember so well (and with the Ocean City beach trips with one family I remember, too). As for services like Snapchat:  I feel that if I need a conversation that doesn’t go anywhere, I just have it by smart phone or in person.  I don’t like the idea of sharing video or photo that disappears.  (Kathy Griffin should know.)

 

All of this is interesting because Zuckerberg invented Facebook at the time that Myspace had become popular (to the extent that Dr. Phil had programs about misbehavior on Myspace), and, despite winning out over several competing ideas (the movie “The Social Network”; the books “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich, or “The Facebook Effect” by David Kirkpatrick).  Zuckerberg originally intended to set up Facebook for campus environments.  It wasn’t fully public until about 2007 and it didn’t get into its controversial news feed aggregation (so plagued by the fake news that is said to have helped elect Donald Trump) until maybe about 2010 (when Time Magazine honored Zuckerberg as person of the year, the “Connector”).

What such a practice would do, however, is try to discourage online self-publishing with free content.  Social media was built on the premise that known lists of people see your content, more or less like email listservers (or restricted membership sites) that were popular before modern social media.  When people are popular and have lots of “fans”, the practical effect is that social media account is public anyway. It is true that actual friends or followers are more likely to see posts even on public accounts. Blogs can also have “followers” and, with Blogger, can be made “private” (as can YouTube videos), but the normal result is that few people would see them.  Blog following has become less popular since Facebook took off, although YouTube channel subscription is still somewhat popular.

The relevant point seems to be that when you publish a hardcopy (or Kindle or Nook) book, you don’t have the “right” to know who bought it.  That’s the traditional idea or model of “open publication”.  Self-instantiation by open self-publication, with leaving a lot of content free, seems to be a morally suspect or gratuitous practice (even if it purports to offer alternative viewpoints and critical thinking as I think mine do) in the minds of some people:  if it doesn’t pay its own way, it competes unfairly with writers who do need to make a living at it;  it discourages professionalism and facilitates fake news, it can attract cultural enemies (to others as well as the self), leading to the insurance concerns, and (probably most of all) it breaks up political solidarity for those (on both the (alt) right and left) who want to recruit loyal volunteers and who want to control the (often polarized and tribally-centered) message.  “Belonging” to some group seems to be imperative.  The election and  relentlessly tribal and boorish behavior of Donald Trump seems to have brought this point home.

In fact, in the eyes of intellectual property law, this isn’t quite right.  “Publication” in defamation law is communicating the false defamatory claim to even one person who understands the message (which can be one approved friend or follower, or just one email recipient).

I opined before, back in 2000, that “open” self-publication can become an unethical practice for people in some positions (like those with direct workplace reports, when there is a concern over possible workplace results).  Now it’s a possible security issue, especially in asymmetric warfare where civilians can attract enemies who view civilians as combatants.  Yet it’s odd that security company like Trend Micro gets to define what that means, for everybody.

Some observers (like Ramsay Taplan, “Blogtyrant” of Australia) urge an inside-out approach to blogging, focusing on consumer niches that are inherently profitable, the narrower the better.  Then, he says, become aggressive in building email lists from actual customers who need you wand welcome hearing from you, which confounds the conventional wisdom today about spam.  But this practice refers to writing that supports an inherently commercial product or service, not self-expression online for its own sake or even for promoting critical thinking on political or social controversies.

(Posted: Saturday, June 3, 2017 at 11:15 AM EDT)

“Nobody’s Tool”

In Terry Gilliam’s artsy futurist film “The Zero Theorem” (2013), precocious and charismatic teen Bob (Lucas Hedges) tells the besieged computer operator Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), “I’m nobody’s tool”.  (Hedges would play a similar role in “Manchester by the Sea”.)

It’s true, I “went public” with a controversial persona narrative with my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book in the 1990s – specifically striking a nexus between the past history of conscription with the debate over gays in the military (as it had evolved then under Bill Clinton).  I would wrap every other issue, mapped onto the tension between individualism and the need to belong to the group, around it and become a commentator, a pundit, someone who, however, needed to keep a certain objectivity and distance (even emotional aloofness) expected of journalists.

As President Trump complains, it’s too easy to criticize when you sit on the bench ad don’t play.

So, in the “aftermath” of the book(s), websites, blogs and now social media accounts, I have made it absolutely impossible for me to earn money (in “retirement”) by selling somebody else’s message, or being someone else’s spokesperson.  No, I can’t have Sean Spicer’s job.

After my layoff and forced retirement from old-style mainframe I.T. as a post 9/11 sequel at the end of 2001, at age 58 (73 now), I learned “the truth” about what the world seemed to expect of retirees: Sell! One of the earlier interviews (while I was still in Minnesota) as with PrimeVest   The interviewer became defensive about my questions over his presentation, even though I agree that for some consumers, converting whole life to term is a reasonable strategy. But a $40 trillion market?  The interview was concerned over how “analytical” I seemed. I checked and investigated everything.  “We give you the words,” he said.  To a writer who has followed his own direction, that phrase sounded very insulting, like throwing an inadequate tip at a bartender (which I once did).

There would other attempted offers to throw husckerism at me. True, life insurance agent or financial planner sounds legitimate enough. But I don’t want to troll people’s Internet ad hits in order to cold call them.

I also find myself resisting attempts to get me to “join a resistance”.  HRC is on my regular donation list, but I felt a little taken back by a recent email inviting me to be trained to become a grassroots activist or part of a resistance.  I know that Barack Obama was a “community organizer” in Chicago at one time, I have my own message set.  I don’t need to have an organization tell me what to say.

Even worse was a similar ploy from the political right. GOP candidate for a runoff in a Georgia House race, Karen Handel, writes, addressing me personally (by an automated plugin – again insulting) “This is the email I didn’t want to have to write. But after seeing the latest public polls – I have no choice.” She whines that bigwing Democrats have raised so much money for her opponent, so “Will you help me fight back?”

No, I like to think of myself as better than that (including any public participation in overtly partisan politics).  But of course I know the argument.  I saved well when I was working.  But I also have some of what the left-wing considers a poison pill, inherited wealth.  I don’t have to make everything I do pay for itself.  I don’t have to sell other people’s messages for a living. But I can imagine people thinking, if there weren’t people like me around to dilute them, they could make a living by “selling” because everyone else would have to.

I’ve railed about identity politics here before, but the way I argue policy issues is relevant here.  Of course, I agree that current GOP plans for health care (variations of the Americam Healthcare Act) could, as structured now, throw millions off affordable health insurance, while solving problems of premium hikes for unneeded coverages for some people adversely affected by Obamacare’s implementation (and probably exacerbated by some states). I agree that the changes could affect racial minorities adversely.  They could also affect gay men (depending on what happens with PrEP and protease inhibitors).  But I don’t argue something because it hurts “me” or anyone as a “member of a group” (even though “belonging to groups” has become, unfortunately, the legal cornerstone of the way equal protection of the laws works).  One of the reasons AHCA would affect people in certain groups is the way it would shift the responsibility for Medicaid back to the states.  So it becomes a federalism problem.  States should do the right things, but we know from the history of Civil Rights through the 1960s that sometimes they didn’t (and we lost young men like Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney as a result in what was the moral equivalent of crucifixion).

I don’t respond personally to “Leftist” appeals for “resistance” because this policy hurts members of their particular client groups (even if I belong to one of them, and everyone belongs to something). I think you have to solve the problem analytically.  Some countries, like Switzerland, have kept an effective private health care sector in a way that works, and we could do that. I think you can have assigned risk pools again, so that rich people with pre-existing conditions can pay their own way (an inherent advantage of the GOP setup) but you have to subsidize the premiums of people in the middle class and below (tax cuts alone aren’t enough, you need subsidies, but you don’t need to use Medicaid as the vehicle for subsidies), or use reinsurance for excess claims.  You have to be determined to make it work, and you have to pay for it.  So maybe you can’t give the rich all their tax cuts.

Likewise, I reject group-oriented resistance politics on an issue like police profiling.  I understand Rudy Giuliani’s claims about how “broken windows” policing in the 1990s made New York City much safer than it had been in the 1970s when I lived there. But I have so say, that particularly a couple of independent films (“Whose Streets?” and “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” and well as “I A Not Your Negro”) have pointed out that in some communities, police departments have regularly extorted fines from black residents with the “garbage jail” approach. This is illegal and even criminal and not acceptable.  Why won’t the usual system of litigation put a stop to this?

I’m left to ponder the mentality of the doomsday preppers, who think that civilization cannot be depended on, and that it is morally imperative for everyone to learn to become self-sufficient locally and within the family.

(Posted: Monday, May 22, 2017 at 11:30 AM EDT)

If you’ve become a voluntary pundit, don’t expect to delete yourself from the Internet

I’ve imagined a creepy horror film (maybe just a short), where you get called in for the Last Supper of your life, sent up to a hotel room, allowed to make one or two last postings, then denied access, then had your whole online existence removed.  Then the fantasy or catch or your life knocks on your door and gives you one last “peak experience” as you pass into the Afterlife, if it exists, with your karma cleaned up.  Maybe this could be a low budget movie.

Yet maybe a little more than ten years ago, “online reputation” became a trendy topic, even leading a company by that name to be founded.

Before that, I had to deal already had to deal with “what I had done”.  When I couldn’t sell enough hard copy books, I became an online pundit.  I got a reputation that way (as an “older Milo”, and probably more socially acceptable, especially to Donald Trump) but my Pharisee-speech didn’t pay its own way.  In the most extreme circumstances, it might get me or other people connected to me killed.

Earlier, I had entertained the idea that people in positions of authority over others (with direct reports) should not express their opinions in unsupervised manner because that could show prejudice or hostile workplace.  This was my own implementation of the idea of “conflict of interest”.  Again, obviously Donald Trump doesn’t respect it now (and I have only one degree of separation from Donald Trump, despite never paying the fees to go to Mar-a-Lago – maybe I can get invited).

Nevertheless, in the past, I’ve had to entertain the idea that a lot of my own Internet presence would have to be removed if I took certain kinds of jobs, as I outlined here.

But is it feasible anymore for someone to go completely dark?  Not very.  I’d say fifteen years ago it was feasible.  You could take everything down, and ask Google to remove all references to your flat files online (before blogs and social media components became SOP).

The old idea of a double life (especially for LGBTQ) seems to be gone forever.  Really, I sometimes miss the way it was in the 1970s and 1980s, even until about 1996 or so.  You had your home and your possessions, and you developed a reputation.  Arranging gatherings and social events meant more then.  In the gay community in DC, you went on adventures with Adventuring or Chrysalis.  (You still can, but my life has changed so much since the 90s that I really don’t have time).  My parents developed a presence with real world property and things – my father was very dedicated to his own workshop, filled with tools, which was much more common for people in the 1950s than now.  As I get older, I find myself mentally revisiting those years.

Here is Abby Ohlheiser’s take in the Washington Post on what it would take to go completely dark, like a white dwarf star that has completely burned out into a dark cinder.   Part of the strategy is to imitate Kellyanne and create “alternative facts” online first.  Some social media will let you change your birth date a few times.  I could imagine a pro-life change to your conception date.

I’ve noticed that there are a number of companies that offer a public records history and background investigation on anyone, for a membership fee.  Of course, if the subject belonged to the same service, he or she would know you had ordered it.  I really like my fantasies of Maslow peak experience and have no reason to spy on anyone and ruin the faith.

Update: March 23, 2017

Check out Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times March 12, “Resist the Internet“.  Douthat doesn’t want kids under 16 to use social media at all, or to have cell phones too early.  He also mentions a no-tech private school in Silicon Valley, Walforf, that many tech executives send their kids to.  The school has students learning to knit socks, and participating in many group rhetorical exercises with the teacher, who is quite engaged.