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)

CNN columnist compares user-generated content to conventional media and warns amateurs on freedom of the press

Brian Stelter offers a very constructive op-ed on CNN today , “Whose Freedom Is It?” in a series, “Free Press: What’s at Stake”.

Stelter takes the practical position (as have I) that many social media users and bloggers have become quasi-establishment journalists, supplementing the major media, and helping with “keeping them honest”, as Anderson Cooper often says.  So amateurs need to take fact-checking seriously.

This freedom may well be undermined by a number of concerns explored here recently. These include erosion of downstream liability protections for service providers (the Backpage-Section 230 problem), increasing legal exposure to “amateur” journalists for certain kinds of hyperlinks and embeds, the fake news scandals of the past year (really, the observation that “average joe” social media users tend to follow tribal crowds rather than read critically), and particularly the ease with which teens and young adults seem to be recruited into violence, which includes but is by no means limited to radical Islam and gang activity.  As I’ve noted here before, these kinds of concerns can make amateur journalism seem “gratuitous” (e.g unnecessary and capable of being shut down) although Trump seems much more concerned about the establishment (Fourth Estate) press than the newbies (Fifth Estate).

But you have to take seriously he demands made on social media platform and search engines to “pre-censor” user ouput.

Consider this article by Karl McDonald, “The Daily Mail Fundamentally Understands What Google Is”    Search engines are particularly having to deal with “the right to be forgotten” outside the US (as well as “digital laundry”).

Speakers on the Internet benefit in different ways from search engines, social media sites (some like Facebook create more opportunity for permanent “publication” than do others, like Snapchat), and shared or dedicated third-party hosting for conventional or blog sites; these providers also usually provide domain name registration. Users  also benefit from security services like Cloudflare and SiteLock.   Generally, social media sites are taking more “responsibility” for certain kinds of damaging speech (hate speech, bullying, or terror recruiting) than are neutral site hosts.   However, after the Daily Stormer matter (post Charlottesville), a few hosts participated in kicking off at least one neo-Nazi site from domain registration.

The “Mediator” Jim Rutenberg wrote a piece “Terrorism Is Faster than Twitter” Nov. 5 in which he traces how NYC bicycle lane terrorist Sayfullo Saipov followed terror recipes exactly, and tries to explain where he found them.  There are supporting details in a Nov. 2 story by Rukmin Callimachi   There is reference to the magazine Rumiyah (related to Dabiq).  A web operation called “Site Intel Group” tries to trace how this material is distributed on the web.  Much of it moves to the Dark Web or P2P.  Generally, it appears that material from these groups disappears quickly from better known social media and from conventionally hosted sites and moves around on offshore providers a lot.  There are articles on the Internet Archive (“WayBack”) which require specific logon (rather uncommon for less controversial material). In general, it does not appear that the sort of material that the Boston Marathon or other domestic “lone wolf” or small cell terrorists tried to use came from the more conventionally accessed and indexed parts of the Web.  Most of it seems pretty underground (after initial recruitment) with various encrypted apps.  We’re left to ponder what is making some of these young men (and sometimes women) tick, and have to face that modern civilization, with its individualized hypercompetitiveness, seems to offer them only failure and shame.

(Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2017 at 6:45 PM EST)