Tag Archives: Internet

I know it when I see it

Who makes the rules of the internet? Who judges what’s offensive and what’s OK? What are the implications for those of us who create content?

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether the State of Ohio could ban a film it deemed to be obscene. Famously, Associate Justice Potter Stewart wrote that while he was hard pressed to define what qualifies something as obscene, “I know it when I see it.”

Where are the boundaries?


Image source: The Verve (Eric Peterson)

The boundaries of offensiveness have always been fuzzy and subject to change. Movie scenes that horrify one audience might not elicit even a blush from another. Books that would’ve gotten me in trouble had they been found in my high-school locker are part of the curriculum today.

Despite the lack of rules, the boundaries are very, very real. Most of us would say with all sincerity that, like Justice Stewart, we know when something transgresses a boundary. There are standards, even if they exist only in our minds and are sustained by our (illusory?) sense of belonging to a community.

The secret rules of the internet

This week I came upon The Secret Rules of the Internet, a long piece that describes the ways in which content is moderated on the major social-media platforms.

To the extent that I’d thought about how moderation works, which admittedly wasn’t much, I never would’ve supposed that:

  • Moderators often work with guidelines that are slapdash and incomplete.
  • Moderators are poorly trained, if they’re trained at all.
  • Moderators are prone to depression and other psychological disorders, largely because their jobs force them to see things they can’t bring themselves to describe to anyone.
  • There are no standards or best practices for moderation; rather, most media companies treat their moderation practices as trade secrets.
  • Moderation is often shoved into a “silo,” segregated from the rest of the company, even — especially — from areas that set the company’s course in terms of legal and ethical principles.
  • Some platforms are better at moderation than others. (The article contrasts Facebook, with its relatively well defined Safety Advisory Board, and Reddit, which has weak guidelines, a small team of moderators, and a reputation for harboring lots of offensive content.)

According to the article’s authors — Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly — all of these things are true. Continue reading

Social media: pulling us apart

Social media pulls us apart.

That seems to the conclusion of the New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman, after he talked with Wael Ghonim earlier this month. Ghonim is the young Egyptian who in 2010 created a Facebook page to protest the death of another young Egyptian at the hands of the police.

Ghonim told Friedman that within three days the page had 100,000 connections. In less than a year, during the Arab Spring, protesters helped topple the government of President Hosni Mubarak. Ghonim’s Facebook page is credited with having helped fuel the protest movement.

But then, Friedman writes, it all went sideways:

Alas, the euphoria soon faded, said Ghonim, because “we failed to build consensus, and the political struggle led to intense polarization.” Social media, he noted, “only amplified” the polarization “by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic. My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, hate speech.”


Wael Ghonim (source: New York Times)

The new government that was installed in Mubarak’s place was itself overthrown in 2013 by the Egyptian Army.

Ghonim told Friedman that he’s spent a lot of time since then thinking about what happened. Continue reading

You Have a Right to Ketchup and Salt

Did you see the news story about the Florida chef who refuses to let his patrons put ketchup and salt on their burgers?

If you’re older than 10, says chef Xavier Duclos, you have no business adding any flavoring to the dishes I’ve prepared. I’m the chef. You have to trust my judgment. And that’s that.

burgerIf I were a customer of Mr. Duclos’, I’d beg to differ. Having plunked down $12.95 for one of his burgers (that’s the going rate, according to his menu), I’d say that I’d bought the right to season my food as I liked.

Mr. Duclos has heard that argument, and he rejects it. At best he and I would agree to disagree.

At the same time, I understand where Mr. Duclos is coming from. Continue reading

Adapting to the modern web

New York Times website

The New York Times website, recently redesigned to deliver more curated content, more dynamic content, and more paid content — all adding up to a “sleeker, faster, more intuitive” experience. (Source: nytimes.com)

Hypertext means more than just text with a bunch of links in it.

So begins Mark Baker’s timely and illuminating article on the nature of hypertext. If content on the web began as a set of articles linked to one another, it’s grown to encompass search results, social curation (for example, liking, tagging, and retweeting), and dynamically generated content.

As technical communicators, have we really grasped that? Reading through Mark’s article I’m struck by the dissonance between the way I develop content at work and the way I consume content after hours. Continue reading

The corner pub: in our pockets, 24-7

A lone tweet arced across the sky and caught my attention:

Listening to a show on internet addiction. Is it the internet, or the stuff that’s on it? The medium, or the message?

I replied that it’s both the message and the medium: I think it’s some of both: appealing content, convenient packaging.

The Internet gives us two things that, as humans, we crave: inclusion — the sense of belonging to a community and being accepted — and information — keeping up with what’s going on in the community and in the larger world. Continue reading