Read This: WordCamp Niagara, the open web, and the need for moderation

I’m speaking at the first-ever WordCamp Niagara on August 11th! It’s a one-day affair taking place in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

I’m excited to see their local WordPress community step up to host a WordCamp, and not just because Niagara is one of my favourite regions in the province.

These smaller WordCamps feel more like a big meetup than a technology conference, and I dig that casual vibe a lot more.

Unfortunately WordCamp Niagara happens on the same weekend as WordCamp Montreal. Hopefully next year we can all sync up to avoid conflicting dates. 🙂

What I’ve been reading

This week’s reading list goes from the high of self-discovery with creative work to the low of shitty content moderation, a returning theme from last week’s writeup.

While I’m generally optimistic about the web, I’m less optimistic about human nature. Society is fragile, and our predisposition towards tribalism is a liability.

It’s our systems and policies (with appropriate levels of enforcement and oversight) that keep things in order. But that relies on taking a stance and defining those policies in the first place.

To paraphrase a line from Hamilton:

“If you stand for nothing, what will you fall for?”

Let’s get to the list.

1. Discover yourself through copying

“Copying ironically helps you discover yourself: The way to discovering who you are, what you value, what you’re good at, what you believe, is to try things on for size — to copy — and see what fits. Bits and pieces of you are already reflected in the things around you, so pick up handfuls of other creations and see which bits you want to keep.”

The virtues of learning by copying others.

2. Sketching of a life

“It’s hard to picture my grandfather without a sketchbook in his hands. He was always drawing. Gramps lived for 94 years — long enough to experience the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the birth of both television and virtual reality — and he chronicled the decades in a staggering collection of sketchbooks, each a literal chapter of his life.”

I don’t want to be a packrat, so I throw out my old notes and sketches every year. This piece in the New York Times has me reconsidering that annual recycling spree. The next time I need to replace my notebook, I’ll pick up a spiral-bound sketchbook instead.

3. The value of undistracted time

“Undistracted time is the space in which intellectual work is done: It’s the space for that work in the same way that the factory floor is the space for the assembly line.”

Another one:

“Observe the work—or the traces of the work—of those who’ve done what you’d like to do; try to discriminate good instances of such work from less good; and then be formed by imitation.”

Plenty of valuable takeaways in Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual.

4. It’s never been easier to create

“You don’t need to work for a newspaper to have an opinion blog, a column. You don’t need to work for a radio station to have a show ’cause you got your own podcast. You don’t need to have a major network producer show because you can create it on YouTube.”

Be generous with your work. But once the opportunities start coming, be generous with saying no:

“Will I enjoy it?
Does this pay my fee?
Is it something new, different, or challenges me in some way, allows me to grow?
Will this put me in front of a larger audience?
Will this elevate my profile?”

5. The power of social proof

“Social proof is powerful. Someone else agreeing with you is like evidence of being right that doesn’t have to prove itself with facts. Most people’s views have holes and gaps in them, if only subconsciously. Crowds and social proof help fill those gaps, reducing doubt that you could be wrong.”

This came from an article about the psychology of money, but it’s applicable to so much more than that.

It feels obvious because social proof is one of the key components of digital marketing, but if you’re not living in that world, how often are you really thinking about it?

Related: Argumentum ad populum. (“If many believe so, it is so.”)

6. China’s open-source ethos

“Shanzhai’s past has connotations of knock-off iPhones and fake Louis Vuitton bags. New shanzhai offers a glimpse into the future: its strength is in extreme open-source, which stands in stark contrast to the increasingly proprietary nature of American technology. As startups in the Bay Area scramble to make buckets of money, being in this other Greater Bay Area makes it clear why there’s so much rhetoric about China overtaking the US. It is.”

Chinese technology is “in a completely different universe”, according to Letter from Shenzhen.

7. Alibaba’s Taobao villages

“Taobao villages are a concerted effort by Alibaba to bring e-commerce into the countryside, where Taobao provides the infrastructure and training for villagers to sell their goods online. The other end of that ecosystem is 农村淘宝 (rural Taobao), where even the most remote villages can buy cotton bedding and new shoes at their local 服务站 (help station), and the end-to-end logistics are taken care of by Taobao. This also fuels a whole new economy of aspiring small business owners in villages, who buy in bulk online to build small stores and supermarkets, rather than peddling their wares in informal markets.”

Also pulled from Letter from Shenzhen. This is something that rural North American communities could benefit from. Here’s more on Taobao villages, courtesy of Quartz.

8. The net’s ethical obscurity

“Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.”

From 2008: How has the internet rewired our brains? (Especially relevant given the current situation of global affairs.)

9. Bring back the banhammer

““Don’t feed the trolls” also ignores an obvious method for addressing online abuse: skilled moderation and the willingness to kick people off platforms for violating rules about abuse. At one website I used to write for, everyone constantly remarked that we had the most amazing, thoughtful commenters. How did we achieve this? Easy: a one-strike policy. Complete zero tolerance. Did people complain? Of course they did. But it stopped people with bad intentions from being a part of the community, and it kept all the well-meaning people on their best behavior. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good.”

Saying “don’t feed the trolls” only works when there’s someone who will remove said troll. Otherwise it’s just a shitty excuse to look the other way.

Related: This ties into some of the points from last week’s post re: the failure of content moderation on major platforms. Say it with me now: We can’t rely on software to protect us from ourselves.

10. The consolidation of conversation

“One of the other things that I think is generational is that the Internet of the 1990s was open platform with lots and lots of different places. The Internet of the last 10 years is very closed. There’s three or four companies that are the places where you speak.”

The broader article is about freedom of speech on academic campuses, but this point about the open web jumped out at me.

I spent a lot of time moderating message boards from the late 90’s through early-to-mid 00’s. While we felt protected by the DMCA’s safe harbor provisions re: user content, we also made it clear that our sites were not a democracy and “freedom of speech” wasn’t a thing.

Our websites were privately owned. Content policies were determined by the website staff, and we had the right to remove users at any time for any reason.

We set these expectations through a clear code of conduct. If users didn’t like it, there were other communities they could join.

Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit didn’t go to that level. They didn’t take a stance. They set their expectations around the concept that there wouldn’t be other sites; that everything could take place within their walls.

They stood by freedom of speech and “we’re just a platform!” as the rationale, while they built up a business around appealing to everyone.

Now look where we are. From the New York Times:

“Presented with straightforward queries about real-world harm caused by misinformation on their service, Facebook’s executives express their pain, ask for patience, proclaim their unwavering commitment to political neutrality and insist they are as surprised as anyone that they are even in the position of having to come up with speech rules for billions of people.”


Related: The whole Zuckerberg holocaust denial thing (via Recode)

Featured image credit: Miguel via Flickr

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