Surviving Crisis on Twitter

[This was originally published right before the COVID pandemic hit, with the expectation that it was about the upcoming 2020 campaign and presidential election. In 2022 I revised and renamed it, since much of the advice was still very relevant.]

I’m a political junkie, perhaps in some ways more now than ever. And yet, in late 2019-early 2020 I was posting very little about the 2020 election on Twitter. An old friend with similar political compulsions asked how I was doing it. The answer was ironically too long for Twitter. It also proved deeply relevant after COVID and many other ongoing crises hit. So how does one benefit from — perhaps even enjoy? — Twitter in our extended ongoing crisis? Read on!

Reduce Twitter altogether

Step 0: use Freedom or a similar blocking tool to keep Twitter out of your life when you’re trying to get other stuff done. I generally block Twitter during the entire working day on my work computer, and during the early morning (6-8am), morning (9-12) and afternoon (1-5) on my tablet and phone.

This is occasionally irritating since I do sometimes need Twitter for work but overall is worth it.

(Perhaps worth noting here that after the 2016 election I didn’t just reduce Facebook, I stopped logging in altogether unless I absolutely needed to for some reason. Absolutely zero regrets about that, though from time to time I miss certain people I only connected with there, and am curious to what extent I could effectively replicate the strategy described in this post there. Last I checked you could not firmly block specific words, which I think is critical to healthy engagement with social media—see next section.)

Reduced my Twitter political inputs

Partial list of words I block on twitter, including “president” “omicron” and “Pelosi”.

Step 1: simply reduce the amount of political stuff that I see when I go to Twitter. I see all kinds of other wonderful stuff instead! What I do in this direction:

  • Turn off the algorithmic feed. You want control over what you see; no one else (and certainly not an algorithm designed to suck your eyeballs in) should drive that.
  • Unsubscribe from all ‘news’ feeds on twitter—@nytimes, @cnn, etc. I use other mechanisms (see below) to get them daily at most. More generally, I aggressively turn off all news notifications on my phone. If the missiles launch and I need to hug my loved ones, someone will text me.
  • Unsubscribe from people I don’t know personally. For me, that’s basically all celebrites (except Lin-Manuel) but if that sounds too aggressive, you can Marie Kondo your follows with the help of the Tokimeki Unfollow tool. Two (small) exceptions for me:
    • Have they taught me something I didn’t know, because they’re giving me diverse perspectives not in my personal network? That can be troubling/non-joyful, but still valuable.
    • Have they given me opportunities for real-world action that you can’t get in some other way? For me, this is primarily local organizations — several San Francisco bike, transit, and YIMBY activists. (I find this to almost never be the case from national media, because the opportunities for practical action are too limited.)
  • Turn off all pure retweets with the Turn Off Retweets tool. Yes, even from your friends. In my experience, pure retweets are highly likely to be more angry/emotional, and less informative; if people have something interesting to add they’ll quote-tweet. Yes, there was some FOMO here. I got over it very quickly. If it is important, I see it eventually.
  • Mute (aka filter) political words aggressively. Here are Twitter’s instructions. A sampling of my word list is the highlighted image for this post. Note that I mute the name of politicans I often agree with, not just assholes! You do not need a constant stream of affirmation news either. Turn it off. The world will go on without it.

(optional) Replace with better news sources

I still feel the need for a lot of politics news. A few tips on managing this:

  • I subscribe to news via non-Twitter mechanisms, primarily Feedbin, a feed reader that allows me to follow both old-school RSS feeds and new-school email newsletters.
  • As with Twitter, block whatever your chosen mechanism is most of the day with Freedom. You don’t need to be informed all day long. (If I really had the right willpower, I’d try to keep my non-job-relevant news consumption to weekly, but I don’t (yet) have that willpower.)
  • As much as possible, make this local news. Important national/global news will trickle in as you need it. In my case, key local news sources are Mission Local and the Chronicle.

(dangerous) Use Twitter lists

I call this “dangerous” because in my experience it becomes very tempting to check Twitter lists in the same way you used to check your main feed, defeating the whole point. But you can move political follows to a list and check in on them occasionally. If you must do this, a few thoughts:

  • Make the list as diverse as possible. Ideally don’t follow anyone who your “main” follows are already following or RTing. For me personally, about a decade ago I started unfollowing most high-profile journalists and, in particular, made a deliberate effort to follow then-up-and-coming Black journalists, many of whom have now become high-profile themselves. Hearing them in their more personal voices on Twitter, as opposed to at article-length, has made me a better, more empathetic American. (Sadly, many of the best, like Vann Newkirk, have left Twitter, but I can hardly blame them!)
  • Follow at least some folks who you don’t agree with ideologically, assuming they’re making fairly good-faith efforts to inform and engage. There’s a lot of those on the right post-Trump.
  • Again, even if you must do this, don’t follow @nytimes and @cnn. These accounts are not designed to inform you, they’re designed to hook you. And I say this as a paying NYT and Washington Post subscriber!

(hard, but helpful) come to terms with the world as it is, and act in that framework

At some point in the past few years, I accepted that I’m going to have a baseline level of anger about the state of the world, and that I have to focus on what I can change and let go of what I can’t. (Twitter anger is the latter.) So what can I change? Where is my anger productive?

I’ve found that doing things offline—for me, mostly giving money—really helps. In particular, giving to causes that seek systemic (usually, that means political/government) change like and local activist groups, and giving a lot, and regularly. This, frankly, makes it a lot easier for me to ignore anger online — each new tweet is not likely to make me be more angry, or give more, because I’m already basically giving what I can. Being confident about that really reduced my FOMO when I started filtering aggressively.

I hear from non-parents/non-startup-founders that physical-world activism (door-knocking, phone banking, local gov meeting-attending, etc.) can be great in this way too but sadly I can’t confirm :(

(I also want to acknowledge that, in the current state of the world, ‘letting go’ gets harder the less privilege you have. I have no great response to that, except to say that I empathize and am trying to fight for you where and how I can.)

Improving my outputs

Having done all that, here’s how I try to improve the Twitter environment for others:

  • When in doubt, send it to a group of friends instead. You’ll get the same dopamine hit and no one will call you on it 5-10 years from now.
  • If I must RT or otherwise share politics news, I only quote tweet because that forces me to ask “what am I adding to this? why should I say it? What can I add that others can’t?” If I can’t add something, if I’m just amplifying anger, I try to shut up instead.
  • If I must be angry, I’ve tried to follow a rule that I only express that offline if I am also telling other people who are angry how to constructively address the problem. I don’t just say “I’m so mad about global warming”, say “I’m mad about global warming, here’s what I’m doing to help fix it, you can too“. If I don’t have a ‘here’s what I’m doing’ to add to it … I go back to ‘figure out what I can do’.

This isn’t perfect

Twitter has made me a literally better person, because it has exposed me to viewpoints I don’t have in my daily life that have made me more empathetic to others. It has changed my politics, making me vastly more open to systemic critiques of US center-left politics. So I’m reluctant to say ‘use it less, particularly for politics’. But I feel like it’s the only way to stay mentally well in our current world.

Democracy and Software Freedom

As part of a broader discussion of democracy as the basis for a just socio-economic system, Séverine Deneulin summarizes Robert Dahl’s Democracy, which says democracy requires five qualities:

First, democracy requires effective participation. Before a policy is adopted, all members must have equal and effective opportunities for making their views known to others as to what the policy should be.

Second, it is based on voting equality. When the moment arrives for the final policy decision to be made, every member should have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes should be counted as equal.

Third, it rests on ‘enlightened understanding’. Within reasonable limits, each member should have equal and effective opportunities for learning about alternative policies and their likely consequences.

Fourth, each member should have control of the agenda, that is, members should have the exclusive opportunity to decide upon the agenda and change it.

Fifth, democratic decision-making should include all adults. All (or at least most) adult permanent residents should have the full rights of citizens that are implied by the first four criteria.

From An Introduction to the Human Development and Capability Approach“, Ch. 8 – “Democracy and Political Participation”.

Poll worker explains voting process in southern Sudan referendum” by USAID Africa Bureau via Wikimedia Commons.

It is striking that, despite talking a lot about freedom, and often being interested in the question of who controls power, these five criteria might as well be (Athenian) Greek to most free software communities and participants- the question of liberty begins and ends with source code, and has nothing to say about organizational structure and decision-making – critical questions serious philosophers always address.

Our licensing, of course, means that in theory points #4 and #5 are satisfied, but saying “you can submit a patch” is, for most people, roughly as satisfying as saying “you could buy a TV ad” to an American voter concerned about the impact of wealth on our elections. Yes, we all have the theoretical option to buy a TV ad/edit our code, but for most voters/users of software that option will always remain theoretical. We’re probably even further from satisfying #1, #2, and #3 in most projects, though one could see the Ada Initiative and GNOME OPW as attempts to deal with some aspects of #1, #3, and #4

This is not to say that voting is the right way to make decisions about software development, but simply to ask: if we don’t have these checks in place, what are we doing instead? And are those alternatives good enough for us to have certainty that we’re actually enhancing freedom?

reading recommendation on American political multilingualism?

I’m trying to find a book on the political history of multilingualism in the US; in other words, of why/when it started becoming acceptable (and in some cases required) for government works, electoral ballots, etc., to be written and printed in multiple languages. This is related to some of the talk about mozilla-as-social-movement that a variety of Mozilla folks have been talking and blogging about lately; I’m curious if some of the rationales and arguments used by supporters of multilingualism would be applicable to software. Anyone have any pointers? Thanks!

Notes on Arthur Bestor’s ‘Backwoods Utopias’

A few months ago I finished reading Arthur Bestor’s ‘Backwoods Utopias‘, a book on the Utopian social-communitarian movements of the pre-Civil War US. Some belated notes on the book’s themes follow.

The average high school US history textbook gives a thumbnail sketch of these movements, but for those who didn’t get that or don’t remember it, the gist is that, from very shortly after Europeans reached North America until right around the Civil War, groups of people regularly launched themselves into the North American wilderness, trying to found new communities organized around communitarian and egalitarian principles. They met with some success, but eventually the movements petered out, with none of them truly surviving into the modern age.

Robert Owen (untitled) by BinaryApe, used under CC-BY

The tie from this book to my own interests should be clear, but if not, I should make them explicit: free and open source software often thinks of itself as being sui generis, but in fact it is part of a history (in this country) of retreat from established economic structures with the intent of creating parallel systems that would eventually compete with or replace those established structures with something simultaneously individually empowering and socially just. (See also.) I’m both personally and professionally curious about gleaning lessons from such past experiments- so I picked up the book. If any of this blog’s readers have suggestions either of more histories of this movement, or of histories of other similar movements (watch this space for a post on the local food movement soon), please do let me know in email or comments.

Unfortunately, Bestor’s intended follow-up book (covering the 1840s to the end of the movement) was never completed, which limits the lessons that can be drawn about the decline of the movement.  Nevertheless, some observations and themes from the book:

  • The movement had a broad spectrum of motivations and philosophies- some were heavily religious, while others were overtly anti-religious; some had (or were intended to have) quite complex governance systems, while others were nearly anarchist, and indeed Marx condemned them in strong terms because (to over-simplify) they were not dedicated to fighting the good fight in the cities. Interestingly, while the community focus of these groups was typically very strong, in modern terms we might also call them libertarian (or what Erik Olin Wright calls ‘interstitial’ revolutionaries): they all believed that they had the right and the ability to make a better world by striking off on their own, rather than working within or against established structures.
  • Religion was initially a major motivating force; this faded over time, but Bestor does not make it clear why later groups tended to be non-religious. Interestingly, American critics of later movements like Owenism apparently tended to focus on this non-religious aspect, rather than the practical/anti-capitalist issues modern critics might focus on.
  • As with every movement, looking at who left is often as important as understanding who stayed. In particular, Bestor mentions that when pragmatists became frustrated and left New Harmony (perhaps the highest profile of the various communities), those left behind were a combination of those too lazy to leave and those too fanatic to leave. This was a huge problem for the morale of the remaining pragmatists, who resented the free-riders and were driven nuts by the fanatics, and so they repeated the cycle.
  • Relatedly, Bestor argues that the repeated talk of ‘everyone will live in our miraculous new society any day now’ meant that many newcomers were not prepared for the long haul; that may have disillusioned some people and contributed to a sense of lack of momentum. To paraphrase Bestor, ‘a new society cannot be built on excuses.’
  • When the movement started, it was actually pretty easy to get a community going- lots of land was effectively empty, and the median community size in the US was in the low hundreds, making it quite easy to form a community that had all the ‘comforts’ (such as they were) of traditionally organized communities. As time progressed, two things began to work against this: first, more and more ‘normal’ landowners migrated to the midwest, causing land to become more scarce, and second, even the smallest villages became larger as the country’s overall population grew. This meant that finding enough space for a ‘basic’ community became a much more capital intensive process over time. Not coincidentally, later communities tended to have wealthy patrons- with all the plusses and minuses that brings.
  • As economic complexity increased (more machinery, more specialists) it became harder to create a self-sustaining village, especially if your human capital stocks were limited to ‘believers.’ For example, when the movement started in the late 1600s/early 1700s, having a self-sustaining community required very little specialization, while by the mid-1800s, it was understood that you needed machinists and manufacturers who would trade with other areas. Bestor says that New Harmony was bitten by this, as the land they bought for the town had the hardware for extensive wool manufacture, but lacked the people familiar with the machines, killing an expected source of financial sustainability.
  • Over time, some of the social goals of early communitarians became more broadly accepted or supplied by other organizations. For example, public education was a significant goal of New Harmony, but over the course of the 1800s, that became more common in non-utopian communities. New Harmony also had a concept of mandatory social insurance; unions started providing similar services in the late 1800s. This again made recruitment harder.
  • As for most world-changers, the gap between theory and practice was often large. Robert Owen, the wealthy patron of New Harmony, created an elaborate philosophical scheme intended to encompass everything from the individual to the nation-state, but he was bad at creating practical schemes, which led to constant reorganizations at New Harmony. This may reflect the extreme difficulty of organizing a full society; capitalism has the advantage of being simple and direct in general scheme relative to a centrally planned society like Owen’s.

I’ll refrain from drawing any direct conclusions for free and open source software here, in part because many of them will be obvious to many of my readers, and also because my reading of the book (especially several months after the fact) is inevitably heavily biased by my own thinking about social movements like this one, so I’m not sure whether any ‘lessons’ would reflect actual history or just my interpretation (compounded with Bestor’s.) With or without direct applicability, though, the book was an interesting read for a history nut, and left me with a lot of food for thought.

deliberative nirvana and software design myopia, Mar. 2009 edition

Ages ago, I tried to write a senior thesis about the potentials and pitfalls of bringing deliberative democracy to the internet. The thesis failed, badly. There were a lot of reasons for that failure1 but in the end the biggest reason was that I let the perfect be the enemy of the good. When, at some point during the year, I realized that the internet was (gasp) not going to create a deliberative utopia, I quit altogether- it never once crossed my mind that it might be worthwhile to examine how the internet could fall short of an ideal but still be better than the offline world. In fact, it took until last year- in the midst of the election campaign- for me to have that ‘ah-ha’ moment.

And so now in the back of my mind I keep toting up the little examples of ‘so close, so far’ that keep cropping up. There are tons of them, because to their great credit, the Obama campaign and administration seem determined to push the edges of the possible in this area2. But I do wish that more people had an idea of the issues and values involved, and how merely naively asking questions on the internet can greatly diverge from the nominally democratic values people are trying to advance.

The example that finally spurred me to blog a bit, and try to get some ideas written down, was a post on the google public policy blog titled ‘Citizen participation that scales: a call to action’. It’s a fine little post, noting that the recent Obama ‘Open For Questions‘ was driven by Google’s ‘Moderator’ tool, which (being a Google product) is built to scale virtually infinitely, or at least to happily cope with the 3M+ votes and 100K+ questions. Google pats itself on the back for this:

We think technology can be a force for greater accountability and access between citizens and their elected officials. We’re excited that the White House has chosen to use the power of cloud-based applications like Google Moderator and App Engine to scale the president’s direct dialogue with the American people.

And Google should pat itself on the back for this. This is a big step forward from the insanely skewed filters of the traditional media- it’s impressive to compare the (mostly) substantive nature of the questions being asked by this group with the ‘gotcha’/news cycle driven questions that often make up the average White House press conference.

Of course, Google’s focus on ‘scale’ makes it sound like the only problem here is an engineering problem about how many people can use the system before it bogs down:

[T]hanks to the scale that App Engine provides, this application can now support tens of thousands of people at once. This gives everyone the chance to be heard in a way that gives priority to the issues that matter most to the broader group.

Tens of thousands of people can vote, ergo, we get issues that matter most to the broader group! Technology- specifically, server scaling technology- has solved the problem. No thought given to user interfaces; no thought given to what values those interfaces are expressing.

Not surprisingly the resulting questions have some issues. Most predictably, almost half of the most popular questions (in techpresident’s accounting) were substantive… about marijuana legalization. Now, don’t get me wrong- marijuana legalization is actually a reasonable question to ask the president.3 But does anyone seriously think that the huge number of votes for marijuana-related questions (top three vote-getters in budget, for example) actually represents American public opinion in any reasonable way? In fact, the huge number of marijuana questions actually represents a transparent attempt to game the system. That the system was gamed did not come as a surprise to anyone who has thought about the problems of democracy online. Treating the problem as merely an exercise in scaling up a very simple question tool designed for well-intentioned, very homogenous users – Google engineers – was a recipe for a mess in the much more complicated real world, where anti-gaming and moderation techniques are a must have.4

Even if, miraculously, no one choose to game the system like NORML and others apparently did, there are all kinds of other potential design issues with software built for democracy-scaled online deliberation. Most notably, unlike the small, homogenous group of Google employees for which this tool was first built, American politically engaged computer users are not at all representative of America as a whole.5 For example, we are extremely, extremely unlikely to have had friends killed by the police, so one important perspective in the discussion over criminal justice reform is unlikely to ever get reasonable representation in a forum like Open For Questions, no matter how much scale the backend can provide. Biases of this sort- who has more access to technology? who is more likey to use it? who is more likely to use it effectively? who will game it and how?- are of course impossible to eliminate merely with software design, but the google post (and virtually all other coverage of the Open For Questions experiment) have been shockingly devoid of skepticism of the design of the software. They all seem to blithely assume that you can just throw up a polling tool on the web, and voila, democracy.

Again, I don’t mean to be completely negative here- my thesis was torpedoed by that. Like Carolus and the early TV innovators, Google, the Drupal team, and others are doing valuable work, and this technology improves a great deal on letters to the editor and other ancestors which were also badly gameable. We shouldn’t throw this baby out with the bathwater. At the same time, it is very easy6 to ignore the deeper, less obvious ramifications on democracy of the design of the code that we use- who participates? under what conditions? how does UI design affect those things? We should all be sensitive to these limitations and constantly demand better of the technology that (more and more) is going to significantly control how we relate to our government and to each other.

  1. Krissa moved to Africa; my advisor was not technically savvy; it was a fallback topic; etc. []
  2. see, e.g., []
  3. Even those who (like me) don’t smoke should be very concerned about the cost of imprisonment, drug violence, and lost potential tax revenues; the president’s dismissive answer reflects poorly on him. []
  4. Though careful they don’t get too complicated, or else they’ll scare off non-technical people and lead to accusations of non-transparency. Yes, I’m talking about you, slashdot. []
  5. Almost certainly more representative than newspaper editors or TV network owners, but still, not representative. []
  6. particularly for engineers, but also for non-engineers who don’t fully grasp the implications and limitations of technology []

Stimulus Watch

Last year my journal published a paper by Jerry Brito, arguing for greater government transparency through web-based data sharing, mashing, etc. Jerry is putting some of that in practice with his Stimulus Watch project, which uses a data set from the US Conference of Mayors to allow individuals to review and discuss various ‘shovel ready’ projects. I haven’t had time to really review the project in much depth, but it seems like an interesting stab at distributing some important (potentially too difficult?) problems and may be worth checking out for open/distributed government types.

quick IP-tech-politics post (mostly candidate agnostic)

A long post on (very liberal) firedoglake about Obama’s local-level organizing techniques. Very long piece but worth reading regardless of your political orientation, as it seems likely to define how campaigning will be done in the future, and doesn’t delve (much) into the politics behind the candidates/movements themselves.

Key take-away: the campaign is trusting volunteers to take roles that would never have given to volunteers in the past, and using new communications technology (and training) to help coordinate them. Result: vastly increased reach and increased levels of participation and ownership. Parallels to self-organizing (potentially fragile?) open peer production communities will be self-evident to anyone who has participated in one of those. Money quote: “Movements aren’t built on individual people—they are built on relationships.”

posting at Freedom To Tinker for a few weeks

I was recently invited to guest-post at Freedom to Tinker, formerly Ed Felten’s group blog and now officially hosted by Ed’s Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton. Ed’s been a hero for ages (dating back to at least his voting machine work, if not to his Microsoft work) and so the invite was very flattering. I’ll be there through mid-November, and cross-posting headlines and snippets here.

My first post at FTK is on a topic that got interesting to me after I saw Clay Shirky speak at the O’Reilly Web 2.0 conference: Political Information Overload and the New Filtering. In a nutshell, I look at some of the new filtering mechanisms that are (or aren’t) helping us deal with the deluge of political information- information that was always being created, but is only now being distributed so widely that it feels overwhelming. Sadly, I’ve got no great insight, but I think it is an area that deserves more thought and design instead of the ad hoc evolution that is creating it right now.