Woulda, shoulda, coulda

Twitter co-founder Ev Williams posted a thread yesterday. Not super surprising, since he’s one of the fathers of Twitter, but as he explained in said thread, he doesn’t post his thoughts there much. He sticks to links, because he, “[doesn’t] enjoy debating with strangers in a public setting” and he “always preferred to think of [Twitter] as an information network, rather than a social network.”

That definitely elicited some eye-rolls, but this was the tweet – in a long thread about how he wants reporters to stop asking him how to fix Twitter’s abuse problems – that really caught my eye…

That is… exactly the problem! It’s both reassuring to see this apparent self-awareness, and frustrating how late it’s come, and how defensive he still is…

Maybe he feels like he can’t say for sure whether being more aware of how people “not like him” were being treated or having a more diverse leadership team or board would have led the company to tackle abuse sooner…. but those of us who are “not like him” are pretty confident it would have. Or at least it could have. It should have.

This is what I mean when I talk about a lack of empathy in tech. I don’t know Ev Williams or any of his co-founders; I don’t know many people who have founded anything at all. And I understand that founders and developers are people deserving of empathy too. As I read Williams’s thread, I tried to put myself in his shoes, even as I resisted accepting much of what he was saying. I get that “trying to make the damn thing work” must have been a monumental task. But as I talk about here a lot – there’s empathy, and then there’s sympathy. And as Dylan Marron likes to say, empathy is not endorsement. I can imagine it, but I don’t get it. And it’s little solace to the hundreds of people who are harassed and abused via Twitter every day to hear it confirmed that their safety wasn’t a priority, whatever the reason.

They know this – we know this. The question is, what now? Williams, for his part, brushes off this question. It’s not his problem anymore, he seems to say, and he doesn’t know how to fix it, but if you have any “constructive ideas,” you should let Twitter know (or write about them on Medium, Williams’s other tech baby…)

The toxicity that Williams says he’s trying to avoid – that he says his famous friend is very upset by, that he seems almost ready to acknowledge is doing real damage to many, many other people who use Twitter – was part of what inspired me to write The Future of Feeling. I wanted to know, if it’s this bad right now, how much worse could it get? Is anyone anyone trying to stop this train?

I talked to a lot of people in my reporting for the book, and over and over again I heard the same idea echoed: empathy has to be part of the fabric of any new technology. It has to be present in the foundation. It has to be a core piece of the mission. Creating a thing for the sake of creating the thing isn’t good enough anymore. (Frankly, it never was.) The thing you create is very likely to take on a life of its own. You need to give it some soul, too.

Williams ended his thread with a tweet that actually resonated with me. It’s something I’ve found to be absolutely true:

People made this mess. People will have to clean it up. If Williams doesn’t want to, or know how to, I know a lot of other folks who are getting their hands dirty giving it a try.

Tech is a tool – turns out empathy is too.

One of the most confounding things about researching empathy is that it’s often talked about as if it’s an obvious Good Thing. I constantly read and hear that empathy will help fix this problem or improve that relationship or better that industry. But the reality I am coming to understand is that empathy is a mechanism, a tool of our brains and hearts, that does not have an inherent value. It comes up most often in a positive context because we see understanding others and putting ourselves in their shoes as a good thing, which it often is. But this kind of perspective-taking is also used for negative, manipulative reasons all the time. We don’t usually call that empathy, but in many cases the mechanism seems the same.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since my June trip back to New York for the Games for Change summit. I eagerly consumed as many virtual reality experiences as I could in my one afternoon there, surrendering myself as much as possible to the narratives they immersed me in. I was a fly on the wall in the bedroom of a white supremacist teenager; I followed along with nonprofit workers as they helped to free a family in India from servitude; I embodied the virtual experience of a young black man. All of these were trying to teach me about a human experience I was unfamiliar with, and they all had positive intentions. But if the makers behind these VR projects could bring me close to tears for a former white nationalist and a young black man dealing with daily microaggressions in the same afternoon, what else could they do?

The major caveat to this line of thinking is, in my view, the fact that how we come to VR experiences – our own personal backgrounds, our expectations, or hopes for what we will see and feel – plays a big role in determining how they affect us. I don’t think many people are putting on VR headsets totally unencumbered by expectations or opinions about the content of what they’re about to see. As this technology becomes more ubiquitous, though, it might become easier to sneak these experiences on people; pulling the same levers that trigger empathy can trigger other things as well: hatred, anger, fear. We already do it with less fanciful technology, don’t we? Digital advertisers work to try to understand how we view the world so that they can put t he best ads in front of us; communications teams for politicians write certain words and phrases into speeches that they guess, by putting themselves briefly in the shoes of their base, will generate a reaction. Perspective-taking in service of manipulation isn’t new, but as technology evolves, the capacity for doing this on a larger and larger level grows.

This concern really started bubbling up for me a a couple of months ago, after I experienced a couple of rough days of trolling on Twitter. I realized that while I had always seen internet trolls as lacking empathy, what they were doing actually required a certain level of it. They just wielded it a different way than we’re used to thinking about. So of course, I tweeted some thoughts:



This gets at a lot of what’s been swirling around in my head as I write this book about the future of empathy and technology. The people I interview often remind me that technology is a tool, but I’m realizing that empathy is one too.

As I wrote in my last post, it feels like a weird time to be writing a book about empathy. But conversations like the one described above make me feel like it’s worth it, no matter how it turns out. Stay tuned for more.

What happens when women gather

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending an all-day conference on gender, race and the media hosted by the NYC chapter of Women, Action & the Media (or WAM! as we like to call it). It was really incredible to be surrounded by so many talented and inspiring women (and a couple of men) all day and to hear from people like Lizz Winstead (co-creator of The Daily Show and Ladyparts Justice) and Alicia Garza (co-creator of the #BlackLivesMatter movement) as well as many journalists who shared their experiences and advice.

Being the social media savvy women that we are, of course we had a hashtag for the event: #WAMNYC (or #WAMnyc). Pretty innocuous, and something you probably wouldn’t even recognize as having anything to do with women unless you were familiar with WAM!, right? Well probably, unless you’re a member of a certain group of men who spends a beautiful Saturday cyber-stalking women in the media with the aim of harassing them. These men are called “trolls,” and while the previous sentence may sound dramatic or paranoid to you if you have not spent much time a A Woman On The Internet, it is all too true.

And yesterday was no exception! One special guy, who spends an inordinate amount of time trolling people form someone who calls himself a journalist, somehow got wind of the fact that about 100 women had gathered in a building on the campus of Barnard College, and even with no knowledge of what we were actually doing there, he decided it was unacceptable. I considered posting screen caps of some of his tweets here, but if you need proof you can find him on Twitter yourself – I’d rather not give him more air time. But he has almost 90,000 followers, and many of them are also trolls, some more willing to “disagree” by using rape and death threats than others. And that’s what they did, all day, as we tweeted quotes and comments and things we learned from the panels and keynotes. Our content was mostly about the best, most ethical way to report on gender and race, the history and creation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, jokes and inspiring comments from Lizz Winstead and quips about the bagels and cold temperature at the venue. But that’s not allowed, according to some men. Their content was mostly things like #spankafeminist and memes showing grotesque cartoon women crying about being “disagreed with.”

The reason I bring this up at all: We were a small group of women, a few with some level of power by virtue of being editors or producers or New York Times journalists, but most of us were reporters and bloggers and writers of all stripes looking for inspiration and fellowship, not trying to start a war. Just trying to carve out a place where our voices were valued, where we didn’t have to compete with the noise that bombards us all every day, where we could talk frankly with each other about our passions and concerns.

That’s threatening to some people, I know. Trolling isn’t a new concept to me. I’ve written about it before. But many people don’t know the reality of this, and it was the first time I got to see the genesis of a trolling attack in real time. I had long suspected that many of these men (and they are mostly men, though not all) simply noticed that women were talking and took issue with that, regardless of whether they actually read or understood what these women were saying. That was so blatantly obvious in this case that it amazed me; McCain and a few others had literally no idea what WAM stood for (though they had guesses – “Women Against Men???”) and yet they identified it as a threat and called out their dogs, who just want blood, regardless of the fabricated reason.

My point is, it doesn’t matter how many of us there are, or what we say or mean. It’s just the fact that we’re there, especially when we’re tethered to each other by an idea or movement via hashtag, that is deemed worth punishing. They are so afraid of women – especially women who call themselves feminists – that whatever we are saying or doing, it must be stopped, so they smear us and lie about us so others will be afraid too.

Luckily, the “top” tweets on the hashtag are mostly from actual participants in the conference and they are witty, insightful, poignant, and true. This time we weren’t silenced. I highly recommend searching the tag on Twitter to read some of the great things that came out of the day. I personally feel very moved and inspired. I got MUCH more out of this conference than annoyance at trolls, but it seemed worth mentioning here, for those who aren’t aware of just how often this happens. And this was really nothing compared to what trolls are capable of.

But it’s also a reminder that if my mere existence as a Woman With An Opinion Online is so threatening, maybe I can use this power I didn’t even know I had to do something good.