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.

On empathy in language

Happy Friday!

I was tagged into a really interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday about empathy in language, and how Americans generally don’t seem to have many words to express empathy for others. In fact, the English word for empathy reportedly comes from the German word einfuhlung, which means “feeling into.” And we only started using it about 100 years ago.

The word “empathy” alone doesn’t really seem to be enough to actually express it, though. You can say to someone, “I empathize,” but is that always the most effective way to express empathy? The conversation yesterday was really about how we don’t seem to have words to convey “affection, deference and respect” to strangers, especially strangers who may be worse off than us, or of a lower social class. To me, having words like that and knowing how to use them would be a form of expressing empathy. Having a way to address someone in a way that essentially acknowledges our privilege without being condescending and signaling that we’re empathetic would be incredibly useful. Some people find ways to do this, of course. But as I tweeted back, it’s not really something we learn.

Then someone else in the conversation noted that it depends on who we mean by “we.” African American Vernacular English and other dialects used primarily by minorities do seem to have words that achieve the very thing we were discussing. (Click that link for some examples.) So maybe we just – in general – tend to devalue the speech that confers empathy in these ways?

This is something I will be diving further into very soon. Which brings me to this reminder: I won’t be using WordPress anymore after next week. So if you want to read more about this kind of thing, please subscribe to my newsletter here. You will get an intro email, and then just two emails each month. I would really hate to lose the conversations with all of you when I make the move!

on voter privilege

Last night was hectic. I had a great weekend with family visiting and a fun work event Monday night, but that meant chores piled up. I got home from work at 7:30 and had to get my laundry to the laundromat before “last wash” at 8:30. I gathered everything up, stuffed it in the bag, stuffed that in the granny cart and set about the careful process of bumping it down two flights of stairs and across three long blocks. While the laundry was washing I made a quick trip to the grocery store, something else I hadn’t had a chance to do over the weekend. I made it back just in time to transfer my clothes to the dryer, and while they were drying I realized – I forgot to vote!

I’m not sure how. Every time I checked out Facebook or Twitter during the day I was accosted by dozens of reminders, both in text and image, in the form of friends’ “I voted!” stickers.

By that time it was 8:30 and I knew the polls stayed open until 9:00. Lucky for me, my polling place is literally a block from my apartment, so I strolled in at 8:34 and was out by 8:44, in time to eat some dinner before picking up the laundry.

When I got home, as I stood looking at the heap of clean, dry clothes on my bed (and my cat rummaging around in them for a good place to nap), I realized that what I’d just done was nothing compared to what some people go through to make it to the polls. And it was really nothing compared to what keeps a lot of people from voting at all.

For a lot of people (at least, judging by my Facebook and Twitter feeds) it’s a no-brainer: vote or die. Or at least, vote or be ridiculed on social media and prohibited from complaining about the government.

But, in reality, there are a lot of reasons not to vote that I don’t think most people ranting on social media think about. What if you work three or four jobs and simply don’t get a chance to get to the polls?

“Absentee ballots!” I can hear the chorus and see the eye rolls.

But what if you had four kids, three jobs, no car, and little family to help you out? Would “making the time” to read up on electoral issues and requesting, filling out and sending back an absentee ballot be a high priority? It may seem like an extreme example, but it’s a reality for a lot of people in this country. And it’s only one of a myriad of things that might keep someone from voting even if they want to.

To call my night “hectic” was a vast overstatement. I had virtually no barriers to voting. As with many other privileges, this can make it hard to understand why someone else might not make the same decisions we do. And especially with so much at stake – equal pay, access to abortions, environmental protection, accessible health care – passions can take over.

But before you ask someone if they voted, and if not, why not, consider that it’s not so simple for everyone. And if you do vote, consider giving your support to candidates who may help fix some of the underlying issues that prevent people from reaching the polls: unemployment, weak education and health care systems, transportation infrastructure problems and affordable housing shortages.

Feminist Friday roundup

There’s always a lot floating around the internet to elicit eye rolls and rage reads from a feminist, but this week I’ve seen so many great satirical jabs back at the patriarchy that I decided to wrap them all up in one post that I can hopefully come back to in future times when it feels harder to laugh at these things.

First, one of the many amusing responses to the Women Against Feminism Tumblr: nourishment

Then there was the creation of this hilarious Twitter feed:

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 8.16.15 PM

Do yourself a favor and click that picture and read all of the other gems.

And then, there were these two videos about catcalling that were so spot-on while also being so funny and cathartic that I was briefly reminded of how redeeming the internet can be.

The Smile Bitch Training Camp

And: What Men Are Really Saying When Catcalling Women

Check back next Friday, I will probably make this a weekly feature. It might not always be so lighthearted though, so luckily we have these to look back on. And, who knows, maybe the sudden influx of things like this is a sign that more publications are getting comfortable with this kind of content. Time will tell.

Growing Pains

This week, two of the subjects I follow most closely – sexual assault activism and critiques of the media – converged to create a tense (and intense) conversation about how the latter should approach the former, when Christine Fox (@steenfox) asked sexual assault victims to tweet what they were wearing when they were assaulted. A writer at BuzzFeed who has covered sexual assault extensively for the site put together a post using some of the tweets, and what ensued was what I hope will be the tumultuous beginning to a more nuanced conversation about journalism ethics regarding the use of comments on social media. 

Many responses to the situation focused on the point that Twitter is public, so those who participated in the “event” were not entitled to the privacy they later claimed.

As a feminist and a journalist, this has led to a lot of self-reflection for me over the last couple of days. So I’m going to mostly defer to this great piece by Kat Stoeffel for NY Magazine:

[The BuzzFeed writer] was under no obligation to reach out to the people who participated in Fox’s conversation under public Twitter handles, some of whom were righteously proud to have been handed the BuzzFeed microphone. Still, none of that inoculates Testa or BuzzFeed or other purveyors of listicles from the critiques at hand: Posts like this amount to selling a recording of other people’s group therapy while sending a fire hose of potentially unfriendly attention in the general direction of its participants.

Stoeffel says this may represent an internet “growing pain.” I would argue it also represents a growing pain in communications between journalists and their readers and subjects as those communications become easier and more frequent via social media.

We can preach about the laws and ethics we learn about in J School until we turn blue; that won’t change the fact that someone felt victimized, and that approach can backfire. I know the importance of not letting your story get away from you or be controlled by a source, but I also know the importance of doing justice to the person who lived the story. And I think that means really telling a story, valuing context over speed, brevity or clicks. It also means that, as we become more immediately accountable for our work, “face-to-face” with our sources and readers online, we may need to find new ways to explain how and why we do what we do.