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February 27, 2016

The chemistry of discourse
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:21 AM * 109 comments

One way of looking at freedom of speech is atomic: treating each individual act of free speech as an equal component of the overall freedom of our discourse. That’s kind of the default position on Twitter, as well as in the section of American culture out of which it grew. It’s an assumption that is all but baked into the 140-character platform1. It’s also the basis of a lot of arguments advocating an unmoderated online culture as a whole, or pushing back against individual acts of moderation all over the web.

The problem, as Twitter so ably illustrates, is that treating free speech as a collection of free speeches can actually diminish the collective freedom of speech. There are conversations I can’t have on Twitter, because I’m afraid of the atomic acts of free speech that I will get in response. Some of them will be genuine tests of the value of my speech, but others may be rape threats, doxxing, a flood of vicious and pernicious abuse. And yet more will inhabit the shady borderland between the two: arguably legitimate things disproportionately aimed at particular targets2.

But because absolutes are easy, atomic acts of free speech are easy to defend, and are defended widely on the internet. Actual adults who can deal with nuance elsewhere can be surprisingly simplistic on the topic.

(musical interlude)

We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ‘em

That was a real nice declaration
Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation.

I’m being a little unfair here. Many of the people who defend free speech on an atomic level do so because of the risks of controlling it for any kind of “greater good”. And they’re right: most of the greater goods that have been used to control atomic free speech have been neither great nor good. But the answer is not to give up, any more than the answer to bad government is no government. The answer is to do better.

Because the model we’re using is broken. The awareness of its brokenness haunts our entire discourse3. Indeed, many of the people who abuse the model draw their passion from a fear of being silenced, of not being heard.

(musical interlude)

if New York’s in debt—
Why should Virginia bear it? Uh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid
Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade

Hey neighbor,
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting.

Jefferson’s portrayal of the South as a financially stable “land of the free” is, as Hamilton points out, based on keeping certain costs off the books. This is possible because in Jefferson’s Virginia the people paying those costs aren’t as important as the people reaping the benefits4.

In the same way, the “wealth” of atomic freedom of speech has costs that don’t appear on the absolutist balance sheet. No individual has the strength of heart and mind, the time and resources, to deal with the full range of possible responses to their speech. The fact that this full range is more likely to be deployed against certain speakers5 is the equivalent of Jefferson’s financial accounting6: important costs are being kept off the books.

Add those costs in, and it’s clear that our speech, taken as a whole, is actually desperately poor, deeply unfree, silenced, squashed.

I can’t solve the internet as a whole. I can’t solve our entire discourse. I’m a moderator on a few sites and a participant in a few conversations. But here, for what it’s worth, is my approach in those places.

  • Free speech is a complex molecule. You can’t just pile up individual atoms of free speech and hope they’ll crystallize into it.
  • It is an objective that we cannot reach, but must continuously strive toward anyway. That’s a form of adulting: we screw up, individually and collectively, and must then try to clean up the mess and to learn to do better in the future. It’s hard. But what worthwhile thing is easy?
  • This striving takes the form of tuning the balance between competing discourses. Every decision we make protects some voices and silences others. If I as a moderator constrain the shouters, they are constrained, but the people who leave the room when the shouting starts may stay. If I let the shouters shout, those other people leave.7
  • Inaction is also a choice. Choosing not to moderate is also silencing voices. It’s simply letting the mob choose which voices get silenced instead of doing it yourself.
  • If you make choices, you need to hold yourself appropriately accountable for their consequences. This doesn’t mean the trolls don’t own their words, of course—they’re accountable for their own trolling. But you’re accountable for letting them stay in any conversation you control.
  • Now while we’re at the adults’ table, let’s just admit that choosing the voices you protect and prioritize means choosing the conversation that will take place in your space. And that choice, like the choice of voices, excludes as well as protects. No community can hold all conversations.

And here we get to a problem I cannot solve with a blog post, a few bullet points, and a couple of stray Hamilton quotes. What we really need for free speech is a varied ecosystem of different moderators, different regimes, different conversations. How do those spaces relate to one another when Twitter, Reddit, and the chans flatten the subcultural walls between them8? Have we the tools or the will to foster the kind of genuine respect for disagreement, trust in disagreement, that that would require?

Probably not. But as adults, we still have to try to do our fallible best in a complex world.

  1. This is not your standard “damn Twitter and its damn character limits killing depth of communication” rant9. The brevity that strips nuance and allows decontextualized comments to wander through our discourse like visitors from the Oort Cloud also brings a kind of clarity, and rewards a particular sort of wit. At its best, it’s a vast collective parlor game.
  2. Hic sunt otariinae
  3. This includes people all over the political landscape, from TERFs to economically precarious Christian- and (historically) Republican-identifying Americans. People in otherwise violent disagreement are united in a fear of being silenced10.
  4. We’re still working on a true balancing of those books. Ironically, one of the places we’re doing the sums is Twitter itself.
  5. And it’s so often the same people who get the short end of every stick: the poor and powerless of every kind.
  6. I am not equating the consequences of even the most horrible avalanche of online abuse with slavery here, by the way. But there’s a core problem that the two share: they each work because some people are more valued than others.
  7. This point, and arguably this entire post, was an idea I ganked from a 2007 post by Chris Clarke.
  8. There’s a whole ‘nother blog post in this, but in brief, what I am referring to is the long-running move away from discussing a given post in the local comments, and toward discussing it elseweb. Which is not a new phenomenon, but the weakness is that the discussion venue is often a community that doesn’t understand the context of the post or value the people making it. Many times, the readers don’t click through and read the original post, relying instead on an excerpt or a summary (or their assumptions).
  9. This lawn here? The land it grows on predates me and will outlast me. I just mow it while I live here. Come sit with me on it and let’s have a conversation.
  10. And this conversation is not a referendum on the realism of anyone’s fear. People genuinely feel it, and act differently because of it. It’s a real factor in the conversation, a real rock in these rapids.
Comments on The chemistry of discourse:
#1 ::: dotless ı ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 01:26 PM:

Lots to chew on. Thank you. I was thoughtfully nodding along until the last bit; I'm going to have to think a lot more to even imagine a functioning ecosystem like that.

And I love footnote #9.

#2 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 02:06 PM:

Well...working to maintain a community is a contribution to the whole ecosystem (at least, unless perhaps it's a community so typical of the vast majority that there's no conceivable risk of a shortage of places to have those discussions).

And while I like the ecosystem of communities model immediately, I do see it as contributing to rather than ameliorating our other big problem, how easy it is to live in an echo chamber.

The whole model of "public discourse" already devalues the inarticulate, which disproportionately includes the poor and uneducated.

#3 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 02:40 PM:

I think the choices made are easily forgotten, even in otherwise well-moderated spaces. But I think that almost every choice made should be acknowledged as such and owned as much as possible.

Echo chambers have their uses, too. The difference between an echo chamber and a safe space is whether you agree with the people in it.

#4 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 02:57 PM:


I think your comparison of echo chambers and safe spaces is exactly right. And it seems to me that it's worthwhile to think about why echo chambers are bad. The problem isn't the safety or agreement on essentials, it's the possibility of baking blind spots into your understanding of the world. Within any ingroup, there will be some issues or ideas or experiences or opinions that are just absent. What seems like a hearty discussion of some issue can have gaping holes when it takes place in an echo chamber, and nobody present ever even notices the hole.

#5 ::: Stephan ZIelinski ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 03:28 PM:

I am the oxygen radical of the buffered solution of discourse! My discussions of race are fully protonated! The chains of inference of my fatty acids include both cis- and trans- configurations! My soap box has been saponified, my oleaginous praise is emulsified, and when I spend a penny, I produce a catalyst of change!

#6 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 04:14 PM:

Good post, lots to think about. Footnote #2 had me laughing aloud.

I like the ecosystem model. Cross-fertilisation between communities is important - which requires safe spaces where people with opposing views can discuss matters (which involves listening as well as speaking, and a willingness to clarify, agree to disagree, apologise as appropriate* and be open to changing your mind/acknowledging you are wrong about something...).

*For something, for example, that caused offense by being poorly phrased.

#8 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 04:19 PM:

I'm fascinated by the contrasting—and yet equally clear—use of "safe space" between Diatryma @3 and dcb @6.

It clarifies to me the degree to which "safety", like everything else in the mix, is a tunable parameter in community moderation and construction. Safe from what? Safe to do what?

#9 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 04:19 PM:

DDB, I need a real-world example of a site you think has become an echo chamber.

#10 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 04:24 PM:

That last question of yours in the post is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night. Yeah.

#11 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 04:34 PM:

No forum is wholly safe. There are no defensive measures that will protect you from a trusted member going bonkers, or a conversation stumbling upon an issue that splits the community down the middle. When something like that happens, all you can do is cool things down, then repair the damage.

#12 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 08:29 PM:

One thing that might help is getting away from the phrase "free speech" which applies to government regulation and seems to create an automatic sense of entitlement among many users and moving to the principle of "fair discourse" instead.

#13 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 08:32 PM:

Chris Lawson @12:

Perhaps, but that's the place this conversation is right now. That's the term in use; those are the mental models the speakers are inhabiting at the time of writing.

Like fear, it's a factor in the conversation, right or not.

#14 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 11:43 PM:

Twitter gives users the ability to not just block (not see tweets from) individual other users, but also the ability to export your list of blocked users, and to subscribe to someone else’s published list. Third parties have assembled crowd-sourced block lists to enable vulnerable people to more easily avoid being overwhelmed by harassers and hate speech. (Abi probably knows this, but I don’t think everyone does.) One result is that some harassers (and their fans) have been crying censorship, in the apparent belief that their free speech rights include the right to demand that particular individuals listen to them. So yeah, for some people, “free speech” it really isn’t just about getting their opinions out into the marketplace of ideas as it’s about them shouting in the face of some particular person.

#15 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: February 27, 2016, 11:49 PM:

From experience I can tell you that Free Republic is an echo chamber and the moderators take steps to keep it that way.

#16 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 01:32 AM:

Harrumph! I approve of moderation, but only in moderation.

#17 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 04:36 AM:

Alex R @ #16

"Excess is better, provided you don't have too much of it."

(Bob Shaw, in one of his "Serious Scientific Talks", many years ago.)

#18 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 05:05 AM:

A part of the problem is the hidden justice of some commercial operations. Even when they have clear rules and a reporting system for abusive behaviour, nobody ever hears of consequences. That might be a part of the reason why Twitter had a poor reputation. but at least they seem to be telling people they've decided not to take action. Like justice, moderation must be seen to be done.

I've had experiences in other situations, not just about moderation, which suggests that the sort of people who are good programmers, and who start this hugely successful platforms for mass discussion, tend to have a very poor understanding of communication with people. They may exhort us to RTFM, but they can't write the manual. If their program was failing as often as their manuals appear to, they would debug it, but the failure of the manual is obviously the fault of the readers. How many programmers know how to deal with people?

Maybe it's hard to find people with the abilities needed to bridge that gap, Where do you find a Speaker to Programmers?

#19 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 06:44 AM:

Dave Bell @18:

Where do you find a Speaker to Programmers?

That's basically my job as a product owner, but at a very low level (team-by team, feature-by feature). Part of the problem lies in roles like mine, where too few devs or product owners remember that not everyone is like them when they choose how to implement things. But part of the problem is higher up, where the strategic decisions are made.

To loop in some of the rest of the discussion, software development houses are often an echo chamber on the topic of How The World Works. Most of the people working there are very similar in age, gender, educational level, race, and subculture. Though they're often well-traveled, their experience of how the world looks to people like them is not very wide. But they don't know that, and (like many people) they assume a universality that they don't have. They don't get, deep down, that all people aren't like them. Because echo chamber.

This makes them not unlike lawmakers, who legislate to their own interests by default, developers perpetuate the prioritization of some voices and styles of conversation over others. Because their edge cases are some people's core uses.

But although the software is part of the problem, it's not all of the problem. They provide the tools, and it's true that the tools are not neutral. But they're still more like knives, which can be used for many purposes, than single-purpose tools like screwdrivers.

#20 ::: John Mark Ockerbloom ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 07:01 AM:

Dave Bell writes: "A part of the problem is the hidden justice of some commercial operations. Even when they have clear rules and a reporting system for abusive behaviour, nobody ever hears of consequences. That might be a part of the reason why Twitter had a poor reputation."

It can also be hard to tell on a forum like Twitter exactly what happened when consequences *do* occur, both due to Twitter's scale (where any user can only see some of what goes on), and the difficulty of finding a trace of what a disciplined user was doing (or any specific word from the discipliner about their basis for action).

Which means that folks on those forums are often simply left to decide whether they find the management trustworthy or not; and that in turn depends on things like their reputation, and how much they sympathize with the disciplined user.

Take 3 recent cases (which I'll refer to here by initials). When Twitter unverified MY, it seems to have been at least in part over affiliations he claimed in his Twitter bio that he didn't actually have. (Those were later changed; if screencaps hadn't been passed around, I wouldn't have known it.) In Twitter's more recent case of banning RSM, I still don't know exactly what happened-- some were alleging he was harassing individuals, while others said he was just tweeting things that offended others. But with him gone, I don't have access to his tweetstream, so I can't tell for sure. (And thus you have long threads in places like Popehat where folks make all kinds of different judgments about what Twitter did to him without referring to any specific tweet activity.) Finally, when AB flounced off Twitter, some folks initially thought he was banned, in part because he deleted nearly all of his own tweets. It didn't take long to figure out what was going on in his case, but if someone less prominent did a rage-quit more quietly, it might be hard to distinguish that from disciplinary action by Twitter itself.

#21 ::: Stephan ZIelinski ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 10:31 AM:

In #18, Dave Bell wrote: "Where do you find a Speaker to Programmers?"

Come to think of it, when I worked at _____, we used to scream and leap.

But I don't think we can blame culturally clueless coders for this one, simply because coders are waaaay down on the power hierarchy for the modern social media platforms. Since management is generally less interested in goals like "facilitate discourse" than in goals like "gather data on users and sell eyeballs to advertisers", it's not clear that a minority-hostile environment is a failure for their purposes in the first place.

#22 ::: Chris Lawson ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 05:19 PM:

abi@13 -- I get that the "free speech" model is in wide use, but it's the wrong model for conversations about private spaces and I think it's important to steer these arguments away from "I have a right to free speech!" (which is *not* infringed by being banned from FB or Twitter) to "what is acceptable on this forum that I run/own/participate in?"

#23 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 06:05 PM:

"What part of Congress shall make no law do you not understand" seems to be the concept that most of the Frea Speach crowd seem to have difficulty with.

#24 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 07:04 PM:

Regarding your closing statement: You can't fix everyone else on the Internet. But you can "be the change you want to see in the world" -- as you are, here. You can teach others how to run fruitful forums, and you are also doing that. And you can stand as an example to show that forums run with a committment to "respect in disagreement", are good places to have around and to participate in. (Hey, you're doing that too.)

#25 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 07:18 PM:


So, if Twitter, Facebook, and Google all agree to bar any pro-gay-rights discussion, might there be a free speech issue there even though Congress didn't make a law about it?

The first amendment imposes a limit on government power, but doesn't cover every area where we reasonably care about freedom of speech.

#26 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 07:55 PM:

I was thinking more along the lines of the spammer "It's free speech, you can't stop me" complaint. (Admittedly I spent far too much time in the antispam trenches for my own good.)

The "Twitter, Facebook & Google" are all exempt from the first amendment, so it's "their system, their rules", but user pressure would most likely prevent any major abuses. (If your business model relies on user footprint it makes no sense to annoy a large minority of potential users in order to placate a few vociferous bigots. (Though Twitter could do with looking at how they deal with abusive users....)

#27 ::: Sarah E ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 07:59 PM:

abi @ #19: many people) they assume a universality that they don't have. They don't get, deep down, that all people aren't like them. Because echo chamber.

I think you've just hit on the difference between a safe space and an echo chamber -- the former is for people who have been made *quite* aware, often painfully, that all people aren't like them.

#28 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 08:04 PM:

Getting back to chemistry-- if the heat's too high, the more complex molecules don't form. I suppose that if the heat's higher than that, you might get nothing but plasma.

#29 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 09:51 PM:

So, if Twitter, Facebook, and Google all agree to bar any pro-gay-rights discussion, might there be a free speech issue there even though Congress didn't make a law about it?

IMO, no. There would be excellent grounds for people to leave those three services and find (or if necessary create) a competitor, though.

I think a better analogy might be Conservapedia, which is so niche precisely because it is so ideological. There's probably a substantial proportion of this community that finds some of its aims repulsive, but that's not (to me) sufficient reason to try to stop them from discussing them in their own community.

And clearly Conservapedia's community are quite aware of people who disagree with them, but I'm not sure it's correct to therefore classify them as a safe space rather than an echo chamber.

the long-running move away from discussing a given post in the local comments, and toward discussing it elseweb. Which is not a new phenomenon, but the weakness is that the discussion venue is often a community that doesn’t understand the context of the post or value the people making it.

If the communities are different enough, community X may be unable or unwilling to hold community Y's discussion of the same issue, even if the issue was first raised in community X. Also, some of community Y's members may not be able to participate in a discussion in community X because they are not welcome there (in various ways and for various reasons).

What I usually see is that sufficiently interesting posts are discussed locally *and* elseweb (unless the local venue doesn't permit comment at all) -- and the discussions are different because the communities doing the discussing are different.

I agree about the danger of misunderstanding, but that seems to me to be another example of the principle that just because something can be done badly doesn't mean it shouldn't be done at all.

#30 ::: Incoherent ::: (view all by) ::: February 28, 2016, 10:49 PM:

Cadbury @ 23 and 26:

I believe Ursula Vernon has illustrated the same point here.

#31 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 12:34 AM:

albatross: Being bullied into silence is abuse, certainly -- but it's not a freedom-of-speech issue unless the government is doing it. As a Libertarian, you should be intimately familiar with this concept.

#32 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 06:57 AM:

chris #29: (albatross: So, if Twitter, Facebook, and Google all agree to bar any pro-gay-rights discussion, might there be a free speech issue there even though Congress didn't make a law about it?)

IMO, no. There would be excellent grounds for people to leave those three services and find (or if necessary create) a competitor, though.

Except, of course, that those three services control access to a significant portion of online discourse. Size matters! Have fun "creating a competitor" for them without starting with your own pile of money and business contacts.

If some OneTrueChristianSearchCo starts stripping Making Light out of their search results (and banning ads for them) because of our "support for immoral activities and attacks on 'traditional' family values", nobody's going to blink, because OTCSC don't control the market. If Google does it, that's a more serious issue.

Albatross #25 has it right: The First Amendment to the American Constitution is only the first, most basic constraint on the government's relation to public discourse. It is not the last word on the government's, or society's, protection of free speech.

Furthermore, trying to proclaim corporations as independent parties that the government has no control over, is simply disingenuous: Corporations exist only because a government provides them, their officers, and their owners, with an assortment of legal protections. Furthermore, they live or die by government policy and regulations. That's exactly why the corps spend so much money on lobbyists. The government can affect corporate behavior in all sorts of ways... if it has the political will to do so.

#33 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 06:58 AM:

The problem with a literalist argument about whether this is a freedom of speech issue is that the people who really need persuading about this are already framing it in those terms, and are, from my experience, immovable in that sentiment. They see "freedom of speech" not just as something the government has to not harm, but as an ideal good that all sectors of society should actively work to maintain.

The purpose of an argument like the one in this post is not to put such people in the wrong, nor to get them to change their deepest beliefs. It's to meet them where they are in their values, persuade them that people whom they perceive as opponents do actually share those values, and demonstrate a mutually interesting way to further them.

Basically, the "free speech is only about the government" argument strikes many people who are passionate about it as a life-organizing concept as petifogging and legalistic, and pretty much puts you on their "ignore" list.

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 06:58 AM:

Also, Lee @31, please don't argue from labels. Argue from arguments actually made.

#35 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 07:45 AM:

chris @29:

I think there's a distinction to be made between two kinds of elseweb-discussion, one of which is particularly toxic, the other really interesting and productive.

If the post elseweb is "look at Those People Over There talking about X", and the topic of the discussion is as much Those People Over There, how they talk, how we hate 'em, how they're hypocrites for talking about X when their actions show they really value Y, etc, it's not at all productive. It's basically performative hatereading.

If it's "I read an article on X Over There and it made me think these things about X", the conversation can be really neat. The two conversations can inform and enrich one another, whether they agree, disagree, or diverge. It makes me miss trackbacks.

(Naturally the two types of conversation are not actually rigidly distinct. There are plenty of examples that fall into a middle ground.)

#36 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 08:26 AM:

Albatross @ #25:

It is, at best, complicated. From a strict legalistic reasoning, it is not a "restriction of free speech". In practical terms, Twitter Facebook and Google between them have enough of the "discourse market" (for want of a better term) that any restrictions they all agree on probably constitutes actual limitations of what people can say.

However, people wanting to say things not allowed on those platforms can (probably) find other outlets in the "discourse market", so while their unwillingness to support one or more types of speech content does make it harder to say those things, it doesn't make it impossible.

It should probably also be said that for some of the speech Twitter Facebook and/or Google refuse to facilitate, they do so for external reasons (if you at any point interact with credit card companies, you either have to accept much higher transaction fees or "ban porn" (it's apparently more complicated than that, but I don't have all the details, even though I have heard people who do discuss this)). Does that mean that the credit card processors are actually entities blocking free speech?

#37 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 08:35 AM:

The real problem with people idolizing FREE SPEECH as the bestest thing ever is that they never distinguish between abuse and speech.

The term "Freeze Peach" was coined to describe this subset of people using the homophonous term. Just as, according to Heinlein, my right to swing my arms around freely stops just short of punching you in the snoot, my right to spew whatever words delight me stops just short of harming other users.

True free speech is harmed when a subset of the speakers is silenced by abuse (or tone policing, or white people waving their hurt feelings around and insisting they be catered to).

That's protecting freeze peach at the expense of actually free actual speech.

Abuse is not, and should not be protected as, speech. Even the Supremes admit this -- it is one of the only times Clarence Thomas has spoken out in oral arguments in living memory, to make this distinction (though not in these words).

If it's good enough for the Supremes it's good enough for a private site moderator to stand on, even in the face of Freeze-Peach loving "libertarian" dudebros who think their opinion on everything is the most important thing everyone needs to hear, all the time.

#38 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 08:54 AM:


I am savoring the irony in the fact that I'm at least kinda libertarian, but that the only person running I have any interest in voting for right now is the socialist.

#39 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:02 AM:

Elliott Mason @37:
The real problem with people idolizing FREE SPEECH as the bestest thing ever is that they never distinguish between abuse and speech.

Obviously, your views are your own and they are yours, but I wonder if these blanket statements are the most productive way to find shared values propose a common means of achieving compatible goals?

I don't disagree that there is a population of people who precisely fit the parameters you set forth there. But there's another, larger population who do, for instance, consider free speech as a core good in society, and distinguish between speech and abuse, but wonder if the latter isn't the necessary price to pay for the former.

even in the face of Freeze-Peach loving "libertarian" dudebros

And—and this is possibly just me—I'm growing increasingly allergic to both "libertarian" and "dudebro" as adequate descriptors in the kind of nuanced conversation I'd like to be having here. They crunch like straw rather than squelching like meat.

#40 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:03 AM:

Also, Elliott, I'd love to have a link to the thing about Clarence Thomas. Useful input for further conversations is useful.

#41 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:04 AM:

Okay, okay, let's cool it a bit with talk about "libertarian dudebros". I'm as guilty of anyone of this kind of thing, but Abi is right, let's discuss substance, not labels.

Besides, plenty of libertarians, dudebros and otherwise, have a political and social philosophy that understands perfectly well that governments aren't the only entities that can abuse power.

#42 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:05 AM:

Crossposted with Abi! Which is quite an achievement in non-coordination given that she's in the other room.

#43 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:11 AM:

The first amendment is about the law, and it provides some really important protections. But we value free speech in many places where the first amendment doesn't and shouldn't apply. That doesn't mean free speech is the only value we care about, but it's important.

For example, I'd be pretty upset if Facebook imposed some basically partisan restrictions on what could be said on your wall--for example, if they banned support for Trump. That's not a first amendment issue--nobody's going to jail or being fined or being denied government benefits for expressing the wrong opinions--but it would still seem to me like a very bad thing, and I'd want it changed even though I think Trump is a force for evil in the world.

There is more to free speech than forbidding the police from arresting people for their speech. A major point of abi's original post, I thought, was trying to work out how to balance that in a private forum (ML). Because while free speech is an important value, it's not the *only* value. Most discussions can be broken up or jammed by a few people who are determined to make the conversation impossible. Many people won't bother taking part in a conversation where the default sort of interaction is screaming profanities at each other. And so on.

#44 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:24 AM:

What Albatross said. Definitions of "freedom" that refer only to the law are unuseful. It's perfectly possible to have a world in which First Amendment-style "freedom of speech" is robustly protected and yet most people spend most of their lives forestalled from speaking freely. In America we call this world "the workplace."

I forget who it was that made the point that for most employees, life inside American corporations is as drably conformist as the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, but they're still right.

A genuinely free culture isn't just one where you can speak your mind without Congress forbidding you to. It's also one in which you can tell your boss to go jump in the lake without being terrified that your family will starve and lose their medical care. That's why, as a lover of freedom and liberty, I'm a socialist.

#45 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:27 AM:

I'm a bit puzzled by the idea that 'free speech' relates only to government action. The First Amendment relates to government action, because it is part of the Constitution, which is concerned with the powers and responsibilities of government. But the term 'free speech' does not derive all its meaning from the First Amendment. The First Amendment says government shall not restrict free speech; but private restrictions on free speech are also possible - if, say, I sat next to you with a club, and hit you over the head whenever you said something I didn't like, I think that would be a restriction on your free speech.

The following things are certainly not restrictions on free speech:
a. Using editorial discretion to deny you the power to say certain things in a space which belongs to me.
b. Arguing.
However, if I am an organisation which controls really widespread and essential means of communication, 'a' becomes more problematic.

#46 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:34 AM:

Elliot #37:

Defining the line between abuse and merely hard-hitting discussion is pretty subjective, and I think it's very common for people to feel that some discussions or questions, regardless of tone, are so offensive as to be abusive by their very existence. That can be true even for questions of fact, where nobody is raising his voice or using anything like abusive language.

In a forum full or religious Catholics there to discuss their faith, someone starting in on a discussion about what's wrong with all these stupid people talking about their invisible sky friend and eating magic wafers is going to come off as abusive. In an atheist forum, it might seem perfectly normal and non-offensive. And that's partly because some restrictions on what conversations happen are how you can have a community in which worthwhile discussions can also happen. The atheists can't have a freewheeling discussion if they're not allowed to say stuff that would offend a lot of religious people.

Similarly, in some online fora, bringing up the menace of vaccines and how they're causing autism and allergies and autoimmune diseases in the young would be the normal sort of discussion. In a discussion among scientists working in vaccine research, it's abusive and will get you banned. (As opposed to ML, where it will just get you mocked.).

#47 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:35 AM:

I scare-quoted "libertarian" because most of the people I see trumpeting their identity as such who are also viciously defensive of their right, under "free speech" to spew nasty abusive garbage, aren't actually libertarians in the same way that many sane people I know are. They just like the label because it makes them anti-establishment and frames their abuse as "freedom". I don't think they're actually using its literal meaning, so I don't dignify them with an un-quote-marked version of the word.

And no, these are not straw men, though they are not present in Making Light. I participate heavily in the race and gender-variance topics over at Quora (my profile there, and every week I get ten to twenty responses from people who patently think it is perfectly obvious that "black people are all lazy criminals" and "white people need to stop ignoring racism" are statements of precisely equal hurtfulness.

Freeze Peach runs rampant over there, because the moderators engage in an awful lot of "suspend all the kids involved in the fight" or "whoever threw the first punch is the bad guy, even if the person they punched had been taunting them beyond bearing" tactics.

There are a lot of Silicon-valley rich white software guys on Quora who honestly believe that if anyone ever said to them, "Hey, that thing, it was rude, lay off!" that is exactly equivalent to people using racial abuse at other Quora members, and that both "attackers" should be banned from the site for the behavior.

It's wearing, and it's made me a little aggressive in defending free speech from abusive Peachers. I still participate over there because writing there constantly has been leveling up my ability to produce cogent persuasive essays on a range of prompts.

The Clarence Thomas stuff is fairly well-known among SCOTUS nerds. Here are two links to give people a starting place:
-- discussion of that case in particular, where he asserted that burning a cross on someone's lawn might possibly be viewed as not "free speech" and worthy of protection
-- a podcast including audio of Thomas asking the question and interacting with counsel, plus discussion around it by a couple of SCOTUS-nerds on that and his other impacts on the court as a panel.

#48 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:36 AM:

albatross, #38: You're not alone. I've been hearing all kinds of buzz to the effect that old-school conservative Libertarians are looking at their options and deciding that Bernie is the only one they can stomach. Which really says more about the rest of the field than it says about them.

and @43: What, if anything, do you see as the difference between posting content supporting Trump and posting content advocating the eradication of Muslims from American society -- closing down mosques and instituting a total ban on immigration? I'm using this specific example because the latter is something Trump is openly advocating, so it's kinda hard to separate the two.

#49 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 10:00 AM:


I'm extremely uncomfortable with having folks like Facebook, who are broadly providing a way for people to talk, policing which ideas may be expressed in public. I think they are lilkely to do at least as much harm (suppressing things that shouldn't be suppressed) as good, and it concentrates a scary amount of power over society in the hands of a really small set of people. I understand that this involves leaving some pretty damned vile ideas being expressed. (Worse, these vile ideas are not some tiny fringe belief, but rather mainstream enough to be politically successful.) And I know I'm not the target of these ideas, so maybe it's easier for me to think about abstract principles than immediate fear that someone's going to get elected who wants to put me under 24/7 surveillance and close down my mosque or something.

As a thought experiment, imagine Facebook's founder was a big Trump supporter. What policy would you prefer Facebook follow w.r.t. regulating what ideas may be expressed on their site? I think we are likely to find ourselves in positions where the big companies' ideas and the mainstream ideas of our society are evil or wrongheaded, and we will regret it if we establish the principle that internet companies impose their company's restrictions on the ideas that their customers may express using their service.

#50 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 10:44 AM:

Po Li Ti Cs? Ba H!

#51 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 11:26 AM:

Those are all metals...

Cl As S W Ar!

#52 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 11:58 AM:

Li B Er Te! Fr At Er Ni Te!

(Unfortunately, no element "E" or "Eg" ... .)

#54 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 12:49 PM:

CaCl CaCl CaCl

#55 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 01:11 PM:

(Here's a blog post on sentences made from chemical element symbols; it links to a list of words from same. Clearly, we're coming up with different ones....)

#56 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 01:16 PM:

albatross, #49: I don't think it's unreasonable at all to have a policy stating that content advocating violence against individuals or groups, or advocating the removal of civil rights from a group of people, is not allowed. And I'd be fine with that being applied across the board. In fact, I think of it as the BARE MINIMUM for the privilege of living in a civilized society.

#57 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 01:25 PM:

"Ho Ho Ho" SaYS SaNTa

It's good to have a periodic laugh.

#58 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 01:32 PM:

albatross #38: I am savoring the irony in the fact that I'm at least kinda libertarian, but that the only person running I have any interest in voting for right now is the socialist.

Because for you, and most folks here, libertarianism isn't an end in itself -- it's a strategy for improving the public welfare, for all of the public.

Right now, the Republican candidates are blatantly playing one group against another, or just standing up for the current top dogs. Scratch them.... Clinton could be expected to be marginally better, but has been mostly suborned by the current power structure, and her ability to make changes is deeply suspect for a number of reasons. Sanders is the only one who's talking seriously about major changes toward the public benefit. And he manages to combine decades of government experience with genuine outsider status, from spending most of his career as an independent..

The thing that gets me, is, as an old Jewish socialist, he's basically my grandmother's candidate, and Grandma was a pretty smart lady.

#59 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 03:57 PM:

David Harmon @ #58:

The thing that gets me, is, as an old Jewish socialist, he's basically my grandmother's candidate, and Grandma was a pretty smart lady.
Exactly. Mind you, the world is not Grandma Minnie's any more. Politically, Sanders is close to my dream candidate; but I'm not at all confident that he can put together an administration that could deal with the current international situation.

#60 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 04:09 PM:

Theophylact #59: I'm not so sure... I think we should be pulling back anyway, and Sanders might well be able to deal with both our peers and opponents in ways that the prior administrations simply wouldn't have thought of.

#61 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 05:43 PM:

Tom Whitmore, #55:

The author missed a bet in naming this blog entry the prosaic Sentences Made With Periodic Table Symbols when it could have been called The Elements of Style.

#62 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 06:05 PM:


I'll admit I don't see any evidence that the very aggressive, interventionist foreign policy we've been following for the last 15+ years has been working out too well. That makes me pretty willing to support someone who's less enthusiastic about bombing more countries, or sending drones to assassinate people in more countries, than Hillary Clinton or any Republican still running seems to be.

I mean, if our interventions in Iraq, Yemen, and Libya had gone well and left the world a safer place, I'd kind-of see your point. But the opposite is true--all three countries are a mess, apparently as a result of our actions. So when I hear that Sanders seems less excited than Clinton about the next kinetic humanitarian intervention, it makes me *more* likely to vote for him.

#63 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 08:51 PM:

The more I think about it, the more I think that in some sense, an echo chamber is actually a necessity to have a interesting discussion.

Suppose we want to have a discussion about the right monetary policy for the country to adopt. We probably start with a substantial overlap in our ideas and underlying models of reality. Someone coming into that discussion and demanding definitions and explanations and justifications for every aspect of macroeconomic theory used in the discussion will kill that discussion. That's just as true if the macroeconomic policy being discussed is complete fantasy, or if it provides an excellent and powerful model of the actual economy. Restricting the range of discussion topics is what makes the discussion possible.

I'm a big fan of several hard-science biology podcasts done by Vincent Racceniello. These are basically conversations between some very smart people with a background in virology, microbiology, evolutionary biology, etc. They simply could not work if the conversation were open to people who wanted to, say, debate whether viruses really exist, or whether evolution is correct. They wouldn't even work with random people off the street invited in--those people would be bored and baffled, mostly, with the discussion.

Exclusion is part of how you let communities and conversations take place. The trick is, how do you do that without damaging the actual goal of your conversation. A macroeconomics discussion that allows no dissent on details of macroeconomic models is probably not going to be one that discovers places where their models are bad descriptions of reality. A virology discussion that forbids disagreement on the advisability of gain-of-function experiments in influenza miss out on the possibility that the participants' current views of those experiments are wrong. (And yet, let enough cranks wander in demanding to argue the point from stupid premises, and everyone will tune all dissent about the issue out.)

#64 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:10 PM:

IMO, those aren't actually echo chambers. Echo chambers, in the sense that most people here are using the term, reinforce the existing views of participants and block people who don't share those views. They aren't so much about conversations (or exchanges of information) as they are about shared feelings.

#65 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:19 PM:

albatross @ #62: That's what I thought I was getting when I voted for Obama in 2008, and I'm pretty sure that's what the Nobel Committee thought they had got as well.

#66 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:30 PM:

PJ Evans, that's why I mentioned echo chambers and safe spaces. What an ex thought was an echo chamber of censorship and no new ideas was, to me, a safe space to refine ideas, to show vulnerability, to relax and figure things out. We disagreed on the extent to which disagreement itself was positive in conversation, discussion, and debate. In the sense that I never, ever wanted to have the third with him, and I seldom wanted the second because all I could do was hold fast to talking points-- any nuance meant I was wrong forever and ever amen.

So from the outside, it's an echo chamber. Because you are inside-- I'm telling you this, after all-- you know it's a safe space. The difference between the echo chamber of a forum about vaccines causing autism and the safe space for discussion of an autism-centered forum where those posts are openly mocked... it's which one you agree with.

#67 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:42 PM:

P J Evans @64: To put it facetiously, I think it conjugates like this: "I have robust nuanced discussions with experts; you have narrow conversations with your allies; he exists in an echo chamber".

I think trying to distinguish between shared world-views and shared feelings is tough to do in a robust way from the outside.

In Albatross' example, the biology podcasts definitely do "reinforce the existing views of participants" and as Albatross pointed out, they have very good reasons to "block people who don't share those views". Of course those participants have disagreements, but to someone whose basic worldview is substantially different (such as a "creation scientist"), they're going to look like an echo chamber where the points of disagreement are minor compared to the areas of agreement in which they differ from the observer.

I recently stumbled across an argument about Nikki Haley on a conservative friend's facebook page. I would consider it an echo chamber, because they all agreed that conservativism is needed to save America from those vile disgusting leftists, but to them they were having a very vigorous argument about whether Nikky Haley was a traitor for letting the Confederate flag be taken down from the South Carolina statehouse, or whether she was a brave hero for fighting the establishment in her endorsement of Trump.

#68 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:52 PM:

Haley endorsed Rubio; she said

Trump is everything "we teach our kids not to do in kindergarten." She added Rubio's recent jabs at Trump show he was willing to lead and fight with passion and is "exactly what we tell our children also -- if a bully hits you, you hit back."

#69 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:54 PM:

Mind you, Rubio's stated policies are even worse than Trump's. His manners are better.

#70 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 09:58 PM:

albatross, #63: What you're describing there is not an echo chamber but a troll hijack, and it's extremely familiar to anyone who's ever tried to have a public discussion about women's issues or minority issues. One way of approaching it is to establish a FAQ which covers all the most common hijack topics in 101-level detail, so that when someone comes in and tries to pull that shit you can just toss them a link and say, "Read this and come back when you understand it."

#71 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 10:41 PM:

Theophylact @68: Ugh, you're right, I mis-remembered.

#72 ::: capriciously mundane ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2016, 11:34 PM:

On Elliott #47's "I get ten to twenty responses from people who patently think it is perfectly obvious that "black people are all lazy criminals" and "white people need to stop ignoring racism" are statements of precisely equal hurtfulness."

Does virtual reality have potential to dissolve barriers to understanding? I wonder if the impact of social messaging, social exclusion, etc, will be as powerful in VR as the rest of the experience is said to be.

#73 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 12:40 AM:

Chris Lawson @ 12: "One thing that might help is getting away from the phrase "free speech" which applies to government regulation and seems to create an automatic sense of entitlement among many users and moving to the principle of "fair discourse" instead."

abi @ 13: "Perhaps, but that's the place this conversation is right now. That's the term in use; those are the mental models the speakers are inhabiting at the time of writing."

This is a conversational strategic trade-off I think about a lot: given that the usage around term X is contentious or muddled, do you a) replace it with term Y which is much clearer or b) attempt reconstructive surgery on term X?

A) has the clean-slate appeal: particularly if you're introducing a novel term, you can define it however you want and it will be clear and unambiguous, whether you agree or disagree, right? This often turns out to be illusory though: it doesn't take long for any new term to accumulate contending interpretations if the discourse it is used in is contentious, and then you have the added problem of hashing out the difference between X and Y.

B) is a lot trickier from the get-go, but often is more rewarding. It requires clearing out the dead wood to get a sense of what, exactly you think it ought to mean, and the other meanings never really go away. But once you've got the term defined properly, a sharper, more nuanced version of the concept magically travels backwards through time to re-inhabit every place that term is used, pumping new insight into old texts. More time I spend reading through generation after countless generation of attempts at A, the more I appreciate B's simplicity.

Ingvar M @ 36 "However, people wanting to say things not allowed on those platforms can (probably) find other outlets in the "discourse market", so while their unwillingness to support one or more types of speech content does make it harder to say those things, it doesn't make it impossible."

For me it is a question of infrastructure rather than market share. Who controls those institutions that define the contours of society, that we all require to conduct our daily lives? When it comes to water and electricity, roads and law, we've (more or less) come to a consensus that it needs to be held in common. Yet in our online lives, for all our talk of Net "Neutrality" and the radical freedom of the web, the novel infrastructures of the internet weave a social sphere that is built wholly on private ownership. As the internet has become part of the fabric of daily life, we have become dependent on infrastructure we do not own and have no say over. To my eyes, Facebook or Google being run as a private corporation makes as much sense as critical water infrastructure being operated by Nestle or Coca Cola, for profit.

#74 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 06:37 AM:

heresiarch #73: given that the usage around term X is contentious or muddled, do you a) replace it with term Y which is much clearer or b) attempt reconstructive surgery on term X?

One issue there is that often it's not actually that the term is contentious, but its referent. Then you get a revolving door of terms as each of them gets tainted in turn, until and unless the target(s) gain enough power to defend themselves. That "reconstructive surgery" can only happen when the target already has enough power to insist on their own definition, and to reject terms they consider derisive.

#75 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 08:18 AM:

heresiarch @ #73:

To some degree, I agree with you. However, there's a lack of regulation and "public infrastructure" basically all the way down. And I am not sure it makes sense starting to regulate the visible portion of the ice berg.

First you have the local ISP, usually a natural(ish) monopoly, run as a for-profit, usually by one of a few big companies. This is (mostly) where "network neutrality" debates have been. Some of these do run larger networks (as in "spanning multiple states or countries"), but some don't.

One and a halfth, national backbone providers. They tend to be either in the "first", or "second" category.

Second, you have the transnational backbones (may not be as interesting in the US, but definitely interesting to us outside the US), they come in essentially two flavours, "big profit-making megacorp" or "academic, not available to non-academics".

Third, you have the commercial peering points, where entities of the first and second kind meet.

Third, you have companies providing discussion platforms, on top of the infrastructure mentioned above. They're naturally interested in net neutrality, because their access to eyeballs depends on not being treated less preferentially than any other bits (note, entities of the second kind tend to not be as massively oversubscribed as entities of the first kind, so tend to think "network neutrality" is cool, because if you want to send more traffic, you need to pay more to get a bigger pipe to pour your traffic into).

And, fourth, you have people who only provide the physical layer, with entities of mostly the second, but sometimes of the third, kind providing the active kit on each end. In this space, you find Tyco and Tata (and a few others, but those are the biggest two providers, IIRC, and I think almost all of the transoceanic cable ships are owned by Tyco).

From my possibly incorrect point of view, it would definitely make sense having entities of the first, possibly first-and-a-halfth and maybe the second kind being regulated as public utilities, without a profit motive and with an equal-access policy.

It would perhaps make sense to do the same for entities of the third kind, but that might cause an interestingly perverse incentive to stay away from "things that deal with discussions" for commercial entities, because if they're successful, they're suddenly not successful anymore. So if there's a threshold, they're encouraged to stay just under where they become judged as "public utility".

Possibly even weirder, that might actually encourage me to jump into the "provide discussion platforms" 'market'. I am not sure why that is.

#76 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 08:59 AM:

heresiarch, #73: Re replacing terms... On the one hand, there's what you say and what David says @74 (I've heard this referred to as "euphemism creep"). On the other, there's the possibility that by introducing a new term you'll suddenly cast the whole issue in a different light and change the discourse drastically. As an example, I point to the shift from "gay marriage" to "marriage equality". Whoever came up with that term is a fucking genius, because it took the emphasis off "gay" and made people think about the "equality" aspect... and lo and behold, the discourse did change.

#77 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 10:30 AM:

heresiarch @ 73 and Ingvar M @ 75:

This also ties into the amount of moderation and/or censorship that can be/should be expected of the big sites we visit on a regular basis. At least in the US, if places like Google, Facebook, and Twitter are just service providers, they don't really have any responsibility for what their users do beyond DMCA compliance. But they aren't really only service providers. They do have various terms of service, although not really community standards. They're not communities, but are are platforms for hosting lots of 'leaky' communities, by which I mean you can have communities, but they're not really private and it's hard to enforce boundaries. Still, the shape of the platform and the organization shapes the communities that form on it.

For example, Google has its real names policy for Google+ that they haven't walked back as much as they'd like you to think that they have, and that only because Google+ was such a bomb. Facebook also has it, and they used it a couple years ago to kick off a bunch of drag performers who were using their stage names. When people got upset, they issued a notpology. Terms of service enforcement, or suppression of free speech? Since Facebook only seems to enforce its real names policy when it has other reasons to get rid of someone, I'm more inclined to think it's the latter.

Where it gets really murky for me is that since companies like Google and Facebook make money off of their users, they have no compelling interest in regulating what their users say. I know Facebook at least does a certain amount of censorship, but it's mostly for truly physically vile videos and pictures. Beyond that, the more, the merrier, the more personal data and advertising money.

I keep thinking I have a main point that's going to coalesce around all this, but I can't quite make it happen.

#78 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 11:43 AM:

Jeremy Leader @67: To put it facetiously, I think it conjugates like this: "I have robust nuanced discussions with experts; you have narrow conversations with your allies; he exists in an echo chamber".

One of the factors I don't hear talked about much, except by implication, is the degree to which one sees the subject of one's opinion as a person. This is, for example, one of the major factors in changing attitudes about single-sex marriage: it took a lot of people sort of blinking awake and realizing that "those gays" (non-people) are sometimes (often?) "my friend/family" (actual empathizable-with people).

What shift in perception does it take for that change to happen?

Speaking from my own experience, it seems to boil down to being able to recognize elements of myself (attitudes, mannerisms, values, &c) in the "other."

And having made that recognition, if that newly-minted "person" says something that is at odds with my own [attitudes, mannerisms, values, &c], I'm more likely to take pause and reconsider my viewpoint. If the party in question has not yet achieved "personhood" in my view, I'm far more likely to summarily dismiss their conflicting viewpoint, because it's "obviously wrong".

What kind/amount of exposure does it take to convert an "other" to a "person"? And what are the limits to conversion?

#79 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 12:46 PM:

Freedom of speech requires that there be a space wherein people get to speak freely. I like the concept that I.F. Stone used in The Trial of Socrates, that of isegoria equality in the agora, that is to say everyone has an equal voice in the public space of the agora. Internet spaces, such as this one, constitute the agorae de nos jours. The fact is that they are actually private, but are publicly accessible.

Simply to say that, to use another Greek term that Stone points out was used in ancient Athens, free speech is eleutherostomia (free mouth, literally speaking) and that we are guaranteed that freedom only against the state is not enough. Isegoria, the equal voice in the agora is a freedom not only in the public sphere of the state but in the equally public sphere of the marketplace, which, in the terms that I suspect that Abi is using, is generally defined as a private space in public use.

People who make absolutist statements about free speech are generally declaring 'how dare you (whoever you are) shut me up!' But that is not the important point. That point is, once we have a space wherein people may speak, how can we guarantee that each voice may be heard, and that all may judge what each is saying? On this subject, I stand with John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty, he argued that if there is to be any weighing of the scales it ought to be in favour of those voices which have had the least access to the agora. Not that the loudest should be shut out, but that the quietest should be given a boost.

#80 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 01:50 PM:

Lee #70:

Suppose we have a discussion here on ML about what we should do to avoid future financial crises. It would be legitimate for someone to argue for a particular position based on some macroeconomic theory, but also legitimate for someone else to call his theory into question, or ask for explanations and clarifications, or even to call into question whether macroeconomics has much predictive value at all. None of those would necessarily be troll hijacks--they're perfectly legitimate points to discuss. It's not like you get to demand that everyone else shut up in a political discussion because you have a model of the world that you think gives you the one true answer.

However, sometimes the people who understand and believe a particular macroeconomic theory might want to discuss what their shared model of the world implies for good ways to avoid future financial meltdowns. In that environment, those same questions would hijack the discussion, and it would be reasonable to exclude them.

It's just as inappropriate for the macroeconomic theorists to take over a wider discussion and demand that nobody question their theory, as for the skeptics to take over a discussion where people are trying to hash out the implications of their shared theory. Both undermine the ability to have a worthwhile conversation, which is surely the whole point of moderation.

Now, when we talk about safe spaces, we're usually talking about places where we feel like we can actually have some conversations that are hard to have in the big wide world. I think some of that comes down to conservation of spoons (it's no fun having to argue every little thing), and some is being able to expose yourself to ridicule and take off some armor and express your real feelings and doubts, without expecting some jackass to smell weakness and attack. Some if it is more intellectual, as well--wanting to be able to discuss things without having everything nailed down and logically sound, to bounce around some half-baked ideas.

That is, maybe I've had my fill of arguing in the big wide world with people who call my most basic beliefs into question, and now I'd like to discuss those beliefs with others who share them, without having to defend them. I'd like to discuss Catholic theology without having to fend off Richard Dawkins wannabes mocking me for making a big deal of eating a flavorless cracker. I'd like to discuss the problems I'm having in my career and life without having someone harangue me about how I should just suck it up, since white men have it too good already. I want to be able to talk about what SFF I really love, without having randos come along and demand that I justify why I'd even want to read weird stuff like that.

And I think any of those environments could also function as echo chambers. I could certainly surround myself with religious discussions that never admit of the possibility that my particular religion is flawed, or with discussions that help me convince myself that the plight of midlife white professional men is the greatest hardship in the world, or that there's nothing worthwhile in the literary world outside of the stuff I already like.

I think the destructive part of an echo chamber isn't about a single forum or source of information, it's about the ecosystem in which you live. Every community must have some bounds on what discussions and styles of discussion will be permitted, just to allow conversations to happen at all. (At the extreme end, deleting spam and obvious trolling and banning crazy people shouting obscenities are necessary, because otherwise nobody will ever even read the messages on the forum.) There's a potential problem when all the fora you ever take part in, all the media you read, all the people you know, etc., exclude important parts of the world.

#81 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 05:29 PM:

Albatross #80: wholeheartedly in agreement.

There need to be forums where all different levels of discussion can take place.

#82 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2016, 05:36 PM:

albatross@80: You very elegantly nail down a lot of the things I've been thinking about here, thank you.

A person's echo-chamber, if they elect to have one, is often constructed of multiple venues, each of which individually may or may not be just an echo chamber, I would say. Certainly it essentially always involves personal choice to live entirely in an echo chamber these days.

#83 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2016, 02:58 AM:

albatross @ 66: "That's just as true if the macroeconomic policy being discussed is complete fantasy, or if it provides an excellent and powerful model of the actual economy. Restricting the range of discussion topics is what makes the discussion possible."

This is very true: every conversation is built on a nigh-bottomless pile of presuppositions, and if you are endlessly dis-assembling and re-assembling the pile, you can't make any progress. But I think there are two very different axes along which the range of acceptable questions can be bounded:

A. I cannot see how these presuppositions are anything other than common sense/the natural order of things.
B. My presuppositions are one valid way, among others, of approaching the world.
1. I am not interested in helping others understand these presuppositions if they do not already.
2. I am willing to help others work their way through these presuppositions in order to engage in the conversation.

You are defining "echo chamber" as conversations leaning towards 1., while it seems like most other people here think that echo chambers are more defined by extreme values of A. Does that make sense?

Ingvar M @ 75: "However, there's a lack of regulation and "public infrastructure" basically all the way down. And I am not sure it makes sense starting to regulate the visible portion of the ice berg."

That's a very fair point! The internet is privatized all the way down. (Mostly. There's stuff like the World Wide Web Consortium.) I focus on Facebook and Google because IMHO they are, within the typology you describe, the part that is most present in daily life but the least likely to be thought of as necessary social infrastructure.

"--that might cause an interestingly perverse incentive to stay away from "things that deal with discussions" for commercial entities, because if they're successful, they're suddenly not successful anymore."

Well, Ma Bell is still doing alright. This is hardly the first time private companies have pioneered a new field that's then been absorbed by society--firefighting used to be privately operated, for heaven's sake! And if it does keep corporations out of governing communities then I can't say I'll be terribly upset. Keep your free market out of my Twitter, I say.

Keith S @ 77: "Where it gets really murky for me is that since companies like Google and Facebook make money off of their users, they have no compelling interest in regulating what their users say. I know Facebook at least does a certain amount of censorship, but it's mostly for truly physically vile videos and pictures. Beyond that, the more, the merrier, the more personal data and advertising money."

Which, per abi's fourth bullet, is itself a form of regulating what their users say. That's the trick of it: it's not regulating speech versus letting freedom ring: it's what regulations, to what purpose, serving what interests?

#84 ::: Buddha Buck ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2016, 07:42 AM:

DDB @82:

While a persons echo chamber involves multiple venues and personal choice, I don't think it's necessarily an active personal choice. I think sometimes it takes an active choice to exit ones personal echo chamber -- or to even notice that you have one.

For instance, I do not seek out liberal echo chambers, except to the degree that I will follow web sites that I find interesting (like Making Light). Yet in this election season I recall seeing very little stuff about how good Trump is, or any of Republican candidates really. My Facebook feed has some pro-Hillary posters, but it's mostly the Bernie show, and anti-Republican.

I didn't consciously seek out an echo chamber, but since I always hear "How can people possibly vote for Trump?" but never hear anyone say "I'm voting for Trump because...", despite his clear ability to get votes and win primaries, it makes me think that maybe I'm in one. I didn't choose to be in one, it just happened. I'd have to make an active effort to escape.

#85 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2016, 01:19 PM:

heresiarch @ 83:

Agreed very much so. As Fragano said @ 79, "Not that the loudest should be shut out, but that the quietest should be given a boost." Even assuming that there's equality of access, which there isn't, lack of moderation is as much of a discourse-shaping choice as moderating it.

Because of this, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not actually a fan of free speech at all. I believe that things like hate speech and Holocaust denial should be criminalized, because of the chilling effects they have on individuals and society as a whole. I'm also well aware of the potential for abuse this has (imagine what the people who are attempting to reframe certain kids of religious bigotry as religious freedom would do with this power), but I'm not sure where the right balancing point is. Less controversial, there are laws against false advertising. More controversial, a federal court ruled that the FDA's restrictions on off-label marketing were illegal restrictions on protected commercial speech.

Buddha Buck @ 84:

I don't think you're sitting in an echo chamber with regards to Trump, particularly because you are questioning why it is you've never heard "I'm voting for Trump because..." One of the things that defines an echo chamber, to me, is not that you only hang out in a place/places where certain bedrock topics are taken for granted as the grounds of discussion, but that no questioning of those topics is ever allowed. To take a couple of good examples from albatross @ 80, a Catholic theology discussion group would only be an echo chamber if it shut down any questioning of, say, transubstantiation, even from insiders. There's a huge difference between an outsider coming in and making a sneering condemnation of eating a cracker, and insiders discussing the finer points of how it's supposed to work and whether or not it does. A biology group would only be an echo chamber if no one was allowed to disagree about how evolution works, for example, but there are plenty of scientists who debate how it works all the time, and whether the accepted theories are correct.

In answer to your particular question, there are a few potential reasons why you've never heard people say they're voting for Trump. One of the reasons is that Trump supporters are more likely to come from less-educated populations, and they might not have the same level of access to the internet. I wouldn't think that means that hanging out on the internet counts as an echo chamber, necessarily, but it is interesting to ponder. Another reason, though, is that polls may actually underestimate Trump's support, since people have been unwilling to admit to wanting to vote for Trump to other people.

#86 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2016, 05:39 PM:

KeithS #85:

There isn't anyone I trust in the position of deciding what ideas may and may not be expressed, with the power to imprison people for expressing the wrong ones. I know there are reasonably well-run countries with hate-speech laws, so it's clearly not a 100% guaranteed slippery slope to disaster. But it seems like simultaneously:

a. An opportunity to freeze currently popular ideas about what ideas should be suppressed into law. (What would a list of ideas that should be suppressed look like, compiled 100 years ago? I can confidently predict that we'd all be horrified by that list, if we had to live with it now.)

b. An opportunity to use the power of those laws to suppress speech that challenges or offends the powerful. Hate speech laws have been used against politicians with substantial public support in Europe[1][2]. I probably wouldn't be a big fan of those politicians, but having live political debates in your society altered by someone able to suppress the expression of some ideas strikes me as a terrible idea.

Along the lines of (b), it's worth asking what a bad person in power would use those laws for. With the current US laws and precedent on free speech, it would be extremely hard for a president with congress behind him to shut down an annoying blogger or writer. With some restrictions on speech, it would be much easier, and I would expect to see it used to suppress political movements and thinkers that offended the powerful.

[1] I understand that many of these countries are pretty pleasant, well-run places with substantial personal freedom. That demonstrates that laws regulating political speech don't automatically lead to some kind of police state or something. But it still seems like a fundamentally bad idea to me.

[2] And on the other hand, you have the situation in Turkey, where Ergodan appears to me to be using the power of the state to harass and silence the opposition.

#87 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2016, 06:22 PM:

This is hardly the first time private companies have pioneered a new field that's then been absorbed by society--firefighting used to be privately operated, for heaven's sake!

Water, too, at some times and places. ISTR that which water company someone subscribed to significantly affected their chance of contracting some nasty disease of then-unknown etiology, which was part of how it became known and why any private company that wants to provide any beverage for human consumption is carefully scrutinized in most countries today.

#88 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2016, 06:41 PM:


I think it's quite common in the US for water, power, sewer, and gas to be provided by a private company, which is given a local monopoly and is regulated by the local or state government as a monopoly. I think this is the normal way public utilities are run in the US--certainly, this is the way they've been run everywhere I've lived. The usual idea there is that the utility commission has to approve rate changes, and can fine the utility for failures to provide proper service.

My impression is that these regulated businesses usually end up being reasonably good at continuity of service (especially geting power back on after storms and dealing with water main breaks and the like), and they tend to provide very stable and well-paid jobs for the people who work there. On the other hand, they tend to be lousy at customer service ("sorry, you'll have to come back tomorrow with that billing question, Agnes left at 3 today.") and not at all good at innovation. I think some of that comes down to incentives--the utility commission tends to yell at them for service outages, and their customers can't leave them for a competitor. But I also think there's a lot of culture within utilities--even when the phone companies started having competition and their customers could leave, it took them a long time (not done yet!) to get to a minimally reasonable level of customer service, but they remained pretty good at getting service back up after storms and other minor disasters.

As a banking-related aside: Every time I hear the phrase "too big to fail" w.r.t. a bank or other business, I think "Gosh, sounds like a good candidate to be a regulated public utility."

#89 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2016, 07:00 PM:

heresiarch #83:

I think safe spaces can be any combination of A and 1. Most people aren't all that great at understanding why people with very different beliefs think the way they do, so it's almost inevitable that a lot of people in the Catholic theology discussion will have a hard time understanding, all the way deep inside themselves, how an atheist or a pagan looks at the world. Not all the participants will be that way, but some (perhaps most) will.

A useful idea to me in thinking about this stuff is Tyler Cowan's notion of an "ideological Turing test." Basically, this asks if you could explain and argue for some worldview in a way that most adherents to that worldview would accept as a reasonable, honest representation of their beliefs. I think most people would fail this for most issues. It is certainly very common to see people strawman the other side of any contentious political issue.

I think echo chambers are part of what makes this harder. It will be hard to get your head around some worldviews even if you see them portrayed in an honest and generous way, but if you never see or interact with or read anything from someone who opposes gay marriage, or advocates for drug legalization, then you're probably going to have a pretty hard time imagining a plausible explanation for those positions.

Everyone is in some sense cut off from a lot of the possible ideas about the world--you only have so many hours in the day, and not all of them can be spent trying to understand why this particular bunch of {weird cultists in Utah / previously uncontacted Indians deep in the Amazon / oddball subculture of literary intellectuals hanging around Paris} believe whatever it is that they believe. But it seems kind-of important when it's something like willingness to vote for Trump or Palin, because it's beliefs held by a substantial number of Americans.

#90 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2016, 07:17 PM:

albatross, #88: Every time I hear the phrase "too big to fail" w.r.t. a bank or other business, I think "Gosh, sounds like a good candidate to be a regulated public utility."

100% in agreement with you on this! The only other alternative is to mandate a split into multiple smaller companies, sufficiently separated that if one goes glub it doesn't take all the others down with it. Absent either of these, we have private companies holding the country hostage.

#91 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2016, 07:18 PM:

a minimally reasonable level of customer service

My workgroup spent most of a year sharing a floor with (part of) IT and a customer service group that handled some of the specialized stuff. They were very busy people. (IIRC, they handled low-income services, in several languages.)

(At other times I'd get internal wrong numbers, and would pass the message along to the intended recipient, because forwarding voice mail is really hard.)

#92 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2016, 11:36 AM:

Buddha Buck #84: I suspect that "echo chamber" may be a misleading phrase for what you're describing. It seem to imply a single forum with limits on what can be said. Perhaps a more useful interpretation would be as a "bubble" -- I'm sure you visit a lot of forums, but the ones you accept as sane/smart/friendly (and choose to participate in) are filtered by your own positions and prejudices.

chris #87: Water, too, at some times and places.

A great many times and places, including much of the modern developing world. As I recall, water monopolies have been throwing their weight around a fair bit in Africa and parts of Asia.

Free speech: The idea of free speech is something like a multilateral disarmament treaty. Nobody wants to be shut out of the public square, so you get a general consensus that nobody gets to shut anybody else out of the public square. The USA makes such a big deal of it, exactly because have always been a collection of wildly differing cultures and ethnic groups (with an even greater diversity of viewpoint), none of which can gain permanent hegemony over the others.

Of course, there's always a temptation for the current top dogs, or a powerful coalition, to make an exception for "those people"... but the smarter players realize that in a year or ten, the power might have shifted, and that blade might cut back at them.

However, sometimes there actually is a consensus that some viewpoint is an existential threat, as for Germany with Nazism. By comparison, consider how in the U.S., the anti-communist efforts of McCarthy et al were always a power struggle among factions -- even the blacklisted writers and filmmakers rarely got jailed, often they were able to work under pseudonyms even at the time, and eventually they got rehabilitated as the power bases shifted.

#93 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2016, 01:20 PM:


I'd also say (echoing an argument that goes back at least as far as Mill, and probably further than that) that should value free speech because it ultimately benefits us. A lot of important ideas start out as socially unacceptable, upsetting to the powerful (and thus often banned), upsetting to a lot of the public, etc. Historically, many important discussions were long delayed because bringing the very topic up caused enough outrage that it was easier not to have the discussions. The ability to tune out ideas and arguments that make us uncomfortable gives us a way to make ourselves more comfortable now, at the cost of maybe blinding ourselves later.

I'd say that applies at many levels, from national or international rules suppressing speech to moderating a single relatively small forum. It's way too easy to define any disagreement on your core beliefs as offensive and proof of bad faith. That way lies intentional blindness.

#94 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2016, 05:23 PM:

I was thinking about (and rereading) abi's original post, and thinking about how it's possible to allow a pretty wide range of opinions and ideas and discussions[1] while not chasing away too many other participants.

It's interesting to ask how discussion threads can be moderated in a way that doesn't narrow discussion too much, but also doesn't drive too many people away.

One place this looks hard: There are many issues in which one side considers the very expression of the other side's beliefs in the open to be offensive and impolite[2]. That's true for policy questions ("what should we do as a country/state/etc."), questions of morality ("what is right or wrong?") and questions of fact ("what does the world look like?"). Worse, *adopting* a reaction of being offended at certain questions being asked, or certain ideas expressed, is an explicit strategy in some cases.

Another difficulty (maybe it's the same one, looked a from a different angle): Even when nobody expresses outrage or offense, there are some ideas you can express which will make a fair number of participants in the discussion uncomfortable. That can raise the temperature of the discussion, but it can also lead to a bunch of people bailing out, because life's too short. In a discussion where nobody is ever made uncomfortable, probably nobody learns much, but it's also pretty tiring to get hit over the head with someone's fingernails-on-a-blackboard ideas for the tenth time today[3].

[1] With the caveat that, as abi pointed out, no place can contain all possible conversations, and including some discussions or types of discussion will exclude others.

[2] It's not unheard-of to see a split along parties or countries or other groups over which side in the discussion is unacceptable *even to bring up* is different in different communities.

[3] I started out with examples for these patterns, broadly left and right. And feared that I'd start a flamewar, or at least start making people uncomfortable and getting temperatures rising, by listing them.

#95 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2016, 09:18 AM:

Albatross #93-94: I suspect that "free speech is good because ideas" is something that cultures (and often people) learn from experience, after they've been "forced" to tolerate other people's "offensive" speech for other reasons (including power balance). Without that push, it's way too easy to resort to "for me, but not for thee".

And yes, even giving examples of "unacceptable" speech is dangerous. There are electric fences (or if you prefer, "third rails") in play. Both of us have encountered those even here on ML, and ML is probably the most open and supportive community I've had the pleasure of participating in.

Cultural taboos are the classic case of an electric fence, but there's another form in play, under the flag of "triggers". Triggers themselves are hardly new, but I think their reification in public discourse is. The various discussions of "trigger warnings" and such have always made me feel simultaneously sympathetic and uncomfortable; sympathetic because I do understand triggered responses, and I recognize that those aren't voluntary, but also uncomfortable because it allows people to declare new taboos, which is a dangerous power.

Of course, those in power have always been able to declare taboos in discussion or behavior, often blatantly in their own interest -- but ISTM having more people doing so doesn't really balance the power, it just adds more obstacles to open discussion. Which circles back to my original thesis about free speech as multilateral disarmament.

...hmm. In ordinary society, irreconcilable conflicts can be referred to a commonly-accepted authority -- courts, arbitration, mediation. For international or intercultural conflicts, there may be no authority that both parties willingly accept (as opposed to forced submission) -- perhaps because the balance of power is such that one side can stack the deck overwhelmingly. (q.v. UN Security Council, Bureau of Indian Affairs, corporate "arbitration clauses", et many al).

#96 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2016, 09:53 AM:

When deployed consistently, and possibly with attention to the requests of specific community members to label XYZ thing, trigger warnings can theoretically make a wider range of discussion possible, because they allow someone to avoid a conversation that will cause them great distress instead of running into it headlong, becoming distressed, and either leaving the community or trying to get people to never discuss the thing again. So ideally it isn't about making new taboos, but about making it possible to avoid distressing vulnerable community members without creating a new taboo. For example, in a writing group where one member is triggered by discussion of hospitals, needles, blood, etc., writers can give content warnings before presenting and give that member a chance to leave, rather than being forced to avoid all such topics in the work they choose to share, and the vulnerable member gets to feel safe in their community instead of being on edge every time someone shares something that might touch on those topics.

Of course this isn't necessarily what happens in practice, but I am in favor of the implementation generally.

#97 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2016, 09:54 AM:

me @96, "and give that member a chance to leave for the duration of the single presentation", whoops. Important clarification there.

#98 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2016, 09:58 AM:

David Harmon @95:

I think it's worth making a distinction between a trigger warning (or content warning), which is a preliminary disclosure of potentially difficult content that is then discussed, and a taboo or ban on said content. Trigger warnings are a tool to broaden the audience of difficult discussions by allowing people who know they will be triggered to prepare, or choose to skip the conversation at less personal cost than if they hit it unprepared.

They're fundamentally different, and their conflation is very often an assertion of societal power by people who don't want to have to do the emotional work of caring about people who are unlike them.

If you want to discuss censorship, run with it. But let's be accurate about what we're calling what, please.

#99 ::: Kevin Marks ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2016, 05:31 AM:

The characterisations of 'echo chamber' or 'filter bubble' as opposed to 'public discourse' miss the point. There is no one public- there never was. Literary theory talks about each work having a 'public', and reactions to the work having 'counterpublics'.

Thinking about the web as set of partially overlapping publics makes a lot of sense, and one of the great things that twitter did originally was accommodate that well. We followed people we were interested in, read some of their tweets, responded to some, retweeted some to our own public and so on. There was a place on the side of the stream where you could look a replies to your tweets, from those you didn't follow, but it was very much secondary

However, Twitter misunderstood the strengths of this, and in their urge to drive engagement, packed the app with notifications. The most egregious of these was making @ replies the primary notification, and the Big Red Number on the app on iOS. Suddenly, it was another email inbox where others' priorities were ranked above your own choices.

Chasing engagement, they listed all the replies under the posts, whether you followed the people concerned or not. They had reinvented unmoderated blog comments too.

Then of course, the Tragedy of the Comments occurred, just as it has done from the dawn of time. The power to force people to see your reactions to their comments is very hard to resist, and it changes the tone of the discourse.

Now Twitter is trying to mitigate this, but blocking and muting only affects what you see, not what others see in response to your posts. So you may have a trail of abuse attached to your posts that is visible to everyone but you.

Twitter doesn't realise it needs to cherish its tummlers.

#100 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: March 09, 2016, 09:09 AM:

estelendur #96-#97, abi #98: You make a very good point, and my discomfort is indeed attached to the corrupted version of trigger warnings.

Kevin Marks: #99: Lurve "tragedy of the comments"!

#101 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: March 11, 2016, 01:50 PM:

Free speech... I recently took someone off my Facebook friend list. Not because he was involved in last year's Hugo sabotage (which comes from the French word 'sabot', or 'clog' in English, but I digress). Not because I realized he was a Republican. Not because he thinks Reagan was a great President. No. When he recounted a woman's rejoicing at Reagan having been shot in 1981, one of the folks who commented on his post said *he* would have punched her for expressing herself and used a word that rhymes with 'punt', and this person did not take the commentator to task. Fine. It's your place, your rules, your speech, but I don't have to listen.

#102 ::: James Harvey ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2016, 06:46 AM:

Lots of good argumentation here: Kevin #99 makes some particularly well aimed points.

Not being American, and not being guaranteed free speech by constitutional amendment, I have to resort to first principles on these things and work my way up from JS Mill every time, which is tedious :)

I think the crux of the matter is crucially identified in abi's first post: we all agree with free speech in the context of public discourse. Painfully, I think the USA has it right here, however ugly Illinois Nazis, Donald Trump, the Westboro Baptist Church may be.

The problem comes in an online world which conflates public discourse with my front room - so beautifully exemplified by albatross in #80. My continued friction with Twitter, other than the 140 character limit which doesn't suit me, is that it has very little in the way of consistent barrier mechanisms to allow the creation of private spaces or areas of shared understanding. Coupled with its inherent limitations, this makes for, IME, a highly volatile environment, which I often find wearing. Yes, I know people can be muted and blocked, but the fun of gardening is growing things, not doing the weeding. When the chores outweigh the fruits, and the only thing you can grow are annuals anyway, I often find the experience bruising and unrewarding.

Reddit I am less aware of so shan't comment.

Facebook at least has easier mechanisms for building both walled gardens and gardens with semi permeable walls. Its lack of proper threading is tiresome.

ML is civilised, but is ultimately someone else's blog: the subjects of discourse are determined (quite rightly) by its mods, and Open Threads are too general a space to discuss everything in an unstructured way for me. The lack of threading also confuses me at times. None of this is a surprise or much of a criticism: ML is not a replacement for Facebook.

In short, I miss CIX (which can best be described for those unaware of it) as the British version of the WELL): many of the groups and communities I inhabit on Facebook consist of CIXEN and ex-CIXEN.

#103 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2016, 01:25 PM:

Albatross@88: Somewhat different experience with USA utilities provision. My experience is that electric is private but regulated, phone was private but regulated, cable is private but regulated, and natural gas, if present, is private but regulated (whereas LP gas delivery in tanks is private with competing providers, like fuel oil). But that water and sewer, if present, are public. All of those are essentially always monopolies (I'm nowhere near old enough to remember "Home" phones). Oh, and garbage; that's the one I've seen all three ways, really public, public but subcontracted to a company by the city, and private (with multiple companies to choose from, unlike with the other cases above).

My experience doesn't cover the south or the west. I remember hearing of a few towns with municipal power distribution, but haven't lived in one.

#104 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2016, 01:29 PM:

albatross@86: Do actual hate speech laws with continuity go back further than WWII (German laws against Nazi stuff after the war)? I'm wondering, because possibly the evidence only indicates that the slide down the slippery slope to political horror is somewhat slow, rather than that it doesn't inevitably occur. It's only been three generations, after all, and social change is slow.

#105 ::: David Dyer-Bennet ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2016, 01:36 PM:

Buddha Buck@84: Active vs. accidental or passive choice is hard to analyze at a distance, certainly. I am more or less aware of some of the choices leading to my particular bubble, and can find more if I actively think about it, but no doubt miss some; and some people are more and some less self-aware than I about that kind of thing, I suspect. So it's certainly possible a number of people aren't really aware of much of any agency in constructing a bubble, yet still have one (everyone has one, as various people have pointed out, due to time constraints, there's no possible way to keep informed about all sides of everything).

#106 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2016, 04:05 PM:

Some cities own electric or water, or sometimes gas. (L.A. has its own water and power setup.)

#107 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2016, 04:14 PM:

Another option available in mostly rural areas of the US are cooperatives, commonly called co-ops.

#108 ::: Sumana Harihareswara ::: (view all by) ::: June 18, 2017, 04:24 PM:

I linked to this post in "Distinguishing character assassination from accountability" on MetaFilter and a link roundup on Geek Feminism. You might be interested in the other links in those posts as well.

#109 ::: P J Evans sees spam ::: (view all by) ::: March 17, 2021, 12:56 PM:

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