When he woke up, the dinosaur was never there
“People are not universally nasty online. (…) There are reasonable theories about what brings out the best or worst online behaviors (…) My opinion, however, is that certain details in the design of the user interface experience of a website are the most important factors”
You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier
In chapter 3 of “You Are Not A Gadget”, Jaron Lanier writes about Internet trolls and how (consequence-free) anonymity can enable them. Trolls are an annoying part of online interaction, and can go from dynamiting a conversation with off-topic discussions to serious cases of bullying and harassment.
State-of-the-art social media platforms take trolls very seriously, and gives users tools to deal with those. For the most serious cases, there are old school methods like reporting users to platform administrators in order to ban them. This methods are not to be used lightly, so platform administrators use to have the final word to take or not drastic action, and it casuses a lot of debate on particular cases on gray areas.
But there’s also lower levels of self-management, useful for trolls that are just annoying. It’s frequent to have the option to delete comments related to your content in the same way that you can delete (or edit) content you have created. This has a controversial outcome: you can alter content created by others. Even if it’s in response to someone’s content, two other users can engage in a conversation that is in control of a third person to delete. It’s reasonable if the user had the right to delete the original content, and consequently everything in response to it.
There’s also the option to block someone, and that is more interesting. If some user don’t want to interact with another, blocking him makes it easier avoiding confrontation.
These tools are necessary to prevent people from suffering, but those are also enabling and empowering people in behaviors beyond self-protection. A user can use self-managed tools to delete any comment that disagrees, making himself kind of a curator of other people’s reactions and responses in order to give a fake sense of uniformity and consensus. Blocking every ex-boyfriend on every social media platform for example can make those platforms a safe place after a breakup, but also creates a virtual world that despite the fact is populated by the same people does not match real world as it is a manipulated version of it.
Most of these aspects are just how we people interact with each other, and how we use technology to amplify the way our relationships work in real world, and if we should use those tools in our advantage or not in every scenario. Just like letters, phone calls or instant messaging required new rules for what is polite or acceptable, relationships on new platforms also require rules that we have to define ourselves.
But there’s one thing that annoys me: rewriting past. Being able to delete comments and edit the content you already published allow people to delete comments making corrections (like correcting figures or conclusions) and remove or fix the wrong parts on the original content, not only not giving credit for the correction but removing the fact it was necessary in the first place.
If one user changes her mind about a given topic, she might be tempted not only to publish her new position, but remove previous arguments in order to simulate she has always thought the same. Parallelism with Orwell’s “1984” is obvious.
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed (…) then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past (…) controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. ‘Reality control’, they called it.”
1984, George Orwell
Originally Jaron Lanier was talking (among other things) about how designing an interface with much care could enable trolls empowering them. Because online, not only code is law (as Lessig put it) but also interface design affect how we use a platform.
And I recently was shocked by an example of how that is true. I was blocked here on Medium by another user. I didn’t know it was even possible.
Long story short: I answered to a uncalled redesign of a website by a designer who published it on Medium about some flaws on the redesign, not by being bad design, but to having taken some decisions like removing content, and pointing out there was a lack of hierarchy. The point on hierarchy wast just a phrase because I didn’t want to focus on the design itself but in the fact that taking out of the picture some aspects of the design makes the exercise quite futile, it’s just that I myself consider hierarchy one of the most important aspects of design, and its often underestimated. The user responded giving his reasoning behind the decisions, and about hierarchy, he talked about visual weight. And I responded literally “I’m not sure you understand what hierarchy means”.
I don’t know if that user considered my comment mean or not (it wasn’t never my intention, but as he has blocked me I don’t even have the chance to apologize). But what shocked me was knowing what means on Medium being blocked.
First, I no longer can see that user’s posts. I don’t know what is the reason for that, as I haven’t blocked him but he blocked me, and still I can’t see his posts.
Second, previous comments I made will no longer appear on his posts. So my first comment that he answered isn’t there anymore for anyone to see. In fact, in a nonsense my comment (that already exists in my stories list) appears as an independent piece of writing (and the second message, that motivated me being blocked appears as a response to mi first message, which makes no sense at all).
I guess people at Medium had to make tough decisions because comments here are not just a sub-content of original stories but a story on their own. But those comments hanging on nowhere are totally useless.
So, thanks Sean Yang for blocking me, as you taught me a lesson on design by showing me what happens when you’re blocked on Medium. Also, my apologies if you felt offended in any way by my comment, as it wasn’t my intention.