Bearing the internet on our shoulders

In (the very unfortunately titled, but strongly recommended) Broad Band (site, GoodReads) , Claire Evans interviews some of the women who shaped the modern internet. Although there are the usual suspects like Grace Hopper, the book is mostly about women who have been on the fringes of digital history.

The most interesting interview was with Stacy Horn, who started one of the first true online social media platforms (as we call them today), called Echo (East Coast Hang-Out.)

Although Stacy was a part of other bulletin-board systems (BBSes) at the time, and was studying computers at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program,

she didn’t want to talk about them when she went online. Stacy wanted to talk about literature, film, culture, and sex. She wanted a place to flirt, gossip, and argue. She wanted some women around, and friends she stood a reasonable chance of meeting in real life. Above all, she wanted something that felt like New York City - more techno-hipster than techno-hippie.

So she started Echo. Stacy says she wasn’t a techie or a businessperson, but she was good with people, and she understood how tech communities worked.

Her time on The WELL (a BBS) had taught her the basics: online communities emerge spontaneously whenever two or more people discover they like the same thing. People go online for the information: they stay online for the company. Nobody posts in a void. We share, for better or worse, together.

Stacy did some extremely savvy things to get Echo growing and thriving. When the bank looked at her request for a loan for Echo like she had three heads,

Every night, she went out into the city, heading where interesting people congregate: parties, art openings, museums, concerts. One by one, she approached strangers to pitch them on joining her fledgling online community.

To get artists and scenesters (past Echo alumni include Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky) familiar with the Unix server that she ran her platform on, she invited them to her apartment for classes, where users learned Unix commands and file structures:

In the intervening decades, Echo has never changed its primitive interface. To navigate within it, you can’t just click on links, but have to type in Echo-specific commands: j cen; l a m; sh 123. You don’t access it in your browser, but through a telnet client, a program that allows you to access the command line interface of another computer. It doesn’t support images or sound, much less video. It doesn’t even have colors. It’s text-only, and even editing text is a time-consuming pain in the ass

One of the most important things Stacy did was to build out the community and moderate it from the beginning. On the front of Echo’s site was the logo, “Echo has the highest percentage of women in cyberspace - and none of them will give you the time of day,” setting the tone as both accepting and intensely irreverent New Yorker. At the time that she founded Echo, the internet was, at most 15% women. Women were 50% of Echo.

What did she do?

Just as she had when courting her first users, she went up to women everwyehre she went and conducted informal interviews about their online experiences. If they hadn’t had any, she asked what kept them from it, and when they answered, she listened.

Additionally, she gave a lot of attention to the moderation of the platform. She realized that “even the most democratic public spaces have limitations. ‘I talk differently with when I’m with my choir friends, and I talk differently with my drummer friends, and if I’m in a group of all women, there are things I’m going to say that I wouldn’t in a mixed-gender group,” so she set up both private and public spaces, including a women-only room, and a room where people could report instances of abuse directly to her.

There is a lot more interesting stuff in the Echo chapter of Broad Band, but I don’t want to quote the whole book (you should buy it! And also listen to Claire’s interview on the excellent Postlight Track Changes podcast).

What I want to draw attention to is the amount of care that Stacy put into planning her community beforehand, and the amount of care and maintenance she had to do throughout the entire process. Many Echoids are still active on the social network, 30 years later.

The internet today is much, much larger, but the problems remain the same: harassment, bullying, and, mainly, strangers being obnoxious to each other.

These days, most of this is addressed with boilerplate Code of Conduct statements and attempts at automatic content moderation. But, there are still humans behind the scenes, as has become apparent in the multiple horrifying exposes about the people that man the content moderation systems at Facebook. Or more accurately, as subcontractors at Facebook. One of the first of these pieces was in Wired in 2014, where facilities in the Philippines were covered. The article starts,

The campuses of the tech industry are famous for their lavish cafeterias, cushy shuttles, and on-site laundry services. But on a muggy February afternoon, some of these companies' most important work is being done 7,000 miles away, on the second floor of a former elementary school at the end of a row of auto mechanics' stalls in Bacoor, a gritty Filipino town 13 miles southwest of Manila.

The latest piece that’s been making the rounds is by Casey Newton at the Verge, who reported on the terrifying conditions right here in the U.S., in Florida, focusing on a man working for Cognizant, a subcontractor, filtering through horrifying content for long periods during the day. He ultimately died of a heart attack:

The stress of the job weighed on Utley, according to his former co-workers, who, like all Facebook contractors at the Tampa site, must sign a 14-page nondisclosure agreement.

For all of their work looking at child pornography, decapitations, rape, and the absolute worst of what humanity has to offer, the actual humans doing the psychologically exhausting labor of community management receive little:

Cognizant received a two-year, $200 million contract from Facebook to do the work, according to a former employee familiar with the matter. But in return for policing the boundaries of free expression on one of the internet’s largest platforms, individual contractors in North America make as little as $28,800 a year. They receive two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch each day, along with nine minutes per day of “wellness” time that they can use when they feel overwhelmed by the emotional toll of the job.

These two stories, the story of Stacy and of Keith Utley, didn’t click with me until I read a third piece recently, by Eric Raymond, a developer and industry stalwart who wrote one of the foundational books on modern open-source work, called The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

He wrote recently about a phenomenon he dubs “Load-bearing internet people,” a term that has since stuck with me. He defines a LBIP as:

a person who maintains the software for a critical Internet service or library, and has to do it without organizational support or a budget backing him up.

That second part is key. Some maintainers for critical software operate from a niche at a university or a government agency that supports their effort. There might be a few who are independently wealthy. Those people aren’t LBIPs, because the kind of load I’m talking about isn’t technical challenge. It’s the stress of knowing that you are it and you are alone, the world out there has no idea what a crapstorm it would be if you failed at your self-imposed duty, and goddammit why doesn’t anybody care?

LBIPs happen because some of the most critical services can’t be monetized.

It was when I saw this term that everything connected for me. LBIPs aren’t just present in open source, although they are a super-important concept there.

They’re present in every setting online where humans have to interact with each other through keyboards. In meatspace society, social lubrication to ensure smooth transactions occurs invisibly and extremely quickly through mechanisms like white lies (no, you look fantastic today!), and obfuscation (although wage obfuscation is a method of extreme worker injustice in America, try and make salaries transparent and see what happens in an organization).

This doesn’t mean that meatspace is perfect, but most of us have figured out (mostly) how to navigate our day-to-day lives without pissing people off through a nuanced dance of social cues that have been embedded in us since we were children.

But online, there is no algorithm for any of this yet. Just look at how long people have been trying to establish markers for detecting sarcasm online, without any success.

The internet has, at the same time, connected us, and through text, stripped away the genuine human context we experience when interacting in person. What the internet has done is create a middle, invisible layer of people who need to exist in order to facilitate the same kinds of reasonableness that exist when we communicate face-to-face.

The worst part of the current state is that these people and their roles are largely invisible. There are some people with the official title of community moderators. There is also a new role in the tech industry, that of developer advocate (formerly evangelist) that sits as a go-between for tech companies and developers and fields questions, comments, and feature requests. There are the open-source leaders, who are often times volunteers. And then there are the underpaid, overlooked content moderators for Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms, dealing with the worst of what we have to offer. But even all of those titled roles are not entirely fully fleshed out, and they have not been truly evaluated based on how much economic value they bring to the internet.

And then, there are the hundreds of thousands of people who act as LBIPs in an unofficial capacity: every time someone asks an obnoxious person to leave a private chat room, or remembers someone’s birthday on Twitter, or likes or shares something with a positive comment, or acts as a moderator for a Facebook group, or reaches out to offer advice - these, too, are all roles that are filled to keep the internet born aloft.

The decency of the internet is supported largely by invisible people filling mostly invisible, thankless roles.

What do we do?

The first step is to recognize that they, this invisible but critical infrastructure layer, exists, and to offer them our gratitude. The second is to think about how to start formalizing and compensating them correctly. And the third, maybe the hardest, is for us ourselves to fill more of those shoes online ourselves.

Art: Atlas, Lee Lawrie, 1937

What I’m reading lately

  1. I just finished The Sympathizer, the Pulizter Prize-winning novel about a half French-half Vietnamese spy from a couple years ago. If you like Vietnam history, this is the one for you. The first half moves quickly, but the second half gets bogged down in details, IMO.

  2. Loving this thread on new immigrant experiences in North America:

  3. I had no idea ThinkGeek was closing!

  4. Pretty cool alternative breakdown of Word2Vec

About the Author and Newsletter

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. This newsletter is about tech and everything around tech. Most of my free time is spent kid-wrangling, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.

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