Old Man Yells at Cloud Services

Social media was a mistake.

Actual interactive World Wide Web hyperlinks to some organizations that I think deserve our support:
NAACP Legal Defense Fund: https://www.naacpldf.org
The Obama Foundation: https://www.obama.org/get-involved/
Campaign Zero: https://www.joincampaignzero.org

As I get closer to 50 (and look closer to 60), I find myself getting more and more annoyed when I see the internet blatantly going off in a direction that I did not intend or anticipate. It was bad enough to see the disgrace of a UI that was the Snappitychats, but it fills me with genuine anxiety when I see it spilling into things that are actually important.

To skip the preamble: Instagram is not a good channel for important information. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Twitter and Facebook are, either, but I can at least recognize how stubborn people make it work. The problem with Instagram isn’t just that I think it’s a frivolous app used mainly for selfies and casual snapshots — and to be clear, I’m speaking as someone who is straight-up addicted to Instagram and got irrationally depressed when I had to go without it — it’s that it’s designed to be a bad platform for anything other than snapshots.

Facebook keeps introducing stuff — like “stories” and live video — intended to turn Instagram more into Facebook, and each one has its own bunch of baggage and interface paradigms it brings with it. But surprisingly, most of the core “features” of Instagram have been allowed to remain. Those features are the ones that make the platform unique among the major social media platforms:

  1. You can’t share just text, there must be a photo.
  2. You can’t share someone else’s content, the equivalent of a “retweet” (except in Stories, or with a third-party app).
  3. Except for the one link in your profile, which isn’t intended to change that often, you can’t share links except as text. Even if you do share a link as text, the reader has to copy it and then paste it into a separate web browser to follow it, which makes it deliberately inconvenient.
  4. You can link to other users’ accounts, but only the account itself and not an individual post.
  5. You can also link to hashtags, which can be almost any arbitrary string of text and which is inherently decentralized, meaning that it can’t be owned or controlled by any one user.

The reason this is at all relevant right now: on Monday night and early Tuesday of this week, there was a meme for Instagram users to post nothing but a black square to our feeds for all of Tuesday. The idea, as I understood it, was aimed mainly at those of us who aren’t black and aren’t subject to discrimination and police brutality, to show solidarity with people leading the Black Lives Matter movement and protests. We were being silent to keep from dominating the conversation. We were paying respect instead of filling our feeds with frivolous, mundane stuff as if everything were normal.

People immediately started complaining about that, because it’s the internet. It was dismissed as a meaningless gesture — which, I mean, no shit it was just a gesture. It’s Instagram. There were complaints that we had a responsibility not to be silent, but to “amplify black voices” on a platform that specifically discourages sharing other people’s content. One celebrity posted a wall of text with a self-import lecture to be mindful of how we use our “internet real estate.” Some “influencers” were deluged with comments scolding them for not speaking up quickly enough, or speaking up at all — people who make make-up and recipe videos either have a sacred responsibility to disseminate information that is literally everywhere else; or they should never mention the real world at all, or it’s insincere virtue signaling. Tons of people insisted on posting lengthy rebuttals to “All Lives Matter,” over and over again, as if there were anyone left in June 2020 who was still saying “All Lives Matter” in good faith, instead of as justification for selfishness, or deliberately wasting people’s time. It all turned into a huge jumble of noise, assigning far too much importance to a platform that simply cannot be and should not be mistaken for an effective a tool for activism.

Most obviously damning, in my opinion, was the outpouring of comments — and think pieces on various websites — scolding people for posting a black square with the “blacklivesmatter” hashtag. They said it was blacking out an important movement. People following the hashtag to try and find out more information were instead just seeing a screen full of black squares, as if the movement were being silenced or censored. I started to see some people suggesting that it was intentionally redacting crucial information that people needed to see in a crisis — I saw one screenshot of an uncredited tweet suggesting something about AT&T being behind it, at which point I decided it was long past my bedtime and I should just turn the phone off.

And that’s the reason that I think this is more than just an annoyance or an unfortunate internet flare-up, but something that actually makes me very nervous: if a platform for information is so fragile that a bunch of well-meaning people can block out an important movement, then you’re using the wrong platform. If it’s that susceptible to being overtaken by well-meaning people, then what defense do you have against malicious people trying to exploit it?

There are a lot of things that I despise about Twitter, but it’s easy to see why it’s so tempting to think of it as a good platform. Unfortunately, almost all of the things that might make it useful are also what make it horrible: it’s immediate, which means that you get news as it’s happening! Which means it hasn’t been verified or placed into any meaningful context. It’s open to everyone, which means that there are no corporate or political gatekeeprs! Which also means that there are no fact-checkers or people ensuring that posters are acting in good faith, or are even real people. It’s brief, which means you get just the important information, without excessive editorializing! But you get no nuance or balance; it has to be the most polarized take possible. And people still insist on making these excruciating “We need to talk about… 1/10,000” threads to try and weasel around the limit.

There are even more limitations on Instagram, and in my opinion it becomes jarring when they’re abused. If you post a wall of text as an image, it’s inert and deprived of any context — I can’t copy or paste it, and I can’t conveniently get to the surrounding text or the larger work. It also becomes uneditable; I kept seeing entreaties to donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund long after they’d already started asking people to stop giving to them and instead donate to other causes. If you just post a copy of someone else’s image, even if you credit them (and people are rarely credited), then I have to go through their feed and find the relevant image to see what they said about it. If you post a bunch of URLs, I have to enter them manually, which not only makes the process prone to typos, but just adds a bit of resistance that’s not necessary. And again, the Minnesota Freedom Fund reported false accounts posing as them, but off by a few letters.

And then I see people posting screenshots of Tweets to Instagram, combining the worst aspects of each platform while removing any of their advantages, and I’m all like what the hell, man?! We’re trying to build a society here.

And all those problems are assuming that you’re working with the best intentions. With especially sensitive topics like civil rights violations, police brutality, and a political party that is actively trying to suppress dissent, it makes it even more important to take the time to properly vet images, video, and claims that are being made.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen the expected assortment of hoaxes, and mis-captioned, mis-credited, mis-leading, or dated images and video. But disturbingly, there was also plenty of lazy vigilante BS, posted by people who should know better. Pictures were being posted of supposed agitators along with identifying information, with absolutely no citation or vetting — just the claim that it must be real, because it was taken by “someone at the scene,” and verified by “other accounts,” even though these platforms by design allow for one person to be behind multiple accounts and use a false identity to post. That anonymity is fine when all you’re doing is posting snapshots; but if you’re using that to dox someone or indirectly get them fired or worse, then that’s just plain mob mentality.

There were, by multiple accounts, agitators at several large protests who were deliberately provoking violence and looting, almost certainly with the goal of discrediting public perception of the protests. That seems to make it more important to present an accurate version of what’s actually taking place at the protests, instead of rushing to be the first one. If you can’t verify where a video is coming from or who created it, and you can’t find any other protestor videos corroborating it (when these protests are being exhaustively recorded on protestors’ phones), then you should be treating it as unreliable, and asking yourself if you’re doing more harm than good by sharing it.

I would bet that everyone reading this has been fooled by a scam on social media before. I know the person writing it has. Luckily, it’s most often harmless, even though it’s being used increasingly to sow division and fear, to make us believe that the people we disagree with are people we hate. But when the subject gets more important, our skepticism and restraint should increase. Instead, the desire for immediate information and the satisfaction of having quick answers makes our skepticism and restraint decrease.

I’m sympathetic to anyone else who’s also feeling helpless and wanting to make a difference. I think in addition to voting, and donating time or money as we can afford it, we have a basic responsibility for what we’re putting out into the world. It should be fair and accurate, and not just “first.” Any source of information that’s so easily manipulated and so poor at providing context or identifying sources, can’t be considered completely reliable.

Or in other words: instead of freaking out about the use of hashtags or whether or not token gestures are appropriate during a crisis, I’d suggest we all take a deep breath, count to 10, and direct people to platforms that are better suited to serious topics.