Of course I didn’t see how social media could be an accelerant for bigotry

It took a few years after I first reviewed Windows XP for me to realize the enormous omission from my initial assessment of that operating system: It didn’t even include the word “security.” It feels like I’ve devoted much of my work since to making up for that shortfall.

I’ve had the same unpleasant realization over the past few years about social media. Just as my first look at XP showed no imagination about how an OS designed to run on trusted networks would fare on the open Internet, my early writing about social networks evidenced inadequate foresight about how they might help bigots to bond.

Consider, for instance, the Twitter explainer I wrote for the Post in 2008. I loved writing that almost exclusively as a series of 140-character-compliant paragraphs, and I think as prose it holds up well. But although Twitter was still figuring out the basic mechanics of @ mentions then, the piece reveals no consideration of how Twitter’s architecture might let bigoted trolls recruit like-minded people to scale up a Twitter mention’s compelled attention into a denial-of-service attack.

The evidence was there: A year before, writer Kathy Sierra had endured a hail of death threats for the crime of having two X chromosomes while expressing value judgments about technology. But my attention was elsewhere.

I can file away my naïveté about Windows security on not doing enough background research, but I can’t untangle my lack of imagination about social networks from having used them exclusively as a straight white man with an Italian (read: Catholic) last name. On every social network I’ve used–from Usenet newsgroups to Slashdot to the Post’s comments to Twitter and Facebook–I’ve had the unrequested benefit of not being routinely attacked for my gender, sexuality, race or religion.

But I never quite realized that until writing about Gamergate. I spent the day before that Yahoo Tech post ran locking down every important account and steeling myself for a toxic response online. Then nothing bad happened and nobody tried to destroy my critique by impeaching my identity. I can now confirm that white privilege is a hell of a drug.

Since then, we’ve had another unforeseen development: a president who has bragged about sexual assault, regularly evokes such anti-Semitic memes as “globalists”–a laundered code word for international Jewish financiers–and said neo-Nazis in Charlottesville last August included “very fine people.” Trump’s dog-whistling seems to have encouraged some bigots to crawl out from under their rocks and look for company.

Some have also been inspired to look for ways to kill people they see as “the other.” This bigotry boom has a growing body count–in C-ville last year, where I paid my respects at the memorial to Heather Heyer earlier this month, and today at a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Last week’s pipe-bombing attempts could have added to that toll.

I’m sorry that I was asleep to so much of this before. I think I’m awake now, but I want you to tell me if you see otherwise.

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A different default browser with a different default search

Several weeks ago, I switched my laptop to a setting I’d last maintained in the previous decade: Mozilla Firefox as the default browser.

Firefox took the place of Microsoft’s Edge, which I’d decided to give a shot as part of my reintroduction to Windows before seeing Edge crash too often. In another year, I would have made Google’s Chrome the default instead–but a combination of privacy and security trends led me to return to an old favorite.

Firefox had been my default browser in Windows since February of 2004, when it was an obvious pick over the horrific Internet Explorer 6. But a few years after the 2008 introduction of Chrome, Firefox had stopped keeping up, and I began relying on Chrome in Windows.

I kept Safari as the default on my Macs for its better fit with the operating system–although its memory-hogging habits had me close to also dumping it for Chrome until a recent round of improvements.

Last year, however, Mozilla shipped a faster, more memory-efficient version of Firefox. That browser has since finally caught up with Chrome in supporting “U2F” two-step verification, where you plug in a cryptographically signed USB flash drive to confirm a login. And as I realized when writing a browser-comparison columns for USA Today, Firefox comes close to Safari at protecting your privacy across the Web–especially if you install its Facebook Container extension, which blocks Facebook’s tracking at other sites.

This doesn’t mean I’ve dropped Chrome outright. I almost always keep both browsers open, with much of my Chrome tabs devoted to such Google services as Gmail and Google Docs. (Confession: I only learned while writing this that Google Docs’ offline mode now works in Firefox.) Chrome continues to do some things better than Firefox–for instance, while it doesn’t offer a simplified page-display option like Firefox’s Reader View, it’s been more aggressive at disciplining intrusive ads.

When I set Firefox as the default in Windows, I also switched its default search from Google to the privacy-optimized DuckDuckGo. That’s something I’d done in my iPad’s copy of Safari years ago, then recommended to readers last July in a Yahoo post; it seemed a good time to expand that experiment to a browser I use more often.

Since DuckDuckGo doesn’t match such Google features as the option to limit a search to pages published within a range of dates, I’m still flipping over to Chrome reasonably often for more specialized searches. But even there, I’ve reduced my visibility to Google by setting a sync password to encrypt my browsing history.

All this adds up to considerably less Google in my Web life. I can’t say it’s been bad.

Twitter Moments: where context goes to die even more

Two articles recounting politicians not telling the truth caught my eye Tuesday morning. That would have made it another day ending in “y,” except that the story each candidate sold didn’t make them look that much better or worse than the reality documented in contemporary records–why stick to the unsupportable story?

So I tweeted that thought and linked to these pieces about Democratic senatorial candidates: a report by the New York Times’ Jonathan Martin on how Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s (D.-Ariz.) tales of childhood homelessness didn’t square with her family’s utility bills from those years of grinding poverty, and a fact-check by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler ruling out a debate claim by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D.-Tex.) that he did not try to flee a 1998 DWI arrest that he has otherwise owned up to as inexcusable.

Four hours later, Twitter’s app notified me that this tweet had been added to a Moment–a curated collection of tweets on a topic that can show up in the timelines of people who don’t follow you. You can’t opt out of this publicity without blocking the account that created the Moment, which seems impossible if Twitter’s editors were behind it.

Then my notifications started getting a little weird.

I got a bunch of retweets and likes from people who had stuck #MAGA hashtags in their bios (as in, the acronym for President Trump’s favorite slogan) or added a red X to their name (a protest against Twitter “shadow-banning” right-wing voices, an allegation that has yet to survive independent scrutiny). Maybe they thought they’d found a kindred spirit; if so, they could not possibly have looked at my other recent political tweets.

But I also received shout-outs from a few people with Resistance hashtags or blue-wave emojis conveying their outrage at Trump’s GOP. They might have approved of my overall output on Twitter, but they could not possibly have read the reports I shared in that tweet–maybe they thought I was talking about Trump or his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh?

This kind of context asphyxiation can happen any time on Twitter, but a Moment’s ability to catapult a tweet far out of your normal audience and its usual context magnifies the odds enormously. I got a sense of that from watching Helen Rosner’s XOXO talk three weeks ago, but now I understand this from firsthand experience. Thanks, I guess?

Why I attended two monetization-resistant conferences

I spent the past two weeks betraying a basic rule of self-employment: Don’t go someplace without having enough work lined up to pay for the trip. Worse yet, I paid for a conference badge–twice.

I had my reasons. The XOXO festival in Portland promised a repeat of the mind-expanding, heartening talks I watched with rapt attention in 2013 and 2015, plus the side reward of getting to spend a few days in a city I like but hadn’t visited since 2015. The Online News Association conference in Austin, meanwhile, would bring its usual mix of professional development and catching up with old friends.

XOXO stageI had hopes of selling a post or two from each, but I’d still lose money from each trip (and then I wound up not selling anything at all). So what did I get for my $500 XOXO pass and $439 ONA registration, plus airfare and lodging for each?

This year’s XOXO was not the same independent-creativity pep talk as before, because most of the speakers didn’t address that theme. But there were some seriously compelling talks anyway:

  • Jonny Sun and then Demi Adejuyigbe talked with candor and hilarity about battling impostor syndrome;
  • Jennifer 8. Lee explained how she worked the emoji-governance system (yes, there is one) to get a dumpling emoji added;
  • Claire L. Evans retold some forgotten stories about female computing pioneers;
  • Helen Rosner spoke about being defined by an out-of-context tweet and having to defend her expertise, then led the audience in a recitation of this pithy, profane self-affirmation: “I am really smart, and I am really good at what I do, and you should fucking listen to me.”

Trust me, you will want to watch these whenever the organizers post the video to their YouTube page.

XOXO also had a day of meetups across Portland and endless conversations with fellow attendees. Somehow, this conference manages to attract some of the kindest, nicest people on the Internet; it’s a wonderful contrast to the acid bath that is Twitter on a bad day.

XOXO postcardThe people at ONA may not have been as uniformly pleasant–look, if we journalists had a full set of social skills, we’d all have real jobs–but that event had the advantage of being much more tightly focused on my professional reality. It’s not by accident that I’ve gone to every ONA conference since 2014.

There, too, the talks were terrific:

ONA was as great as ever for networking, I had more than my fill of delicious tacos, and I got to hear Dan Rather give a brief talk at an evening event and then shake his hand afterwards.

In retrospect, XOXO is an expense I wouldn’t repeat–although I’ve yet to go to that festival in consecutive years anyway. My takeaway from this year’s version is that instead of flying across the country to get these different perspectives, I should try harder to find them around D.C.

ONA, however, is pretty much guaranteed to be on my schedule next year–the 2019 conference will be in New Orleans. How can I not do that?

Recognize a bad-faith campaign to discredit a journalist when you see one

The latest target of Two Minutes Hate on the Internet is somebody unusual, in that it’s somebody I know. But the story here is manufactured outrage as usual.

Until Thursday, few people outside tech-journalism circles could have name-checked Sarah Jeong or described her Twitter presence. I’ve been following her since sometime in 2014, so I can: sarcastic and often bitterly so, expletive-laced, and grounded in a deep knowledge of how tech intersects culture and the law

That makes Jeong an essential read in my world, and also an amusing one–see her unpacking of the PETA’s monkey-selfie case. She’s also a student of how social networks fuel online harassment and wrote an excellent book about it, The Internet of Garbage, that led me to quote her in Yahoo Finance posts in 2015 and 2016.

Now Jeong is again experiencing the subject of her own research, thanks to a cut-and-paste screencap compilation quoting her saying such mean things about white people from 2013 to 2015 as “it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”

Why 2014 tweets in 2018? The New York Times announced Wednesday that it had named Jeong to its editorial board. The creator of that image, who calls himself Garbage Human on Twitter, apparently saw a chance to bully the Times into hitting the Undo button on its hire–what’s happened to other young writers, some right-wing, hired by traditional media outlets.

So is Jeong a racist whom the NYT should dump? That argument is, as Jeong would put it, bullshit.

First: No, she isn’t racist. I have interacted with her, online and in person, more than enough to determine that, and I’ve yet to see any co-workers of her say otherwise. And yes, that insight trumps yours if you hadn’t heard of Jeong until yesterday. Seen in context–as you can, since she hasn’t deleted them–most of the tweets at stake are cranky jokes received as such by white friends. One’s a profane distillation of a multiple-tweet legal argument. Others look like her venting about the misogynistic, racist word vomit that can greet a woman or person of color on Twitter; I will not tone-police people in that position. 

Second, consider the sources. After Garbage Human, whose tweets show a fondness for InfoWars hoaxer Paul Joseph Watson, Jeong’s tweets got publicized by Gateway Pundit, a conspiracy-theory-spouting factory of lies. I first became acquainted with its dreck last January, when it wrongly named my friend Doris Truong as the Asian reporter taking pictures of Rex Tillerson’s notes at his confirmation hearing without bothering to ask her if she was even there.

These are not honest critics, and their arguments are no more founded in a belief in racial equality than GamerGate harassment was about ethics in gaming journalism. You don’t owe time to the talking points of a bad-faith actor, not when it’s based on a context-free sample of a handful of tweets out of 103,203 available.

I know this because I saw this strategy employed successfully against my then-Post co-worker Dave Weigel in 2010. That’s when the journalism-gossip site FishbowlDC and then the Daily Caller (both with a history of ginning up right-wing outrage, facts or context optional) published cranky e-mails about various politicians that Weigel had sent to a private mailing list. Post management did not have the spine to stand up for its new employee against this selective copy-and-paste hit job or the absurd theory behind it that reporters should never share opinions about the stuff they cover, and Weigel resigned.

Five years later, the Post hired Weigel back. He’s been kicking ass at the paper since.

I look forward to Jeong doing the same at the NYT, as it declined to take the bait. Its PR department defended their new hire while adding that it “does not condone” her earlier banter and including Jeong’s tweeted apology that “I deeply regret that I mimicked the language of my harassers.”

Jeong’s current employer until she starts at the Times, The Verge, took a stronger line in a post:

Online trolls and harassers want us, the Times, and other newsrooms to waste our time by debating their malicious agenda. They take tweets and other statements out of context because they want to disrupt us and harm individual reporters. The strategy is to divide and conquer by forcing newsrooms to disavow their colleagues one at a time. This is not a good-faith conversation; it’s intimidation.

Exactly.

Bandwidth battles in China

SHANGHAI–Crowded gadget trade shows like CES and Mobile World Congress usually entail connectivity complaints. But when you put the gadget show in China, you level up the complexity, thanks to the need to run a Virtual Private Network app to preserve access to U.S. sites blocked by China’s Internet filters.

In theory–and in every PR pitch from a VPN service advertising itself as the surefire way to stop your ISP from tracking your online activity–that should add no difficulty to getting online. You connect, the VPN app automatically sets up an encrypted link to the VPN firm’s servers, and then you browse as usual.

PIA VPN exit-server menu

The reality that I’ve seen at CES Asia this week while using the Private Internet Access Windows and Android apps has been a good deal less elegant.

  • Often, the PIA app will connect automatically to the best available server (don’t be like me by wasting selecting a particular U.S. server when the app usually gets this right) to provide a usable link to the outside world. But it’s never clear how long that link will stay up; you don’t want to start a long VoIP call or Skype conference in this situation.
  • On other occasions, the app has gotten stuck negotiating the VPN connection–and occasionally then falls into a loop in which it waits increasingly longer to retry the setup. Telling it to restart that process works sometimes; in others, I’ve had to quit the app. For whatever reason, this has been more of a problem on my laptop than on my phone.
  • The WiFi itself has been exceedingly spotty whether I’ve used my hotel WiFi, the Skyroam Solis international-roaming hotspot I took (a review loaner that I really, really need to send back), the press-room WiFi or, worst of all, the show-floor WiFi. Each time one of those connections drop, the VPN app has to negotiate a new connection.

If you were going to say “you’re using the wrong VPN app”: Maybe I am! I signed up for PIA last year when the excellent digital-policy-news site Techdirt offered a discounted two-year subscription; since then, my client Wirecutter has endorsed a competing service, IVPN (although I can’t reach that site at the moment). Since I don’t have any other trips to China coming up, I will wait to reassess things when my current subscription runs out next April.

Also, it’s not just me; my friend and former Yahoo Tech colleague Dan Tynan has been running into the same wonkiness.

To compound the weirdness, I’ve also found that some connectivity here seems to route around the Great Firewall without VPN help. That was true of the press-room WiFi Thursday, for instance, and I’ve also had other journalists attending CES Asia report that having a U.S. phone roam here–free on Sprint and T-Mobile, a surcharge on AT&T or Verizon–yielded an unfettered connection.

At the same time, using a VPN connection occasionally left the CES Asia site unreachable. I have no idea why that is so.

What I do know is that I’ll very much appreciate being able to break out my laptop somewhere over the Pacific in a few hours and pay for an unblocked connection–then land in a country where that’s the default condition.

Yes, I still use Flickr

My oldest social-media hangout is no longer the property of my biggest client’s corporate parent, and I am okay with that.

Flickr Android appLast night brought word that Verizon’s Oath division had sold Flickr to the photo-sharing site SmugMug. Jessica Guynn’s USA Today story breaking the news calls Flickr a “faded social networking pioneer,” which is both uncomplimentary and correct.

My Flickr account dates to 2005, and over the subsequent 13 years I’ve seen Flickr suffer a lot of neglect–especially during Yahoo’s pre-Marissa Mayer years, when a succession of inept CEOs let Instagram run away with the mobile market.

Yet not only have I kept on uploading, editing and captioning pictures on Flickr (edit: with the occasional lag in sharing anything), since 2011 I’ve paid for a Flickr Pro membership. That first got me out from under the free version’s 100-megabyte monthly upload cap, but since Yahoo ditched that stingy limit in 2013… well, it’s a tiny monthly cost, and I like the idea of having a social-media account on which I’m not an advertising target with eyeballs to monetize.

Meanwhile, Flickr has continued to do a few things well: welcome both pictures taken with a standalone camera and those shot with a phone; make it easy to present and browse albums of photos (“photosets” if you’re old); support Creative Commons licensing so I can permit non-commercial sharing but prohibit commercial reuse (which required USA Today to pay me for one Flickr photo); and let people share their work in pools (for instance, Greater Greater Washington’s, which has occasionally resulted in my shots getting featured on that blog).

Instagram, where my active presence only dates to February of 2017, is easy, fun and great for engagement–slap #travel on a shot and you’ll get 15 likes in an hour. But it doesn’t do those things. And it’s a Facebook property, which raises the question of just how much of my online identity I need on that company’s servers.

Google Photos offers a fantastic private-backup service, but it, too, belongs to a company that already hosts much of my digital life.

SmugMug hasn’t said much about its plans for Flickr beyond promising not to merge Flickr and SmugMug. But unlike Oath, it has no other lines of business besides photo sharing. And as a privately-owned firm that hasn’t taken outside investments, SmugMug doesn’t need to meet impatient expectations from Wall Street or Silicon Valley. I feel pretty good about this transition, and I doubt I’ll have any big hangups about paying for my next Flickr Pro bill.