liz writes stuff down

Liz rides the subway on October 4, 2016: social media, differing political views, and friendship

Liz rides the subway is a series containing thoughts I have on the subway. On the 3 and B trains home:

I came across this Good Guy Boss meme on Facebook yesterday:

Good Guy Boss: I will respect you regardless of who you support in this election. I don't unfriend people due to political views. That degrades democracy and free thinking.

I will respect you regardless of who you support in this election.

I don't unfriend people due to political views. That degrades democracy and free thinking.

There is a big difference between respecting someone as a person and being friends with them. Memes like this deceptively conflate those two things because it's reprehensible to not respect someone as a person. People post these memes because they want you to believe unfriending someone is the same reprehensible act.

But it's not. Friendship is more than respecting someone as a human being. Friendship requires trust. Friendship requires active effort.

Political views are not theoretical or arbitrary like what someone's favorite sports team is - they have meaningful consequences for my friends and me. Many political views that disagree with mine fundamentally imply their holder doesn’t see me or many of my friends and family as human beings intrinsically deserving of rights and respect. I just don't know how to trust people whose views fundamentally disrespect me as a human because I don't feel safe. I don't know how to put the effort into staying close with people I can't trust.

Unsurprisingly, most of the time I see these memes in my feed, they come from dudes, usually cishet white dudes. There's a great post on tumblr about how it's easier for cishet white dudes to be friends with people who disagree with their political ideas:

White dudes have this thing where they believe your best friend in the world can have opposing political ideas. You’re supposed to be able to have healthy debate and disagreeing shouldn’t harm your friendship. That’s gross and stupid. Its really easy to say that when all your disagreements are theoretical. Its easy to say when none of the laws passed actually effect your life. Fighting with your best friend about corporate regulations, school charters, educational funding, abortion, health care, voting restrictions, drug laws, taxes and all sorts of stuff is cool and lively because none of it is going to actually leave you in a bad spot. Its different for the rest of us.

If someone's opposing political views were truly, solely theoretical for everyone, maybe I'd be able to trust them enough to be friends with them.

Sometimes, when I tell people this, they bark back that friendship on social media and "in person, pre-social media friendship" aren't the same. I'm inclined to agree, but that still doesn't mean someone deserves to be my "friend" on social media. People I am "friends" with on social media and don't block take up space in my feeds and time in my day, and I have every right to curate this to take care of myself by keeping out hateful disrespect. I still read multiple, ideologically different, non-social media news sources, so the argument that I'm living in a bubble doesn't hold a lot of water in my mind.

Besides, comparing being friends or following on social media to in person friendships generally confuses me because it's not clear exactly what constitutes friendship. I casually call basically everyone I know a "friend" when talking about them with someone else I know, whether or not I spill my secrets to them, but if I don't share any of my private thoughts with them, I probably consider them an "acquaintance" in my mind. The word "friend" has become so overloaded that it's practically lost its value - it's no wonder that it's an even more complicated concept online.


Triggering videos, thoughtful content warnings, and responsible feature release policies

Content warning: police murder of black people

We need to talk about potentially triggering videos and social media.

Social media is nearly unavoidable. There's a lot of upsides to using it, such as keeping up with family and friends you can't see frequently and reaching out to your customer base in more personalized ways, but it's also evolving very, very fast. One day we're posting our latest relationship update; the next we're getting news as soon as it breaks. It empowers marginalized voices to tell their stories - stories that often go untold.

One second we were uploading photographs; the next gifs and videos - videos of our cats, then videos of police shooting black people. Maybe people are posting them to draw attention to issues the mainsteam media doesn't see fit to focus on. Maybe police shootings are being posted as videos because people don't believe black victims didn't pose a threat. I don't personally share these videos, so I can only guess at the motivations.

If we listen to black voices, we hear them pleading to keep videos depicting police shootings of minorities out of their view.

Black lives matter. Properly respecting black lives involves understanding that videos depicting a death of a human can be very triggering and respecting viewers by allowing them the chance to opt out of seeing them.

We need to use thoughtful content/trigger warnings.

Content warnings allow people to engage with content how and when they feel comfortable doing so. They are not censorship.

Placing content warnings for videos is a lot less straightforward than placing content warnings for written pieces without even photographs like this one. A written content warning before a video in a social media post is a good start. They work well for posts that link to articles with videos in them when those videos don't sneak into the previews social media like to embed.

The reader is able to see this tweet without having to see a potentially triggering graphic video.

We need tools that help us place content warnings specifically for video formats.

If someone comes across an article or social media post with a video directly in it, text-based content warnings aren't enough.

Preview frames might include a triggering image. We can replace the default frame selected from a video with one that contains only the text of relevant content warnings. We need tools that make this process easy to do. Preferably, social media would include these tools in their upload interfaces themselves. Their inclusion would provide not just ease of use but also a convenient reminder to use them.

Also, the video may start playing anyway - maybe it autoplayed, maybe the reader accidentally clicked on it. Tools to supply text-only frames containing the relevant content warnings for the first ten seconds of a video would give someone the opportunity to pause or scroll past it before triggering content is forced upon them. This would provide a buffer even when video autoplay is turned on.

We need to release new features responsibly.

When Facebook and Twitter released their video autoplay features, they enabled it by default. Their decisions forced users to unnecessarily engage with content they didn't desire to see.[1] We should not turn on new features like video autoplay by default.

Facebook does allow users to disable autoplay for videos, but that still doesn't make it okay to turn it on by default. Twitter allows you to turn off autoplay for some videos[2], but you're stuck with autoplay while you scroll through a Moment, regardless of your video autoplay settings. It is absolutely irrepsonsible of Twitter to force this feature on you in any situation.

Content warnings, tools, and responsible feature release policies will never be a complete solution, but maybe these tools and feature releases would allow for us to benefit from having triggering videos available without causing as much unnecessary harm.

[1] It's also a huge mobile data hog.
[2] This appears to now be in the "Data" section of settings on iOS, and I am told it is a similar process for Android.


Liz rides the subway on September 19, 2016: Monday morning in New York and an emergency alert

Liz rides the subway is a series containing thoughts I have on the subway. On the 2 train to work, after watching two men of color have their bags searched at Grand Army Plaza:

I woke up today to my phone beeping in a pattern that wasn't my alarm:

WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9-1-1 if seen.

The alert was about the manhunt for the suspect believed to be responsible for the explosion in Manhattan on Saturday night and an earlier bombing in New Jersey.

I don't know what the best practices are for identifying a suspect. I don't know the best ways to involve lay people in helping law enforcement locate that suspect.

Kaveh Waddell notes that this was the first time this type of emergency alert was used for a manhunt and mentions the technical limitations of these alerts:

90 characters—less than a tweet’s worth—and it doesn’t support attachments, like photos. (That’s why this morning’s alert had to point people to the media for the suspect’s photo.) Messages also can’t include tappable URLs or phone numbers.

Maybe that's why the alert only has an extremely basic description of a man with an Arabic sounding name.

I get phone alerts from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, other media; their push notifications also lack photographs. I didn't remember to look for a photo before hopping on the train and losing signal. (Honestly, I don't think I'd have trusted myself enough to identify him if I had a photograph anyway.) The technical limitations that prevent the inclusion of photographs create fear without even serving their intended purpose.

Instead, I think of the people I know who might fit the "5'6" 200-pound male with brown hair, brown eyes, and brown facial hair" description, about the two men of color I saw getting their bags searched at the station. They shouldn't have to change their daily routines.

These fears shouldn't be surprising. Subway ads casually depict commuters who sound like they are raising false alarms.

NYC law enforcement has a history of unconstitutional, aggressive racial profiling. Unarmed people of color are shot and killed by the police.

We need to do better.

The suspect was apprehended, and getting the public involved in the search wasn't a fruitless idea because that's how he was found. However, the bar owner identified him after watching CNN on his laptop, not from a push notification without a photo.


He’s not my friend.

Appearances can be deceiving.

When a man comes over to talk to me, I can't always speak my mind. What I want to say is often not what someone else wants to hear, and I learned early in life that men who don't hear what they want to hear often get angry. Maybe that anger will manifest as a low grade displeasure, but maybe it will escalate to speaking loudly against me in attempts to humiliate or hurt me. Maybe it will end with him badgering me about it until I change my mind, possibly even chasing me around right then and there.

In attempts to avoid unwarranted verbal attacks and ensure my safety, I don't usually speak my mind with men I'm not very close to - I de-escalate. I laugh at his inappropriate statements towards me. I choose not to give constructive criticism when something is already just good enough. I don't defend myself when I'm right.

Especially when he's new to my life because I haven't seen how he reacts when other people, particularly women, say something he doesn't like. Especially when there is no other way to work on something I believe is very important than to work with him. Especially when he's in a position of power relative to me because I can't predict how it will affect a dynamic I have no choice but to put up with.

And most of the time, I don't even notice that I'm doing it, but it always feels terrible.

I can't make a big deal out of it though, probably not even to you - what if he hears about it? He'll come back upset, maybe even more upset than if I spoke up in the first place.

I probably don't tell you.

So you see him sitting down next to me at events, and I don't put up a fuss because I don't want to disrupt what's happening around me. You see him make a joke about me, and we look friendly because I let out a reluctant laugh. You see him coming to chat with me when we're all leaving something, and I weakly smile because I know listening to what he has to say will make it easier for me to leave and get to any of those million other places I'd rather be. You see me doing something for him because it takes less time and emotional energy to do it than convince him it's okay for me not to.

You think we're friends.

I'll panic when I run into him next, and I'll probably de-escalate the situation again. Your narrative about how we get along will get another story. My world will get a little smaller because you won't believe me when I say there's a problem.


Burnout from unappreciated, unpaid diversity work

A little over a week ago, an unnecessary dick joke was sent to a mailing list I'm on. It's a mailing list related to a conference I go to, and the joke added absolutely no value to the conversation. Another young woman and I criticized this behavior, citing how it pushes women away from tech and conferences like this one. We were met with lots of men telling us that we were either being too sensitive, violating their First Amendment rights[1], or failing to note the large body of casual sexism towards men in the world. The men on this list constantly need to be reminded that women are the subject of the overwhelming majority of sexualized jokes, both within tech culture and in general. They consistently ignore how those jokes are part of the thousands of systemic paper cuts that, unsurprisingly, push women out of tech. Some men even had the gall to tell us off by saying that this wasn't the reason we don't have more women in tech because all the blame should fall on the leaky pipeline that doesn't get enough girls involved in tech, despite the fact that half the women who are already in tech leave. Somehow, words coming directly from women they know about their own experiences with tech culture can't possibly be valid.[2]

This sort of casual sexism happens a lot on this mailing list. More overt sexism happens on this list, too. Sometimes I write emails or even blog posts that directly respond to it - Dresses, "dressing up", and the software industry, Why is it easier to teach girls to code than to teach ourselves to treat women well?, and I've been programming since I was 10, but I don't feel like a "hacker" - but it always takes a lot out of me. My responses are met with hostility because I dare to question the way things are, so I find myself putting excessive care into tiptoeing around men's feelings when presenting how their actions harm the careers and safety of people like me. Sometimes, even the most measured of my responses are mocked, so I find myself too scared to reply to some of the worst affronts against women. I get people responding to me off list for more than just clarification, presumably because it's easier to tell people off in private. My "allies" generally reply quietly to just me and maybe some of the other young women, but these "allies" rarely confront the list.

I'm unhappy with being more or less solely responsible for making this space a comfortable, safe environment for me, and frankly, no amount of effort on my part will be enough without the male majority prioritizing this, too. This general unwillingness to improve the culture is the reason I am skeptical of inviting other young women I know to the conference. I just don't have the energy for unappreciated and unaided diversity efforts to ensure they will be comfortable and safe. I am not alone in this thinking: other young women on the list also feel that we're constantly going at this alone. We're tired.[3]

The last time I went to this conference was in 2014. All the attendees contribute to the programming through preparing talks ahead of time, scheduling ad hoc sessions for the evenings, and being present for less formal conversation over meals and in the hallways. The conference rents out an entire, somewhat remote resort, and the result is an immersive, intense experience. Somehow, despite being what some call "very introverted", I find the environment to primarily be giving and energizing. I have a lot of unique conversations with incredibly talented and influential individuals, many of whom I only see once a year at this event.

However, these talented individuals aren't a diverse group. At 27, I'm one of the youngest there by far. Women make up a small fraction of the attendees; young women even less so. (I can count the number of women 30ish or younger on one hand.) There aren't a lot of young men. The vast majority of attendees are white like me.

The conference provides a wide range of programming, mostly on detailed technical topics or broad, creative ideas for using tech to improve the world. Recently, there's been some efforts to improve diversity, including having a code of conduct[4] and scheduling a diversity talk in the main programming. That talk, like all talks, was to be done by attendees - women - for free.

I'm not sure how effectively the scheduled talks are usually planned at this conference; I've only been involved in a few. Somehow, I spent about two hours completely planning and getting the right people for one of the technical hours, almost entirely at my leisure before the conference, but I had to spend nearly eight hours - the entire first evening of the two and a half day conference, late into the night - working on the diversity talk despite not even being the point person for it. The talk itself went okay, though I heard secondhand that some attendees still didn't believe there even was a problem. We moderated how we gave our time to questions well. (Often this involved not giving time to questions.) I guess I was proud of the talk.

But I was also really, really, really burned out for the rest of the conference. I ran some other, more casual technical chats in the late night programming - sessions covering topics that sit at heart of the conference, the topics I and other attendees go to the event to be a part of - but it felt more difficult than the other years I've gone. I slept a lot more, as I usually do when I'm emotionally drained, and probably missed out on some of the most interesting conversations since those have historically happened for me around 2am. I felt cheated because I didn't have the privilege of spending that fifth of the conference on the events it's advertised to be about because I needed to be doing diversity 101 instead.

I didn't go last year for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, it would have been a logistical nightmare, so I didn't even have to weigh the considerations above. This year, I could easily go, but these experiences sit heavily on my mind. If I choose not to go this year, this will be why.

[1] No, the first amendment does not cover speech, offensive or otherwise, on private mailing lists.
[2] This is not surprising at all. Men try to gaslight us into believing that our experiences in the industry aren't valid all the time.
[3] Women aren't the only group who are hurt on this list. There was a painful thread about disability a while back. Interestingly, a disproportionate amount of the support for the specific person affected was from women - both disproportionately to the percent of women on the list and to the overall percent of emails sent by women to the list.
[4] Though I haven't heard of this being enforced or of the women I know feeling comfortable enforcing it, so I'm skeptical. I know this conference, like so many, isn't safe - I know things have definitely happened in the years before, and my instinct is that a lack of incidents is almost certainly not why I haven't heard of the code being used since its institution.