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Lynn Cyrin

Patterns of Digital Gentrification

Sept 7, 2018 at 3:30pm


LYNN CYRIN: Hi, I'm Lynn, Lynn Cyrin. I am speaking to you today because I make social technology for lots of different groups. I spend way too much time on the Internet. I spend a lot of time thinking about theory of Internet and connecting to people and social networks. And through this, me and my friends have come to use this term, “digital gentrification” a whole lot, which you may or may not have seen before. If you have seen it before, this might be a slow presentation. But if you haven't, I’m here to explain it to you: how I came to this term, how I navigate it, how it affects our world.

As a preface of talking about digital gentrification, I want to talk about the world we live in now. We live in this world with social technology, which is just the idea that we have technology whose purpose is entirely to mediate our social interactions with each other. We have technology for talking, for meeting up with people, for navigating physical space. And this isn't bad. There's a lot of this stuff that’s gonna like, oh, when’s Lynn gonna get to the bad part? There’s a lot of good. This technology is good. It helps us. I like it. [audience chuckles]

I spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook, specifically. And when I talk about social tech here in this presentation, I'm usually gonna be talking about Twitter and Facebook. And there's a lot of other types of social technology in the presentation before mine. The speaker talked about a lot of those. I’m also gonna mention Tinder, LinkedIn, and Mastodon here. And I use all of these things. And this is the biggest thing, is that I use all of these platforms really aggressively. I’m on Twitter and Facebook all day. My friend joked earlier, that I just got introduced to Bumble, and tomorrow, I'm gonna be on Bumble for five hours. Trust me. [audience laughter]

Right? So I’m here using these things, and I’m well integrated with them. And that's how I'm sort of equipped to critique them. First, specifically, Twitter. So if you don’t use Twitter, Twitter is a communications platform. The idea of Twitter is that Twitter wants to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers. Which, I had to read this a few times before I could say it and not like growl. [audience laughter]

‘Cause…[deadpan] OK, Twitter. But this [gestures] is inherently true. This is right. It does actually give me the power to share ideas and information. Cut the last little bit there about without barriers, but I do talk to people a lot on Twitter. Twitter is really good for just pure communication with anyone, all the time. And it solves that problem for me. I really appreciate it.

Now, Facebook. Facebook is a—I like to idealize Facebook as a relationships platform. Facebook’s mission is give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. OK. Like with the Twitter one, the end of this statement I don't really agree with, but the beginning, the power to build community, yeah. Definitely gives me that. I’m really good at like building my social networks and solidifying the idea of my social networks through Facebook. If there was any platform where I could say these are my friends, it's Facebook. Right? Thanks, Facebook, for making this thing. This mission is definitely true. This is definitely what they do.

But also, taken as a whole, taken together, these two platforms are doing probably the majority. They're meeting the majority of how you relate to people online, like everyone. When I say everyone, I mean probably everyone. They're very roads and bridges-y, which that picture doesn't include roads, nor bridges. But imagine… [audience laughter]

…Twitter and Facebook being the roads and bridges of your online community. If you're the type of person that only sort of reads the magazine articles and stuff, you might think that this is not true. A lot of that stuff comes from Twitter first. Things like that are how Twitter sort of is like, Twitter and Facebook pervade the Internet. And they’re not only, tech companies that do this. Similarly, there's things like your ISP has different patterns of digital gentrification where your ISP is susceptible to things like net neutrality. Your browser is susceptible to browser‑specific platforms where like a website will only work on Chrome or IE. One of those two things is worse, but they’re both bad. [audience chuckling]

And the way this happens with social tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter is when you create a platform for social technology, you inherently create a group that can use that platform, and you have to start curating who can and who cannot use the group. Which begs the question like, OK, why should—why the curating? Why do we have this curation effect?

OK. So we talk about social curation because it's not bad, yet. It's not inherently bad. It's actually pretty good because every social group that you encounter requires community curation of some sort. Like when I was writing this talk, three or four times I was like, OK, I'm gonna go to a random website in my history and look at their rules section and see if they have community curation rules that look like so. Verifying identity, maintaining social context, and maintaining civility. Like if you were to go on any given subreddit that isn’t— Well, most of the subreddits are are bad, but even the bad ones have some of these rules. They have rules about identity, social context, and civility. And these are actually really good rules to have in your community, and every community should probably have them.

You have these rules here. Like, verifying identity. It would be nice if the actual Lynn Cyrin was here speaking to you. Verifying identity is good. Social context is good. Social context here is, I'm speaking, everyone's listening, the people who we educate on topics, I'm not yelling. Civility, good things, yeah?

Specifically, this [slide] is how I think of when I think about verifying identity. [audience chuckles]

I think that there's this good Spider-Man, or maybe it's that one. I don’t know. One of these Spider-Men is good, and I wanna know who the good Spider-Man is because I like that guy. The other one’s probably a villain. And this is good. This is a good pattern that exists in every community to help us verify who's valuable to us.

OK. Social context: lots of platforms maintain a very specific social context. [audience laughter]

These ones have very specific social context. Tinder and LinkedIn have social contexts where they’re very distinct that need to be kept separate at all times. [audience laughter]

All times. [laughter continues]

And see, the thing is, is that the existence of a social context is really obvious for Tinder. Tinder is for your dates. And it’s obvious for LinkedIn. LinkedIn is for your coworkers. OK. But this exists everywhere. Social context here is at a conference. Social context outside is you know, a person who lives in a city. There’s the tourist social context, which is very specific. Things like that. They always exist everywhere, and there are cases where it’s really important to maintain them, like this one.

And lastly, there is maintaining civility. It's very important that you know, when you have sleeping kittens, they can stay asleep. Really good. Sleeping kittens in the audience. Please be very calm, you know. Like it. This is a good thing. Civility is quite good in cases like this, yeah?

So these are good things. I love this. I love finding the bad Spider Man. I love Tinder and LinkedIn being separate websites. [audience laughter]

I love sleeping kittens. Amazing. Love all this stuff.

OK. Something's bad here. What is it? Sleeping kittens! They're actually evil! [audience laughter]

“I can’t believe it! Lynn’s gonna tell me how we should hate sleeping kittens.” No, I’m not. [audience laughter]

I am gonna say that community curation often manifests as bias when applied to everyone. The operative word here being “everyone.” And that’s the, that, if you remember, is the word that Twitter and Facebook like to really use. They’d like to be the thing for everyone. And here’s how this gets bad.

So social tech platforms create rules in service of making a particular type of user more comfortable. They’re usually white, usually straight, usually all of these things that oppressive groups tend to be. This theoretical average user is the one that’s like getting them their dollars. The straight white male users probably get into Facebook dollars. OK. But when they create rules for that user, it pushes out everyone else. It provides people like me to talk about less in my life sort of implicitly, sometimes explicitly. And this is where we get the term “digital gentrification.” This is how Facebook, Twitter, and these platforms that want to serve you—all of you—all the time are actually not serving marginalized users. So yeah. Everyone? Really? Are you sure? OK. Fine. Whatever, Facebook.

So I'm gonna go through these different types of community curation again, and I’m gonna talk about how they get bad, very specifically, for specific types of people. Verifying identity, social context, civility. Civility’s probably gonna be obvious. But identity. So in case you didn’t know, some people are trans. [gapes in feigned astonishment] [audience laughter]

The very specific thing that happens with trans people, and the reason that real name policies catch us really badly is that trans people often change their name. You get a name that’s one gender, and then you could become the other gender. You wanna change it. Well, in that intermediate period of the changing, Facebook is in your face all the time. It's really frustrating, you know?

[clicker hits the ground; Lynn shrugs; audience laughs]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: It’s really frustrating.

LYNN: I know, right? I hate Facebook so much. No, OK. [audience laughter]

Oh, look, next slide. Yes, so real name policies tend to, will get you on the verifying identifying axis, and that's how the verifying identity axis can be really bad when you have a social group that is “everyone” and including cis and trans people. Cis people will often, naturally, tend to wanna identify their identity by names. Trans people change their name, it becomes a real big issue. So the problem isn't inherently like Facebook decided to create real name policies. That’s not where the problem started. The problem was Facebook wanted to serve everyone, and then on top of that, needed to curate that everyone.

Second thing: social context. Social context, maintaining social context, will hit you in a lot more ways than identity will. Social context can hit you like with homophobia. Because I don’t know. Lots of the words that I use to describe my sexuality just will seem very, I don’t know, they’ll either be offensive, or they seem like slurs to people who are cishet. And so I can't say it sometimes. There are lots of games where I just can't use any words to describe my queerness at all, which really sucks. But the idea there is they want, like, this social context that’s free of… I don't know what they want, actually. I’ve never really taken time to think about that. But there's some drive that people have to keep like queerness out of social spaces that are dominated by a certain dominant group.

And this hits whorephobia too, a lot harder. This hits sex workers a lot harder than it hits queer people. Because there, it’s your whole work, and it tends to get someone off the entire platform. So like with word filters, there's a platform‑by‑platform thing that some platforms implement poorly and some implement really pervasively. But sex workers get things like SESTA, which are like, you can't be a sex worker on Facebook or Twitter at all. You can't talk about it. They'll ban you. They’ll perma-ban you. They’ll ban all your friends. It's really bad. And it comes from social context. The social context of wanting the idea of sex to be kept out of the social context of everyone, which I understand. But when you start trying to apply that, you exclude sex workers from everyone.

The last one's probably the most relatable which is that, like, this thing, where I guess men don’t, men's default social context doesn't include the idea of women having children, ever. [audience laughter]

So you get things like breast‑feeding bans and all other sorts of like, bans on talking about your period, which is surreal to me. I don't know how you could possibly want to ban that. Half the world has them. OK. Whatever.

The last thing is that community curation manifests as bias is in maintaining civility, which maintaining civility is literally a bad thing on every possible oppressive axis. So I just picked one, like, “Please,” traditionally, “Yo, Jack, whatever your last name is, ban the Nazis, please. I don't care that they're nice. Just ban them.” He's not gonna do it. But it's ‘cause they're nice. They’re like civil Nazis or something. I don't know. Whatever it is, it's part of this whole liberal civility thing that I don't understand when it's applied to everyone all at once. When you're thinking about everyone, sometimes people wanna yell. That seems like that should be fine.

OK. But OK, there are ways you can work on these different things. There's lots of ways you can work on it. I picked a few of my favorite ones, but there’s lots you can do. So to start– Oh, these aren't my favorite ones. These are ways you can do that other people are probably good at talking about. There’s probably, I don't think you can’t vote out SESTA anymore. I don’t know. Someone else can have that talk. File a complaint. If you're powerful enough to file a complaint to make oppression go away, you don't need me. [audience laughter]

You can figure that out. Yeah, and if you work at Facebook, I guess you could complain about something. I don't really– [all laugh]

OK. I think we have a potential former Facebook employee scowling ‘cause maybe that doesn't work. I don't know. [all laugh]

But here's some ways that I really like. So first off, don't snitch. No snitching. But I mean this very specifically because Imma have a post, a thing later that seems the opposite. So I want you, when you see me making my gay shenanigan posts, to not report them. Aight? I'm gonna be gay and ridiculous over here, and you are not gonna snitch to the Facebook authorities. Facebook is the cops. So no snitching. I’m watching you.

But more broadly, also, don't do this thing [gestures to slide]. This thing: Well, I'm here. I'm my lane talking about my stuff, and you in your lane, talking about your stuff. And suddenly, my stuff seems more interesting. So you’re like, oh shoot. I gotta go see what Lynn’s talking about. Gotta get into some stuff I don’t know anything about. That causes problems because when you leave your social context and enter mine, but you bring with you the social power of you’re the “everyone,” I have to stop talking about me. That happens a lot. So don't be like this bad car [points to slide]. Be like these good cars. [audience laughter]

Stay in your lanes. I think one of them’s not in their lane, but be like the good cars in this picture. Stay in your lanes. Good for you.

And then, the last thing that solves this problem very, very pervasively is Switter in particular, Mastodon in general, and federated social networks conceptually. OK, but why? There’s a specific reason. The problem, the inherent problem that I’m hitting at here—how we get digital gentrification—is that Facebook and Twitter want to serve everyone under a single roof, right? And then they say, hmmm, that roof can't include sex workers because they talk about sex. OK. Right. Well then, sex workers move to Switter. They go to Mastodon, and then they're fine there. But the thing is, is that when places like Mastodon are sectioned off from the rest of the Internet, you can't connect with people, really.

And so when we have, theoretically, federated social networks where you can be in different social contexts but still have conversations with other people, we can connect with each other more thoroughly and in a way that’s not so combative. Like I don't have to think about, oh, my gosh, I don’t want like sex worker Twitter on my timeline. They're a different timeline, but I can still talk to them, right? And you can help solve this very slightly by joining Mastodon, thinking about federated social networks. And not, it’s not like, oh my gosh. Leave Twitter. It’s: think about platforms that are more open so you can talk to more people in a way that they really wanna be spoken to.

And that's it! Thanks so much.