Web 2.0 Expo: The Free-for-All Web and the Secret Tyrants We All Are

The following was a twenty-minute talk given at Web 2.0 Expo New York on September 28, 2010. The presentation includes an audio track that you can listen to and follow along; note that the video below was recorded on the Mac I was presented on; the text of my talk as it was originally written follows.

I want to get a quick sense from the room on why you’re here, why you chose this session… So, who’s never been to a talk about equity and tech? How about people who are really into this topic already but want to hear it anyways? And who suspects that they’re actually a secret tyrant? Maybe some secret benevolent dictators out there? OK, great. Awesome.

I heard a talk by Melissa Harris-Lacewell recently (she’s a professor at Princeton, a commentator on MSNBC, and awesome), and I want to share a version of little exercise that she did with us.

When I say

  • Google, do you think of this (1 with 100 zeroes) or this (google logo)?
  • How about Twitter (excited person) or this (logo)
  • And Facebook? Just kidding. Facebook has always been Facebook.
  • Big one: Apple (apple) or (apple logo)?

Go back in time with me. Let’s go, say, 30 years with apple. This, right here, this wasn’t even a concept. We wouldn’t have thought of a computer. But 30 years later, here we are—a whole shift in our culture, especially tech culture and tech folk. And it’s not like before the computers came along you sat there and said, “Oh, I just don’t know any apples that can be computers.” Or, “We looked around for some apples that could be computers, but all people gave us were TRS-80s.”

You see what happens when an entirely new frame comes into play. It can be a complete gamechanger. Utter and completely. Sure, it can shift the playing field itself, but it can also bring on ripples of innovation across all these aspects of our lives. Innovations that we’d never dream of.

But that can only happen if we’re two things:

  • open to changing fundamentally how we think about problem solving,
  • and are willing to design our systems intentionally to create innovation, serendipity, and all the things that make new ideas soar.

One of the most important pieces of intentional systems design is to make sure there are lots of different kinds of inputs going into the system. Because, a lot of innovation is like DNA. If you have a bunch of the same DNA mixing together, the species mutates poorly and eventually dies off. But bring in variety – new strains of DNA – and you create a stronger species.

What I’m getting at here, to be blunt, is that it’s not about making sure you have a black person on your panel at a conference or that a woman is on your team. That’s bean-counting, and relatively useless. We have to do what we can to break down barriers, to open ours and others’ horizons so that all of us can contribute to gamechanging work, whether that’s building a service, or a movement.

Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against us, especially in the world of tech. Here comes the tyranny. Muwahaha.

We have to go back in the way back machine again, to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Women’s lib was all the rage, but not for everyone—a lot of the women’s movements of this era really marginalized the voices of many queer women and women of color. What happened was that a lot of women’s groups decided that they would have no leaders, no hierarchies–no explicit structure. You know what happens when you remove all that? Something else takes over. Something deeper, more insidious, something so much part of us that we don’t even recognize it’s there: implicit structure.

What do I mean by implicit? Well, people’s personal biases, for starters. Then the layers of structural stratification that permeate our institutions, relationships, culture. Sticking with our historical study, many of these groups organized around the concerns of mainly white, middle-class, straight women, choosing (either consciously or unconsciously) not to include other voices. It becomes like a high school clique.

When implicit structure takes over—for example, the idea that we are all equal on the Internet and it’s completely up-by-our-bootstraps—we run the risk of entering a series of vicious cycles that prevent fundamental, systemic change from emerging. By pretending that these implicit biases don’t exist or don’t matter, we reinforce existing power structures and replicate offline bs online.

In a critical 1970 paper, feminist scholar and author Jo Freeman labeled this phenomenon of marginalizing minority-represented voices “the tyranny of structurelessness”:

This means that to strive for a “structureless” group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science or a “free” economy. A “laissez-faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez-faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. . . . Thus “structurelessness” becomes a way of masking power.

Because of the social stratification that currently exists online, we are seeing the repercussions of digital structurelessness manifest in many ways. Our tendency to congregate around like-minded folk is understandable and very human (and sociologically documented: it’s called homophily), but it can be dangerous.

Yeah, actually dangerous. Who remembers the privacy debacles of the Google Buzz launch, for example? One of the features was that, without a lot of explanation and consent, it shared content via Google Reader with a user’s most contacted person in Gmail. A woman posting at blog called Fugitivus put together a well known rant on how unbelievably messed up this was—one being that one of her most contacted people was her abusive ex-husband, and the other being that as she says, “A minority of [people that contact me] – but the minority that emails me the most, thus becoming FREQUENT – are psychotic men who think I deserve to be raped because I keep a blog about how I do not deserve to be raped, and this apparently causes the Hulk rage.”

Obviously no one thinks that the Buzz launch team intentionally designed a system that would do this. And I also don’t think that when they were coming up with use cases for this suite of tools, they thought about abusers and stalkers and said, “Y’know, I think that’s a negligible use case.” I don’t. But what I do think happened is that they had a largely homogenous team working on the product, for whom the idea of something Incredibly, Very Bad, Like Death, might happen to someone who inadvertently used the new integration.

Privilege is a wacky thing. It blinds us. There’s a line from an Ani DiFranco song (yeah, I’m that grrl) where she says, “Privilege is a headache that you don’t know that you don’t have.” We bring all kinds of privilege with us to the tech table. The obvious, external ones like our gender or race, but also the underlying ones, like our access to tech and skill development, or how our class status has informed our relationship to tech. We have to be willing as thought leaders to account for our blind spots.

Part of the reason people get squeamish, I think, about accounting for difference when it comes to the development of ideas—and ultimately, the implementation of those ideas—is the tension that difference creates. It’s easy for us to surround ourselves with people who think like us, because we think the process is going to go smoother. But glossing over or ignoring difference doesn’t make that tension go away—and it can often make it worse. Scholar Roosevelt Thomas notes, we all make better decisions—as individuals and as a society—when we account for differences and tensions. Harmony is not really the goal.

There’s a false notion we have culturally about tension and difference. We think that it makes us weak. We think that the vulnerability that we feel around it will destroy us, that someone’s bound to take advantage of that chink in our armor. The messed up thing is that vulnerability is our secret weapon. Every single time I’ve made myself vulnerable in these (and frankly, other) situations, I have emerged stronger, clearer and more in control of the future of the situation. It’s not that I got the crap beat outta me and emerged stronger—none of that “whatever doesn’t kill you” business. It’s that laying all cards on the table early on steers you clear of disaster and failure later. (Sort of the opposite of poker.)

Which brings me to thinking about how we’re going fight both our implicit and explicit tyranny. It requires us to step up our game in a number of ways, but the first thing is that we need to think beyond “diversity,” beyond meaningless phrases like “colorblindness” that only serve to ignore the obvious. If we’re going to shot at really, really disrupting the status quo, we’ve got to make a few new commitments.

  • Raise the bar. Since a lot of you are relatively on board with some of the message, you all get a more advanced homework assignment. It’s time to take this work to the next level and do some evangelizing. Find where you have privilege and make yourself useful…It’s not enough to be well-intentioned. Bring more people from that point of privilege to this work. Because in the big, big picture, diversity is only the beginning. On its own, it doesn’t ensure equity, and equity is likelier to bring about radical shifts in the landscape through innovation. You can have a school, for example, that’s totally integrated across all kinds of social barriers, and still have a failing school where children of color are less likely to graduate, or girls don’t take as many math and science classes, or what have you. Equity is the frame of the future.
  • Make sure that these issues aren’t siloed. Speaking of integration, one unfortunate phenomenon that’s been happening as of late is to assign a whole separate-but-equal space for people who have been left out of the conversation. Boooooo. That’s not to say that safe spaces for people who identify with one another aren’t valuable; they absolutely are. But creating spin-off discussions and spaces instead of integrating and providing equity does little to reshape the dominant conversation. Commit to using what influence you have to inject the values of equity into the work you do and the conversations you have. Teach others to do the same.
  • Finally, listen, listen, listen. Think of yourselves as ambassadors. You are committed to consciously and intentionally seeking out people who don’t look or think exactly like you do. The best defense is not a good offense; it’s checking your ego and listening to what others are saying without assuming you’re in the right. A crucial part of cross-pollination exercises is realizing that your role as ambassador is not to defend your position in the food chain. That’s where a lot of us get into trouble—I know I have.

Your job is to recognize what privilege you bring—whether it’s your gender, your class, your race, your sexuality, etc.—and figure out how best you can use it to enable equity.

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